“Working at SUR is different from working any other restaurant,” Stassi Schroeder proclaims in the first episode of Vanderpump Rules, Bravo’s reality television epic about the lives of hot waiters in west Los Angeles. “The servers all want to be models, actors, writers, singers.” Already a natural at giving good sound bite, Schroeder takes a coy pause before delivering her punchline. “The servers at other Hollywood restaurants just want to be waiters at SUR.”
Seven seasons later, the SURvers (as Bravo styles them) are, in fact, no longer waiters — not really, anyway. A recent Vogue profile of the cast reported that they essentially “moonlight” at the jobs that made — and continue to make — them famous. Instead, they’re what cast member Katie Maloney-Schwartz refers to as “forever a waitress”: actors, yes, after a fashion, but whose best-known roles will likely always be as versions of themselves.
But that’s not all they are, and watching their offscreen careers unfold provides a fascinating window into the way that money, fame, and “influence” work together in 2018. What you do is get famous for something — it doesn’t much matter what — so that people care about you, and then you sell products — it doesn’t much matter which ones — with your name on them. Stay relevant, stay rich. Rinse, repeat.
They learned from the best: The Vanderpump of Vanderpump Rules is Lisa, a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills who pitched Bravo a spinoff about the waitstaff at her restaurants, ensuring that her entrepreneurial spirit would get as much airtime as her cleavage and her spats with co-star Kyle Richards. Vanderpump, who owns four restaurants in the US as well as a handful of alcohol brands, even recently opened a bar called Tom Tom in partnership with two Vanderpump Rules cast members, Toms Sandoval and Schwartz. Its been called “the Disneyland of Bravo”: that is, the pricey live-action iteration of a beloved media franchise.
Vanderpump’s partnership with the Toms is the highest-profile outside endeavor any of the cast have managed, and the two spent much of the VPR’s most recent season enthusing about being given the chance to work with someone as wealthy and impressive as Lisa. But if the lines outside Tom Tom are anything to go on, it’s a profitable establishment, so she’s benefiting from the deal as well — plus, it gives the show a new plot line that doesn’t involve pretending that two men who can likely command tens of thousands of dollars for a single club appearance are still bartending and catalog-modeling their way through life.
The Toms’ situation is not unique: Seven seasons in, Vanderpump Rules’ viewership numbers are on par with RHOBH’s, and it’s increasingly impossible to pretend that the cast are the broke waitresses and Hollywood wannabes they were when the show debuted in 2013. Rihanna recently Snapchatted herself watching an episode; they’re hanging out with self-proclaimed superfan Chrissy Teigen at awards shows.
So the question becomes: Where do they go from here? What can they successfully sell, and what kind of careers can they create without abandoning or destroying the images and personalities that made them famous in the first place?
In the world of branded partnerships, sponsored content is the lowest-hanging fruit, and so everybody partakes. Hostess Lala Kent shills for a tea-infused diet shake line called Teami, as do waitress Brittany Cartwright, her fiancé Jax Taylor, and bartender Tom Sandoval; staff both current (Maloney-Schwartz) and former (Kristen Doute) do a fertility bracelet called Ava. (They swear they aren’t trying to get pregnant — just tracking their cycles.) Schroeder and Cartwright are #partners of the skin care line Bioclarity. (Cartwright, who has yet to establish a brand, project, or product line of her own, also stumps for Liquid IV and a meal replacement shake called 310 Nutrition. Plus she works with FabFitFun, because someone has to.) Pretty much everyone is a Diff Eyewear partner.
But please don’t call them influencers. “I hate that term,” Doute says on the phone. “I can be influenced by anything — a song, a piece of art, whatever. It’s not a job title. I see myself as a designer, mostly.” Doute has a T-shirt line — more on that in a bit — but her attitude is representative: It seems like the SURvers are interested in having visible creative control, and not just using themselves as props in advertisements for other people’s products.
So their solo projects are, in general, more ambitious and individualized, especially when the cast member has officially left serving behind. Schroeder, who was the first to part ways with SUR after the show’s second season, has a book called Next Level Basic, which comes out from Simon & Schuster in April of next year, as well as a podcast called Straight Up With Stassi, which she’s been doing since 2015.
Kent, who is engaged to producer Randall Emmett, recently starred in a sorority slasher flick called The Row, and has upcoming appearances in The Vault with Samira Wiley, as well as Ten Minutes Gone, which features Bruce Willis.
Scheana Marie, who tried her hand at music in the early seasons of VPR, is now following in the footsteps of reality stars Kendra Wilkinson (of The Girls Next Door and Hank and Kendra) and Golnesa “GG” Gharachedaghi (of Shahs of Sunset) to act in a Vegas production of Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man.
And, of course, there are the fashion and beauty lines.
It makes particular sense for reality TV personalities to turn their jobs playing themselves into jobs selling versions of what they wear, because they’re usually responsible for doing their own wardrobe and makeup. (In the course of reporting this story, every cast member who I asked about fashion faux pas past groaned, then sighed, and then, dutifully, answered.) Whatever they do and don’t know about anything else — waiting tables, or the difference between Sweden and Switzerland — we can see plainly on our screens what they do and don’t know about styling themselves.
Creating product lines is also a direct-to-consumer endeavor: Whereas getting cast in a movie or signed to a label requires impressing gatekeepers who might not want to be associated with reality TV (or may not be convinced by your talent), selling lipstick and T-shirts just requires enough startup capital to create stock, and a big and loyal enough Instagram following to ensure that someone will buy what you’re selling.
Maloney-Schwartz’s beauty blog, Pucker & Pout, has been mostly dormant lately but previously spawned a lipstick collaboration with makeup brand Julie Hewett. Bartender Ariana Madix has also done a lipstick collab, and she’s got a beauty line called Facelixir in the works. Schroeder has become a self-styled styling activist by establishing #OOTD Day (outfit of the day … day) as an actual national holiday.
Doute originally launched her T-shirt company, James Mae, shortly before she was fired from SUR in the show’s third season. That first attempt was “bumpy,” she admits now — she tried to run the company single-handedly, mostly from her own apartment, and ended up having to put the company on hiatus in order to sort out how to run a business.
(In the meantime, though she wasn’t working at SUR, she remained a part of VPR’s cast, which gave us one of the most underrated lines in the history of reality television: “I’ve really been focusing on my T-shirt line, and one of the major things I’ve worked on in therapy is to not act like a psycho.”)
In order to make James Mae work, Doute partnered with Magen Mattox, whose casualwear for Girl Dangerous Doute had long admired, and together they relaunched the company this June.
Some of the shirts speak to Doute’s boho-casual style: The James Mae signature collection has a rock ’n’ roll vintage vibe, with slogans like “cosmic crush” and “daydream achiever” emblazoned over guitars and desert landscapes. There’s also a collection called Vegiholic, a nod to her food blog of the same name, and, of course, Reality Bites, which draws on the appeal and in-jokes of her VPR fame: The “Witches of WeHo” design refers to the “coven” of Doute, Schroeder, Cartwright, and Maloney-Schwartz.
(The famously hard-drinking crew is launching a wine that goes by the same name in January, naturally.)
In the episodes taped just after Doute’s firing, she works on an acting reel, but she says that for now, she’s less interested in onscreen work and more invested in making James Mae successful and stable. “It’s my A-number-one baby,” she reports.
Lala Kent, on the other hand, is splitting her time between her burgeoning acting career and her makeup line, Give Them Lala Beauty. The name comes from a catchphrase she coined when, overwhelmed by the spotlight, she briefly left Vanderpump Rules to get her head together in her native Utah.
“I just remember people being like, ‘The show’s not the same without you! Please come back!’” she explains. “So I was like, give the people what they want, give them Lala, and it just stuck. I would do interviews where people would be like, ‘Oh, here she comes, give them Lala.”
Kent spotted a business opportunity in the making: “Instead of it just being a hashtag, let’s make it a brand,” she decided. Right now Give Them Lala means lip gloss and highlighter, but it’s also “my umbrella for many things to come,” she says.
The phrase speaks to the “be yourself” ethos Kent preaches to her followers: “Now that I’ve matured and grown, it doesn’t mean ‘give the people what they want’ anymore,” she says. “For me it’s like, ‘Do you, boo.’ It’s like, whoever you are, give them whoever you feel you are or want to be. It means so much more now, and I love that it’s my brand.”
Part of what these products sell, of course, is a pinch of fairy dust and fantasy magic: The lure of wearing Lala’s lipstick is more about wanting to be her, or know her, or have a life like hers, than it necessarily is about the color in the tube. So Kent tries to be open with her followers about what’s for sale and what isn’t.
“I feel like, and I’m not speaking for everybody, but my own self, I have been on the other side, where I look at social media and all of these girls who just look absolutely stunning and perfect, and it’s a huge mind-fuck,” she says. “So it’s really important for me to show my natural — in quotes — face, with no makeup,” which she does in occasional barefaced selfies. “And also for people to know I’ve had Botox here and there. I’ve had my fillers.”
This honesty presents a marked contrast to the titans of the celebrity beauty world: the Kardashians, specifically Kylie, whose Kylie Cosmetics lip kits promise “the perfect Kylie lip”— but of course don’t include the Juvederm that gives hers their shape.
If the Kardashians are the ultimate glossy A-list #goals of the celebrity beauty world, the Vanderpump Rules crew are their C-list siblings. That may sound like a dis, but they actually get a better deal in the long run: Their position comes with a slightly less impossible mandate to present constant, effortless perfection. While the Kardashians have to get butt X-rays to prove that none of their assets have been enhanced, the SURvers proudly claim at least two boob jobs, one chin implant, and enough Botox to smooth out a herd of elephants between them — and that’s not even counting the three nose jobs Jax Taylor has had on camera.
They’re honest about the work of a Hollywood body, because they know that at the end of the day, access to the grittiest, grossest details of those bodies is the thing their businesses are largely built on. If the show’s particular magic comes in part from its sense of stasis, its promise that being beautiful in a big city doesn’t mean you’ve actually got much going on, then this is how the cast retains their appeal now that they’re Vogue-profile famous: by showing us all of the unglamorous — even violent — work that goes into remaining camera-ready.
Their brands are and always have been pure striver: They are messy and mesmerizing (and usually pretty drunk). So they’re smart not to try to sell us a perfect anything lip, but instead to ply us with cheap pinot grigio and lip glosses called “Pre Nup” and “Mistress.”
This is makeup that’s made to be applied in a friend’s shitty bathroom and then smeared on the rim of a goblet of that wine. It’s not asking you to have a totally different life, but instead inviting you into a more fun version of the one you already inhabit. (“I’m really into the more natural look now,” Kent says of her current makeup vibe. “I’m into a really good highlighter. I’m also into a natural lip, which still makes me look like I have killer BJ lips, and then, like, eyeliner, you know?”)
It remains to be seen how Kent’s upcoming films and Schroeder’s book fare, but so far it’s safe to say that nothing the Vanderpumpers have done has eclipsed their reality TV fame. Instead, it seems to have almost enhanced it, giving us not new Lala (or Kristen or Stassi), but more of them.
Reality television turns person into persona; Instagram accounts and self-branded product lines render that persona a series of discrete, consumable objects. Attention turns into money, and money turns into a reason to pay attention. It may not be the kind of career path we’re used to, but it is nonetheless an increasingly viable and common one. The cast of Vanderpump Rules and their contemporaries no longer have to be actresses or singers in order to be famous or make money — instead, they can sell us products as a proxy for selling us the things we’re really fans of. That, of course, would be themselves.
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