March 13, 2000 12:00 PM

As fast as she said “I do” on FOX TV’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Darva Conger, 34, an emergency-room nurse at the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center near Los Angeles, became the most vilified woman in America since Linda Tripp. Branded a gold digger—and worse—by many, the California native returned from her ill-fated honeymoon with groom Rick Rockwell, 43, to find the press at her door, her reputation in tatters and her private life in turmoil. As a result she spent nearly a week doing damage control on morning and prime-time talk shows. “When I see that picture of me kissing him, I am repulsed,” she now says. “This is my most embarrassing moment ever, and I can’t get away from it.” Eager to explain how she got caught up in what became a national spectacle, Conger sat down with PEOPLE correspondent Lyndon Stambler to tell her side of the story.

I was at work in the emergency room, and a doctor told me she had met a TV producer who was planning this show. She said, “I should tell them about you.” I thought she was kidding. The next day the producer called me at home and told me about the show. “It’s going to be taped in Vegas for a week. We’ll fly you there and pay for everything, and all you do is tape this show. It’s a lot of fun.”

“Marry a multimillionaire?” I asked. “It’s a no-lose situation,” she said. “There’s an annulment contract, and you can get it annulled right away.”

It sounded like fun. Vegas for a week. Wave to Mom on TV. I really just wanted to get away for a while. It could have been Who Wants to Marry a Normal Nice Guy? and I guarantee I would have gone. This past year has been incredibly stressful. My dad died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 67, and my mom got incredibly ill. Then my brother got really sick and was in the ICU for a week. The thought of going away for a week and taping a silly TV show sounded nice. Believe me, no one was saying, “Darva, don’t do this.” Everyone was saying, “Fine, okay, we’ll see you when you get back.”

The girls on the show were wonderful. We rehearsed 12 hours or 16 hours a day. Some of the girls were getting really cranky. I told them, “You’re being paid to do a job, and you need to focus on it that way.” And that was why people say now I was so focused and I concentrated so hard. I was concentrating on a job, not on marrying someone. I tried to be the best at what I was doing without considering what I was doing.

In the back of my mind perhaps there was this What if? If in a million years this guy selects me…If this production company is selecting him from hundreds of multimillionaires—which is what we heard—he’s got to be a great guy. Maybe we’ll get along, maybe we’ll be friends, maybe we’ll even date. But I never looked at it beyond that. The possibility that he was a multimillionaire didn’t appeal to me. Actually it was sort of a negative. Because money doesn’t buy everything in this world.

When they selected me as one of the final five, I got really nervous. Because that was where I was uncomfortable, wearing that wedding gown. I didn’t like that at all. When he chose me I felt fear, shock, dismay, disappointment, nothing positive.

In the back of my mind I felt that if I ran away, I’d be costing these people millions of dollars. What would they do? I remember looking around and going, “Okay, stick with the role, stick with the role. Act.” I wanted to call my mom. I wanted to call anybody. The show’s staff were just guiding me through it: “Go here, stand here, walk there.” I’m just saying, “Okay, okay, sure.” Rick’s mother was very sweet, incredibly kind and seemed so sincere. The more you’re surrounded by people that think it’s okay, the more you tend to go along with it; it’s the whole lemming concept.

[Rockwell] took the whole thing seriously. He talked so much about how he hoped we would fall in love with each other and he felt we could have great chemistry, sexually and otherwise. I didn’t know I was going on the honeymoon until the next day. The production company paid my lost wages. So I received no money from Rick Rockwell whatsoever.

We flew to San Juan and then to Barbados. It was a commercial airline, first class. My chaperone [Cheryl] was in coach; he didn’t have a chaperone. That was the night I cried on the plane while he slept. I was devastated. This is not what I wanted and who I wanted to end up with. I was wearing that ring, looking at it and going, “You’ve got to be kidding.” It was this huge ring that I would never wear. I call it Ringzilla.

I told him the minute we landed in Barbados that this is not working for me. “I don’t have these feelings for you. I need to let you know right up front. I don’t want to lead you on. We can have a friendly relationship, we can have a good time on this trip. I’m not going unless Cheryl goes the rest of the trip. And I want separate cabins, separate rooms. If you’d like to do that, it’s a great cruise, we’ll have a good time.”

He said, “Well, why were you on the show?”

“With all due respect, you picked me. I didn’t pick you.”

He was angry. He said, “I need to go talk to Cheryl.”

We spent three days in Barbados, and then we went on a six-day cruise through all the northern Caribbean islands. I had fun with the chaper-one. When the show aired I’m on the ship, and I’m not aware of the fallout at all. Completely unaware. Rick and I would see each other in passing. We had meals on occasion, with Cheryl there, with other people from the boat. We didn’t meet alone for meals.

We did a few staged things together so the show could air it (Cheryl had a little handycam): working out together, walking up a hill together, and that was so brief. I just didn’t want to be around him.

Cheryl came up to me the day after the show aired. She said, “This is huge. Twenty-three million people watched it.” I just started crying. I heard about the temporary restraining order the same time that the rest of the country did. Number one, he wasn’t that way with me. I think it was incredibly irresponsible not to inform the producers of the show. They really had no way of finding this out. And he’s the only one who knew about it. Was I afraid of him? Did I think that he was a violent man? I never considered it towards me.

I am in the process of filing an annulment. I don’t want to be associated with him any further. I have an attorney. I will not be a divorcée. It’s an annulment. It means it never happened. I will be a single woman, never married.

Of course I fear that there will be a stigma attached to me. I’m the girl who married the multimillionaire on that crazy TV show. I’m the girl whose face was plastered all over the country—the world. I did a huge disservice to myself. But I think by doing things like this interview, it will give me back some credibility and reduce that stigma. But it will always be there. The word marriage right now, bride, wedding, all those words—aaah! I don’t want to hear it. I’ll probably get married in shorts and a tank top in a church with two people there.

I was surprised by the reaction from people like the president of NOW. I think they’re giving me too much credit. I am not a feminist; I am a humanist. I believe in human beings, not the male and female genders. Was it demeaning? Was it degrading? I’m sure there’s an element of that, yes. Do I regret doing it? Yes. But people shouldn’t look at me to be their moral compass. It’s hurtful [to be called a gold digger]. But you go on. Because I know I’m not and because everyone who knows me and loves me knows I’m not. I just shake my head. I knew my intentions essentially were pure. It was lighthearted. I didn’t give it the gravity it deserved. So I assumed everyone else would be on the same page. Who would have thought that 23 million people would watch this TV show? I am well aware that my celebrity is founded on notoriety rather than doing something good. I would much rather be famous for winning Jeopardy! or curing cancer.

Smart people make mistakes. I’ve been thinking clearly my whole life, and then this happens. If this is the dumbest thing that I ever do, thank God I did it in this arena. What I did here didn’t hurt anybody, I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t do bad things with the President. It was the worst mistake of my life, and it will have an impact on my life forever. But on the continuum of life it’s just a small little blip on the radar screen.

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