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Gilded Cage, Guilty Pleasure

The least moneyed Real Housewife of Beverly Hills faced real tragedy this summer when her husband took his life. But that only hastened Taylor Armstrong’s ascension to the throne of Most Watchable Train Wreck

Illustration by Jonas Bergstrand

Long before she discovered her husband, Russell, dead, hanging from the rafters of a friend’s home on Mulholland Drive, before she could be heard on the 911 call shrieking, “I need my psychiatrist!,” and before she inked a book deal to tell all about the embattled marriage that suicide had cut short, Taylor Armstrong had my full attention.

I found Taylor mesmerizing even before she was seen on cable TV spending $60,000 on her daughter’s fourth birthday party—a party at which her daughter seemed to be largely hiding from Mommy’s camera crew, even when Mommy danced on the tables in a feathered pink top hat, arms outstretched in a big ta-da!, smiling for the hired photographer as she kicked about the elaborate flower arrangements and precious tea cakes.

Truth be told, I fell for Taylor the moment I saw her. It was last fall, when Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills first aimed its cameras on this woman, her long coltish legs trembling in sky-high stilettos as she walked down Rodeo Drive. She had all the trappings of beauty—big eyes, big lips, big blond hair. But the look on her angular face was what held my gaze: anxious, scared even, trying to project ease. I had never seen anyone who seemed to have it all and yet seemed so nakedly on the verge of falling apart. I set my DVR to record.

In that first episode of season 1, as Taylor stood outside a high-end jeweler and gazed at gargantuan diamonds through the window, she introduced herself. “I grew up in Oklahoma in a normal middle-class family,” she said, fluffing her hair, her eyes the size of saucers as she ogled the jewels. “I’ve always had a feeling inside of me since I was small that there was something really big for me in my life. I was almost envious in some respects of people who were content to live the middle-class lifestyle that they had. It would have been much easier not to have such enormous aspirations.”

In that instant Taylor became the canary in the noxious coal mine that is reality TV. Unwittingly she was singing the song of the doomed. I write this not as some bespectacled lady who sits around lamenting the death of good programming but as someone who loves some down-and-dirty reality. Kourtney Kardashian pulling her firstborn from her own vagina? Watched it. A sauced-up Snooki getting punched in the face on the Jersey Shore? Saw that one in slow motion. Sometimes when I’m home and very alone I will turn on Toddlers & Tiaras and stare at all the little JonBenéts-to-be as they sing and dance their way down the beauty circuit assembly line. To me, reality TV is like a looking glass—as curved and distorted as it might be—that shows a world where being seen is everything, no matter the price. I find it hard not to watch.

But Taylor has made me rethink what I once deemed a prurient habit—the TV equivalent of a nice bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or a Twilight book. Nay. Taylor, with her fame-lust gone so wild, has made me question whether this is, as I used to think, just the harmless televising of human train wrecks. She has made me fear, in fact, that trains are being created and engineered specifically to wreck themselves for my pleasure. This is my nightmare: that little Taylors populate this earth now in ever greater numbers, with golden voices in their heads telling them to reach and reach high; that their sole purpose is to be watched; that nothing matters more—not family or love or education or community or God—than being seen. By me.

In short, Taylor scares the shit out of me.

If by chance you are one of those people who reads about TV instead of watching it, here’s a quick primer on The Real Housewives franchise and Bravo, the network it calls home. Ten years ago Bravo, then the go-to place for televised opera, reinvented itself as the home of real-life soap operas: campy competition shows, fashion makeovers, and docudramas. Since then it has built a sizable and affluent viewership—mostly urban women with advanced degrees and their gay male friends—who love to sit on their designer couches and luxuriate in the high-toned, lowbrow drama of drama queens.

Five years ago Bravo—now an NBC affiliate—began airing the Real Housewives series, starting initially in the exclusive gated community of Coto de Caza in Orange County. The founding housewives were mostly blond and consumed by margaritas, tennis, and judging each other. The footage of their doings was edited like a 19th-century Gothic novel, and audiences ate it up. These women were interesting precisely because of how uninterested they were in the larger world. They focused on the superficial with a startling intensity, weeping over slights at the tennis club with husbands whose skin had the self-conscious gleam of a spray tan and whose brand-new tight spangled tees suggested a recent panicked trip to the Christian Audigier store. Damn, it was good TV.

Over time the Housewives family has grown, with each new clutch of women special and strange in its own way. There are The Sopranos-imitating ladies of New Jersey, the bitchy branding specialists in Manhattan, and the pro-sports spouses in Atlanta. The status-conscious housewives of D.C. gained fame in their single-series run when one of their lot gate-crashed a White House state dinner, which led President Obama’s social secretary to step down. The Housewives franchise—the shows are independently produced and sold to Bravo—has become a cash cow for the network. Here’s why: Because watching successful, good-looking women tear each other apart is a perverse joy. My husband, who is occasionally “forced” to endure the show with me, refers to their antics as “insect warfare,” and I think he’s onto something. There is something predatory and out of control about what these women do to each other for the cameras, like pulling the wings off a firefly, flap by flap.

But of all the insects in the land, the ones who flutter about The Real Housewives of Beverly HillsRHOBH to us fans—are a hive apart. What separates these gals from the rest is rectangular and green and flows like Moët & Chandon: money. Lots and lots of money. (Except, that is, for poor Taylor.) From the beginning RHOBH promised a public skewering of this particular breed. Trailers leading up to the first season showed us the stoic plasticized visage of one of its stars, Camille Grammer, as she received news that her husband, the actor Kelsey Grammer, was leaving her after 13 years of marriage for a 29-year-old Virgin Airlines flight attendant. The mighty would fall, the trailer suggested. And they were indeed mighty. They may not have been terribly representative of today’s Beverly Hills—where were the Persian moms? The celebrity widows? The matrons you see at the perfume counter at Neiman’s? But they certainly had the clichéd lifestyle down. These women had lavishly furnished castles and compounds in the hills of Bel-Air and Malibu and Calabasas. They had second homes they could jet off to in Hawaii and Colorado and the Hamptons (actually, those are all Camille’s houses). They had private planes, which they boarded frequently, and their personal trainer-honed bodies were draped in brightly hued designer robes. They all had children (some toddlers, some in their teens and twenties) who would appear briefly, respectful and sweet as they gazed into their mothers’ synthetically ageless faces. When such a moment was over, the littlest progeny would be toted away by a fleet of nannies and housekeepers and chefs and helpers.

My God, the help. A former dancer for Club MTV, Camille employs four nannies (two for each child) and a house manager and a tennis teacher who is very cute and who she kisses on the lips. She also has a (sort of) psychic friend who tells her how all her enemies are miserable and jealous of her and will die unhappy. This cast of characters orbits Camille’s blond boob-job-iness in rapt servility. She is the solipsistic sun to their money-hungry moons.

Then there is Adrienne Maloof, the only sister of the brothers Maloof—the men who run the Palms casino and own the Sacramento Kings. Adrienne considers herself a tough-talking, down-to-earth businesswoman who refuses to be caught up in the squabbling of her peers. It’s hard to tell, though, how much time she spends on her family’s business and how much time she spends doing on-camera confessionals about how busy she is. Her husband, Paul, is a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. By the second season, with her eyes drawn back tight à la Cat Lady and her lips swollen from injections, Adrienne has come to embody such a man’s beauty ideal.

Across the street from Maloof, in the gilded gated community of Beverly Park, lived Lisa Vanderpump, an aging British glamour-puss and former actress who serves as a queenly narrator of the foibles of her fellow cast members. Lisa’s house was 17,000 square feet and seemingly always aflame with scented candles and blinged out with crystal chandeliers and jewel-draped tables. She and her husband, Ken, own two restaurants in town—Villa Blanca and Sur—and she can often be seen on the show reviewing menus and sipping wine. She and Ken have an estimated net worth of $65 million, and their life’s singular pleasure appears to be spoiling their stable of barking Pomeranians, which have Twitter feeds and are dressed in velvet and nursed with champagne. I’m not kidding.

Then there are the sisters, Kyle and Kim Richards, aunties of the queen of reality TV, Paris Hilton. Kyle, a Demi Moore look-alike, and Kim, who is a physical approximation of where Paris is headed, were both child actors. Kim had the bigger career/more substantial résumé, starring in Escape to Witch Mountain and various TV shows. But she retired in her twenties, raised four children, and weathered several divorces and the murder of a fiancé. Kim has had a tough time on the show and is often, at best, drunk and vaguely confused. At worst, she and Kyle are shrieking freaks who shove fingers in each other’s faces and call each other terrible names. The first season ended in one such blowup, when Kim stormed out of a limo telling her sister she was on her own. Immediately a banner flashed on the screen announcing that Kim was checked into rehab. Watching the two sisters claw at each other for ratings is the most painful part of the show; as demented as I am, even I find it hard to stomach.

But then there is Taylor.

*****

With her superrich girlfriends’ lives buzzing with staff and hired confidants, Taylor on the show seemed alone in her dark kitchen (we got hardly a glimpse of her home’s exterior). Alone, save for Russell, her mole-eyed venture capitalist husband, who behind the scenes appeared to be desperately trying to finance his wife’s ascension. In those early days Taylor talked a lot about how she and Russell had their ups and downs but that they loved each other. But on camera the dynamic was bizarre. Taylor always seemed to be shopping, designer sacks forever in hand. She dismissed her alarming spending habits by laughing about how rich Russell was (“as rich as Texas!”) and how he had to foot the bill. When Russell showed up, he didn’t seem to be in on the joke. He had the defeated face of a reluctant sugar daddy—or was it that he’d only recently paid off his bankruptcy debts? Court documents indicate the latter.

To understand Taylor’s yearning—which I would argue is a freakishly exaggerated version of a yearning more and more Americans share—the lies she told about her upbringing are a good place to start. In meetings with potential investors in her husband’s firm, she allegedly portrayed herself as Taylor Ford Armstrong, a family member of the motor company dynasty.

This was before bloggers snooped around and revealed that she wasn’t any such thing. Instead she was just a girl named Shana Hughes whose claim to fame prior to reality TV wasn’t much of a claim at all: very pretty cheerleader at Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is unclear what path she traveled between then and 2005, when she arrived in Beverly Hills and married Russell.

In 2006, Taylor and Russell had a daughter. They named her Kennedy—a nod to the clan that is as close as Americans get to royalty and really just a classier version of calling her Princess. As recently as 2008, the family lived in a modest two-story home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Studio City, just another suburban Valley family trying to move up. In 2008, they rented a $2 million home on a little street in Bel-Air, east of the 405.They went about remodeling and redecorating their home. And themselves.

Around May 2009, this casting call went out across the Southland: “Bravo is looking for outgoing, exciting, strong, focused women who reside in and around the Beverly Hills area that want to share their lives.” Taylor was among those who wanted to share.

From the first episode in October 2010, Taylor was RHOBH’s unabashed striver. Her house was smaller. Her husband was less well known, less handsome. She was our representative, the one on the outside who wanted in. Just 38 then, Taylor still had vague traces of natural beauty, but they were on the way out. Thinner, younger, prettier than the rest, Taylor felt the need to try harder. Her hair was long and artificially extended, her cheeks in a permanent sucked-in position. But her most marked characteristic was her hunger for more. Her tag line (all the housewives have them) underscored her desire to be seen: “It may look like I have it all, but I want more.”

During a Botox appointment—services provided by Adrienne’s husband—Taylor tells us, “Beautiful women are a dime a dozen around here, especially 20-year-old beautiful women. Like, oh lord, he’s going to leave me for a 20-year-old. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Russell felt the pressure, too. He wore a permanent awkward smirk, his eyes flitting nervously and self-consciously to the camera, then dodging from left to right. The effect largely turned viewers off—he seemed smug and aloof and harsh with Taylor. When all the ladies gathered in Las Vegas to go nightclubbing and drinking with their spouses, Russell quietly whispered to his wife that it was time to leave. Cut to interviews in which the other wives wondered, as if in private, how anyone could be such a wet blanket? As the season progressed, Taylor’s eyes grew sadder with each episode, her arms more gaunt. Russell rarely showed up. “I feel like I have this life I want to celebrate, and I just want him to celebrate with me,” she told us, choking on her tears.

In the season 1 finale, Russell threw Taylor a lavish birthday party—spending $65,000 on bottle service and food at the Roosevelt Hotel. But as they readied themselves for the party, they were both stone-faced—the result of unhappiness, not (for once) Botox. Taylor huffily put on her jewels and walked mutely to the waiting limo, Russell trailing behind her, punching his BlackBerry. “I do my very best to always hope for the best and not think about what my life would be like if Russell and I were not to make it,” Taylor told us, as if confessing. At the end of the episode, when Russell presented her with a diamond bracelet, it seemed more penance than loving gesture. Only later would Russell allege, in divorce filings, that reality TV had hastened the end of their union, as he was forced to act out a disaster that became real. Taylor alleged this summer that the relationship was abusive and that over the years he had battered her. She appeared on Entertainment Weekly in September and wept as images flashed on the screen of her in a hospital bed with an awful-looking black eye. Her appearance coincided with reports that she had just signed a book deal to tell all about her marriage. Even with Russell dead, the important thing was that we see her.

*****

In a screener of the season 2 premiere sent to the press before Russell’s suicide, Taylor takes a few girlfriends to Trashy Lingerie and tries on some cheap satiny capes, which she says she hopes will invigorate their sex life. After the man she was attempting to seduce put a noose around his neck, the folks at Bravo headed to the editing bay and omitted that scene. Instead they showed Taylor at a Housewives dinner party talking about being in therapy with Russell. Reportedly the Armstrongs’ marriage counseling sessions were filmed by Bravo crews—a fact that should be deeply shocking in itself—and will be aired during the second season. When Lisa’s husband brands marriage counseling pathetic, Taylor excuses herself and weeps in a gold-plated bathroom. In the postsuicide reworking of the show, Taylor is in fix-it mode. She even has a new tag line: “I finally found my voice, and I’m not afraid to use it.” But as her razor blade figure swishes for the cameras—Smile!—her voice sounds more like it’s coming from someone who is falling down some dark, terrible well. 

Taking the measure of this woman, who at one point is so upset she climbs into a suitcase sobbing, I find myself asking what she wants and what she’s thinking. If this woman truly wanted to save her marriage or tend to her jittery little daughter, why would she parade their terrifying troubles in front of the world? Does she really believe her cast mates are her friends or that the lens of the camera and all the eyes watching behind it won’t affect the course of her life and her family’s? Or is it, as I fear, that this desire—to be known, to be seen, to be famous—trumps any such considerations? That, in fact, her pleasure is to do this for us: to immolate her life—her actual, nontelevised life.

According to Russell’s lawyer, by this summer the Armstrongs were broke. Russell was worried that he would seem like a monster on the show, and he could no longer be what the producers had deemed them—chosen them—to be: the disaster couple.

Then, in a lawsuit filed two weeks before Russell’s suicide, an Internet-based medical records company he was consulting for accused him and Taylor of swindling their investors and misappropriating money to fund “their lavish lifestyle.” MyMedicalRecords
.com alleges in the suit that Taylor and Russell diverted more than a million dollars from investors in a company called NuWay Digital Systems who thought they were getting MMR shares. Leaving aside why anyone would consider investing in a venture that spells new as nu, the lawsuit also accused Taylor of suggesting that her imaginary “Ford family members” had invested in the company. The allegation is that she didn’t think her real relatives were swank enough to impress.

Impressing in the end was what it was all about. It doesn’t really matter to me if Russell was broke or tortured or just exhausted with the house of cards he was living in. What matters is that he and Taylor were living their lives for me—for my viewing pleasure. I used to say this didn’t matter. I used to put it on the participants. Who cares, I used to say, what crazy narcissists do for attention? But Taylor has made me care. She knew instinctively that her wanting more was what we were there to see. Asked at the time about the over-the-top birthday party she threw for her daughter, which resulted in sweet, red-eyed Kennedy shedding tears and hiding her face as the hired band played a song about her that they’d been paid to write, Taylor pushed back. She was, she said, just giving us viewers—the ones who mattered the most—what they wanted. “I don’t think people tune into Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” she said, “to watch Pin the Tail on the Donkey!”

Claire Hoffman wrote about Internet dating in the September 2007 issue.