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In defense of Raquel Leviss, kind of

The other half of “Scandoval” did something messed up, but deserves at least a little compassion from viewers who love the drama.

A woman, Raquel Leviss, sitting on the set of Watch What Happens Live.
Raquel Leviss on Watch What Happens Live, shortly before being assaulted by Scheana Shay.
Charles Sykes/Bravo via Getty Images

On March 1, Vanderpump Rules co-stars Scheana Shay and Raquel Leviss appeared on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. Hours later, to the shock of fans, Scheana reportedly punched Raquel in the face.

Over the next few days, Raquel’s fame exploded: News was out that she’d been having a months-long affair with co-star Tom Sandoval, a particularly shocking entanglement because Sandoval’s partner of nearly 10 years, Ariana Madix, is also Raquel’s friend.

It’s impossible not to ultimately “side” with Ariana, likely the most level-headed person ever to pass through Lisa Vanderpump’s SUR restaurant, and the halls of Bravo. She does not deserve what both Tom and Raquel did to her. It’s difficult, too, not to get swept up in the drama of “Scandoval.” I’ve spent a good amount of time watching old episodes, dissecting the fake-out drama surrounding Raquel kissing another Tom — the recently divorced Schwartz — and texting friends about “Rachel.” (Currently, the shadiest insult is to call Raquel by her real name.) By the season’s end, the novelty has worn off and it’s clear that irreparable harm has been done.

I’ve noticed, though, that for the most part, longtime fans seem to feel that it’s our job as viewers to hold Raquel publicly accountable for her actions. It’s not.

a woman, a man, and a woman sitting in a row: Raquel Leviss, Tom Sandoval, and Ariana Madix.
From left: Leviss, Tom Sandoval, and Ariana Madix.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo via Getty Images

Every week, viewers tune in to Vanderpump Rules to watch this group of supposed waiters make questionable choices and misbehave. Since the scandal, viewership has shot up, reaching its highest live ratings since 2019. On May 3, it was the third most watched program on TV, behind the NBA playoffs. Fans are watching the new episodes intently, hoping to discover the moment the affair started, and to see the train wreck unfold.

The urge to share our every reaction to this situation online is a potent one; understandable and, within reason, even acceptable. I’ve posted my share of conflicting opinions about “Scandoval.” More pressingly, some fans have chosen to take these complaints directly to Raquel, in the form of threats and harassment. That’s where some fans need to get a grip on themselves, and this situation.

Of course viewers are going to be outraged about the affair. Over the last 10 years, they’ve developed relationships with the people on their screens. In True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, sociologist Danielle K. Lindemann identifies voyeurism and social connection as the two main reasons people tune in to reality TV shows. “We want to peek into the lives of these interesting people, but it’s their similarity to us that keeps us riveted. We’re voyeurs, but part of what tantalizes us about these freak shows is that the freaks are ourselves,” she writes.

Viewers might, as I do, recognize parts of themselves in Ariana, at times a confident party girl who also struggles deeply with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. As much as I relate to her, the relationship I have with Ariana only goes one way. I can buy #TeamAriana merch and “like” her social media posts, but ultimately, I am someone consuming both the person and the product she is selling to me.

Looking at Raquel’s history and current circumstances, it’s clear that she’s also deserving of compassion. In season 10, we see a woman in her late 20s who recently left a relationship that she has been in for most of her adult life. Her ex-fiancé, co-star/DJ James Kennedy was controlling and withholding, and Raquel says she “lost [her] identity” in that relationship. Now, she’s seeking validation and acceptance in all the wrong places. On a girls trip in episode 6, she articulates her disorientation: “Now being single, it’s like, okay, this is my new identity. Who am I? Literally, people have been asking me, ‘Raquel, who are you?’ And you know what my answer is? I don’t know.”

She repeatedly goes back to James — who started dating his new girlfriend, Ally Lewber, only five weeks after ending his engagement with Raquel — seeking reassurance that she’s not the only one having a hard time with the breakup. She also turns to Ally, who James now calls the “love of his life,” more than once to warn her of James’s erratic behavior. It’s sometimes cringey and hard to watch, but Raquel seems to be trying to make sense of how complicated and painful her relationship was. “There were moments that I felt I had to monitor what I said because I didn’t want him to get upset,” she tells Ally.

At 39, Tom Sandoval is an older man. He’s the boyfriend of a close friend, yes, but he’s also someone who stands up for Raquel, gives her attention, and boasts of how awesome she is. “I’m impassioned. I’m fucking proud of you, Raquel! You have come into your own,” he says at her 28th birthday glamping trip. Raquel eats it up. An affair is unforgivable, especially among friends, but it’s certainly not confusing how this one came to happen.

Raquel’s fragile self-image didn’t begin and end with James; in the 10th season, she opens up about how growing up doing beauty pageants has affected her sense of self. In a confessional during her 28th birthday, she cries, realizing how much her choices and self-conception have been shaped by pageants. Now that she’s no longer a competing queen, she’s outside of their constraints for the first time, and she’s making every mistake possible.

She may not get compassion from her castmates, who are rightfully angry with and hurt by her actions. They don’t need to be her friends right now. As viewers, however, we can choose to more thoughtfully consume the dramas unfolding on our screens.

Reality TV almost demands we take a side. We are expected to experience these cultural products in a binary way where one person is absolutely right and the other is morally wrong and should be punished. It’s a party game for everyone to play. Actress Molly Shannon performed a monologue as Raquel on Andy’s WWHL. Several brands involved themselves in “Scandoval,” including Béis — which became “Team Ariana” after Raquel was photographed with one of their bags — and the Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa, which alluded to Sandoval’s stay at the resort in an Instagram post. No less than the White House Correspondents’ Dinner had a take on “Scandoval.”

As VPR cast members joined WWHL, this dynamic was cemented. Most of the cast, along with Andy himself, have stoked the flames of the punitive internet. When asked whether fans of the show should lay off Raquel and Tom Sandoval, most cast members said no.

“Look, there’s mob mentality,” James said, seeming to accept the inevitable. “There’s cancel culture. If you do something outrageous, expect people to be outraged.” James added that the mob’s actions were a problem only when property damage was involved, specifically citing alleged vandalism of the Toms’ bars, TomTom and Schwartz & Sandy’s. (Tom Sandoval’s publicist told Vox there “has not been” any vandalism at either business.)

I don’t want to live in a world where someone’s property is considered more valuable than any person. I think we should have compassion for people we don’t really like.

In the case of “Scandoval,” viewers have gone too far to put Raquel in her place, shaming her in ways that are both violent and dehumanizing. “Condemn their actions, but don’t condemn the people, okay?” the queen Lisa Vanderpump herself said on WWHL. “All this aggression … it can have serious ramifications. I really mean that. I think everybody should be careful with that.”

After the affair became public, Raquel wrote in a statement, “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.”

Since filming the reunion last month, Raquel has checked into a mental health treatment facility, where she is seeking “trauma therapy,” according to her rep. (Current and former cast members reportedly claimed it was just a spa; which Raquel denies.)

The way reality TV shows like Vanderpump Rules mirror back to us the messiest and most dysfunctional parts of our culture, flatten them, and then invite us to judge the people making mistakes on camera for our entertainment doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

There is a lot to feel angry about right now: Wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, while the cost of rent and other basic goods continues to rise; state and federal legislatures are passing increasingly violent laws; and many people are so far removed from any material form of political action that it’s hard to imagine where to go from here.

Seeking justice against a reality TV star over an affair might allow us to exercise some kind of power, to feel in control in some way. Still, people deserve the space to make mistakes and then to heal and grow from them, rather than being judged and remembered only for their worst moments. (In this case, those mistakes are also broadcast to millions of people each week.)

That’s also why we continue to tune in, though. Not because we want the people we’re watching to make smart choices. We don’t want to see functional relationships. We come back every week to see people being messy and making bad choices. It’s fun to watch James throw a drink on Tom Schwartz, after watching Schwartz do the same to multiple women over the years. It doesn’t make James — known for his drunken outbursts and berating his women colleagues, including Raquel — a hero, either. The mess is the point.

Likewise, I can’t help but feel thrilled when Raquel, historically lacking the self-confidence to stand up to her castmates, burns co-star Lala Kent by saying, “Thank god you don’t have a man to have around.” Is this troubling as a response to another woman questioning Raquel’s poor decision-making? Yes, but I’ve seen enough to know such a dig fits into Raquel’s complicated, deeply human growth.

Raquel’s affair with Tom Sandoval is indeed harder to watch each week: The couple becomes more brazen as the season goes on, lying to Ariana’s face as she continues to defend Raquel against some of the harsh words of the other women.

In the season finale, we see the pair embracing as Raquel says to Tom, “We always said, like, we wouldn’t fucking do this if we didn’t think it was worth it.” I can’t imagine it was. I hope Raquel can both own her mistakes and overcome them; however, people can’t be shamed or harassed into taking true responsibility for their actions. It’s not unreasonable to think she might deserve some grace from the strangers who watch her each week.

Anyone expecting reality TV stars to be on their best behavior all the time, especially on a show about people in the restaurant industry having messy affairs with one another, isn’t honestly engaging with the show’s reality. After all, as Lisa Vanderpump says in the series premiere, “SUR is where you take your mistress.”