clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Vanderpump Rules cheating scandal, for people who have never watched the show

Tom Sandoval, Raquel Leviss, and Ariana Madix make for the reality TV version of Fleetwood Mac.

Ariana Madix, Tom Sandoval, Raquel Leviss, and Tom Schwartz — the cast of Vanderpump Rules and the core of the “Scandoval” cheating scandal
Araya Doheny/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Like Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell, the cast of Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules needs attention or they will die. If no one’s watching, they’re not living. And that overexposed way of life is exactly why the illicit entanglement between cast members Tom Sandoval and Raquel Leviss is so explosive: the months-long relationship seems to have eluded the cameras.

And now, absolutely everyone is watching.

Dubbed the “Scandoval” (a portmanteau of “Sandoval” and “scandal,” which is much more linguistically pleasing than “terriblehumansoval”) the affair involves Sandoval, a original cast member, Leviss, a relatively new cast member, and Sandoval’s long-term partner and co-star, Ariana Madix. The revelation broke late last week, with Madix allegedly finding texts and a screen recording of an intimate FaceTime between Leviss and Sandoval on Sandoval’s phone.

Sandoval and Leviss are still seeing each other, according to no less than Bravo puppetmaster Andy Cohen. Madix has, according to sources, been the recipient of a ton of support from friends and fans.

Some of those friends include fellow cast members who have declared war. Leviss and Sandoval are, among other things, rumored to be worried that they might have to cancel their Coachella trip given the incendiary public fallout.

The reason you may have heard about this, even if you’re Bravo-agnostic, is a testament to how successful the show and its stars have been at parlaying their personal dramas into national fame. For the past 10 years, the Vanderpump Rules cast have lived their lives for Bravo cameras, becoming celebrities and social media stars through a show that is allegedly about West Hollywood restaurant workers.

Unfortunately for Maddix, cheating has always been a big, big part of the show’s appeal.

Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix pre-Scandoval. They were so happy then.
Todd Williamson/Bravo via Getty Images

There’s a lingering whiff of adultery in each episode, mainly due to cast members emanating the dark energy of regrettable hookups from seasons past. Someone making out with someone they’re not supposed to has been one of the show’s main draws season after season; Madix and Sandoval themselves were accused of cheating with each other at the Golden Nugget Las Vegas casino by Sandoval’s former girlfriend and ousted cast member Kristen Doute, who certainly did cheat on Sandoval with then-co-star Jax Taylor, who in turn was two-timing Doute’s friend and co-worker Stassi Schroeder.

And that’s just old stuff.

What makes this particular affair so explosive and unlike past scandals is that Sandoval and Leviss have kept it secret for so long, a feat that’s diametrically opposed to a Vanderpump Rules cast member’s attention-vampire existence.

Beneath the surface of the theatrics and high himbo drama of the Scandoval is a somber look at how late-stage reality television operates, and how much artifice is employed in allegedly candid reality shows. Bravo audiences have learned to accept that there’s a certain degree of fakery in reality television, that these people selling their lives on camera always have one eye on how they’ll be perceived, how the next episode will play out, and what next season’s storyline may look like. What makes Scandoval so galling is that it’s a glimpse into how willing people are to destroy themselves and their relationships, all to give us ... a television show?

The Tom Sandoval-Raquel Leviss affair, explained

The epicenter of this scandal is the West Hollywood restaurant known as SUR owned by former Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Lisa Vanderpump. Though the name could easily be mistaken for the Spanish word for “south” or a wistful homage of that picturesque stretch of California coast, the name SUR is actually an acronym devised by Vanderpump standing for Sexy Unique Restaurant. Vanderpump Rules, then, is about sexy unique people allegedly working at this sexy unique restaurant under the sexy, unique supervision of Vanderpump.

The show premiered on Bravo in 2013, on the sturdy shoulders of original cast member Scheana Marie Shay, who was, at the time, known for being actor Eddie Cibrian’s mistress. Shay, who sports an “It’s all happening” tattoo in honor of cinema, spent the first few seasons portrayed as an outsider at SUR, shunned by a trio of beautiful waitresses — Schroeder, Doute, and Katie Maloney — and those beautiful waitresses’ boyfriends — Taylor, Sandoval, and Tom Schwartz — for her infamous infidelity scandal.

Four women in party dresses pose together in a photo at an event with dozens of people in the background.
Vanderpump Rules always has a core set of women whose job it is to terrorize one other woman.
Todd Williamson/Bravo via Getty Images

Shay and the rest of the cast’s friendships, alliances, romances, and dreams outside of SUR were the focus of the workplace reality show.

No one at SUR could tell you truthfully that they were there because of a passion for the Los Angeles restaurant business. They wanted to be pop stars, models, and actresses. As the show grew in popularity, showcasing these people’s often messy lives, the cast got famous for being on Vanderpump Rules. Thus, those bigger, more hopeful dreams began to fade away, as did the facade that these television stars were actually working real shifts at SUR and earning their livelihood off of tips.

The Vanderpump Rules cast found themselves in an unbreakable Faustian bargain that continues to this day.

The cast needs the show to stay famous. The show itself needs their mess to survive. The more mess the cast feeds it, the more ratings the show gets, and the richer and more famous the cast becomes. The rub is that no matter how famous the show makes them, no cast member has ever been more famous than the show itself. So these humans are locked in an existential stasis; a sexy, unique gilded cage.

Some 10 years after its premiere, after multiple firings, multiple new hirings, and a couple of divorces, Shay, Maloney, Sandoval, and arguably Schwartz — who are now close to hitting 40 — are the only remaining original, full-time cast members. They’re mainstays, alongside the most important character: infidelity.

Since season 2, Sandoval has been in a serious relationship with cast member Ariana Madix, easily the most level-headed and self-aware person on the show. Their partnership, as established on the show over multiple seasons, was essentially a marriage, only not formalized because Madix doesn’t believe in the institution. Madix, at one point, revealed on the show that she had frozen her eggs, ostensibly signaling a future for her with Sandoval.

That all changed this past week, when it was revealed Madix and Sandoval had broken up after nine years, and that Sandoval had been cheating on Madix with cast member Raquel Leviss off-screen for the better part of a year.

Leviss, not unlike Shay, was initially portrayed as an outsider. She came into the show through a relationship with cast member “DJ” James Kennedy. Before coming on Vanderpump Rules, she apparently gave herself a stage name, turning Rachel into “Raquel.” Raquel started appearing on the show in season 6, before becoming a full-time cast member three seasons later. Her relationship with Kennedy, which was filmed extensively on the show, progressed into an engagement before the pair called it quits in December 2021.

Filmed over the course of 2022, the 10th season of the show is currently airing on Bravo; it premiered on February 8, 2023.

In the very young season, Leviss’s story arc has been mainly centered on rebounding from her broken engagement and negotiating her relationships with fellow cast members like the newly divorced, entertainingly territorial Katie Maloney. Maloney and ex-husband Tom Schwartz actually got married on the show, but announced the dissolution of their marriage in March 2022.

Maloney and Schwartz’s on-camera fights this year have been about her asking him not to embarrass her and him continuing to do so. And despite Leviss’s tenuous friendship with Maloney, Leviss has seemingly been attempting to woo Schwartz, a thing — if reciprocated and consummated — that Maloney would find extremely embarrassing. Schwartz, it just so happens, is also business partners and best friends with Sandoval, the man who Leviss was secretly seeing. The two Toms co-own a pair of establishments: Schwartz and Sandy’s and TomTom, because they are both named Tom.

Tom Sandoval wears orange sunglasses, a black tank top with a silver lightning bolt, and metal jewelry, while posing with one arm above his head at a party.
Tom Sandoval is definitely not going through a mid-life crisis or anything. Nope. No sir!
Andrew J. Cunningham/Getty Images

When it was first revealed that it was Tom Sandoval with whom Leviss was involved, and not Tom Schwartz — and therefore the seemingly committed Madix who had been wronged, and not recently divorced Maloney — all hell broke loose. Since then, there has been rampant speculation about Leviss and Sandoval’s matching lightning bolt necklaces being secret love totems, Sandoval dressing up as Leviss for Halloween (visible on Leviss’s Instagram), and even a rumor that Sandoval brought Leviss home to St. Louis for Christmas, while Madix was off with her own family.

For a secret affair, the two have seemingly and conveniently left a trail of tantalizing clues hiding in plain sight.

Sandoval and Leviss’s affair isn’t scandalous because it’s an affair. Infidelity — both insinuated and admitted — has been a cornerstone of this series since its inception and has fueled storylines for multiple seasons. Nor is it just the fact that these two have managed to vaporize one of the more stable relationships on this extremely toxic reality television series.

Rather, the Scandoval is so scandalous because the two have seemingly managed to keep it secret not just to viewers but also to their castmates, many of whom have trolled and even threatened Leviss and Sandoval on social media, and to some degree, the production itself. That just isn’t supposed to happen under the watchful eyes of Bravo and Lisa Vanderpump, at her Sexy Unique Restaurant.

The Vanderpump Rules cast is like Fleetwood Mac

If there’s one thing you need to understand about Bravo’s candid reality shows like Vanderpump Rules and the various Housewives franchises, it’s that there’s a certain amount of accepted artifice involved. These people are working to keep themselves on television, which places incentive on heightened reactions and mess. Or, if you’re like Leviss, there’s motivation for newer cast members to get in the thick of it to get promoted to a full-time cast member. It’s also not entirely clear if these people are indeed best friends, or if they’d actually speak to each other at all if they weren’t working on the same television show.

This element of awareness raises the question of whether the Vanderpump Rules cast is naturally this messy or if their actions are influenced by their jobs as television stars. And that question of where the artificial ends and reality begins is at the heart of the Scandoval affair.

Does Leviss actually have feelings for Sandoval, or is this all calculated? What, if anything, actually happened with her and Schwartz? Was this affair part of Leviss’s plan to become the show’s main villain? Because in a short time, Leviss has become the reigning reality villain in the whole Bravo universe.

On Sandoval’s end, one would think that if he really cared about Madix, the very least he would’ve done is spare her this humiliation. Not only did he cheat on her, but despite the millions of people in the city of Los Angeles, he did so with one of the half-dozen people they regularly film with. Is the show more important than the relationships in this man’s personal life? Or is it all — even his long-term relationship with Madix — just a charade? And did he not foresee how his businesses — bars and restaurants that bear some permutation of his name — are tied to his reputation on the show?

The affair has fundamentally changed how one watches the show this season.

Knowing the Sandoval-Madix breakup is happening in real time gives the current season of Vanderpump Rules the vibes of a found footage horror movie; one where Madix, our final girl, has no idea what’s about to hit her. And now that we know that at least some filming coincided with Sandoval and Leviss’s secret affair, it also turns every moment between the two into another piece of the puzzle, one that helps paint a clearer picture of their romance. The real-life clues — matching lightning bolt necklaces included — help too.

Raquel Leviss, left, Tom Sandoval, right, and a fan of the show pictured together in October 2022.
Getty Images for CLD PR/White

Scandoval has also called into question how much, and how long, have Sandoval, Madix, and Leviss’s co-stars have known about the affair. In the fourth episode, Schwartz tells Sandoval that he and Maloney made an agreement not to date anyone in their friend circle (i.e., Leviss). Without hesitation, Sandoval responds, “That’s not realistic.” Sandoval encourages his best friend to pursue the romance with Leviss, even though it would result in ire from Maloney.

Was Sandoval projecting? Does Sandoval truly want the best for his buddy? Was Sandoval letting his friend take the heat for a Leviss romance while secretly having his own affair with her? Or did Schwartz know all of this was happening and sacrifice his own image to save his partner-in-crime, Sandoval?

On Tuesday night Sandoval finally addressed the affair and issued an apology to Madix in an Instagram post. “I am beyond sad that it ended the way it did. The choices I made hurt so many people. I acted in a way that clashes with who and how I want to be,” he wrote, going on to say that he treated Madix with disrespect.

Leviss followed with a statement to Entertainment Tonight on Wednesday morning. Leviss said that she had begun counseling. “Although I chose to be on a reality show accepting the good and bad that comes with it, beyond my own actions I have been physically assaulted, lost friendships, received death threats and hate emails in addition to having had my privacy violated,” she wrote in her statement, referring to an alleged violent reaction from castmate Shay. According to People, Leviss has filed a restraining order against Shay.

Perhaps the way to look at this all is that Sandoval, Madix, Leviss, Schwartz, and the entire Vanderpump Rules cast are the reality version of Fleetwood Mac’s creation of Rumours — all of them destroying themselves and their relationships to produce art. Instead of Lindsey Buckingham tapping into the pain of breaking up with Stevie Nicks to write “Go Your Own Way,” we have season after season of cast members setting fire to their relationships, diddling newbies, filming with exes, maybe even divorcing each other — all on camera. The show, which has teetered in and out of Bravo’s top tier and been supplanted by the likes of Below Deck and Summer House, has found its shot in the arm.

That’s how this television show and the people on it survive.

In the wake of the Sandoval-Leviss affair revelation, Bravo ringmaster Andy Cohen said that the circus’s cameras have been deployed to get raw reactions from current cast members. Some of those may even include Sandoval’s ex-girlfriend and ex-castmate Kristen Doute. Cohen also confirmed that the reunion for Vanderpump Rules was filming in two weeks, promising that it would be explosive and “upsetting” (in Cohen-speak, this actually means “the best”) Vanderpump Rules reunion yet. His stars will make sure of it.

Update, March 8, 11:05 am: This story was originally published on March 7 and has been updated with statements from Sandoval and Leviss.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.