It's not easy to be married to "Real Housewives" castmembers. You can be publicly humiliated, insulted, or dumped. Nicole LaPorte talks to Beverly Hills spouses Mauricio Umansky and Russell Armstrong about the perils of public marriages; to New York's Bobby Zarin about being an "Ambassador of Good Will;" and to Bravo executive Shari Levine about the show's divorce rate. And be sure to check out the original posting of this article (and even more content) over at the Daily Beast.
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"I'm going to be more engaging next season," Russell Armstrong said, when cornered at a party recently and asked about his stint on Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." Over the course of the recently-ended reality show (part one of the reunion episode aired Thursday), Armstrong -- a straitlaced venture capitalist married to Housewife Taylor Armstrong -- emerged as an unrivaled schmuck.
Robotic and awkward, Russell appeared always to be dragging a pouting Taylor away from parties just as they were getting started; he bought their allergic daughter a puppy and then seemed to want them to keep it. Even just sitting at the breakfast table, he looked like he'd prefer to be having a colonoscopy. Taylor, meanwhile, spoke openly to her fellow Housewives about her marital problems.
"I didn't really understand what we were getting into," Russell told The Daily Beast defensively, but with more charm than was ever displayed on TV. "I don't really watch reality television. And so we decided early on that this was Taylor's project; that I was going to be supportive, but just stay in the background. And that backfired."
It's not easy being a Real Househusband. Although the show -- which has also explored the McMansions of Orange County, New Jersey, New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.-ostensibly revolves around the demi-fabulous femmes of its title, spouses inevitably get dragged into the drama. Very often, there is a price, and coming across as a schmuck is the least of it. These people were all cast, at least in part, for their potential volatility; being prodded by producers and fellow castmembers, and seeing their relationships through the public's eyes, can be a combustible combination.
On "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," Mauricio Umansky, husband of Kyle Richards, came close to losing one of his biggest real-estate clients ("Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer) after his wife had a spat with Grammer's soon-to-be-ex-wife Camille. More seriously, the series has attracted attention for the number of couples who have divorced after, or while, being on the show-a staple of reality television, from its An American Family inception in the early '70s through Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson's "Newlyweds" and "Jon & Kate Plus 8." Most recently, we've seen the Grammer union dramatically implode, and on last year's "The Real Housewives of D.C.", British expat Cat Ommanney's husband, Charles, a White House photographer who appeared visibly irritated while cameras were rolling, filed for divorce not long after the show wrapped. In its six different editions, there have been seven Housewives divorces and one broken engagement.
And one serious estrangement, which has been playing out, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"-style, on the current season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Greg Leakes, the formerly supportive and seemingly calm husband of Atlanta Housewife NeNe Leakes, complained on the radio that after spending $300,000 for his wife to "blow up" on the show, she got a "big head," which led to marital problems and their on-again, off-again divorce plans.
About the "Housewives" divorce rate and its relationship to the cameras, Bravo executive Shari Levine says: "I don't think they cause it. I think they catch it."
Levine, Bravo's Senior Vice President of Production, dismisses the idea that Housewives is a recipe for a broken marriage. "I think it's kind of on a case by case basis," she said. "I think we're looking at people who are going through -- their life is under a spotlight. We do not have a 50 percent divorce rate on our show, there have been a couple families where people divorced, so you could say we're doing better than the national average."
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"I think a lot of things affect relationships," Levine continued. "It's easy to point to the cameras as being a cause for anything. It's easy to point to editing as a cause of anything. I don't think they cause it. I think they catch it."
Husbands are also at a disadvantage on Housewives because their wives' points of view are front and center. On "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," when Camille learned that Kelsey was having an affair and wanted a divorce, she proceeded to spill her side of the story in two back-to-back episodes to 4.2 million viewers, a process that helped her shed her Most Hated Housewife title. (Instead, she became the Slightly Less Hated Housewife). Kelsey, other than a few stilted appearances, had barely been on the show because he was starring in "La Cage Aux Folles" on Broadway. Camille's new celebrity also provided her with a platform that extended beyond Bravo. She recently shared embarrassing details about her marriage to shock jock Howard Stern, including that Kelsey may or not be (but probably is, Camille implied) a cross-dresser.
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But in some cases, the show has actually helped couples work issues out. Russell said that however irked he was at how he came across on TV, seeing the footage played back made him realize there were problems. "The one thing the show has done, it's made us refocus our marriage," he said. "And it's been wonderful."
Levine said she hears this all the time. "A lot of people have said that at different times. 'I couldn't believe how I came across.' Vicki [Gunvalson, of the Orange County edition] said, 'I really sort of behaved in a way that, when I see it, I cringe. I can't believe I treated my husband that way.'"
(Unfortunately, that remorse did not last; Gunvalson filed for divorce from her husband, Donn, in the fall.)
Not every husband is regretful. Real Housewives of New York City star Simon van Kempen is so into being on the show that he attends hellish "girls' nights"-spurring Ramona Singer to call him "strange" --and he's often referred to as the "seventh housewife."
And Bobby Zarin, wife of Jill Zarin, sees his role as "an Ambassador of Good Will."
"When I walk the streets, in New York or in Australia, they go, 'Bobby! How ya doin'?,'" Bobby said over the telephone. "We go to premieres, parties, openings of hotels, all over the world, travelling, and everyone's so nice. So for me, it's been great."
The publicity from the show has also bolstered business.
"We just had a meeting with Bed, Bath, and Beyond," said Bobby, who with Jill runs Zarin Fabric Warehouse and Home Furnishings.
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Then there are the husbands, such as Umansky, whom Levine described as a "fantasy husband." A good husband, loving father, and-it was unanimously decided by fans -- really hot, Umansky, took Kyle out for romantic dinners, played with their kids in the pool, and walked around shirtless, looking like a Mexican soccer star.
Even the way he talked about the incident with Kyle and Camille, and how he almost lost Kelsey as a client, was noble.
"From my personal point of view, thank God I have a very strong practice," Umansky said over the phone. "If you had all your eggs in one basket, that would be a pretty scary situation."
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"Do I like to lose a client? Absolutely not. But I have I actually lost them? I haven't... But I back my wife 100 percent. And if that is grounds for losing a client, so be it."
Overall, he said he and Kyle were "very happy" with how they were portrayed on the show. "I mean, that's our life. One of the reasons Kyle and I decided to do the show was, we felt we didn't have any skeletons in the closet. We thought it would be interesting for people to see our good marriage, to be quite honest."
Told of the "fantasy husband" moniker, he laughed. "Oh, I thought you were going to say the hot, Latin lover."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of "The Men Who Would Be King."