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Even if you don't watch reality TV, you've probably heard about something called Skandival.


Skandival, I think is what they call it. Yes, I believe it's called Skandival. It's the so-called Skandival that's rocking reality TV. Skandival.


A gift from God.


We love all that stuff.


We love it. Skandival refers to a revelation so explosive, it generated its own nickname and turned the Vanderbump Rules, a show on Bravo currently in its 11th season, into a household name last year. Suddenly, an affair, a thing that's happened on many reality shows without much consequence, became a top headline on CNN and the New York Times.


Tom Sandoval cheating on his longtime girlfriend, Ariana Madix, with her best friend, Rachel Levis, gaining the moniker Skandoval. #skandoval racking up more than 100 146 million views on TikTok alone.


At a point when most other shows would be on life support, VandaPump Rules became the most watched cable series among 18 to 49-year-olds. It was also nominated for an Emmy, an honor that has never been granted to any of Bravo's housewife shows. What's more, this entire series of events was incited by one figure, a man whose infidelity led to one of the most compelling seasons in the history of reality TV, who turned himself into the ultimate villain and seemingly ruined his life in the process. Tom Sandoval.


Do you want anything? For you to die.


My name is Irina Alexander, and I'm a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine, based in Los Angeles. I've always watched a lot of both scripted and reality TV. But if you're a person like me who's interested in studying people and analyzing their motivations, it's often more fun to do that with real unpredictable people rather than characters conceived by Hollywood writers. And so for this week's Sunday Read, I wrote a piece for the magazine about Tom Sandoval, a reality TV star who's been on VandaPump Rules for the past 10 plus years. I wanted to understand what it was like to have his name become synonymous with arguably one of the best seasons of reality TV ever made, and simultaneously, have maybe the worst year he's ever had, personally.


I don't I don't know how it happened. It just it happened. We became really good friends. I was seeking something that I wasn't getting here. And that's selfish. That's really selfish. Selfish is the nicest word you could use.


What's interesting about Vanderpump Rules is that it started out as a show about waiters and bartenders who lived in crappy apartments in Hollywood. They worked at Sur Restaurant, an acronym for sexy, unique Restaurant, which technically means that its full name is Sexy Unique Restaurant Restaurant, a business owned by Lisa Vanderpump, a former real housewife. Most of them wanted to be models and actors or quote-unquote, Mactors, as they like to say on the show. Over time, as the show gained success, they became reality TV stars instead, and Vandepump Rules became a meta-reality show about reality stars. When the series began in 2013, Tom was relatively well-liked. He was a regular guy from the Midwest who loved his friends and hoped to make it as an actor. But then, over the course of the series, he'd changed. You could say he got swallowed up by the Hollywood Fame Machine, which tends to play all kinds of tricks on your ego and self-perception. So when news broke last spring that he'd been having an affair with another cast member, behind the backs of the show's producers and his co-star and partner of nine years, Ariana Madix, it seemed both shocking and not.


A lot of people have debated why the scandal became national news. Part of it was that it came to light when the 10th season of the show was midway through airing. That turned it into a murder mystery of sorts, with viewers hunting for clues of the affair in earlier episodes and presenting their elaborate theories on social media.


All right, so I'm thinking that the affair started on this cast trip because notice how Rachel literally posted a picture with Sandoval first.


Happy Sunday, you guys. We're going to talk Vanderpump rules. We have a lot of details to get through, so I'm going to speed this up to two times speed.


Back story, Tom Sandoval is a narcissistic abuser.


After the scandal, Ariana got so much national sympathy as a result of being cheated on that she's had the best year of her career. She was invited to the White House Correspondence dinner, competed on dancing with the stars, and landed brand advertisements with Durasol batteries, Lace Chips, and Bic Razors, as well as a starring role in Chicago on Broadway this winter. For Tom, vitriol was swift. It didn't come just from fans online who posted mean messages or from famous people like Amy Schumer, who called him a narcissist.


He's basically the Donald Trump of ex-boyfriends. Won't go away, won't say he's sorry. So you would... That guy that we just saw? Yeah, we don't like him.


His close friends distance themselves. His own brother asked them to delete photos of them together on social media. A bar he co-owns banned him from coming in over the summer because his presence became bad for business. As I When reported in this piece, no one seemed to be able to fully explain why the so-called Scandival broke Vandenpump's cult status barrier and turned it into a national phenomenon. But I wasn't all that interested in that question anyway. I wanted to know more about the guy at the center of the storm. There really hadn't been a show before in which we put regular people on television for much of their 20s and 30s, and then got to see how they fare as a result. What were the consequences of that for him and for us as viewers. A lot of people assume that reality TV is fake, but for Tom Sandoval, there's virtually no separation between his existence on screen and off. Living on a reality show has fundamentally changed the way he thinks about his life, which he often talks about not in years and months like the rest of us, but in seasons and episodes.


As I spent time with Tom for the story, sometimes he'd pause mid-sentence and stare into space like a doll whose batteries have died until whatever noise-interfering ambulance or helicopter roaring by had passed, and then he'd continue as if nothing had happened, even when he wasn't being filmed. There was something really fascinating to me about someone who spent the majority of his adult life living on a reality show, and as a result, had lost touch with actual reality. I think one of the most revealing moments was when Tom and I drove from his home in LA's Valley Village to Tom Tom, a bar he's part owner of in West Hollywood. It was the only part of our time together when we weren't supervised by a publicist, and he was even more forthcoming and unguarded. He told me how difficult this year has been, how betrayed he's felt by his friends, and how he'd been struggling with depression. At the same time, he said he was really honored to be on Vanderpump Rules. He said this incredible thing, which was, The scandal made the show so big It's cool and crazy, even though it's negative and at my expense.


In other words, even though he recognizes the ways it's been damaging to him personally, he ultimately sees the experience of being on the show as a net positive, and he's excited to keep going. So here's my article, How Tom Sandoval became the Most Hated Man in America, read by Julia Whalen. Our audio producer today is Adrian Hearst. The original music you'll hear was written and performed by Aaron Esposido.


Valley Village is a Los Angeles neighborhood just across the freeway from Studio City, near the Southern edge of the area locally referred to with both affection and derision as the Valley. There, at the end of a quiet, leafy street of ranch-style homes, stands what real estate agents have come to describe as a modern farmhouse, which its current occupant, the reality TV star Tom Sandoval, has outfitted with landscaping lights that rotate in a spectrum of colors, mimicking the dance floor of a nightclub. The home is both his private residence and an occasional TV set for the Bravo reality show, Vanderpump Rules. After a series of events that came to be known as Skandival, paparazzi had been camped outside, but by the new year, it was just one or two and now they have mostly gone two. Skandival is the nickname for Sandoval's affair with another cast member, which he had behind the backs of the show's producers and his girlfriend of nine years. This wouldn't be interesting or noteworthy, except that in 2023, after being on the air for 10 seasons, Vanderpump was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Unstructured Reality program, an honor that has never been bestowed any of the network's housewife shows.


It also became, by a key metric, the most watched cable series in the advertiser beloved demographic of 18 to 49-year-olds, and brought in over 12.2 million viewers. This happened last spring when Hollywood's TV writers went on strike and cable TV was declared dead, and our culture had already become so fractured that it was rare for anything, let alone an episode of television, to become a national event. And yet, you probably heard about Skandoval, even if you couldn't care less about who these people are exactly. The story has continued off-screen. After the season aird, Raquel Levis, with whom Skandoval had the affair, entered a mental health facility in Arizona and started going by a different name. Ariana Maddox, Sandoval's now ex-girlfriend, garnered so much national sympathy that she has had the most prosperous year of her career. In addition to being invited to the White House Correspondence dinner and to compete on dancing with the stars, she landed ads with Duracell Batteries, Bic Razors, Uber Eats, and Laze Chips, as well as a starring role in Chicago on Broadway this winter. Sandoval, meanwhile, became the most reviled man in America and the butt of a million jokes.


Jennifer Lawrence made fun of his skin. Amy Schumer called him a narcist. One of the hosts of The View called him the Donald Trump of ex-boyfriends. And Sandoval has just been here in the valley trying to process it all. I feel like I got more hate than Danny Masterson, he told me, and he's a convicted rapist. When I arrived at his house late last year, Sandoval, who is 41, had just finished working out. He wore a black muscle shirt and a wide headband. His assistant, Miles, was at the dining room table sorting through Sandoval's utility bills on two laptops. He basically does anything I don't personally have to do, Sandoval explained. We were also joined by Riley, who's on Sandoval's new publicity team, which has a background in crisis PR. I assumed, Riley would be an impediment, but my fears were put to rest when she didn't flinch at the Danny Masterson comment. Riley is 23, has watched Vanderpumps since she was in middle school, and seemed as interested in Sandoval's life as I was. When Sandoval described how despite their gnarly, nationally televised split, he and Maddox have continued living together, sequestered in separate parts of the five bedroom home and communicating via assistance, Reilly was curious to hear more.


So all of her stuff is still here? Reilly asked. Sandoval wasn't sure, but he thought Maddox might have finally rented a place. She took the dog and the cat, and I know she wouldn't do that if she was staying somewhere temporary, he said. Sandoval wanted to buy out her share of the home, but interest rates are so crazy right now. He was considering getting a roommate to help with the mortgage. At least he thought Maddox was finally open to the idea. It took her a while to not be spiteful about the house, he said. A month after we met, Maddox sued Sandoval in Los Angeles County to force him to sell the home and divide the proceeds. My tape recorder wasn't on yet, and Sandoval wanted to make sure I was getting everything. Do you want to record this? Of course I wanted to record this. I couldn't remember interviewing a public figure as eager to speak into a recording device. But then again, Sandoval is not a typical celebrity. Nor is Vanderpump, which is currently airing its 11th season, your typical show. Early reality series like Big Brother and Survivor rotated cast in every season.


Shows that didn't, like The Hills, never lasted this long. Even its closest point of comparison, Bravo's Real Housewives franchise, is more of a weekly cage match in which bloodied fighters are retired once they're no longer useful. And Sandoval, the Midwest-bred son of a firefighter and a marketing executive, is not a Kardashian. What I mean is that although reality programming has been a dominant part of American culture for over two decades, we've never actually put a regular person on reality TV to live out much of their adult life and gotten to see what happens to them as a result. Contrary to a popular misconception, Vanderpump is not about Lisa Vanderpump, a former Bravo housewife. It started as a show about waiters and bartenders who lived in crappy apartments around Hollywood and, for the most part, wanted to be actors. That dream didn't work out, but they became reality TV stars instead. For a while, this ruined the show. It became less honest. The cast still worked shifts at a restaurant, but actually, they drove nice cars and bought $2 million houses. Once the show stopped pretending that nothing had changed, it turned out that a reality show about reality stars was not any less interesting.


On the last season alone, there was Skandival, in which Sandoval, a reality star approaching middle age, proceeded to start a cover band, open a bar, and sleep with Levis. A former beauty queen. A couple that had been on the show since the first season finally decided to divorce, leading the wife to realize that she may never have kids. And a woman who once bragged that her private jet lifestyle was financed by Randall Emmett, the direct to video film producer, left him and became a breadwinner as she fought for custody of their daughter. Alex Baskin, an executive producer of Vanderpump, developed it as a spinoff of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which featured Vanderpump as the owner of several mediocre restaurants. Baskin noticed that S. R, which stands for Sexy Unique Restaurant, indeed had a sexy, unique atmosphere. In 2011, he sent a screenshot of Sur's website with Vanderpump on a throne surrounded by her good-looking staff to Andy Cohen, who was then Bravo's vice President for original programming. The network provided a small budget for Baskin to explore the idea. What Baskin found was an incestuous friend group in which everyone was either living or sleeping with one another.


It was everything you look for in a TV show, Baskin told me. It just hit me in the face. At the time, prestige TV was on the rise, and writers rooms across Hollywood became overly preoccupied with chasing critical approval rather than audiences and revenue. In this context, Vanderpump was an appealing alternative. Yes, it looked and acted like reality TV, but at its core, it was more like the great scripted shows of the 1990s, in that it was about a group of friends living life, dating one another, giving up the hopes of their 20s for the realities of their 30s. It relied on time-tested screenwriting tenets, good, unexpected stories about original characters going through relatable cycles of jealousy, regret, insecurity, and longing. The show was also a brilliant premise, commercially speaking. The TV business shepherded crowds to the real-world business and vice versa. You could watch Sandoval and his friends on TV, then drop by and have him make you a pump Crosby & Crosby. The show's main draw was the cheating scandals, of which there were three by the end of the second season. As the show took place more outside the restaurant, it went through an identity crisis.


In 2020, it was further debilitated by the pandemic and the departure of four members of the cast due to past racist incidents and resurface social media posts. By Season 9, there were rumors that Vanderpump was on the brink of cancelation. We were hobbling, Baskin told me. The very next season, Skandival dropped into Bravo's lap. The show's producers treated it like a news story. Late on the evening of March first, 2023, when Principal Films filming for the 10th season was wrapped and episodes were already airing, Skandival was performing a new single with his band when his phone fell out of his pocket. Maddox opened it to discover an intimate recording of Levis. The next morning, Maddox notified the show's talent producer, who called the showrunner, who called Baskin, who called Bravo, which scramble to approve budgets. On March third, crews were pulled off another Bravo set, and cameras were back up to capture the fallout as the cast processed the affair. The resulting footage, which aired in May, is an incredible episode of television. Maddox, with damp hair and puffy, cried out Eyes, says, I loved you when you had nothing, and that girl is searching for an identity in men.


And I would have followed you anywhere. Producers did not put cameras down, even as Sandoval screamed at them to stop filming him during the subsequent reunion in special, which was so brutal that Amy Schumer compared it to the end of Schindler's List. No one, not Sandoval or Baskin or even the executives at Bravo, are quite sure why the season resonated the way it did. Maybe it was that Skandival had awakened something in everyone who had ever cheated or been cheated on, resulting in endless memes and diatribes on social media, or that the affair landed in the news while the season was airing, turning it into an interactive murder mystery of sorts, with viewers searching for clues in earlier episodes. Now, it is easy to be cynical about these things. Isn't it plausible that when faced with the show's uncertain future, producers got together with the cast and cooked up a cheating scandal? This is a popular conspiracy theory. But Baskin told me that the covert affair and continuing fallout was too elaborate to manufacture. I mean, Raquel left the state, he said. When I asked Sandoval, he insisted that if he was going to script a fake storyline, it wouldn't have been one that destroyed his life.


I would have never participated in that, he said. Willingly, I said. You would have never participated in that, willingly, since you did technically continue to film the show. Right. Willingly, he said. Hell no. At Sandoval's house, he made a cup of tea, and Riley and I were listening to what the past year of his life has been like. The thing with Levis started with what sounded like a midlife crisis. You know when you just feel like you don't know what's cool anymore, he said, and you're past your prime and a little bit of a joke? Riley nodded. He started to feel as though his best years were behind him. He wanted to feel alive again. He and Maddox had grown apart. He planned to tell her about the affair after the season aird. He didn't want it to play out on the show. When he shouted at producers to stop filming him, he couldn't remember another time in the show's history that he'd done so unless he was getting in the shower or something. I just wanted to not feel watched, he said. I wanted to take a breath. After he finished filming, he went on tour with his band, Tom Sandoval and the most extras.


He had to. His bank accounts were overdrawn and he needed the money. Crowds of people came out to hate on him. They showed up wearing T-shirts that said Cheater and Worm with a Mustash, a name one of his cast mates coined. Everywhere he went, people called him a loser or screamed Team Ariana at him. When he returned home, there were groups of strangers with cameras at his house who seemed to be making fun of him. On the show, Sandoval had complained about always being the one to replenish batteries and other domestic supplies. Now, as Maddox filmed her various commercial spots at the home, it had become ad copy for Duracell. I buy my own batteries now. And Bic Razors. I'm just starting a whole new unclogged chapter in my life. In June, a friend sent him a photo of Sweet Lady Jane, a popular bakery in Los Angeles, selling cakes with Sandoval is a liar, written in Frosting. Sandoval's friends distanced themselves. His brother asked him to delete photos of them together on Instagram. Sandoval says he was asked to stop going in to Schwartz and Sandy's, a lounge in the Franklin Village neighborhood that he co-owns.


The show's fans tanked the bar's Yelp reviews and were harassing the staff. Somehow, people got Sandoval's cell number. His phone started ringing at all hours with blocked numbers, with women pretending to be Levis, and men asking how they could find her. He started to feel as if he were in Uncut Gems, the nerve-jolting Safty Brothers movie in which the protagonist is isolated and on the run. He got down, like really down. His mind went to some dark places. Friends suggested that he get on Wellbutrin. In April, he quit drinking, hence the tea he was now sipping. He did it for Levis. When she entered that facility in Arizona, he assumed they would be together once she got out, but then Levis stopped talking to him and hasn't returned his calls since June. She never even gave me any closure, he said. It was really hard. It still messes with me. He even tried reaching out through her publicist, but got no response. When Vanderpump started filming Season 11 in June, Sandoval was off doing Special Forces, the reality show on Fox that put celebrities through pseudo military training. I'm here because I want to get punished Dushed, Sandoval says on the show, before he's dunked in frigid waters and dragged across a field on the former Nickelodian star Jojo Siwa's back.


When Sandoval didn't win the competition, he felt robbed. He thought producers made it look as though he got eliminated before Siwa, who voluntarily withdrawn. They said she lasted longer than me, he said, but she most definitely did not. He was convinced that producers didn't want him to win. Who did they want to win? Reilly asked, incredulous. In the fall, he thought things might finally be turning. He started his own podcast and titled it Everybody Loves Tom. An early guest was Dr. Drew, who dug into Sandoval's childhood trauma and declared him not a narcissist, at least as far as the DSM 5 is concerned. The actor Jerry O'Kannell came on and apologized for having T-shirts made that said Team Ariana. But the following month at Bravo Con, the annual Las Vegas Convention for the network Superfans, Sandoval arrived on stage to booze from the 8,000-member audience. I asked Sandoval why he thought the scandal got so big. I'm not a pop culture historian, really, he said. But I witnessed the O. J. Simpson thing and George Floyd and all these big things, which is really weird to compare this to that, I think. But do you think in a weird way, it's a little bit the same?


I looked over at Riley, who was typing furiously on her phone. I think I knew what he meant. He was trying to express the oddity of becoming the symbolic center of a nationwide discussion and a major news story. What he communicated instead was something more honest, which is just how much the experience had made him lose perspective. I did what I did because I was in an unhappy place in my life, he said. I got caught up in my emotions and fully fell in love, like for real. He sighed and drained his teacup. Then he got up, put on some upbeat music, and went upstairs to get ready for a night out. Sometimes he says too much, Riley said, and the following day, forgets what he says. Then she went upstairs to have a quick word with him. The next day, I was supposed to attend the taping of one of Sandoval's confessional interviews for the show. I was about to get in my car when I received a text from his publicist, Riley's boss. He'd rather you don't attend today, it read. He's not feeling the best. The next morning, I got a call from Baskin, and the day after that, a Bravo Publicist rang me late on a Friday.


Some of what Sandoval had said had gotten back to Bravo, and everyone was concerned. What was it that he said about O. J. Simpson and George Floyd exactly? Maybe Sandoval wasn't ready for this. The Bravo publicist asked if I really needed to see Sandoval again. Could the network facilitate an interview with one of the show's other stars? Bravo said it would get back to me about next steps. While I waited, I thought more about Sandoval. When you're lost, sometimes it's helpful to go back to the beginning. Sandoval arrived in Los Angeles in 2004 with the hopes of becoming an actor. When he was growing up in St. Louis, it was all he wanted to be. I loved to pretend, he told me and Riley. I loved it more than sports. At 15, he started modeling. He briefly lived in Miami, that swampy hub of male modeling, where he was photographed by Bruce Webber for one of his infamous Abercrombian Fitch campaigns. In Los Angeles, he worked as a pool boy at the Mondrian Hotel and as a cater waiter while booking ad campaigns for Rock and Republic, Ed Hardy, and Von Dutch, the early Otz brands that are apparently coming back now.


Von Dutch. I love that brand, he said. I had a versatile look, Sandoval explained, because I could do this Daddy doesn't love me emo look, and I could do a more slicked back look. He signed up for Vanderpump Rules because he thought people should see what it's like being an LA Mactor, a model actor. Like driving down the 405, he said, changing clothes, comp cards, and head shots, splayed all over my back seat. When the show became known instead for his girlfriend, sleeping with his friend, Jax Taylor, Sandoval didn't mind. When I punched Jax, he said, that sent it into the stratosphere. Riley remembered watching that episode with her middle school friends. We were like, This show is epic, she said. Dude, it was, Sandoval said. It was so cool, Riley said. A decade later, Sandoval, who had a boyish innocence about him in those early seasons, has morphed into a a unique Los Angeles species. He's late to everything. His publicist never seems to be able to reach him, and his face has that taught sheen that celebrities get from anti-aging protocols. He talks about his life not in years, but in seasons and episodes.


Sometimes he pauses mid-sentence and stares into the middle distance like a doll whose wind-up key has jammed until whatever ambulance, helicopter, or other sound-interfering entity has passed, and then he continues as if nothing happened, even when there are no mics or cameras on him. The ceiling lights in his home are tapped over with sheets of paper to diffuse light and make it optimal for filming. He used to remove them during the offseason, but now he doesn't bother. We leave them up there because otherwise, they'll just do it again, he said. Sandoval can't always tell if he's living for himself or the show or both. Sometimes, he really has to talk to his best friend and costar, Tom Schwartz, but he knows he shouldn't via text, so he will call producers and ask how quickly they could have cameras on him to film it. He feels terrible when he has to bring up something that he knows could be damaging to his cast mates, but that is part of the job. The worst thing Sandoval says you can hear while filming is the dreaded, Hey, can I talk to you for a minute? That's when you know you're about to be called out for something.


Baskin calls this hyper-reality. In real life, you might go to a dinner party and then go home and gossip about your friends. On a reality show, you're encouraged to say those things in the moment. Sandoval is so well-trained at narrating his innermost thoughts out loud that he sometimes has to remind himself not to do it outside of filming. You lose track of what a normal conversation would be like with people that aren't on the show, he said. Despite the year he had, he told me that he was really honored to be on Vanderpump. The scandal has made the show so big. It's cool and crazy, he said, even though it's negative and at my expense. Unlike actors, reality show participants are not protected by the Screen Actors Guild, at least not for unscripted work, meaning they're not entitled to residuals or union pay minimums. When Sandoval joined Vandercomp, each cast member made $10,000 for the entire first season. Today, the original cast makes closer to $35,000 per episode. As the genre has grown, participants can make almost as much from other revenue streams like books, podcasts, and brand partnerships, some of which can pay upward of $250,000.


Because of this, what's good for Vandenpump is generally good for Sandoval, monetarily speaking, even if it can also make his life more difficult. Opportunities often grow directly out of plot lines. When Sandoval and Maddox were bartenders in love, they published a book with a co-author called Fancy AF Cockcakes, and were hired to mix drinks in sponsored videos for brands like AlkaSeltzer. Since their breakup, their fates have diverged. She's the betrayed woman, courageously rebuilding her life while he is the villain, endlessly atoning for his sins. In December, Maddox released a new book, Single AF Cock entails, and scheduled events with Live Nation, an evening for bad bitches to promote it. Playing all of this up riles the fans and keeps the machine turning. When Maddox said at BravoCon that she still hadn't gotten a meaningful apology from Sandoval and the the audience erupted in applause, it reminded me of professional wrestling. You know when the face and the heel talk smack to each other to drive crowds wild? It felt like that. Except that I'm pretty sure that Sandoval is not pretending. Pro wrestling has always been staged, and the audience knew it but didn't care.


But Vanderpump is the opposite. While fans on some level expect reality TV to be fake and think of Sandoval as just another TV character, it's all very real to him, leaving him trapped inside these story lines indefinitely. Tom Sandoval is Tom Sandoval in Tom Sandoval's life, Baskin told me, adding, Someone might say he is putting on a performance, but he is the performance. His entire existence becomes about processing and talking about what happened. Appearing on special forces was part of Sandoval's attempt at a redemption narrative. When we drove to West Hollywood that first night, his Mercedes wound its way through Laurel Canyon and emerged on Sunset Boulevard, not far from the huge billboard that showed him Commando crawling across a rope suspended high above the ground. These are the perverse economics of being a reality TV star. If it weren't for Skandival, Skandival said, I could have probably gotten on that show, but I wouldn't have been on the billboards. Contestants on Special Forces were reportedly paid several hundred thousand dollars, but for the most part, Sandoval hasn't been able to capitalize on Skandival as much as he would like. There are minimal brands that want to be associated with someone who's thought of as a cheater, Sandoval's manager, Ryan Reville, told me.


This winter, Sandoval was hoping to do a residency at Chippendales in Las Vegas, but talks stalled. Sandoval was disappointed. I'm in really good shape right now, he said, adding, It's frustrating because every Everybody cashed in. Everybody won on this. The cast, the execs, the network, everybody made so much money. But I try to put it on myself to make the best opportunity out of it that I can. We pulled up to Tom Tom, a bar and restaurant that Sandoval has invested in and that is part of the Vanderpump universe, along with Sir, Schwartz & Sandies, Jaxx's Studio City, and Something About Her, a forthcoming sandwich shop that Maddox is opening with another cast member. For the fans, this landscape is like a Disney World populated by their favorite characters. When I stopped by Sir in August, the food was terrible, but there was a line of people out the door and around the block. No matter what part of the restaurant you sat in, you had a view of cameras filming the cast, which seemed to be the point. At Tom Tom, Sandoval gave me an insider's tour. There's the men's room, women's room, he said.


This table is really cool, but you got to watch your knees. He took me out back by the trash cans where he says Matic ripped his chain and split his lip the night she found out about the affair. She beat my ass, he said. Through a representative, Matic declined to comment on the incident. She has denied tearing his necklace off in the past. With the show not in production, the place was quiet, except for a couple drinking wine in the corner and two eager-looking women, one of whom eventually approached. Sorry to bother you, she said. But I just wanted to say this place is awesome. We sat at a table and were soon joined by Kyle Chan, a jeweeler who appears on the show and is one of the few people who didn't drop Sandoval as a friend. When I asked what it was like being around him last year, Chan compared it to watching Game of Thrones, in which a character named Theon Greyjoy becomes psychologically broken after being tortured and castrated. Sandoval likes to say that as a reality star, he has to live through each event in his life three times. First, when he's living it, second, when he's taping confessionals months later, and third, when it airs and he has to answer to the fans.


In the real world, he would be able to heal and move on, but that's difficult to do on reality show time. After season 11 airs, Chan said, You just have to relive it one more time, and then you'll be free. A couple of weeks before I met Sandoval, I visited the offices of Evolution Media in a converted shipping warehouse near the Hollywood Burbank Airport. Bravo, which is owned by NBC Universal, distributes Vanderpump via its cable channel and the streaming service Peacock. But evolution is the production company on the ground for Vanderpump, as well as others like Real Housewives of Orange County and Botched. As Baskin showed me around, random objects caught my eye. A can of gasoline, bottles of Tums, and sunblock, a blown up diagram of the female reproductive system atop a file cabinet, and a few moving boxes labeled Bitch. The office used to be bustling. In the years leading up to and during the pandemic, streaming was at its peak, and evolution was considering leasing a third building to keep up with demand for new content. But the market had changed, and people were working remotely. Now we just don't need the space, Baskin said.


Bravo is one of the few cable networks that still bring in a loyal and affluent audience. But even unscripted programming has not been immune to the contraction currently plaguing the TV industry. In 2007, when the Writers Guild went on strike, networks rushed to green light unscripted shows to plug holes in programming, leading to a reality TV boom. In 2023, despite predictions otherwise, the boom never came. Networks and streamers, which already had a stockpile of programming, held on to their cash. And with media companies consolidating into entities like Warner Brothers Discovery, there were simply fewer buyers in the marketplace. Baskin estimated that when all is said and done, the unscripted business would be roughly two-thirds of what it was. Over the years, various network executives have consistently asked Baskin for their own version of Vanderpump. Baskin would love to find it, but it doesn't necessarily exist, he told me. Not that others haven't tried. There was E's What Happens at the Abbey, about the bar a few doors down from Tom Tom, and MTV's Lindsay Lohan's Beach Club, about the staff at her venture in Mykonos. Each lasted exactly one season. This spring, Hulu will premiere Vanderpump Villa, yet another attempt to mimic the formula, and Bravo will introduce The Valley, a Vanderpump spinoff featuring some of the cast members who departed the show in 2020.


Baskin told me that in some ways, he wished Skandival never happened. The national attention made it much harder to film the show. Production always had a few onlookers, But during season 11, paparazzi and fans were everywhere. While the show was filming in Lake Tahoe, someone snapped a photo of the cast that whipped fans into such a frenzy that it became a plot line on the show. Producers used to be strict about not breaking the fourth wall, but now they have no choice but to let the outside world into the frame. It used to be that the real story was not that there are people watching a TV show, Baskin told me. But part of Tom Sandoval's real experience in life right now is that he's not just facing an ex-girlfriend or a friend group upset with him. He's facing the entire nation. As filming for the new season got underway, Bravo had a problem. The cast had turned on Sandoval. Maddox refused to interact with him altogether. In July, Baskin and the network brought the cast into evolution's offices for what he called a Come to Jesus moment. But he was no longer talking to 20 something waiters.


We can still squeeze a great season out of it, he said. But going forward, I don't know. Levis was the only primary cast member who didn't return for season 11. Her team inquired about a pay increase stories and floated the possibility of Levis' getting a development deal with Bravo. Through a representative, Levis emphasized that mental health protections were her primary concern. Then, in August, after spending 90 days in the Arizona facility and changing her name from Raquel back to her birth name, Rachel, Levis appeared on Bethany Frankl's podcast. Frankl is a former Real Housewife of New York. Last summer, she declared what she called the Reality Reckoning, accusing Bravo and other networks of profiting off a harmful environment created by their shows without properly compensating their stars. She invited others to join her and teamed up with two prominent attorneys, Mark Garagos and Brian Friedmann. No actual lawsuits have been filed, but NBC Universal subsequently issued updated guidelines for its production companies, including additional psychological support for cast members. Part of Frankl's arsenal was a three-party interview with Levis, who described how she felt exploited by Sandoval and Bravo for ratings without seeing a single penny.


Baskin told me that Levis was paid $19,000 per episode for 18 episodes and that news of the affair came out after the season wrapped. Are we supposed to give her retroactive payment for having a clandestine affair for eight months? He asked. Frankl would basically argue, yes. As SAG members went on strike in July, joining the writers, she called for reality stars to unionize so they too can collect residuals and benefit after the fact from a successful season. But while everyone I talked to agreed that regulations would be a good thing, no one was sure how it would work exactly. Part of the appeal of reality TV is that it's relatively cheap to make, as low as $250,000 per episode versus $2 million for scripted TV. The draw for all parties involved is that its stars are often plucked from relative obscurity. It's probably good for the business to have some protections, revels, Sandoval's manager told me. Will it happen? I don't know. But no one is walking off set. I didn't see Sandoval for about two weeks. Then, on a Monday in December, I drove to a soundstage in Burbank where he was taping his next confessional interview for the show.


Reilly wasn't here this time. Instead, we were joined by a Bravo publicist and Erika Forstad, a senior NBC Universal executive. My clue that this wasn't typical was when Forstad introduced herself to Sandoval. You once made me a wonderful mocktail at Schwartz & Sandies, she said. Sandoval was in a small dressing room, applying dabs of makeup to his forehead. In front of him were three caffanated beverages, a Red Bull, aniced coffee, and a Dr. Pepper. He sipped each intermittently. Sandoval said he was feeling depressed. He said the same thing the last time I saw him. When I asked if the depression was show-related, he had said, somewhat show-related. Just life, business, his stuff. It's hard. Sandoval began to perform loud vocal exercises. He applied pomade to his hair, combing it back with his fingers, and changed into a light blue women's suit from Zara, which he said he preferred to the store's men's wear. The suit looked good, but the sleeves barely reached his wrists. As he emerged from the dressing room, there was something about the suit's feminine cut, combined with Sandoval's physique and slightly hunched posture, that reminded me of Heath Ledger's Joker in the scene at the hospital where he wears a nurse's uniform.


It's hard to tell how Sandoval feels about filming the show. Sometimes he sounded down on it. It has its fun moments, but for the most part, it sucks. I've been buzzed through most of it. Other times, he told me he would do it for as long as he possibly could. There was a point last year when he considered quitting, but he was glad he didn't. He wasn't at all envious of Levis, who walked away from the cameras, albeit not very far as she has started her own podcast, Rachel Goes Rogue. So far, the primary theme has been Skandoval. Skandoval figured she would be back in a season or two. What else is she going to The evolution set, where confessionals are taped is designed to look like another room in Sur. There are deep purple curtains, a mirrored dresser, and lots of gold and velvet. Production for the new season wrapped in September, but interviews are taped for months afterward to get the cast's reactions to what occurred. The showrunner began by asking Sandoval about a tasting led by a water sommelier that everyone attended in August. Had Sandoval ever heard of a water tasting?


I have never even remotely heard of a water tasting before in my life, Sandoval said. He tried again. I have never heard of or been to a water tasting, but here we are. Sandoval hoped his luck would turn this season. It's probably why he agreed to speak with me in the first place. When I last talked to him, he was feeling optimistic. He'd been meditating and was about to go back on tour with his band. Plus, he was single now, which could be a whole new storyline for him on the show. It's the first time I've ever been single as a celebrity, he told me. I'm not saying I'm a favorite celebrity, but still, just having some notoriety and being single, it's a cool muscle to flex. Though he had come to Los Angeles to be an actor, he was proud of what he became instead. Did he become the next Brad Pitt? No. But he didn't want to be that anymore anyway. It turned out reality TV is where the real mistakes are. Actors were just pretending, playing roles. I had no respect for reality TV before, Sandoval told me. And now I don't have very much respect for actors.


I'm like, You all try doing this. Of course, he knew it wasn't going to last forever. But if he kept at it and rehabilitated his image, there could be life beyond his first show. There were brand deals to be had, as well as reality spinoffs and competition shows. Though if he was going to do another reality series, he would like it to be something more feel good. Our show can be toxic to film, he said, and very stressful. Despite this, he was as committed to it as ever and hoped it would continue for a while. As long as people are interested, he told me, and we're being honest in our feels. That's what he was doing now, sitting in front of the camera in a powder blue suit and sunless tanner, being honest in his feels. I watched him on a monitor as he peered into the lens with one eyebrow slightly raised. Then the camera rolled and his face lit up with a big, genuine smile..