“Vanderpump Rules” star Tom Sandoval is back in the news for secretly recording an intimate FaceTime of his mistress, Raquel Leviss. He and Raquel’s affair broke up Sandoval’s longtime relationship with Ariana Madix, a revelation that fans quickly dubbed “Scandoval” earlier this year. These lurid headlines are no accident: They are Sandoval’s bread and butter.
After spending two decades boozing and sleeping around — not exactly a model for how to spend your twenties and thirties — Sandoval is trapped by a life built on public spats and humiliations. While he has parleyed his bartending into opening a couple of restaurants in Los Angeles, he is only a draw at those places so long as he’s in the news. And he can only make a splash when a new “shocking revelation” surfaces. If he were to clean up his act, get sober, and get his relationships in order, his money would dry up too. He is trapped.
Doomed from the Start
If you go back to season one of “Vanderpump Rules,” back when the cast all actually worked at Sexy Unique Restaurant (SUR), the dramatic irony of the show is clear. The audience quickly realizes these bright-eyed servers and bartenders have ambitions that far outstrip their talent. Katie Maloney wants her own record label, yet never works toward it. Scheana Shay is trying to be the next Britney Spears with her single “What I like,” aka “Freak B-tch,” but her producer’s feedback is less concerned with the finer points of vocal performance: “less phone sex operator, more porn star.” Sandoval is introduced talking about his band, “Dude, we’re headlining. Viper Room!” Ten years on, it’s still hard to imagine this becoming his main gig:
Stassi Schroeder gives her view of the cast: “Working at SUR is different from working at any other restaurant. The servers all want to be models, actors, writers, singers. The servers at other Hollywood restaurants just want to be waiters at SUR.” Kristen Doute shares in the grandiosity: “People always comment on the waitstaff, and it’s true, we’re all really good-looking. Sorry.”
But they’re not nearly as beautiful or enviable as they think.
No, despite the ostensible premise of the show — that we will watch these servers and bartenders as they try to “make it” — the real, and only, draw is watching young people turn their lives into melodramatic wreckage. They have nothing else to offer. And the real goal is not excellence in the dramatic arts. It’s fame, something Sandoval admits to in episode one: “I do want to be famous. I don’t know if I want Michael Jackson-type fame, but I definitely would love to be famous.”
This formula of stagnation, fornication, and devastation proved a winning one. As Naomi Fry exulted for The New York Times Magazine: “The series remains a near-pure portrait of motionlessness, a still point in the turning world. Watching it is like having my brain stroked to a very low-grade, consequence-free orgasm — a pleasurable sort of noninvolvement. And I never once have to compare myself unfavorably with the people onscreen.” The show is at its best when the cast is at its messiest.
His Pain Is Your Pleasure (and His Payday)
It should be no surprise then that #Scandoval is a ratings boon. The finale hit 4.1 million viewers (who could resist this promo?), and expectations for season 11 are sky-high. Downstream, Madix and Maloney made $200,000 in merch sales attached to their yet-unopened sandwich shop. Sandoval’s bar that he co-owns with castmate Tom Schwartz — cleverly named TomTom — is “thriving” after the news broke. Sandoval now makes headlines for every woman he’s spotted with, and he’ll be on season two of reality show “Special Forces.” He may not be Michael Jackson level, but he’s certainly famous, and #Scandoval is his biggest break yet. His thoughts on this road to fame are image-obsessed and unapologetic.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, Sandoval was asked if there were any moments caught on camera that he wished he could have back. Among many choices of abandoning and betraying friends and lovers, he chose a brief moment of actual humanity and exhaustion after multiple long days of shooting in season three: “I was sobbing, ugly crying, to Kristen and I wish that wouldn’t have been on there.” At the season 10 reunion where his cheating on Madix was revealed, he screamed at a producer that he needed time without cameras to confer with his mistress because he’s “in a very delicate position right now.” Infidelity sure can be a PR nightmare.
When Lisa Vanderpump was discussing drama on the show, she offered a simple assessment: “That’s what they’ve signed up for. If they’re not willing to share their life, they shouldn’t be on reality television. We’re not making some bullsh-t show.” At this point, Sandoval’s real life is hard to discern from his public image tending. His former friends seem convinced he’s incapable of genuine remorse. Over 10 years of constant filming that incentivized promiscuity and duplicity, a life documented rather than lived, there’s not much humanity left.
From that very first episode, Sandoval announced the Faustian bargain he had made. Fame came first, and he proved willing to sacrifice everything for that short-term thrill. For the legions of would-be influencers, those who must photo and video every moment of their lives, and on down to those of us who gladly trade our privacy for “free” services from Big Tech, Sandoval is a good reminder that auctioning off parts of your life and integrity can leave you morally and spiritually bankrupt.
Like any good tragedy, Sandoval’s life should leave us chastened and thoughtful. He sacrificed a life of real friendships and love and experiences for a contrived life built on misdeeds and misrepresentations. He has gotten what he wanted, but watching him cry and carp and shift blame, it’s hard not to feel he lost his soul in return. He still thinks he’s the hero of the story. We can see he’s the punch line.