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Video: Patti Blagojevich on new reality TV role

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TODAY contributor
updated 5/21/2009 9:56:15 AM ET 2009-05-21T13:56:15

She insists she’s not a celebrity, but the wife of former Illinois governor Rod Blogojevich says she’s willing to be on the reality show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” anyway. The reason, she says, is simple: Her family needs the money.

“I don’t feel that I’m a celebrity …[but] In this terrible economic time, I feel it’s necessary to go to work and help support my family, so, yes, that’s the primary reason for doing the show,” Patti Blagojevich told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday via satellite from Chicago when it was announced she would appear on the reality-TV series.

The bar on just who’s a celebrity may be getting lower in an era when that distinction is granted to spoiled heiress Paris Hilton; O.J. Simpson’s house guest, Kato Kaelin; and a back-up dancer like Kevin Federline.

By that criteria, being the wife of a disgraced and indicted former governor qualifies, Entertainment Weekly’s editor at large, Ken Tucker, told NBC News.

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Rumble in the jungle
The reality show, which will begin airing June 1 on NBC, puts 10 celebrities in the Costa Rican jungle. In an earlier and short-lived version of the show that aired in 2003, the B- and C-list participants contestants faced such challenges as putting insects, worms and rats in their pants, sitting in a tank of leeches, and wading through a swamp populated by snakes and eels.

The show originally wanted Rod Blagojevich to swelter in the jungle, but on April 21, a federal judge denied the disgraced former governor’s request to leave Illinois to participate in the show, suggesting that he was a risk to flee the country and the possible 30-year jail term he faces if convicted on all the charges against him.

NBC, which is carrying “I’m a Celebrity...,” offered to hire two security guards to watch Blagojevich 24 hours a day while he was doing the show, but the judge said the ex-governor needed to concentrate on his legal defense.

Blagojevich burst into national prominence last December when federal prosecutors indicted him on 16 counts involving using his office as governor of Illinois to trade favors for cash. The most prominent accusation accuses him of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Blagojevich refused to resign as governor, but was removed from office in an impeachment trial.

Image: Blagojevich swearing in
TODAY
Patti Blagojevich was on the scene as her husband Rod was sworn in as governor of Illinois. He was later impeached.
After the trial, the producers of “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” contacted him to participate in the show with actors Lou Diamond Phillips, Stephen Baldwin, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag; wrestler Torrie Wilson; model Janice Dickinson; retired NBA player John Salley, and former “American Idol” contestant Sanjaya Malakar. But when the judge put the kibosh on that idea, Blagojevich instead filmed a promo for the program.

On Thursday the ex-governor told Vieira he may play some role in the production without leaving the United States: “There may be some surprises in store for you and frankly for me. I’m not sure what role NBC might have in mind for me.”

‘Very blessed’
The Blagojeviches married in 1990 and have two daughters: Amy, born in 1996, and Annie, born in 2003. Both parents asserted that they have to pay their bills and provide for their family.

“I do want to say how proud I am of Patti. She’s willing to step up and do something, like go into a jungle,” Rod Blagojevich said. “Both of us have our responsibilities to raise our children and try to keep our family intact. We’ve had a unique opportunity that most people in America who are losing their jobs don’t get. We’ve been very blessed by the offer.”

Video: Blagojevich: ‘Judge did save me from eating bugs’ When the producers were attempting to get Blagojevich on the show, reports of what he would make ranged from $80,000 to $123,250 per episode. The Hollywood rumor mill has not cranked out any figures for what his wife will get for communing with creepy crawlies in the jungle.

Patti Blagojevich was not charged in connection with the influence-peddling case against her husband, but she is portrayed by prosecutors and by the Chicago media as a “Lady Macbeth” figure plotting behind the scenes and pushing her husband. The indictment charging the ex-governor also alleges that Patti Blagojevich helped hatch the purported plan to sell President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat and tried to trade her influence with her husband for high-paying spots on corporate boards.

And Mrs. Blagojevich is not a stranger to the brand of hardball politics for which Chicago is famous. Her father is former alderman Richard Mell, a powerful ward boss who once accused then-Governor Blagojevich of selling political influence. She has had several jobs, and was once a real estate agent whose client list included convicted money launderer Tony Rezko.

“Patti is a loving wife and a wonderful mother. She’s not what she’s been characterized,” Rod Blagojevich said. “She’ll have a chance on this program to let America see who she really is. She’s willing to go into the jungle for her kids. This is not her choice. I was invited on. We do have a commitment to NBC. We’d like to keep it, and Patti is willing to step up and do something. I think it speaks very well for her.”

The former governor also took the opportunity to predict that he will prove his innocence and to give his own opinion of how he should be viewed.

Slideshow: From state house to disgrace

“Neither one of us are celebrities,” he told Vieira.” I prefer to be compared to people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and others in history, not some of these comparisons.

“I’ve been wrongly accused. I will be vindicated.”

Some legal analysts have suggested that Patti Blagojevich could jeopardize her husband’s defense and even herself by things she might say during the show.

But she told Vieira: “I’m not worried about that, because my husband and I haven’t done anything wrong. My husband’s an honest man. I truly believe that he will be vindicated ... I know what to say what not to say. I feel confident I’m not going to be hurting him or myself on the show.”

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