Exclusive: Russell Armstrong's Last Interview
Exclusive: Russell Armstrong's Last Interview
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.
The last email I received from Armstrong arrived on July 26, less than three weeks before his death. It contained a single terse line: "What is the objective here?" On August 12th, the mutual friend who'd first introduced us sent a grim message via Facebook. "Haven't spoken to you in a while," it read. "Russell's been in a bad place. I haven't even spoken to him. Nasty divorce. I guess timing was off over here." A few days later, Armstrong was dead.
Since his suicide, thousands of blogs and tabloids have rushed to dig up smarmy tidbits about Armstrong's secret life: His alleged bisexual hook-ups, his penchant for violence, his long history of shady business dealings.Despite his family's history with addiction, his first exposure to the twelve steps was probably involuntary. In December of 1997 he was arrested in West Hollywood and charged with spousal battery after an altercation with his then-wife Barbara Ann. Freed on $15,000 bail, he was ordered to attend at least two AA meetings a week, and to abstain from all alcohol and drug use. A few years later he was arrested again following another fight with Barbara. This time he plead no contest to misdemeanor battery and the spousal charges were dropped.Russell was sentenced to three days in L.A. County Jail, and placed on three years' probation.
But while his professional ethics and personal habits may have been suspect, his interest in recovery appears to have been genuine. On Friday, we contacted Joan Borsten, the CEO of Malibu Beach Recovery Center, the pricey neurobiological-based rehab where Armstrong's sister had finally gotten herself together. Borsten said she first met Armstrong in 2004, when he approached her about investing in her rehab. After talking business for a couple of hours, he started to open up about his meth-addicted sister, Laurie Kelsoe, who had become addicted to crystal meth at the age of 40, following the death of her stepfather and a divorce from her husband of many years. Borsten convinced Armstrong that her facility could offer Laurie the treatment she needed.
"Russell called her and ordered her to immediately fly in," Borsten recalled. "Laurie stayed here for several months. Russell paid every cent for her care. He also paid for three or four other addicts to complete our program. Even after Kelsoe left, he’d drop by to see how people were doing, or to hear lectures by visiting experts." She last saw him a few days before his death, but noted nothing out of the ordinary in his behavior or mood. She added that he and Taylor had spent weeks visiting a marriage counselor, Charles Sophy, who was assigned to them by Bravo. Their sessions were taped to be aired in season two.
A board-certified psychiatrist with a degree in osteopathic medicine, Sophy achieved a small measure of notoriety as Paris Hilton's personal shrink—spiriting the sobbing socialite out of jail after her arrest in 2009. He went on to make the rounds as a talking head on dozens of cable news shows, bouncing back and forth as a guest star on Celebrity Rehab and Real Housewives. But his on-camera counseling failed to save the Armstrongs’ marriage or Russell’s life.
Since they first met at a party six years ago, both Taylor and Russell Armstrong assiduously cultivated a reputation as a high-flying power couple. But days after Russell's suicide, their carefully crafted facade fell apart. According to Laurie Kelsoe, Taylor, an Oklahoma cheerleader whose original name was Shana Hughes, had changed her name to Taylor Ford and allegedly claimed to be claimed to be a member of the famous Ford family. “But we had a friend who knew the Fords in Detroit, and they didn’t know anything about her. We knew she was a phony from the beginning, but Russell wouldn’t hear of it,” Laurie said.
After Armstrong’s death, Taylor was pilloried as a venal social climber who tried in vain to keep up with her much wealthier fellow cast members. When Kelsoe first visited the couple’s lavish new mansion, she remarked how beautiful it was. “It’s nice,” Taylor reportedly replied, “but it’s not $40-million-dollars nice.” Kelsoe claimed that Russell had reluctantly agreed to appear on the show to satisfy his wife's social ambitions. "He spent all his savings to maintain Taylor's illusion that they were wealthier than they were,” she said, “He did anything to make sure she was happy, but nothing was ever enough.”
Even so, after his death it was Russell who bore the brunt of the media’s assault. Last Thursday, TMZ reported that Armstrong had beaten his wife so badly that she had stayed out of public view for weeks. The New York Post reported that he was a regular visitor to gay porn sites and had a proclivity for S&M. Back in Texas, Russell's distraught sister, one year sober, read these revelations about her brother with horror. She had returned to the small town of Denton with her two sons to build a new life. But last week she broke her anonymity to speak out in Russell's defense. "He's not the man they're saying he is," she said, speaking from her ranch north of Dallas. She tearfully recalled her brother's support at a time when other friends and family members had given her up for dead. "I was badly hooked on meth," she said. "Russell visited me in rehab very week I was there. He paid for my care there and looked after my children. He called me every single day. He made sure I had everything I needed. I don't recognize this man they're talking about in the papers. I honestly would not be alive today if Russell had not been there for me."
Disgusted with the media’s lurid rumors about Armstrong, she’s eager to set the record straight. “My brother is not gay. He’s not into S&M. His biggest mistake was falling in love with Taylor,” she said, adding with a note of irony: “Which is a form of masochism, I guess.” She noted that neither Taylor nor Bravo have bothered to contact her or her family since Russell’s death. “Not even a bouquet of flowers—only lawyers.”
She then wnet on to make some stunning accusations about Taylor—claiming that she stole watches, car keys and thousands of dollars from Russell’s bedroom soon after she discovered his body. Kelsoe said that her brother had been saving the cash to pay the college funds for his two teenage children from a previous marriage. “Taylor is a liar and a thief,” says said. “Her entire life’s ambition was to become a Housewife—you know, she was pregnant when they got married. She wanted a man, she wanted tons of money. and she wanted to be in the limelight. She's just a gold-digger who reinvented herself and dragged my brother down in the process." She was especially disgusted by the notorious $65,000 birthday party that Taylor threw for her five-year-old daughter at the former Harry Houdini estate: “That party was a complete embarrassment to everyone," she says. "We don't behave that way around here."
Soon after Armstrong's death, sources say, Bravo briefly considered canceling the top-rated show. But they quickly decided to carry on. The season premiere of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is set to debut on September 5. The conflict between Russell and Taylor was to be a key storyline of the new season. Armstrong’s family has demanded that Russell be excised completely from the show. “If they have a shred of decency, they won’t make us live through this,” Kelsoe said.
She alleges that Bravo execs, unhappy with early footage of the latest season, had informed Taylor that she would be fired if she didn’t amp up the drama. “Well, they got what they wanted,” she said. “Russell only did this to please his wife. Bravo never told him, 'We are going to torment you, destroy your marriage, empty your life and rip you apart. Now will you please sign on the dotted line?'”
While Taylor has since petitioned the network to excise certain "sensitive" scenes featuring her and Russell, a well-placed network source says that Bravo retains final rights over anything that goes on the the show. “Everyone knew what they were getting into when they signed up for this,” he explains, adding that Armstrong’s suicide will be handled with "utmost delicacy." But it's likely that the premiere will rank as one of the most-watched episodes in the network's history.
But it's unlikely that Bravo's will escape the controversy unscathed. In recent days the network has come under fierce attack for using well-worn reality-TV methods to wring drama from their real-life players: Plying them with liquor to dampen their inhibitions, manipulating situations to create conflict, and editing scenes to heighten the effect.
Meanwhile, the Armstrong family recently announced plans to sue the network for more than $50 million for its alleged culpability in Russell's death. “I hold Bravo absolutely responsible,” said a tearful Kelsoe. “When the show first started, he thought these people were his friends, but they ended up stabbing him in the back.” She added that Bravo’s producers recently approached her about discussing her problems with addiction on-air, promising to keep the segment informative and inspirational. “I thought that I could help other people, so I agreed to go on,” she said. “But then Russell warned me not to. He said he they’d just use me up and spit me out.”
In an interview with CNN Headline News, Armstrong's mother, John Ann Hotchkins, said her son was terrified about the way he would be portrayed in the coming season. "He said, 'Mom they're just going to crucify me...I don't know what to do. I'll never survive it." But while Bravo execs have publicly maintained a dignified silence in the wake of Armstrong's suicide, they have apparently worked furiously behind the scenes to evade blame by leaking—and first fabricating, as Kelsoe swore—scandalous stories about Armstrong’s “real” life. Last Friday, the New York Post quoted a highly placed Bravo "insider" who claimed that Armstrong was a closeted homosexual who fell victim to his own fearful tendencies. "I'm constantly amazed at what people think they can hide," he sniped. "[Russell] was a fraud...People with skeletons in their closets should not go on reality shows because sooner or later it's going to come out."
The Armstrongs of Texas may be no match for Bravo’s New York spin-meisters, but Kelsoe is determined to defend what's left of her brother's battered reputation. "They’re just slandering Russell. He was not a homosexual or a wife beater or a crook. He was a decent and loving guy,” she said. “All these news stories mention that he went into bankruptcy but they don’t mention that he paid back every dime he owed.”
Though she acknowledged that her brother frequently suffered from depression, Kelsoe insisted that Russell never gave any sign of being vulnerable to suicide. “He was a really tough guy. Obviously he was going through some problems. Between the lawsuits and the show and his failing marriage, he was just beside himself,” she said.
A few days before his suicide, he called his 87-year-old grandmother and told her he was struggling, Kelsoe recalled. "She said she would pray for him and told him to put himself in God's hands."
But for the moment, Armstrong remains in the hands of the LA county coroner, who is awaiting the results of a court battle between his estranged wife, who wants to bury him in Beverly Hills, and his family, who would like to cremate him in Texas. On Saturday, Armstrong's lawyer reported that the two sides had reached a settlement: Russell would be cremated and his ashes would be split between the two camps. On Monday, Taylor Armstrong held her memorial service for her late husband. She opted for a closed casket ceremony due to the physical damages he sustained when he hung himself. Later this month, his family will hold a seprate memorial for him in Texas.
Earlier this week, there was some speculation that Bravo would dispatch a camera crew to film his funeral. But it seems he'll be spared that final indignity. In a notable act of self-restraint, the network announced that it had no intention of taping Armstrong's last rites. "Come on," said a Bravo spokesman. "We're not that sleazy."
Maer Roshan is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Fix.
Additional Reporting by Matt Dickinson.