Fired 'Real Housewives' Star Jill Zarin, Show Is 'Toxic'

Fired 'Housewives' star Jill Zarin says reality show "was my platform"

September 21, 2011, 7:50 AM

Sept. 21, 2011 -- After four years as queen bee of the Bravo network's very successful "Real Housewives of New York City" reality series, it was a call Jill Zarin did not expect to receive.

"It was a little jolting. I'll be honest," Zarin told "Good Morning America" today, referring to the call she received last week from Bravo executives confirming that she and three other members of the show's cast had been fired.

"It didn't feel good," she said. "Nobody likes to not be asked back to the party."

Just weeks before Season 5 of the show was set to begin filming, Bravo TV decided to overhaul the cast, firing Zarin, an original cast member, along with fellow "Housewives" Kelly Bensimon, Alex McCord and Cindy Barshop.

"I didn't really ask," Zarin said, of whether she knew why she and her castmates had been fired. "It didn't matter. They had made their decision."

With Zarin and McCord out, only Ramona Singer and LuAnn DeLesseps remain as the only two members of the original cast to survive through to Season 5. The third housewife to avoid the ax, Sonja Morgan, a friend of Singer's, joined the show partway through Season 3.

Zarin, who was on vacation last weekend when Bravo confirmed the firings, responded this week with a tease on her website, saying, "For all the people who have supported me and wished me well, you can see me on a new show that will be announced soon."

Bravo TV portrayed the ladies' departure from the show as "friendly," writing in a statement, "We've had a fabulous run with all the ladies and appreciate them sharing their lives with our viewers."

Barshop, who lasted just one season on the show, told ABC News the departures were less than friendly, and more a result of in-fighting among cast members.

"Following the reunion it was clear that the women genuinely didn't like each other anymore," she said.

The reunion Barshop refers to has become a "Real Housewives" trademark, the grand finale episode when Bravo brings the show's housewives back together for a no-holds barred showdown hosted by Bravo executive Andy Cohen.

Season 4 of the New York franchise came to a close in April in one of the most dramatic reunions ever, a contentious two-part episode that ended in a crying, screaming and finger-pointing, cringe-worthy performance.

Zarin was at the center of it all and says the show, and the Bravo TV network, couldn't get enough of it.

"There's no question there was fighting going on," Zarin said. "But I believe the format of the show encourages that. And even if someone doesn't say to you to have a fight or whatever, you feel like you're supposed to."

"The ratings encourage that," she said. "It's a toxic environment. It took me months to come down from it."

High ratings for the show are what led Bravo to build a franchise out of its original "Real Housewives" series that premiered in 2006 and followed five rich and toned housewives in Orange County, Calif.

"Real Housewives of New York" came next, followed quickly by New Jersey, Atlanta, Miami Washington, D.C. and, most recently, Beverly Hills.

The suicide last month of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Taylor Armstrong's husband, Russell Armstrong, put the "Real Housewives" franchise under a harsh spotlight, with critics questioning whether the show's push for fighting and ratings had become too much.

Zarin Gives Advice to Taylor Armstrong

The couple's failed marriage had been a central plot line in Season 1. Following his death, Russell Armstrong's friends and family accused the show of leading to his suicide, saying he crumbled under the spotlight and expectations he felt to perform for the show.

Bravo premiered Season 2 of the show this month as planned, just three weeks after Armstrong's suicide.

Taylor Armstrong, who has a five-year-old daughter with Russell, agreed to continue as a cast member on the show, and has since gone public with graphic allegations of her husband's abuse during their marriage.

"He would say to me, 'I am afraid I am going to kill you one day,'" she told "Entertainment Tonight" in an interview this week.

Ronald Richards, the attorney for Russell Armstrong, issued a statement to ABC News in response to the allegations from Taylor.

"The shameful exploitation of Russell Armstrong's reputation by others raises numerous ethical legal questions about tabloid journalism. At no time prior to Mr. Armstrong's death did Taylor Armstrong file a police or medical report indicating she was the victim of domestic violence. Specifically, the photos she sold to ET are undated, unauthenticated, and lack any indicia of veracity to support the contention by her that my client ever caused injuries like the ones depicted in those hawked photos. The fact that ET paid a lot of money for them or the fact that all of Taylor Armstrong's life is for sale by her does not transmogrify fiction into fact. The motive behind her attempts to connect those photos with abuse by Russell Armstrong is simple: The allegation increased the market value of those photos and ET was a willing buyer of her concocted and imaginary lifestyle as well as her fallacious claims against her former spouse," he said.

Zarin, after four years in the reality TV spotlight, would advise Taylor to stay out of the spotlight she now finds herself in.

"Honestly, I wouldn't talk to the press or anyone for six months to a year," Zarin told "GMA." "I would buckle down with my family and I probably wouldn't come back on the show. It hasn't been good to her."

"I can't imagine watching her crying as much as she does," Zarin said. "But if she needs the money, she's got to do what she's got to do to support her family."

Despite the wealthy pretense the "Real Housewives" franchise is built on, money is often what drives women like Zarin, and now Armstrong, to put their lives in front of the camera, despite the personal toll.

The real pay-off of reality TV stardom is not the paycheck, Zarin says, but the long-term branding opportunity the show presents.

"You don't get rich doing a reality show," she said.

Zarin has parlayed her four years on the show into her own veritable home network line of products, from endorsements, to a book, a jewelry line, on-air plugs for her family's fabric store and now a line of SKWEEZ COUTUR lingerie.

That opportunity to now squeeze her 15 minutes-of-fame even further has allowed Zarin to take her firing in stride.

"The show was my platform," she said on "GMA." "So if I look at it that it was a free infomercial, so be it."

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