“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
— John Steinbeck
Russell Armstrong was the husband/adjunct of Taylor Armstrong…a “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” character in the Bravo reality television series of the same name.
As most of us read this past week, Russell Armstrong is dead. Hung by the neck, fully clothed, no suicide note at his best friend’s Beverly Hills home.
Did reality TV kill Russell Armstrong?
Discovered by his wife and young daughter. This ordinary looking, middle-aged man could not take it any more.
As the American dream of the middle class crumbles to dust ‘aspirational’ shows like “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” developed by producers like Bravo’s Andy Cohen become increasingly popular.
According to friends who knew them, Russell and Taylor Armstrong were living, “Way beyond their means.” He was having, “Trouble at the office.” He was under, “Increasing financial pressure.”
Russell was the sort of guy who, “Had multiple business deals going at all times.”
Meanwhile, Taylor Armstrong says, “It may look like I have it all, but I want more.”
In many ways this couple are typical of many families in post recession, double dip America. Struggling to get by whilst keeping up appearances.
Yet, unlike other families, their problems were magnified on reality television.
On TV, stoicism is perceived as pretension. Fighting to survive looks to the snarky viewer, recalibrated by the producer as: pathetic and desperate.
Without the cameras, prying eyes and competitive resentment the Armstrong’s might have sorted out the messes that many Americans share. They might have had the luxury of a private chat with a financial advisor, a couples therapist.
The problem is: Shows like “The Real Housewives” are not about revealing the cracks in the facade or grown up solutions. This show is about ‘glamour’, confrontation and spurious TV paid for parties.
Away from the cameras these women talk about ‘production’, ‘air-time’ and ‘ratings’. They luxuriate in the language of prime time entertainment.
This is Andy Cohen’s dress up show. Divas, Cougars, Vixen. Andy’s fag hags that he abusively tells to ‘shut the fuck up’ when the drama he created drowns out his own ego-maniacal, shrill voice.
Some gay men love an older woman with botox to parade at parties. Like Capote before him Andy Cohen delights in exploiting families (with which he has no first hand experience) he can only guess at the financial woes that make such good TV, the divorces with which he speculates and profits.
Andy is a single, childless, gay man playing gay God in lives for which he has no care but to make money. He was laughing all the way to the bank…now he is maybe crying crocodile tears…all the way to the bank.
The last thing any reality TV show needs is a crushingly real suicide. There is nothing real about reality TV. Death, is seems, in reality TV land needs a one hour, unscripted, series premiere preamble for Taylor’s costars to explain their grief. I am sure that they will repair their relationship with the recently departed and defend their co-star as the abused victim, the tragic ingenue.
Last week Russell hung himself in the spare bedroom of his best friend one month after his wife filed for divorce.
Until CNN asked me to appear on HLN to discuss Russell’s death I knew nothing of Russell or Taylor, I had not seen one episode of any one of the “Housewives of…” franchise. My only link to the show was having met Andy Cohen on two private occasions.
The short, ebullient, producer of many avidly watched shows. Driven around NYC in his black, overly large limousine, surrounded by sycophantic boys. Lauded for his extraordinary ability to make mass market, trash television then audaciously crashing through the third wall to make himself a character worthy of his own show.
Whilst Andy Cohen plays ‘dress up’ with his housewives, bank balances are shattered, children see their dead fathers hanging from the rafters, divorces are finalized.
The relationship between Andy and his housewives needs greater scrutiny.
Since Russel’s death Andy has been uncharacteristically mute.
I wrote to him asking if he had anything to say about Russell’s death.
He asked for my ‘POV’. I replied:
I hoped you might want to say more about this incident.
There has been a great deal of discussion about just how responsible you and Bravo might be for this death.
Obviously Russell is ultimately responsible for his suicide but one might argue that he was brutalized by a wholly fictional narrative creative by yourselves.
Excluded from the show, losing his wife and child in a public way…a mere adjunct, his masculinity compromised…this could have pushed a fragile man to the edge of his being.
Whilst you are an ebullient survivor type of guy…riding your housewives wave…it rather cruelly occurs to me to ask whether your heart really does go out to the child of this dead man? Or…please excuse me…I wonder how you will benefit financially from this death?
I wondered whether you felt at all responsible for his suicide?
The pressure put on those women to perform for ‘air time’ can skew (ironically) their reality.
Russell ended up a ‘featured extra’ in his own life. The bad guy who may or may not have injured his wife but certainly not able to imagine a time where he would be able defend himself against the inevitably huge wave of negative press a network like yours can generate.
That was my POV.
Hope you are well Andy.
“I don’t think you know me or this situation at all so it is quite bold of you to speculate as you do.”
We all, of course, live in a world of speculation.
Perhaps Russell saw himself as a failure who couldn’t even get Reality TV ‘right’. Shamed publicly for his bad choices, his bad temper, his un-American solutions. If Russell and Taylor thought that they would discover untold riches under the bushel of reality TV then they were wrong.
Reality TV takes any problem and blows it up. Producers, directors and performers are all interested in one thing: drama. Usually that drama is manageable: tardiness, a sly look, a bitter word…then the inevitable reconciliation. Tearful, hugs, eyeliner smeared over acid washed cheeks.
Did reality TV kill Russell Armstrong?
We must take it seriously. Our insatiable desire to see women like Taylor Armstrong shop for things she could no longer afford, a marriage that no longer served her purpose. Her leading man tarnished, her husband a mere co-star who had to be recast.
“You’re a good looking woman, you could do so much better.” One might speculate that there is a far more telegenic husband waiting in the wings to whisk Taylor away from the funeral and onto a tropical island where her only stab at grieving might be a black bikini.
Many people, escaping their own misery, live vicariously through the noxious drama of the vacuous, crude and tasteless lives of these desperate housewives that may very well have killed Russell Armstrong.
I, for one, regret his passing. There will be no reconciliation for Russell, no ‘to camera’ explanation.
Like Willy Loman, Russell Armstrong killed himself because he was proud and foolish and could not take it any more.
Nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide.
Finally, Russell and Taylor’s child will not have the luxury of private grief. There will be cameras trained on her young face eager for tears that will make someone, somewhere a great deal of money.