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Joanna Weiss

The luxury goods club

From ‘Real Housewives’ to DiMasi, it’s all about lifestyle

(DAVID GOTHARD FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / September 13, 2011

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HE MUST be asking himself if it was all worthwhile.

That would be Sal DiMasi, once speaker of the Massachusetts House and now a cautionary tale of what can happen when you try too hard to keep up with the Joneses. Or whoever it was that the speaker and his family felt they had to emulate.

That was apparently the chief motive for DiMasi’s corruption: The speaker’s job came with power and glory, but also serious a pay cut, since DiMasi couldn’t do much legal sidework. But the speaker had a lifestyle to uphold, and he upheld it. A government accountant testified that DiMasi’s consumer debt soared, in two years, from $20,000 to $275,000. His credit card bills ran as high as $50,000 a month, largely on restaurants, travel and clothes.

Fifty thousand a month is a stunning amount, given how many people today are unemployed or struggling. But the luxury market is what it is; a segment of the population still thinks nothing of paying $2,000 for a handbag, flying first class, and eating out every night, and those price tags can pile up. Some people really do have more money than God. Some just live the mirage until it can’t be sustained - because the law comes calling, or the bank does.

And until that happens, it’s clear that social pressure is a powerful force.

It’s notable that the speaker’s downfall came at about the same time Russell Armstrong, a beleaguered husband on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,’’ hanged himself without leaving a note. This was a few weeks before the Season 2 premiere - inconvenient, in the sense that Bravo had to cut a scene in which his estranged wife bought lingerie, but convenient in that it boosted ratings. Misery loves viewers, and vice versa.

Whether Bravo bore some blame for Armstrong’s death is an interesting question; various Real Housewives have defended the network’s honor. But it’s clear that the show wasn’t good for him. Bankrupt as recently as in 2005, he was deeply in debt again, while his wife was spending more and more - including $60,000 for a birthday party for her 5-year-old - to keep up with the billionaires in her artificial social circle.

It was meaty stuff to watch, part of a tradition of televised “lifestyle porn’’ that runs from “Dallas’’ through “Sex and the City’’ and beyond. “Entourage,’’ a rare male-centric version of the form, finally ended its run on Sunday, with a finale involving two chartered jets and a 6-karat diamond engagement ring.

But there’s a difference between wallowing in the spending habits of fictional characters and watching real people flaunt wealth they may not have. The “Housewives’’ franchises, it turns out, are littered with people who spend well beyond their means, willing to make the tradeoff for the cameras, the clothes, and red carpet appearances. And once they’re in the club, how can they stop? There is no version of “Real Housewives,’’ thus far, that tracks people in the aisles of TJ Maxx.

Maybe DiMasi, in his mind, was making the same calculations. Maybe he figured his social status would insulate him from scrutiny. Maybe he thought that, after borrowing for a while, he would find a way to build back his own wealth. Maybe he felt there would have been greater shame in downgrading his lifestyle - forgoing those fancy dinners, saying no to wealthy friends - than there was in betraying the public trust.

In the run-up to his sentencing, DiMasi’s supporters spoke honestly and credibly of all the good he’d done in public office: supporting gay marriage, shepherding health care reform, advocating for stem cell research and the mentally ill. He seemed to genuinely understand the needs of regular folks, the type who eat in and fly coach. Would it have been so hard to live like them, too?

And is it any surprise that public sympathy is scant? If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from lifestyle porn, it’s that those of us who aren’t in the luxury-goods club have gotten quite numb about watching people fall.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.