Game Show Scandal the Truth Hurts

updated 03/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Lauren Cleri never believed people who said the first years of marriage were the hardest. Then her new husband's job as a rookie cop moved her to a strange town. "We had our problems," says Cleri. "It's been a bumpy road."

It got a heck of a lot bumpier after Cleri appeared on The Moment of Truth, Fox's reality game show. On the show, contestants' answers to personal questions are tested with a lie detector. During her time in the hot seat, Cleri, 26, a beauty salon worker from Pennsauken, N.J., admitted she should have married an ex-boyfriend instead of husband Frank Cleri, 25—as her husband watched, squirming in the front row. She also answered yes when asked whether she had "had sexual relations with someone other than" Frank. Her Feb. 25 appearance made nationwide headlines and earned Cleri a blasting everywhere from blogs to The View, where Elisabeth Hasselbeck slammed her for apparently humiliating her husband and wrecking her marriage.

Sitting down a week later for her first extensive interview since the show, a clearly nervous, soft-spoken Cleri insists that she didn't sleep around on her husband of two years and that her appearance gave viewers the wrong idea about her. "I want people to know I didn't cheat on my husband and I never will," she says, adding that she and Frank are still together. The two met in 2005, got engaged the day he returned from a six-month Air Force stint in Germany and wed a month later in 2006. "I love him and he loves me. We're willing to work to stay together." (Frank Cleri, a New York City police officer, declined to be interviewed, saying only, "I'm doing all right.") Lauren says she didn't realize what she was in for on the show. "I had no intention of going on TV to humiliate my family, my husband, or even myself."

So why did she go on the show? "I wanted to be on TV," says Cleri, who answered a Craigslist ad for auditions. (She says she has "thought about" becoming an actress but never pursued it: "I didn't do this because I wanted fame and fortune.") As The Moment of Truth production staffers began calling her, her family and friends to research her life, Cleri says she figured the show would focus on her having been fired from a job for stealing a decade ago.

Then, when she taped the show Feb. 11, her ex-boyfriend Frank Nardi, 25, made a surprise appearance to ask two provocative questions, and she realized the show was headed in a very different direction. "I was shocked," she says. "My mind went completely blank. I felt like I blacked out." Nardi, a pal who went to school with Lauren and later dated her for a few months, first asked her, "if I wanted to get back together with you, would you leave your husband?" But Lauren's sister Monica pressed a button to get the question replaced. Then Nardi asked, "Do you believe I am the man you should be married to?" Cleri said yes and her answer was ruled true.

For the record Cleri now says Nardi is not the man she should have married. "There are times when I think he treated me a lot better, and at moments like that, I think I should have married him. But I love my husband more." Most important, Cleri says she did not commit adultery. So why did she answer yes to the cheating question? She and her husband believe that infidelity includes the physical and emotional, she says: "I didn't actually sleep with someone but I thought about it." Cleri says she explained that answer on-camera, but the show edited it out, which the production company confirms. She also says, "Two days before the polygraph, Frank and I had a bad fight. When you go to the polygraph, you still have those emotions inside you."

The Moment of Truth creator Howard Schultz contends that Lauren was ready for the tough questions about her marriage. "In the callback interview, I asked her, 'Are you okay if this material comes out?' She said, 'I'm prepared.'" And like all contestants, she was asked all the questions while hooked to a lie detector before going on-camera. The show does psychological evaluations to make sure contestants can handle the truth, Schultz adds. "I still believe that the truth is not something we should be frightened of."

Lauren says she discussed the questions and her answers with her husband before the taping. "He appreciated the honesty ... we still have issues to work on, but we had them before the show." Still, the publicity hasn't helped. For one thing, Lauren has to make amends with Frank's family. "They're really upset. I don't want them to think I had any intention of hurting him whatsoever." The couple, who live in Piermont, N.Y., spent Frank's 25th birthday separately on March 1. "He didn't want me around. He just wanted to be around his family and friends right now [to] explain to them about the show." Nevertheless, she says, "We've gotten closer. I realize he'll be there for me no matter what." (Should things not work out, says a fellow cop, Frank has plenty of admirers. "Women have been calling the precinct looking for him!")

In the end Lauren walked away with no money, losing $100,000 when she was asked whether she considered herself a good person. She said yes, but the lie detector ruled her answer untrue. The truth? "Obviously that polygraph picked up on that ounce of sweat that I feel bad about some things I did, but I still feel like a good person," she says. "That's not going to change my answer."

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