Where were you when you first heard about the #Scandoval?
The affair drama that is lighting up the fandom of the Bravo reality TV series Vanderpump Rules and the internet at large (complete with requisite scandal nickname) seemed to herald a shift in celebrity tides this week. Not only was it a buffet of news for long-time consumers of the show—and casual snackers of tabloid gossip, too—but a Rubicon was crossed when even The New York Times deigned to publish a primer to the scandal, as it did Wednesday (complete with cheeky tweet that asked, among other things, And what is a “Vanderpump” anyway?)
Suddenly, entertainment real estate usually reserved for the likes of Angelina Jolie or J.Lo appeared to have made room for people usually associated with more obscure corners of the celebrity solar system. How did we get here? Let us explain.
From the moment the camera gingerly moved from dining room to kitchen, in 2013, inside a West Hollywood restaurant—the audience keeping pace, Sorkin-like, with Scheana, a server with a Scarlet Letter—a ravenous audience was born.
Ding-ding-ding: It’s what they call a “back-door pilot.”
One moment we had been in the world of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills—a Jackie Collins-like land of la-di-da and air-kisses—and the next we were in the sphere of striving waiters, courtesy of Vanderpump Rules and its cast of characters: Jax and Stassi and Kristen and Tom and Tom and Katie and the gang.
You had to be there. It’s absolutely canon, as far as the history of reality TV goes, in part because this messy mix of dreamy-eyed waiters had all been screwing and feuding for years before there was a show—a baked-in history—but also because the show was, as others have noted, like a WeHo version of Downton Abbey meets a modern-day Melrose Place (scheming: check; slutty shenanigans: check). Think Party Down, but make it more diabolical.
Its loyalists ran the gamut from Rihanna to feminist scholar Roxanne Gay (who have both posted about the show). John Legend has played around with its earworm of a theme song, just for kicks. Vogue even once gave them a spread, calling it the “perfect reality show.”
And even though the dynamics on the show would inevitably change over the decade, as the gang started “adulting”—not to the mention become quasi-famous and rich, which threatened to cannibalize the very premise of the show—one thing somehow never changed: the striving-ness of these strivers (even if the texture of their striving changed).
They were, in other words, textbook “thirsty.” They represented a breed of aspirants who flock to L.A. year in and year out, hoping to make it, someway, somehow, while trying to dodge the crush of expectations and negotiate the imposter syndromes that have been a mainstay of the Hollywood hustle forever. That journey has been depicted in everything from the classic camp novel and film, Valley of the Dolls, to the under-appreciated Warren Beatty movie,Shampoo, from the 1970s—and now, well, a Bravo reality TV show about the lives of hot, promiscuous waiters.
Almost every single cat on #PumpRules, as it is known, had, after all, come to town trying to be a model or musician or actor, à la the old cliche. Ironically, this group had found a route to celebrity by falling into the rabbit hole of reality TV. A twisted irony, but also a very 21st century one.
It turns out even that irony itself is a funhouse mirror of further ironies, going by what has occurred in the last few days: TMZ broke the news last Friday that one of the OGs on the show, incorrigible Peter Pan Tom Sandavol, had flagrantly cheated on his partner of almost nine years, the level-headed sometime-mixologist Arianna Madix, with their close friend, Raquel Levis, a Bambi-eyed innocent (or so we thought) who herself was engaged to DJ James Kennedy, another cast-mate, until last year. Levis had crossed a line recently in the middle of the latest, on-going season, with Sandoval’s BFF and business partner, Tom Schwartz, who, as it happens, just divorced his wife of many years, Katie Maloney, another OG.
Trust me when I say this is the super-abbreviated version—and that it would take a wall-chart like Carrie Mathison used to use on Homeland to really explain the romantic six-degrees and concentric relationships. Of course, many Bravo fan-accounts were only too happy to do just that. The intensity of the fan investment of these Bravo shows is only comparable to the intensity of investment of, say, General Hospital or Days of Our Lives fanatics, during the high soapy point of the 1980s and 1990s. We know these people. We follow these people).
The level of betrayal, and the crumb of Easter Eggs that some have now been sifting through over the last several days, is so vast, that, for Bravoholics, as one writer on Lainey Gossip surmised, “This is our Brangelina split, it’s our Bennifer calling off the wedding the first time around, it’s our Don’t Worry Darling mess. Andy Cohen posted a story about dreaming about Ariana because he’s as caught up in this drama as we are.”
Instagram account Deuxmoi (the real-life Gossip Girl of social media) was all over it, naturally, as were an army of Tik Tok detectives. There were endless Reddit threads, too. Popular podcaster Kate Casey exemplified some of the mania when she tweeted: “I am ready to direct and produce a true crime documentary about the #PumpRules affair using graphs, archival footage, drone photos and videos, cell phone forensics, reconstructions, re-enactments, and interviews…”
What I found most interesting, however, is the extent to which the “Scandoval” has taken up space in the Fame Economy. Not only was has there been a steady stream of updates on People, the rocking chair of celebrity outlets, but Page Six—the Magna Carta of gossip—had, by Saturday morning, some 16 hours after the bombshell broke, served up a total of 19 updates to the story, covering every possible angle. By Monday afternoon, there were over 50 updates on Twitter, and an approximate amount on IG.
Who knew what when? Who was covering up for whom? The breadth of the betrayal. The length of the affair. Some clear clues (like that Tom dressed as his mistress for Halloween, of all things!) The PR strategy for Raquel, and her recent obfuscations during media rounds. The impact this might have on the two restaurants that the two Toms are involved with. How Lisa Vanderpump was emergency-flying to New York to appear on Watch What Happens Live on Wednesday. How Lala Kent, another cast-member, in the middle of her own messy divorce, was going nuclear. The rumor that her one-time ally Scheana had “a heated confrontation” with Raquel when she found out! The manner in which the cameras were rolling, and how the season was being extended.
Not even the marriage of Bennifer—at long last!—saw this much coverage, at least from my perspective. These try-hards had essentially pulled off what they wanted when they set sights on Hollywood, even with this toxic cloud rolling over them: squeezing out the real celebs, and besting them for attention. (Whatever “real celebs” means, considering in that social media era, the A-, B- and C-listers seem to be in the same muck, and even the way Meghan and Harry are covered, for instance, is not that dissimilar from the template of reality stars).
The numbers for the clicks must have justified Page Six going in as deeply as they did—which is interesting to me, in that the outlet has been moving in this direction for a while. Once the terrain of movie stars, singers, and socialites, who once-upon-a-time would get inked daily in the New York Post, Bravolebrities increasingly keep the wheels turning at the famous gossip column (which then has a ripple effect across the gossip ecosystem). They are in business together, essentially. A scrumptious synergy between a network that essentially runs on messiness, on- and off-screen, and a media enterprise that needs to feed the beast 24/7.
To keep that content mill fueled depends on a healthy crop of on-going characters, and continuing storylines, so to speak, and Bravo has no shortage of them. The whirling legal tempest and riches-to-rags of Erika Jayne! The recent march to jail of Jen Shah! The never-ending in-laws rivalry between the Gorgas and the Giudices! Divorce and death and secrets and friendships flatlining. It literally never ends.
Over the years, on the vintage New York Housewives franchise, in particular, Page Six often almost seemed to be a character on this show. Leaked stories would cause on-camera drama which then would spur more story which, inevitably, created further wedges between the women, and invited yet more drama. Horse. Carriage. Horse. You bet. But even all that seems rather quaint compares to this latest Tom-and-Raquel cyclone.
For a show as long as in the tooth as this is—despite what many were already calling a comeback season this year, even before this new scandal—I often wondered where the washed-up stars of an art-imitating-life show like #PumpRules would eventually end up. What future was there? A question that still lingers for such professional watchers as Ryan Bailey, who wondered this week on Twitter: “So what’s Tom left with? A couple more seasons of this show, a band he has to pay away any profit that it makes, “come meet the Tom’s” gigs (that will dry up after this season i would assume), 5 percent of TomTom, Schwartz and Sandy’s (which is a long way off from profit) and…”
It remains an open question, although one thing is for sure: These people have never been more famous. And fame often begets more fame.
Henry Kissinger once boldly claimed that power is the greatest aphrodisiac. Old Henry had clearly never met a Bravo star. Obviously, attention is the most potent aphrodisiac going.
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