When I opened my Bravo group chat on Wednesday to say I was heading to Schwartz & Sandy’s, the bar and restaurant co-owned by “Vanderpump Rules” stars Tom Schwartz and Tom Sandoval, the phone pings were swift: “Lucky! Pls report your findings. Tx.” Others were less diplomatic.
But it’s not about the pasta. It’s about the reality TV cheating scandal that has my social media feeds — and likely yours too — in a chokehold.
For those without a degree from Bravo University’s School of Messy Television, the story begins with “Vanderpump Rules,” a spinoff of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” that premiered in 2013 and followed the sordid drama of the good-looking waitstaff of West Hollywood’s SUR, owned by then-“RHOBH” star Lisa Vanderpump. A decade later, hardly any of the core cast members still work at SUR, but their collective drama continues to slosh around our screens. Rage texts, ultimatums, drunken blunders, heated spats that lead to slaps or punches, Mamaw’s beer cheese — it’s all been part of the allure of the ridiculously addictive series. And cheating? It’s as baked into the show as Vanderpump’s name. Much of the first season revolved around whether Jax Taylor, a former cast member, cheated on then-girlfriend, co-worker and castmate Stassi Schroeder with a woman in Las Vegas and possibly got her pregnant.
But this cheating scandal dropped like a bomb on the fan base that had largely grown bored with the franchise.
Last week, TMZ reported that Sandoval, a former bartender at SUR who got into the restaurant business with good friend and castmate Schwartz (more on him later), allegedly cheated on girlfriend of nine years, Ariana Madix, also a former bartender at SUR who is about to open a sandwich shop with castmate Katie Maloney. But wait — there’s more. Sandoval cheated with co-star Raquel Leviss, who had previously been linked to Schwartz following his split from Maloney, after calling off her engagement to James Kennedy, also a cast member. (Fans will remember that Sandoval helped pay for Kennedy’s proposal spectacle that was featured on the show.) Reports have suggested the length of the affair stretches back at least seven months, but there’s been no official confirmation.
The reaction to the affair activated the fan base in a way that harkens back to the frenzy surrounding the Jennifer Aniston-Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie cheating brouhaha — or as one keen observer described it to the uninitiated: “Imagine if Chandler [from “Friends”] cheated on Monica with Rachel secretly for 7 months and Joey knew all along.”
“This feels bigger than Jen Shah, who went to prison. This feels bigger than Erika Jayne,” said the proprietor of @QueensofBravoPlus on Instagram, who runs their account anonymously, referencing other scandals involving actual crimes that have hit the Bravo universe. “Why? Because I think, in this case, there’s an immediate answer to who’s on the right side and who is on the wrong side. There’s a clear villain and there’s a clear hero and a clear victim. With the Erika and Jen stuff, it almost feels like you had to wait a few months for it to sort of trickle out. But here we have all the answers. People feel played. And they’re putting all the pieces together right now. There’s a lot of deception that comes with it. … People might not be able to identify with scamming old people or [a spouse accused of] taking money from orphans and widows, but this feels relatable, where people know what it’s like to be cheated on or deceived by a friend.”
The truly committed have inhaled the ancillary nuggets, theories and dissections that have made the rounds on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, et. al, like they were fried goat cheese balls hot from the SUR kitchen. It has Chrissy Teigen launched on “20 different chats going about” the news, while actor and “The Talk” co-host Jerry O’Connell proudly posted a picture in a Team Ariana shirt.
Weeks after production had wrapped on the season, filming picked up again last Friday to capture the fallout so it could be included in the current season, which premiered last month. While there have been reports that Sandoval threatened to stop filming, as of now he’s still participating, according to a source close to production who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. The reunion is slated to take place March 23 and every cast member is expected to appear in person.
In the days since, Sandoval has released two statements that essentially confirmed the cheating allegations. Leviss, too, has released a statement. This week, she sought a restraining order against co-star Scheana Shay days after reports surfaced that Shay, who is best friends with Madix, allegedly assaulted Leviss after learning about the affair.
Leviss, whose real name is Rachel, alleges in the court filing that she was “pushed against a brick wall [by Shay], causing injury to the back of the head and punched me in the face causing injury to my left eye.”
Meanwhile, Madix, who has since deleted her Twitter and Instagram accounts, has not commented publicly on the matter.
“To some people this is gonna sound ridiculous, but I think if you’re in it, you get it: I’m stressed and nervous to put my phone down because it’s like, what am I going to miss? But then at the same time, I so desperately need a break from this,” said Abby Steffens, who runs @RealMomsofBravo with friend Vanessa Rizi. “It’s a lot. It’s easy to then go down these rabbit holes. I was looking at Raquel’s stories from her Miss California pageant, and I noticed that Sandoval and Ariana and Scheana were all there, and I’m watching the videos and trying to be like, ‘Well, what did he mean by this?’ And I don’t know these people. This isn’t affecting my life, but I’m somehow so sucked into this. I’m not excited by it, but I’m very intrigued. It’s kind of weird. This ruined someone’s life; I’m sure Ariana is devastated. We all want to break from it, but we also can’t get enough of it.”
After the show struggled to find its footing again following unsuccessful cast additions and major departures, the current season has felt like a return to its addictive drama of the past, according to longtime watchers. “It felt like ‘Vanderpump Rules’ was on its last leg,” said the person behind the @QueensOfBravoPlus account. “But this season definitely feels like a return to form in how messy it is.” Cameras have followed along as some cast members navigate new business ventures and others attempt to rebuild their lives after big breakups — most notably the end of Schwartz’s marriage to Maloney, Leviss’ breakup with Kennedy and Lala Kent’s split from her fiancé, the disgraced film producer, Randall Emmett. Meanwhile, Schwartz & Sandy’s is a flashpoint throughout the season.
Now, the nightspot, which launched last fall and endured its own drama in its road to opening, is embroiled in the scandal. Angry fans bombarded the bar’s Yelp page with negative reviews in the days since news of the affair broke; its 4.5-star standing fell to a 3 amid the backlash, with reviewers calling Sandoval a “snake” and saying he “deserves to live in a cave.” The page is now being monitored by Yelp’s support team for the sudden burst of activity.
It’s still unclear how the negative attention will affect the new business, which Sandoval and Schwartz co-own with business partner Greg Morris. The “Vanderpump Rules” universe of restaurants, which also includes SUR, PUMP and TomTom, have become tourist attractions for Bravoholics, with fans eager to catch a glimpse of the familiar faces they see on-screen.
Situated in a cramped strip mall in the Franklin Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, the vibe inside the dimly lit Schwartz & Sandy’s was subdued on a weekday as rounds of lobster corn dogs and mushroom Gruyere beignets made journeys around the room. To be fair, this visit took place around 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, hardly the magic hour for a lounge (and nary a Tom was in sight), but story deadlines can’t wait for the rollicking vibes to kick in. And, naturally, there was the occasional patron roaming the aisles while giddily taking video or photo documentation of the experience.
Jessica Clem, 34, who hails from Georgia but recently moved to Los Angeles for work as a traveling nurse, arrived as doors opened. It was her first stop in her “Vanderpump Rules” tour, with reservations for TomTom and SUR slated for later in the evening. She admits she’s lapsed in her viewing of the show — she has a 19-month-old baby and has been on the road for the last 15 months — but heard about the cheating scandal.
“I’ve been seeing stuff on what happened and I hate that we haven’t had Bravo,” said Clem, who was joined by a friend unaware of the scandal. “I’m not picking sides yet. Everyone deserves to be happy.” (She was awed by the James Turrell-inspired light installation near the bathroom.)
Posing for photos in the entryway of the space, where a collage of framed art hung over a tufted mustard-colored couch, Anna Gunder, 32, of Winnetka, was more unequivocal: “I’m team Ariana.”
“I was very shocked,” said Gunder, referring to the scandal. “I’ve been bringing it up to people at work. And the thing is, ‘Vanderpump’ is built on everybody cheating on everybody. But this just felt explosive.”
She originally attempted to visit the lounge last Wednesday, before the cheating scandal was exposed, but it was closed and she had hesitations about returning. She ultimately decided to try again: “What if this is all gone?”
Standing outside the lounge, where the neon Schwartz & Sandy’s sign buzzed in the distance, Lauren Albrecht, 34, of Columbus, Ohio, delivered a reality check. She’s been as glued to the screen as other fans, staying up to date with the influx of developments, but she’s conflicted by it.
“I feel embarrassed that I am following everything so religiously,” said Albrecht. “I think people are invested in Ariana [Madix] and Tom Sandoval. I think people are invested in the show. And I also think maybe we shouldn’t be so invested in reality TV, to be honest. Things like this happen. It’s not often that you see it played out on reality TV. … And so I think that’s why it’s so fascinating. But also I want to be really respectful of Ariana because she didn’t ask for this. And now the internet has exploded. And I think we as fans have glamorized it in a sense, and that’s not fair to her. We’re all like, ‘Team Ariana,’ but in reality, we’re invading her privacy.”