| March 2011
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By Corrie M. Anders
Stephen Fowler can smile now, but he still cringes about his 2009 performance on the reality show Wife Swap. Photo by Pamela Gerard
Two years after his ill-fated appearance on the reality TV show Wife Swap, Stephen Fowler is still dealing with the ignominy of being cast by the media as the “worst husband in the world.”
“I do regret going on the show,” Fowler said about the experience and its repercussions. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
For one, he got fired from his high-ranking position with a solar energy firm two weeks after a national TV audience watched him heap verbal abuse on his replacement wife.
The show also put a strain on his 25-year marriage to Renee Stephens, a hypnotherapist and life coach who specializes in weight-loss issues. And it jolted the couple into selling their 25th Street home and moving nine blocks away.
The Voice sat down with Fowler in mid-February at Café Ponte, the cozy cafe at 24th and Diamond streets. He was casually dressed, wearing a trim Van Dyke beard that he’d grown since the TV episode. He appeared relaxed and eager to talk, as he sipped chamomile tea from an oversized cup.
For the first year after the show, Fowler, 51, and Stephens, 45, couldn’t discuss their participation because of a strict confidentiality agreement. Fowler agreed to provide his first detailed account, after an effort to remodel their house put the couple back in the public eye.
No longer restrained, Fowler had a bit of advice for anyone who might contemplate being a guest on Wife Swap, which is currently soliciting families for its seventh season.
“Make sure you speak to other people who have experience before you make up your mind to do it,” he said, before adding, “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”
Though the couple were the target of scorn for months after the broadcast, Fowler said he is thankful his children were spared teasing at school or at home in Noe Valley. “It really hasn’t affected my kids,” Juliette, 13, and James, 10, he said. “They were very fortunate in that there were no nasty comments, no bullying, nothing at all.”
The worst time for them, he said, was during the actual production, when they were under the stress of cameras and microphone booms following them day and night.
The Right Reasons
Fowler said he and the children initially were “adamantly opposed” to taking part in the show. But they acquiesced, he said, because Stephens felt the popular program would provide a platform to spread her message about ways to conquer obesity.
“She wanted to do it for all the right reasons,” he said.
The show is designed to let couples—often polar opposites—exchange wives for two weeks. The women (and men) bring their own values and lifestyles to their new households—with the promise that the switch will create a combustible, entertaining show.
ABC’s promotion of the Jan. 30, 2009, episode teased Stephens and the British-born Fowler as sophisticated urbanites who ate organic foods, exercised fastidiously, and sent their kids to an elite French-English bilingual school.
By contrast, Gayla Long, now 39, and husband, Alan Long, 40, hailed from a small town in rural Missouri. The Longs and their four boys loved playing paintball games, riding around in all-terrain vehicles, and munching on corn dogs.
Living up to the show’s premise, the families all took digs at each other during the hour-long culture clash. But it was Fowler’s churlish, over-the-top behavior that touched a nerve, especially in middle America. He called Gayla Long a “dumb redneck” and said she was “undereducated, over-opinionated, and overweight.”
The first inkling of trouble came 10 minutes into the show, as Fowler and Stephens with about 40 friends watched from their home. Someone from the production company called and said the show was eliciting so many irate calls that the couple should take down their Facebook pages. Then Fowler’s cell phone started to ring nonstop.
Reaction to his antics went viral, first on Gawker.com, then on Yahoo.com, and then on a newly built StephenFowlerSucks website. Threats in the blogosphere prompted the production company to post plainclothes security guards on the couple’s 25th Street block for a week. Fowler said he literally had “egg on my house” to go along with the figurative “egg on my face.”
Reflecting on the broadcast, he said his performance was the antithesis of who he really is. In reality, “I tend to use humor a lot in my life,” he said. “I try not to take things too seriously. And I’m loyal to my friends and my family.”
The production crew, he said, had persuaded him to amp up the effrontery because the first few days of the shooting were flat.
“They strongly encouraged me to be acerbic. I was playing a character. I was playing a role…like Simon Cowell on steroids. I overreacted,” said Fowler, adding that skillful editing also made him appear the heavy.
Under the pressure of the show, he said, “I lost my cool.”
Fowler apologized publicly for his 15 minutes of fame—for behaving “like a complete jerk” and displaying “an extraordinary level of stupidity and arrogance.” He said he twice sent private apologies to the Longs, but got no reply.
In a phone interview last month with the Voice, Gayla Long said she didn’t think Fowler’s request for forgiveness was sincere. “He did it because all of America was mad at him for what he did,’’ she said. “He treated me as if I was beneath him. I was brought up not to treat people like that, I don’t care how educated you are.”
Renee Stephens also issued public apologies. In one, made not long after the show, she acknowledged that her husband was “aggressively cruel and insulting on so many levels,” and that she had “asked Stephen to get professional help.”
With his tea pushed aside, half gone and growing cold, Fowler admitted that the marriage was shaky for a period.
“It was rocky for a few months,” he said. “But we worked through it, and our relationship is stronger than it’s ever been.”
Virtually all of the vitriolic responses came via the anonymity of the Internet—none from neighbors or friends, Fowler said. “Everyone we know has been extraordinarily supportive. People who are our friends know who we really are.”
Still in the Spotlight
The couple, however, wanted a fresh start. In November 2009, they sold their 25th Street home of a decade and relocated to a two-story Victorian on Douglass Street on the border between Noe and Eureka valleys.
“I don’t think we would have moved if it had not been for the show. Because of what we had been through…we did not feel as comfortable in our house after the show as we did before the show,” Fowler said. “It had nothing to do with the neighborhood or our friends in the neighborhood.”
Ironically, the new residence refocused attention on Fowler and Stephens after they sought city approval to raise the house two feet to facilitate garage parking and to build a rear addition.
About a dozen neighbors protested at a Planning Commission hearing in January that the addition was too large and would harm the historic character of the house. The commission is reviewing the couple’s remodeling plans.
Fowler is no longer the chief financial officer for Sun Link, a San Rafael–based solar company. “They fired me,” he said. He also resigned from the boards of two nonprofits, ForestEthics, a San Francisco–based environmental group, and Pacific Environment, an international environmental organization.
A Book in the Offing
Fowler says his career as a clean-energy developer and environmental entrepreneur has been “unequivocably damaged.” Still, as he has done for the last five years, Fowler continues to teach a course on sustainable living at the University of San Francisco. He remains passionate about “the things I believe in, like the need to protect the environment,” he said.
He’s also in the process of starting a nonprofit with the initial goal of creating a worldwide competition to design an environmental logo for the planet Earth.
“When people see the peace logo, it’s quite clear what it means,” he said. “My goal is for a symbol that becomes as universal as the peace symbol—a symbol that would say we’ve got to do something about global warming.”
Stephens, in addition to continuing her work as a therapist and life coach, has produced “Inside Out Weight Loss,” a hit podcast on iTunes, and is writing a health-oriented book, due out next January.
Fowler, too, is contemplating a book, about his Wife Swap experiences and the pitfalls of reality TV in general.
“I think there is a story to be told about the seamy side of reality TV,” he said.
Asked whether his appearance on Wife Swap had led to any changes in his behavior, Fowler said, “I’ve learned to be more humble,” and to appreciate “the love of my family.
“Another is that no matter how upset you might be, you can’t be judgmental. You have to think before casting judgments on people.”