When Darva Conger, the bride on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? was growing up, friends always thought her shy smile and sweet disposition would enrich some lucky man’s life. “She could have married anyone,” says LeeAnn Siemens, 33, who waitressed with Conger and her mother in the mid-1980s. “I always pictured her with someone like JFK Jr.”
Unfortunately she wound up in the FOX network’s idea of a Camelot wedding. Set in a Las Vegas hotel, Millionaire featured 50 attractive bachelorettes from around the country competing in a beauty-pageant-like grab for the heart (or was it wallet?) of a tuxedoed big shot kept hidden offstage. The women introduced themselves, answered some Dating Game-style questions (Would you confess how many old boyfriends you had been with? Do you split a dinner bill down the middle even if you only had salad?) and even endured a swimsuit parade as they were winnowed first to 10, then 5 finalists. By the time the hidden bachelor, San Diego comic and real estate developer Rick Rockwell, 43, slipped a $35,000, 3-carat wedding ring (compliments of FOX) onto Conger’s hand, the new couple had 22 million wedding guests looking on. By the next morning the show seemed a stroke of tawdry genius worthy of P.T. Barnum: It spawned dozens of newspaper stories, caused a stampede of applicants to FOX’s Web site (which crashed) and led cultural pundits to rail against the lengths—or depths—TV network execs would go to find ratings (see story, page 66). The show was an equal-opportunity offender: Everyone from the left-leaning National Organization for Women to L. Brent Bozell’s right-wing Media Research Center was disgusted. “It took something like this to make the Miss America Pageant look good to me,” says NOW president Patricia Ireland.
Talk about short honeymoons. Within days (or was it minutes?) revelations about Rockwell’s past forced FOX execs to scuttle both a repeat airing and plans for a sequel. Not surprisingly the couple were barely on dry land from their weeklong Caribbean cruise before doom loomed. “We’re not two people who could ever get along in real life,” Conger told Good Morning America on Feb. 23, acknowledging that the pair never slept together and were living apart. “I’m just a girl who works in an emergency room who made a mistake.” The whole circus left many wondering how such an idea ever aired in the first place. “Is this an all-time low in the viewing taste of the American public?” wondered Dorothy Swanson, president of Viewers for Quality Television. “Be careful of what you watch, because you’re going to see more like that.”
It was at a relative’s wedding, appropriately enough, that FOX TV executive Mike Darnell, whose previous creations include When Good Pets Go Bad, wondered how to top ABC’s red-hot Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. At some point between the ceremony and the dessert the idea for the matrimonial contest clicked in his mind. “[ABC’s show] was a kind of wish fulfillment,” says Darnell, 37. “So I started thinking, what else is wish fulfillment. People want a good relationship.” After hiring the independent company Next Entertainment (whose head, Mike Fleiss, 35, is Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss’s cousin) to produce the show, Darnell recruited wannabe wives and prospective millionaires through FOX affiliates as well as conventional and Internet dating sites. Rockwell, who learned of the show via the Web, came across as “the millionaire next door,” says Fleiss. (FOX says he has $750,000 in liquid assets and a net worth just more than $2 million.) Rockwell himself told Dateline NBC that he believed some “serendipitous thing was going to happen, and maybe I might get lucky.” Of all the prospective men interviewed, Fleiss says Rockwell “was the most sincere.”
That sincerity, however, is now in dispute. A Pittsburgh native who attended Penn State and headed to California in 1980, he became something of a local celebrity in San Diego, doing stand-up comedy and appearing in two Killer Tomatoes horror-comedy flicks in the late 1980s before turning his attention to renovating and selling homes. In addition to some minor apparent embellishments on his résumé (he did not, according to Tonight Show host Jay Leno’s staff, open for the star at Caesars Palace in Lake Tahoe, Nev.), Rockwell’s past includes something FOX’s private detectives did not find: a restraining order obtained against him by an ex-girlfriend. Model Debbie Goyne, now 43, filed for the order in 1991, stating that he “threw me around and slapped and hit me” and broke into her home. Rockwell told Dateline that he didn’t slap her or throw her around, dismissing the restraining order as the result of “two very passionate individuals that acted in a bit of an immature, tit-for-tat way.”
Another ex, Gina Ord, who works in real estate in San Diego, said that when she dumped him, Rockwell deluged her with e-mails. “He has major issues with women,” Ord says, citing computer messages that she says he used to sign “Ira,” referring to the fugitive Ira Einhorn, who is accused of the 1977 murder of a girlfriend in Philadelphia. “I know he was joking, but it was kind of weird.” Just before Multi-Millionaire‘s Feb. 8 taping, she adds, he called and hinted that he would soon be “out of commission forever.” Ord then caught an episode of Entertainment Tonight in which an obscured Rockwell plugged the upcoming show. She recognized his voice and called him on his cell phone. “He said he still cared for me,” Ord told PEOPLE, “and that he could always get this annulled anytime. And then he said, ‘Don’t think I haven’t thought this through and about what this would do for my career.’ ”
Rockwell might be having second thoughts about that strategy since his lifestyle has turned out to be embarrassingly un-Trumpian. His Encinitas, Calif., l,200-sq.-ft. ranch house—the one that had an old toilet sitting in the backyard last week—has been flashed questioningly around the country. And what might be labeled thriftiness by others may not wash for a member of the seven-figure club. “He’s incredibly cheap,” Ord claims. “On my birthday [in 1999] he took me to a really nice restaurant. But when the check came he wanted to divide it. It was my birthday!” Ord also claims Rockwell reuses Ziploc bags, which he left “hanging all over the house.”
Conger might not have known much about her groom-to-be; what is clear, fellow contestants say, is that the emergency-room nurse from Thousand Oaks, Calif., was looking for a husband. “She kept telling me to stop screwing around and be serious,” says fellow contestant Annie Sawyer, who stood next to Conger during the show. The L.A.-born Conger, 34, has four brothers and lives with her mother, Susan Harrison, 61, a former actress who in the ’50s played Burt Lancaster’s sister in Sweet Smell of Success. Conger’s dad, Cass, who died last year, was a struggling artist. In the 1970s the family moved to Barstow, Calif., where Conger graduated high school in 1983 and twice entered the local beauty pageant, winning second runner-up in 1986. That same year she enlisted in the Air Force and served as a medic in Korea and in Utah before her discharge in 1991. (The show presented her as a Gulf War veteran, but her military records show no sign of service in the war zone.) She went on to study nursing at Southern Illinois University from 1991 to 1995, but “she was the kind of kid who wanted to be in the spotlight,” says Betty AuBochon, an SIU nursing professor. After graduation, Conger moved to Los Angeles, where she now works at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center.
Acquaintances were shocked to see Conger, an athletic type and avid reader who had never been married, appearing on the show. “I can’t believe she did it,” says her friend Siemens. “She has herself a very good job, a two-bedroom condo, nice car, two cats, two pugs. Maybe she just got tired of walking this path and veered off it.” Conger seemed to concur, telling Good Morning America that she agreed to do the show so she could have a vacation in Las Vegas. On the couple’s flight to meet their Caribbean cruise ship, “he slept and I cried,” she said.
In the days since the wedding the real winners seem to be the 49 women passed over by Rockwell. Most of them say they were only there to have fun, since producers had annulment papers at the ready and promised each prospective bride that either party had up to one year to erase any trace of the union. Each of the 50 contestants, who okayed an ironclad prenup that would entitle them to precisely none of their hubby’s money, or vice versa, also got a free trip to Las Vegas for the taping, plus such prizes as a Palm Pilot and a camera. The winner would get, along with a husband, that ring and an Isuzu Trooper. “I never took it seriously,” says contestant Tammie Monaco, 24, of Baltimore. “It’s my 15 minutes of fame and I’m at 14:59 now.” After Rockwell made his picks, the rejected girls watched the rest of the show on monitors in another room—and breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped out of the shadows. Says one contestant: “He wasn’t as attractive as you would have thought. So the room erupted with, ‘Whew! God forbid it was me!’ ” Before the glare of celebrity locked on them, Rockwell and Conger did manage to have a reception after the show. Rockwell’s mom, Joanne Balkey—who runs a wedding-cake business in Pittsburgh—was there, but Rockwell’s dad, Clyde Balkey, a retired contractor who was divorced from Rockwell’s mother a decade ago, is home recovering from open-heart surgery. “I kind of gave [Conger] a hug and said, ‘Welcome to the family,’ ” says Joanne. Later that night, Conger told a fellow contestant she was already feeling “numb,” but the ever chipper Rockwell insists he’s just a romantic at heart. “I’ve always had a penchant for things a little different,” Rockwell told Dateline, remembering the time he bought a tux for the prom before he had a date. “I guess,” he added, “I’ve always been a little dyslexic, relationship-wise.”
Reported by: John Hannah and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles, Jamie Reno in San Diego, Ellen Mazo and Sue Miller in Pittsburgh, Jane Sims Podesta, Macon Morehouse and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C., Grant Pick in Chicago and Jill Westfall in Miami