The Washington Post
A night out amid a reality TV scandal
los angeles — Sometimes fate is cruel, sometimes fate is kind, and sometimes fate drops you 3,000 miles away from home and directly down the street from one of the biggest reality television scandals of the decade.
Cosmic timing is really the only way to explain how I happened to be in Los Angeles the same week that TMZ broke the story: Tom Sandoval, one of the stars of Bravo’s long-running reality show “Vanderpump Rules,” had split with Ariana Madix, his co-star and girlfriend of nearly a decade — because he was caught having a months-long affair with Raquel Leviss, another cast member and part of the couple’s friend group.
Multiple lawyers are involved, partly because of an alleged “intimate video” of Leviss that tipped off Madix to the affair,
and cast members have said they received warnings about distributing it. Leviss also filed a restraining order against “Vanderpump” star Scheana Shay, claiming Shay physically assaulted her after finding out the news. (Shay’s lawyer shot back, “This case is a fabrication by a known liar and a cheat who has betrayed everyone close to her.”)
Cheating scandals are, let’s face it, the primary currency of reality TV, and “Vanderpump Rules” in particular thrives on them. But this stomach-turning betrayal has shaken the foundation of the show’s cast, a group that is close off-camera, and triggered an online meltdown so intense among the deeply loyal Bravo fandom that it reverberated into the mainstream news cycle.
(Brief detour: If you don’t have a Bravo fan in your life who has talked of little else recently, it might be difficult to understand the backstory and nuances of what makes this controversy so captivating, but don’t worry — there are countless explainers, Tiktoks, Reddit threads, charts and graphs that are dedicated to heroically covering the fallout with the level of detail of the Kennedy assassination or O. J. Simpson trial. The Washington Post had Watergate. Bravo now has “Scandoval.”)
This brings us to the physical manifestation of the chaos, otherwise known as a bar/restaurant called Schwartz & Sandy’s, which opened in November and whose creation has been documented on recent seasons of “Vanderpump Rules.” Tucked in the corner of a strip mall about a mile from the Hollywood Walk of Fame and across the street from a Scientology Celebrity Centre, the spot is co-owned by “Vanderpump” cast members Tom Schwartz and Sandoval. The Toms are best friends, which has led the reality detectives to wonder just how long Schwartz knew about what was going on between Sandoval and Leviss.
One question that has come up during the chaos: Can a reality TV scandal bring down a business, one that employs many people who didn’t allegedly invite their mistress over while his girlfriend — again, her friend — was out of town? Particularly a business that never would have existed without the platform gifted by reality TV in the first place? The bar has been flooded with one-star reviews to the point where Yelp issued a warning on the page about unusual activity; management released a statement noting the staff is “disappointed” by what happened but asked fans to “please understand that the livelihoods of others also depend on this business.”
Sandoval, in a first attempt at a lackluster apology, said he was stepping back from the restaurant and defended his business partners and staff, writing, “Please direct ur anger towards me and not them. They did nothing wrong.” In earlier episodes, Sandoval said that he and Schwartz invested $1 million into Schwartz & Sandy’s, including a $250,000 investment from his mother and stepfather. (Madix has stayed silent on the scandal so far, and has been most notably spotted giving the middle finger to the paparazzi while carrying food from Mcdonald’s.)
At this point, I should disclose that I am not as embedded in the Bravo universe at the level of its most impassioned viewers; although I knew the basics of this unfolding scandal, I needed help. So I asked pop culture commentator Ryan Bailey (Bravo fanatic and host of reality TV podcast “So Bad It’s Good”) to be my guide for the evening, my personal Steve Kornacki to take the temperature of the room, predict future events and break down exactly what the hell was going on here.
“I’m still in shock. This is shocking,” Bailey, who knows the “Vanderpump” cast socially and sees them around town, told me as we walked past wallpaper that showed elephants linked together by rainbows. He confessed he felt guilty for being there, given Sandoval’s actions. “And you would think reality shows — especially Bravo reality shows — would not be shocking anymore. We’ve seen everything.”
Right now, you may have already fainted from working yourself into a frenzy yelling “ALL REALITY SHOWS ARE FAKE.” But that’s the thing about “Vanderpump Rules,” and why it has lasted 10 seasons: Bravo fans swear that even though the cast is filled with awful people — several were fired for racist acts in 2020 — it’s a more authentic show than most. “Vanderpump” started by following the shenanigans of the beautiful, mostly incompetent staff who worked at SUR, the Los Angeles restaurant owned by Lisa Vanderpump, star of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” Yes, they made headlines by hooking up with each other and clearly wanted to be stars. But at their core they were just insecure, regular people. Only now are they wealthy influencers with, as Bailey put it, their “brains turned to pudding” by starring on reality TV for so long.
That relatability is one reason this controversy has exploded among fans, Bailey said. His emergency podcast episodes about the situation are already drawing the highest listener numbers he’s ever seen. He has also been bombarded by stories from listeners about their own trauma of being cheated on. “I think sometimes you’re just looking for something stable,” he said. “Even in your reality shows.”
The dimly lit restaurant, which encompasses one room with cavernous ceilings that give it a warehouse vibe, is full of plants. Plant dividers between the handful of booths and tables, photos of plants on the menu, plants as light fixtures. All of the tables were full — apparently reservations were tough to get recently — yet it was relatively low-key. About 20 people sat or stood near the bar, which never got very crowded. The night was clearly a disappointment for some, who got a drink and left quickly after neglecting to spot anyone famous, nor see any protesters outside the establishment.
Schwartz and Sandoval were not in attendance, though Bailey said he heard that Schwartz was there on a recent Saturday night, working the room and telling visitors, “Thanks for not canceling me.” On Thursday, the only “celebrity” sightings were Greg Morris, one of the restaurant’s investors who appears on the show, and Brett Bakman, an operating partner who would occasionally emerge in the dining area. They both looked amused when I introduced myself and politely declined to comment on the raging controversy, telling me they hoped I enjoyed myself at the restaurant.
About 90 minutes in, Bailey had to leave to do work; in the Bravo ecosystem, podcasts such as his serve as important punditry, not to mention the sources flooding his direct messages to share details and updates. At one point, he disappeared into the bathroom to record a voice memo that he would use on the podcast from his on-the-ground reporting. He finds it surreal and satisfying that Bravo news has crossed over into national news, with outlets such as The Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN all covering the story.
“I’m always fighting for people to respect the things like this that we love passionately,” he said. “I’ve been made fun of just loving these kind of things all my life.”
Left to my own devices, I started asking other people what brought them to Schwartz & Sandy’s. Was it the recent intrigue? Obviously, the answer was mostly yes, though two women confessed that they were there only because they borrowed a cigarette lighter from the front desk staffer and felt guilted into buying drinks. One man, who said he was waiting for a date, genuinely had no idea what I was talking about and clearly thought I was experiencing mass delusions. “Are — are you okay?” he asked kindly.
But most people were happy to chat. A common response (in addition to stating upfront that they were #Teamariana) was that they had been meaning to check out the bar and never got a chance, so they figured the time was now. Yet many were underwhelmed by the lack of commotion, such as an unimpressed group of 20-somethings named Cami, Alex and Vivian.
“We came here to see what would happen,” Alex said. “I think Los Angeles thrives on scandal. … Name recognition is a good thing for a place like this.”
“We were hoping to see one of them here to try to mediate the situation at hand, but we all know they’re hiding,” Vivian said. “I just hear ‘ Bravo,’ and I think drama, and I thought it was scripted at first, and now I’m like — ” “No, it’s real,” Cami confirmed. A couple of hours later, I took one last stroll around, thinking about it all and looking for a greater meaning: How does anyone recover from a betrayal like this? Was a better name for this controversy “Vanderpocalypse?” Why do we take the lives of strangers we see on TV and on social media so personally? Why is it so hard to convince people who don’t watch these shows that it matters, even though you can repeatedly explain that pop culture subconsciously holds up a mirror to society in which we see ourselves and question our own existence? Should I have ordered the salmon and tofu tikka masala, and also how did that wind up on the menu?
Outside the bathrooms, I looked up at the ceiling and saw a (frankly lovely) art installation of a blue sky amid the trees, reminding me of the outside world that exists amid the literal and physical darkness of reality television. And so I left.