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Who wants to hear more about Rick Rockwell?

Is he a crass publicity hound or just a misunderstood multimillionaire? His current comedy tour laced with zingers about his short-term bride is a move to rehabilitate his reputation, he says.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 2000


For those who sat through the two-hour debacle that was Fox-TV's Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? this may be tough to comprehend.

But Rick Rockwell says he's a misunderstood man.

"I'd say 10 percent of what has been written about me is correct or an accurate portrayal," says Rockwell, who performs tonight and Wednesday at Side Splitters comedy club in Tampa. "If I had known I was such a jerk, I would have stopped hanging out with myself a long time ago."

These days, the 43-year-old comic-turned-real-estate-investor- turned- comic-again has become a punch line himself, courtesy of a February stunt that disintegrated into one of the most embarrassing TV controversies in modern memory.

As the multimillionaire groom, Rockwell took his lumps almost immediately, pilloried as a guy shallow enough to sit through a beauty pageant disguised as a love connection. He chose bride Darva Conger from a field of 50 women he'd met only hours before. The show drew more than 22-million viewers and an avalanche of criticism.

Then the revelations started. Journalists turned up a 1991 restraining order filed against Rockwell by an ex-fiancee. Conger, who told Rockwell 36 hours into the honeymoon that she wanted an annulment, trashed him on the talk show circuit. Former friends were quoted in the press doubting Rockwell's wealth. Conger took heat for claiming to be a Persian Gulf War veteran despite never having served in the Persian Gulf.

Conger got her annulment, saying the restraining order showed Rockwell and Fox-TV weren't honest about his past relationships with women.

Still, the fallout stung everyone involved. Conger lost her job as an emergency room nurse, and Fox-TV earned the National Organization for Women's "network of shame" award over the objectification of prospective brides in Multimillionaire.

Rockwell says he got an up-close education on the the excesses of the fourth estate, as news organizations scrambled to get the goods on both him and Conger.

"I just don't understand how people can print things without checking anything out," says the comic, who maintains camera crews zeroed in on toilets sitting in his backyard, without noting the ocean view in front of his Encinitas, Calif., home. "For the first three weeks, every article I saw had my age wrong. That's some pretty basic stuff."

But even though he pokes fun at himself -- standup gigs these days are billed as part of his Annulment Tour -- Rockwell's skin grows thinner when others get in on the act.

In recent weeks, he has threatened to sue the online magazine Salon for implying he was not a multimillionaire at the time of the TV show taping.

And he's also considering a lawsuit against WFLZ-FM radio personalities M.J. Kelli and B.J. Harris, saying the pair gave listeners his home telephone number and urged fans to place harassing calls after he declined an early morning interview.

"They called me up at 4:30 a.m., woke me up, and I was kind enough to say, "If you want to interview me, e-mail me at my Web site,' " notes Rockwell, who says he later received "hundreds" of telephone calls from the show's listeners. "Those guys have gone way beyond the boundaries of what's allowed. They invaded my privacy."

Kelli -- who still proudly details how Jerry Seinfeld tried to get him and Harris fired over similar early morning telephone pranks -- says he never released Rockwell's telephone number but did tell listeners about his Web site after seeing it mentioned on television.

Already, the station has declined to pay the comic $10,000 to settle the conflict (Rockwell admits that, when asked what it would take to resolve the issue, he suggested the money and an on-air apology, saying he would donate any after-tax proceeds from the WFLZ situation to charity).

"He's just desperate for attention," adds Kelli. "He was looking at the Fox show as a possible launching pad . . . and he's taking full advantage. But I think the window of opportunity for Rick Rockwell as a comedy act has about run out."

It's that kind of insinuation that angers Rockwell the most.

Sure, he rode a bicycle from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to promote a comedy club once and told jokes for more than 30 hours to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. Still, suggest that his Multimillionaire gig was a stunt calculated to get attention, and you'll get a cold reaction.

"I can't imagine doing something that would so profoundly affect someone else's life as a publicity stunt," says Rockwell, sidestepping the question of how a TV marriage to a stranger could be anything but exploitative and unreal. "I thought it would be fun. The irony was, I wound up with a woman who didn't feel that way."

Indeed, Rockwell saves some of his sharpest barbs for Conger, who told interviewers later that she was "disgusted" by his onstage kiss during the show and attempts to hold her hand over their awkward honeymoon.

"Wait until you see Fox's new show . . . When Darvas Attack," he says, offering a typical punch line from his current standup routine, which reviewers have said is filled with potshots at Conger.

Another sample, from a Boston Globe account: "Darva Conger? I married Lorena Bobbitt. She just snipped me verbally."

And the kicker: "Fifty choices, and I have to pick an ice cube."

"What you see is what you get," Rockwell says now of Conger, slated to appear nude in the August edition of Playboy magazine. "She went from being this good Christian girl (to saying) . . . "I don't see anything wrong with nudity per se.' "

"She let me carry this bag up a huge flight of stairs and then she told me," he says, describing the moment Conger announced she would seek an annulment, hours after they'd arrived in Barbados for their honeymoon. "That tells you all you need to know."

Critics say Rockwell's return to standup comedy and oddball publicity stunts to promote the shows -- locally, he'll stop by a Daewoo dealership and an area jewelry store chain, among other places -- hardly befit a man who claims to be worth at least $2-million.

"I feel like I have to rehabilitate my reputation . . . and I think I'm difficult to hate, once you meet me," says the comic, who once filled up people's gas tanks at a promotion, handing out T-shirts that read, "I was pumped by Rick Rockwell."

"It shows people I don't take myself all that seriously," he adds. "If people don't think that's behavior worthy of a multimillionaire . . . well, that's their problem."

These days, Rockwell is following the typical career track of those who owe their fame to public humiliation -- think Monica Lewinsky, John Wayne Bobbitt and Tonya Harding, among others -- assembling a book about his experiences, endorsing a Web site and leveraging his notoriety into new standup comedy opportunities.

For someone who has spent decades chasing fame as a performer, this new form of renown seems a double-edged sword, offering worldwide prominence in exchange for a truckload of dignity and pride.

"It's been the best and worst of everything," says Rockwell, who still seems to think the biggest problem with Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? is that he picked the wrong woman. "I might have been two inches away from matrimonial bliss. And we will never know that."

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