Long before The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, there was Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, a 2000 live reality TV special seen on FOX by 23 million viewers where 50 women vied to marry, on the spot, Rick Rockwell, a self-proclaimed wealthy businessman. Darva Conger, then 35 and an emergency room nurse, “won” the contest – and the infamy that went along with it.
“It was fun at the time,” Conger says about her short-lived fame, which she parlayed into a Playboy cover and a stint on Celebrity Boxing. “I wasn’t working and it was ridiculously easy money for what seemed like very little.”
Two months after the show aired, the couple’s marriage was annulled, in April 2000. But now, Conger is living a quiet life in northern California where she works as a nurse and raises her 5-year-old autistic son, Cassius. “Reality television is so common now,” Conger says. “People are like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the grandmother of reality! You did that show a long time ago didn’t you?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ But everyone around me knows me as a mom and an anesthetist.”
In 2007, Cassius, then 2, was diagnosed with PDD (pervasive developmental disorder). “It’s one of the diagnoses on the autism spectrum,” Conger says. “He would have meltdowns if you wouldn’t let him push the button on the elevator. So he started in-home therapy and I used to just have to walk down to the end of the hallway and close my door when I was home and he would scream and cry to be let out. For about two weeks it was like that and it just broke my heart.”
Soon after her son’s autism diagnosis, Conger’s marriage to physician’s assistant Jim Arellano began to fall apart, and the couple divorced in 2009. “We just thought the sun and the moon rose and set on that little guy,” Conger, says. “We still do – we just do so separately now! It would have been a miracle if [our marriage] survived. We would have had to have a much stronger bond than we did.”
In caring for Cassius, Conger says, “I don’t pretend to know what causes autism, but I know what worked for my son and it seems to be early intervention. I have not tried him on any special diets.” In fact, after working long-shift four-day work-weeks, Conger and her son love going on dinner dates.
“I’ll have sushi and he loves rice with soy sauce, loves it,” she says. “He loves to fish. And I’m going to be getting him into karate; he’s in swim lessons right now. I’ll try him in some team sports like soccer, see how he does there.”
And if Cassius ever finds out about his mom’s past, that’s fine with Conger. “I’m not afraid of having to explain to him what happened,” she says. “I am much more worried about his future as far as his ability to reach his full potential rather than him finding out that Mommy was in Playboy!
For more on Conger – and fellow reality romance alums like Joe Millionaire’s Zora Andrich and first Bachelor winner Amanda Marsh – pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now