By Chris Revelle | TV | March 7, 2023 |
By Chris Revelle | TV | March 7, 2023 |
Maybe you’ve noticed or maybe you haven’t, but if you know someone who watches Bravo, chances are you’ve heard them react to some huge news involving some dude Tom and someone else named Ariana and VPR and SUR and a non-Welch Raquel. It’s been a wild weekend in the Bravoverse, to say the least! Let’s run through some questions about this mess and light your way to understanding this grand drama.
Vanderpump Rules (or VPR) is a Real Housewives spin-off, specifically from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Lisa Vanderpump (seen here as a video vixen in the ’80s) and her husband Ken are rich British businesspeople who live in an all-white mansion called Villa Rosa and own a string of restaurants and bars in LA. VPR is set at SUR (Sexy Unique Restaurant) where it follows the dramas, rises, and falls of models/actors/dancers/singers/etc working as waiters and bartenders. They’re hired both as stars of the show and staff of the restaurant. It’s a solid hook for a reality show, and fans make pilgrimages to SUR to watch for their favorite characters to come on shift while they eat their up-charged food. It’s a very loud show with a lot of drama always happening, even in states of rest. A good chunk of the cast is approaching 40 or is already over it, and yet they all carry on a pattern of behavior that could be described as “being in your 20s.” It hung more wearily on some than others. The “point” such as there is one, is to see messy people doing lots of messy stuff with each other. Cheating, breaking up, secrets, fights, all of that and more was on the table and pretty normalized after 10+ years of it.
Sigh, what a weirdly complicated question that is. Tom is a loaded name in the Bravo canon due to a truly iconic meltdown on Real Housewives of New York. (Former Countess) Luann de Lesseps was dating a man named Tom, who (and I’m condensing a lot here) cheated on Luann elaborately. Another cast member learned of his infidelity from a friend who spied him with another woman at the St. Regis hotel bar and when she went to tell Luann, the former countess said, “please don’t let it be about Tom,” to which the cast member famously answered, “it’s about Tom.” Put that last phrase into Etsy and you’ll find tons of merch.
Anyway, there are two Toms on VPR: Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz. They’re both “models” who “work” at SUR and they’re two of the original cast, something that’s notable after several waves of cast members over the years. They’re best friends, making quite the Thing 1/Thing 2 pair and becoming a fan-favorite package deal. Sandoval has an elfin appearance with high cheekbones and intense eyes. Schwartz is scruffier, with a more always-slightly-stoned vibe. Their popularity together grew until they opened two other bar/restaurants: TomTom and Schwartz & Sandy’s.
Schwartz married his girlfriend Kate Maloney (another VPR castmate) in 2019 and then they divorced in 2022. Their relationship was its own bed of chaos separate from this mess. Sandoval began a relationship with Ariana Madix, a VPR cast member who joined in the second season circa 2013. Despite each having their own dramas over the course of the show, including with each other at times, they seemed to eventually settle into something resembling stability for Bravo. Ariana took improv and sketch classes, Sandoval frittered around with various hobbies like the trumpet and eventually a band, Tom Sandoval & the Most Extras.
Fine, but who’s Raquel? And can we rush through the rest of the Dramatis Personae?
Raquel Leviss is another VPR cast member, who joined in season 5. She’s … an actress, I guess? Just assume every time I’m listing a profession for VPR folk, I do so with a sense of great vagueness. She was dating human cigarette and “DJ” James Kennedy, a British cast member who loved to throw enormous fits and start fights (that would probably get him fired anywhere else) for more screen time. Theirs was also a hot mess of a relationship with its own mythologized ups and downs, but suffice to say, they were together quite dramatically and then broke up for good sometime in early 2022.
Okay? So, what happened?
Let’s rip the bandaid off: It’s about Tom. Sandoval cheated on Ariana with Raquel and appears to have been in some kind of relationship with her in secret for at least 6 months. Over this past weekend, the news broke that Ariana had some suspicions something was up and then noticed Raquel sending a picture to Sandoval’s phone while he was out of the room. Ariana checked it, saw it was ahem, intimate, and her suspicions were confirmed. They fought, they broke up, and Ariana threw him out. TMZ posted shots of Sandoval with packed bags outside their place, and while it’s reasonable to assume he’s moving out, there have been further reports that those could be cases of merch he was carting to the show his band was putting on that night. Who goes on stage to perform right after being caught cheating? Who knows?! Not I. Ariana texted avenging angel and forever-ingenue pop singer Scheana Shay about what happened and she allegedly hauled off and punched Raquel right in the face. Sandoval issued a statement that Schwartz didn’t know, please focus the rage on him, and to please not boycott their new restaurant venture. Since then, the Bravosphere has exploded with speculation and outcry. It’s an exciting time to watch garbage on TV!
It’s unclear as of yet who knew what or when and every fan is a sleuth out there poring over old episodes and Instagram stories and Tweets. There’s a theory that the lightning bolt was their secret symbol for their secret love. There’s the theory that Schwartz was in on the deception and helping to cover it. There’s the theory that this is all a stunt for renewed interest in VPR and everyone’s playing along. Who knows, but everyone’s having a great time talking about it.
So why are people losing their minds about this?
While I don’t feel particularly shocked by this scandal, I think there are a few things at play here. Firstly, VPR has been in desperate need of refreshment for some time. It hasn’t been that entertaining for a while. So into this otherwise dull field comes a juicy affair plotline to inject some fun. I have no idea if it’s real or fake or what combination of the two it could be. It’s possible this is all a ploy. There’s not really evidence either way and when it comes to how real reality TV is, the answer is pretty fluid.
Secondly, Tom and Ariana are, for lack of a better term, a core couple of the show. They’ve stayed together for a pretty long time, especially considering the hothouse of a show they’re both on. And even if on the surface viewers seek VPR for the messy people, viewers come to empathize with them and engage in parasocial relationships. Imagine if the scuzzy waiter at a restaurant you worked at, who chased the lady waitstaff and fell in and out of dramas with them, was approached on the street for a selfie. Imagine people came to the restaurant to be in his section or get a drink made by him and would come not just from the surrounding city, but come to that place as a stop on their trip to California. That’s the kind of public affection they garnered. To a large extent, the Toms were seen as separate from the other fuckbois of VPR and beloved a little extra. When something like this comes to rock that boat, the reaction is big. Thirdly, and this is a contributor to the it’s-a-ploy theory, all of this reads like VPR fan-fic. A core, settled couple of the franchise is torn asunder by infidelity and then someone punches one of the villains responsible in the face! That this might actually be genuinely happening is intoxicating. On some level, everyone accepts that reality TV is at least partially fictional, so to see a soap-level drama on par with a great episode playing out in what appears to be unproduced reality is wild.
Fourthly, I think there’s a larger social dynamic at work. When I worked in grocery stores, especially those in Massachusetts, I noticed that regardless of how much snow was actually coming down, people seemed to get a kick out of reacting to it in a big way. They’d rush the store in droves, emptying the shelves. Did it matter that this half-inch of snow would not impact their week at all? No, but the point of it all wasn’t just to get 5 weeks’ worth of supplies to survive a cold afternoon, the point was to participate. Participate in the rush, the group activity of a run on the store, the sense of community that comes out of it in that moment. Bravo fans are much the same right now. Is it logical to freak out when a messy person on the messy person show acts like a messy person? Of course not, but that’s not the point. The point is to freak out together. It’s fun to be in the larger conversation. It can feel like community, a concept that’s otherwise elusive these days.
Chris Revelle is a chatterbox with a lot of thoughts about media and can be heard shrieking about them on the podcast Why Did We Watch This?