'Real Housewives' death exposes stress of reality TV

LOS ANGELES Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:58am IST

The cast of Bravo's reality series ''The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills'' Camille Grammer, Adrienne Maloof, Kyle Richards, Kim Richards, Lisa Vanderpump and Taylor Armstrong (L-R) pose at the premiere party in Los Angeles October 11, 2010. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/Files

The cast of Bravo's reality series ''The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills'' Camille Grammer, Adrienne Maloof, Kyle Richards, Kim Richards, Lisa Vanderpump and Taylor Armstrong (L-R) pose at the premiere party in Los Angeles October 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser/Files

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The apparent suicide of a husband on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" again showed the dark side of reality TV and the stress that unrelenting media coverage can place on people, experts said on Tuesday.

Russell Armstrong, the estranged husband of one of the show's stars Taylor Armstrong, was found hanged in his home late Monday in what Los Angeles coroners and police characterized as an apparent suicide.

The 47-year-old venture capitalist's death came amid personal turmoil that was expected to be a key storyline in the second season of "Real Housewives" that premiers on Sept. 5.

The show was taped this past summer, and in July, Taylor Armstrong filed for divorce. Her husband also was hit with a $1.5 million breach of contract lawsuit, leaving him struggling with debts, his attorney said.

It is not the first time, scandal has rocked a reality TV series. "Jon & Kate Plus 8" saw the acrimonious divorce of its stars, Jon and Kate Gosselin," and the first season of "Real Housewives" was filmed during the marriage break-up of Kelsey and Camille Grammer. Nevertheless, Hollywood was stunned by Armstrong's death.

"There's definitely a dark side to selling your privacy," said Karen Sternheimer, author of "Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility."

"One of the things so-called reality TV shows mirror is conventional dramas in a way. But they cast people more likely to be teetering on the edge of stability because it makes for better television," she said. "Having cameras present turns up the volume on things that were already present."

PUBLIC HUMILIATION

Sternheimer likened the reality TV phenomenon of taking everyday people and making them Hollywood stars to modern-day Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches fiction.

Production companies behind many of TV's reality programs and contests go to lengths to keep counselors, psychologists and other professionals standing by to help the shows' contestants and "stars" deal with their newfound celebrity.

Cable channel Bravo, which airs "Real Housewives," said on Tuesday it was "deeply saddened" by the death. It did not say whether it plans to go ahead with broadcasting the new season or how the show will deal with Armstrong's death.

Officials with Evolution Media, which produces the program, did not return a call on Tuesday seeking comment.

But experts said that even with trained professionals at the ready, the stress of having private problems play out in public can be simply overwhelming for many people.

"The potential humiliation of having something that most of us would have transpire in private, like the collapse of a career and the collapse of a relationship, probably had some impact" in Armstrong's death, said Karen Tongson, a professor of English and gender studies at USC.

"The pressure of presenting oneself publicly in general, that's tremendous enough pressure to live up to. It can be exacerbated by the exposure. There's tremendous societal pressure to keep it together in the most ideal way," she said.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)

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