December 25, 2000 12:00 PM

What was I thinking?” Darva Conger has asked herself that question many times in the past year. Accustomed as we are now to reality TV shows and their creation of instant celebrities looking to cash in on their newfound fame, some people believe they knew exactly what Conger was thinking: How much money can I make? The year’s most infamous bride insists that she considered her Feb. 15 appearance on FOX’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? a lark: “I wanted to look good and not make a fool of myself and not wan.” But win she did, and before she knew it, the emergency-room nurse, now 35, was married to Rick Rockwell, 44, a San Diego developer who had selected Conger from among 50 would-be brides. The nuptials—seen by an estimated 23 million people, in what coproducer Mike Fleiss calls “a landmark event in TV history”—were followed by a sex-free honeymoon and, a short time later, an annulment.

“It was a dumb idea, it was a dumb show,” says Conger, who lives with her ailing mother, Susan Harrison, 62, a former actress, in a Thousand Oaks, Calif., townhouse. “It never should have reached the magnitude it did.” Had it not, Conger wouldn’t be what she is today: a media darling, with an agent and a manager, g who posed for the August issue of Playboy for an undisclosed sum after turning down a reported $3 million offer from Penthouse. Still, says longtime friend LeeAnn Siemens, Conger’s new status “doesn’t make her any different. Before, she was a giving person. Now she has more to give, so she gives more.” Conger auctioned off the SUV she won on the show to raise money for an Illinois charity benefiting the disabled; she also paid for dental implants for her mother. Fired from her nursing job after the show aired, Conger has just launched her own Web site, www. darvashouse.com, a mix of fitness, nutrition and lifestyle tips. She has moved on personally as well, dating a 37-year-old sportswear sales rep whom she met before her TV wedding. Although she is relieved that “I don’t have to worry about mortgage payments anymore,” Conger says, “I miss my old life. I miss my stability and my sense of purpose and my peace of mind.” In October she donated her $35,000 wedding ring to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, to be auctioned off in February. Next time, perhaps Conger will be more careful what she washes for.

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