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The messy economics of Vanderpump Rules’s Scandoval

The Scandoval affair is a blight and a blessing for the Vanderpump Rules cast.

Ariana Madix, the true winner of the Scandoval, on Today.
Nathan Congleton/NBC via 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.

The realest thing about Bravo’s hit-show-turned-true-crime-affair-documentary Vanderpump Rules is something that no one can actually say on camera: Everyone in the cast’s real job is to create great television.

Technically, the show began with the conceit that they had other jobs: working at Lisa Vanderpump’s Sexy Unique Restaurant a.k.a. SUR. Sadly, these attractive people’s long-held dreams of being actors or writers or musicians or whatever were extremely unlikely to come true on their own terms, thanks in part to their messy personal lives. Over the years, and with each passing season, it became more and more clear that the cast members were accruing real fame from the show itself, thanks entirely to those messy personal lives. They couldn’t actually acknowledge that, however, because it would break the illusion that these people were just servers and bartenders at an acronym restaurant.

And nothing has broken that illusion, or the strange economy of the show and its attendant businesses, quite like the “Scandoval” — a hidden-in-plain-sight affair between cast members Tom Sandoval and Raquel Leviss that broke the nine-year relationship between Sandoval and girlfriend Ariana Madix.

Scandoval has turned Vanderpump Rules into Bravo’s crown jewel. The finale tallied a combined 4.1 million viewers from Bravo and Peacock, a series high. Vanderpump’s rise in viewership brought more media visibility and commercial attention to Madix and her cast members, the elusive off-camera success that they’re all chasing together.

This terrible thing that’s happened to Madix has, at the same time, been the best thing for the cast’s collective businesses and job security. Witnessing the cast scramble and Rumpelstiltskin Madix’s personal disaster into gold is both strange and satisfying TV. It’s the clearest the show has ever been about its own artifice, how reality television is made, how it operates, and how lucrative it can be.

Oh no, this terrible thing happened — here, cry into some money

In the lead-up to the reunion, trailers promised that the three-part event would be full of revelations. In the first reunion episode, one reveal was Madix and Katie Maloney reporting they made around $200,000 in online merch sales attached to their yet-unopened sandwich shop, Something About Her.

“We were always going to do merch in the shop, and we thought that was something we would do, like, down the road,” Madix told Andy Cohen. “But then people were saying ‘How can we support you?’ And so we launched it early.”

The support for Madix has also manifested in an interview with the New York Times, an invite to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, an advertisement for bougie department store Bloomingdale’s, a fake move from the home she shares with Sandoval sponsored by SoFi, a rumored casting on Dancing With the Stars, and, among other perks, a Watch What Happens Live solo interview with Cohen himself. Madix is also reportedly dating a new man named Daniel Wai, a muscular fitness influencer. Plus, with all this mess that she’s endured, it seems like her status as a cast member on the next season of Vanderpump Rules is all but cemented — even if the cast is still negotiating new contracts. Madix has become the fan favorite. People will want to see her life post-Sandoval.

Lala Kent, Lisa Vanderpump, and Ariana Madix pose together in long dresses.
Lala Kent, Lisa Vanderpump, and Ariana Madix at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Madix isn’t the first Bravolebrity to use a show to promote their own business; that’s kind of the whole game. Her producer and boss on the show, Lisa Vanderpump, has been the master at shilling her restaurants and her wine. But Madix might be the first Bravoleb to achieve this level of financial and cultural success by something like an accident. Like any good tragedy, it’s almost fitting that her ex Sandoval’s enduring storyline on the show has been his multiple, fruitless attempts to get more legitimately famous, so famous that he wouldn’t need the show anymore.

Fans have chosen Madix in the fallout, and the outrage against Sandoval has driven them to support Madix in quantifiable (merch sales) and unquantifiable (fame) ways. The payoff for being a wronged party on Bravo is pretty handsome — much more than being the man who wronged.

Madix’s fellow cast members smartly began closing ranks behind her too. In the first two episodes of the reunion, Lala Kent and DJ James Kennedy have been the most vocal anti-Sandovalers. They mock him at every turn, and even rebuked bosses Lisa Vanderpump and Andy Cohen when told to cool it.

Granted, it’s very easy to see that Madix is the wronged party, but you also can’t dismiss that it behooves Vanderpumpers to cause drama, be messy, and in this case, have larger-than-life emotions about Sandoval and Leviss. Kent, along with cast member Scheana Shay, recently appeared with Madix in an UberEats commercial that smirks at Madix’s newfound “freedom.” Kent has also been selling “Send it to Darrell” merchandise, a reference to Leviss legally threatening her with a cease and desist. Kennedy, long hated, is now perceived as a fan favorite, the No. 1 guy in the group. Maloney, a partner in the sandwich shop, is making bank from those merch sales.

On-screen, the story is simple: Madix and her friends hate Sandoval. But off-screen, these people are also her co-workers. Her break-up has become a way for them to cash in. On Bravo, personal misery is a tide that raises all boats.

Lisa Vanderpump doesn’t want to have to pick a side

Sandoval and Leviss’s affair has also benefited Vanderpump herself. The former queen bee of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills produces the show, and Scandoval busted the show out of its lull and into a ratings peak. Ten seasons in, there’s never been a better time to have a piece of Vanderpump Rules.

Even as Vanderpump has a part in orchestrating the machinations and dramas on her series, however, she also portrays herself as a mother figure on it.

Lisa Vanderpump sitting next to Tom Sandoval, who was called a “worm with a mustache” during the Vanderpump Rules reunion.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo via Getty Images

In the finale episode, there’s a moment when Sandoval comes to her house and seeks comfort from Vanderpump. Logically, it makes sense because she’s been there since the very beginning and mentored him. She’s long created opportunities for him, both personal and professional. On the couch at her estate, he cries so aggressively that it invites scrutiny about his own authenticity, and then picks himself up and continues to cry while staring out of one of Vanderpump’s beautiful windows and into her expansive backyard. It’s raining, and he’s crying, and she’s watching him cry. You can almost see Vanderpump realize that this is a perfectly unhinged TV moment, and she takes a split second — maybe analyzing how she’ll be perceived, how not to ruin the shot, how to make better television — before she goes over there to comfort him.

Many of Vanderpump’s restaurants — SUR and Vanderpump Cocktail Garden in Vegas, among others — stand to benefit from the hullaballoo, but she has been vocal in downplaying the affair, saying that Sandoval and Leviss didn’t actually murder anyone. (Perhaps this leap in logic is why Vanderpump manages a restaurant on a television show instead of being a criminal defense lawyer.)

She again asked for cooler heads during the reunion, telling cast member Lala Kent not to call Sandoval “dangerous” and, like Cohen, proceeded to point out that “a lot of other people” on the cast cheated with one another prior to the Scandoval.

It’s worth noting that Vanderpump also has a financial stake in Sandoval and Tom Schwartz’s eponymous TomTom bar. TomTom, which opened in 2018, was endlessly promoted on the show. Multiple episodes were spent on Vanderpump, Sandoval, and Schwartz conceptualizing, creating, and finally opening the West Hollywood locale. Her ties to Sandoval’s name may explain why she’s been demonstrably kinder to Sandoval than the rest of the cast since the scandal broke (a choice fans have noticed).

Sandoval has also seemed aware of how much his affair is affecting his own personal business (fans review-bombed his restaurant Schwartz and Sandy’s on Yelp), and has tried to do what he can to change the narrative. In the second part of the reunion, there’s an extended sequence where he pleads with producers to speak with Leviss off-camera, and is irritated when he’s denied. There’s also a moment when host Andy Cohen asks Leviss whether she’s been coached by Sandoval. And, at one point, the TomTom co-owner mutters under his breath that he’s losing the reunion.

While seeing Sandoval get his comeuppance is good reality television, there’s a question of whether or not this is actually sustainable for the show. For those financially invested in his story — Vanderpump, Sandoval, Cohen, and arguably the rest of the cast — fans can’t just hate Sandoval, they need to love to hate him. The most challenging thing for Vanderpump Rules is how to keep this momentum going heading into next season or whether that’s even possible.

The cast of Vanderpump Rules sit together and talk on television.
Both these men have kissed this woman.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo via Getty Images

On the one hand, Vanderpump and Bravo need the cast to be themselves, vicious to the point where people watch. On the other, Vanderpump and Bravo and ostensibly Cohen need the cast to remain largely intact to keep the ratings going. Even though the cast members hate Sandoval and Leviss on television, they’ve also got to realize that Sandoval and Leviss are very good for everyone’s fame. And for viewers, this all becomes a strange television experience as you’re watching the lines between performance and business and reality vaporize with each frame.

Since Leviss and Sandoval are so disliked, cast members won’t be champing at the bit to film with them and risk being perceived as friendly. There’s also the possibility that one or both won’t come back to the show (since Scandoval broke, Leviss has released statements about the toll it’s taken on her mental health). And if the main culprits are gone, what happens to the central drama of the show? What about the ratings?

During the reunion, perhaps to mitigate some of the damage, Cohen pointed out that almost every single cast member on the show has cheated and that being so vehemently anti-Sandoval and Leviss makes them seem like hypocrites.

But this is Andy Cohen, and this is Bravo, and this is Vanderpump Rules.

Cohen calling out the Vanderpump Rules cast for being hypocrites is like a ringmaster berating his clowns. People come to the circus for clownery, and Vanderpump Rules is the circus. The ratings don’t lie. The three-part reunion doesn’t either. Vanderpump’s stars know what sells and what’s going to make them famous. Through the Scandoval, it’s probably the most honest (and lucrative) the show has ever been.

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