Exclusive: Russell Armstrong's Last Interview
The Real Housewives
When the first reports of Russell Armstrong's suicide trickled out last Tuesday, millions of viewers who had watched the venture capitalist on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills were stunned by his untimely demise. But here at The Fix, news of his death came as a particular surprise. As it happens, I'd met with the 47-year-old venture capitalist just two months ago, and continued a dialogue with him until shortly before his death.
My partner and I first met with Armstrong late last June, after he expressed interest in investing in our site. A mutual acquaintance suggested a meeting at the bar of New York's Four Seasons Hotel to discuss the possibility "over a couple of drinks." Though we’d agreed to meet promptly at 10 pm, Armstrong swept in a half hour late, with a bright orange Hermes tie loosened around his neck and a wrinkled Armani jacket jauntily swung over his shoulder.
"I'm sure you think I'm a total douchebag," he said, by way of introduction.
"Uh, kind of," I replied with a strained smile.
"Well, you shouldn't believe everything you see on TV!" he retorted with a laugh.
Collapsing into an over-sized red velvet settee, he launched into a well-practiced spiel, dismissing his chilly, caddish persona on Housewives as a "pathetic stock character" created by the “evil” producers at Bravo. "That's not the real Russell you see on the screen," he said. "It's just a guy I play on T.V." For the next couple of hours, as we huddled in a dark corner of the hotel lounge, he candidly discussed his wife, his family, his life in the public eye, and his private interest in addiction.
Business meetings tend to be brisk and humorless affairs, but our-late night pow-wow with the reality TV star turned out to be at once surreal and oddly intimate. And while two and a half hours is a short time to take the full measure of a man, the self-assured, slightly sweaty wheeler-dealer who presented himself on that hellishly hot Monday night had little in common with the tortured, wife-beating, gay S&M enthusiast who has since been depicted in the tabloids.
At first glance, Armstrong seemed like an unlikely candidate to invest in a recovery venture. But as he drained the first in a trio of dry martinis, he explained that his interest was shaped by a painful personal experience. His younger sister, Laurie Kelsoe, now 45 and living in Texas, had been addicted to crystal meth—an ordeal that had deeply affected him and his family. "It was almost unbearable watching her disintegrate," he said. "She looked awful and was out of control. She had two boys who desperately needed their mother. My whole family felt scared and helpless; we didn't know what to do with her. We started falling apart."
Eventually, he enrolled his sister at the exclusive Malibu Beach Recovery Center, where she spent several months slowly fighting her way back to health. Armstrong said he and his wife, Taylor Armstrong, were so impressed with Laurie’s progress that they put money into the rehab—and several other facilities as well. The Fix, he said, fit in perfectly with his passion for "the recovery space." "We'll get the site constantly mentioned on the show!" he promised excitedly. "Taylor believes in this as much as I do. She'll talk up The Fix every time she's on TV. We can educate this country about addiction. If we do it right, this could be really, really huge!"
It might have been easy to dismiss Armstrong as a Barnum-like huckster, were it not for the fact that he had clearly done his homework. He said his father, now sober, was a longtime alcoholic. He was fluent on the top addiction issues: he voraciously read books and memoirs about the subject, and kept up on the latest science. He seemed especially curious why certain individuals fe;; prey to the disease while others escape unscathed. In person he was bright, self-deprecating and even funny—traits rarely in evidence on the show.
Indeed, while few of the characters in the The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills came across as saints, Russell unarguably fared the worst. On TV he seemed cold and often caddish—a dour, distracted workaholic who was more interested in making money than in saving his crumbling marriage. But in real life, he was keenly aware of his controversial image, and blasted the show's producers for painting him as a villain. "Everything you see on that show is bullshit," he declared fervently at the Four Seasons. "Those Bravo bastards take every little argument out of context and just magnify it. They think that tension drives ratings, and of course they're right. At first I was angry about all the bullshit, but then I realized it's not so bad to be a celebrity. The thing is, all the publicity has been great for my business," he said, flashing a pained smile. "Taylor and I lie in bed watching these stories about our terrible marriage, and we laugh."
By the time he called for our check around 1 am, the lounge was almost deserted. By then, Armstrong and his colleague had downed five drinks between them, while my business partner and I had split a half-dozen Diet Cokes. Poring closely over the tab, Armstrong suggested we split the check in half. I searched my wallet for a working credit card. “Um, aren’t you the millionaire?” I said.
On The Real Housewives, Armstrong's troubled relationship with Taylor was a frequent subplot. And judging from his effusive praise for his wife during our meeting, it was hard to square the reality of his feelings for her with the reality TV version. He described Taylor as a "sensitive, sweet woman...kind of like an angel. She is everything to me." Repeatedly throughout the evening, he declared his love for his wife: “We are really, really happy." I remember thinking, the gentleman doth protest too much. Still, I was surprised two weeks later when Taylor announced that she was filing for divorce, charging her husband of six years with mental and physical abuse. Soon after, Armstrong moved from his rented Bel Air mansion to a friend's more modest house on Mulholland Drive, where his dead body would ultimately be discovered hanging from an electrical cord tied to a wooden beam in a guest bedroom.
Initially, the media blamed Armstrong's suicide on his depression over his divorce. But if the separation had left him devastated, he maintained an upbeat demeanor. When we talked again in mid-July, he sounded like his usual cocky self. "When are we getting this fuckin' thing done?" he bellowed from his car phone. In the background, I could hear his daughter, Kennedy, whom he had just picked up from kindergarten. "Hold on, OK?" he barked in the middle of a lengthy monologue, and his voice suddenly shot up a few registers, cooing questions about how the five-year-old's day had been.
Over the next month, we exchanged a flurry of emails, in which he inquired about various aspects of the media business and the recovery community. But in mid-July, we learned that another company Armstrong was involved with filed suit against him in California, charging that he had illegally pocketed a $1.5 million investment he had raised on their behalf. In the wake of that lawsuit and additional reports of previous improprieties, my interest in a partnership waned rather quickly.