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Sex and the SUR: The Slow, Painful Death of ‘Vanderpump Rules’

·14-min read
Bravo
Bravo

“Ken and I own two restaurants in California,” reality star Lisa Vanderpump says at the start of the first episode of Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules. “Villa Blanca is where you take your wife—and SUR is where you take your mistress.”

By 2013, when the premiere aired, fans already knew Vanderpump well. After four seasons of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, she had emerged as the show’s glamorous breakout star. But this new show was different: up until then, Bravo’s Real Housewives spin-offs (of which there are many) had revolved around the Real Housewife herself. And although the show is named after Vanderpump—who appears in almost every episode and is front-and-center in the screechy opening credits—it is really about the entangled romantic and personal lives of the young people who work for her.

Vanderpump Rules was a huge hit for Bravo. The drama between Vanderpump’s employees—who were either friends, more-than-friends, or sworn enemies—was captivating. Season 1 centered around speculation that the show’s alpha male villain, Jax Taylor, had cheated on SUR’s queen bee Stassi Schroeder. The bombshell that Taylor had gotten another woman pregnant on a trip to Las Vegas was revealed in the dramatic season finale. The second season centered on rumors that Taylor had slept with Kristen Doute, the girlfriend of his best friend (Tom Sandoval) and best friend of his now-ex girlfriend (Shroeder). If you’re not following, that’s OK, but the point is: SUR was chaotic, incestuous, and messy.

As the drunken shenanigans and conflicts intensified, new people—like “DJ” James Kennedy, hostess Lala Kent, bar girl Ariana Madix and server Brittany Cartwright —were brought into the fold. The cast’s uninhibited (and often borderline unhinged) behavior stood out in a reality-TV landscape that was slowly becoming more reserved. To everyone’s surprise, Vanderpump Rules’ ratings eventually overtook Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and several of Bravo’s other Housewives shows.

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But times have changed.

Watching now, you would have no idea that Vanderpump Rules was ever must-watch reality TV. Nine seasons in, the show’s ratings have fallen to an all-time low of 550,000—around a quarter of its peak, when 2 million people tuned into the season 2 finale to watch Schroeder backhand Doute for sleeping with her ex.

So what happened? Why does it feel like Vanderpump Rules is sprinting toward the reality-TV graveyard?

Let’s go back to the start. In the season 1 premiere, after introducing us to SUR—which stands for “sexy unique restaurant,” by the way—Vanderpump continues her narration. “SUR is eclectic. It’s the lighting, the ambiance—and it’s the people who work here,” she tells us. “Some of these kids, they’re a little crazy…”

She wasn’t wrong. The SUR we saw on the show was as if the “plastics” from Mean Girls had gotten meaner since high school, met some men who were just as bad as them, and decided to work together. For example, Shroeder boasts that she routinely bullies new staff until they quit, and wastes no time telling us that working at SUR is “different” from any other LA restaurant. “The servers all want to be models, actors, writers, singers,” she says. “But the servers at other Hollywood restaurants just want to be servers at SUR.”

Next we met Scheana Marie, who was best known for having a two-year affair with actor Eddie Cibrian—while he was married to Vanderpump’s Real Housewives co-star Brandi Glanville. She tells us she might be the next Britney Spears and, minutes later, we’re subjected to some truly excruciating footage of her “singing” and making “sexy noises” in a recording studio. Then there’s Tom Sandoval, who seems equally delusional and also admits to shaving his forehead. His (now-ex) girlfriend, Kristen Doute, also works at SUR. “Yeah, we’re all really good-looking,” she says, with a manic glint in her eye, before sarcastically adding, “Sorry.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Stassi Schroede and Jax Taylor on Andy Cohen's <em>Watch What Happens Live</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Bravo</div>

Stassi Schroede and Jax Taylor on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Live

Bravo

Lara Marie Schoenhals, host of Sexy Unique Podcast, a podcast about Vanderpump Rules, tells The Daily Beast that she was “both repelled and obsessed” by the early seasons of the show. “The psychology behind all the various characters and their motivations and their relationships to each other, to Lisa Vanderpump and to fame, were so multi-layered and fascinating,” she says. But it was the sheer level of humiliation its stars were willing to endure on camera that set the show apart. “We were watching people who were reaching the expiration date of being able to achieve their dreams of acting and music stardom, and seeing how far they were willing to go to achieve fame as reality stars.”

In 2013, when the show premiered, most reality TV was very preoccupied with excessive wealth—a trend that still exists on shows like Selling Sunset. The stars of Vanderpump Rules, however, were the opposite: they were renting some fairly dingy apartments and working long shifts, while pursuing various side-hustles. So while their conflicts were exaggerated, their lifestyles were more relatable than the ones fans were used to following on shows like Real Housewives and Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Eventually, though, the cast stopped being servers and became celebrities—in the reality-star sense, at least. Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz were so popular with fans that Vanderpump opened another West Hollywood bar—aptly named TomTom—with them. Several cast members wrote books, like Schroeder’s New York Times bestseller Next Level Basic: The Definitive Basic Bitch Handbook and Kent’s 2021 memoir Give Them Lala. The rest launched podcasts and started cashing in on their hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers.

With its stars grasping these opportunities, the show made the strange decision to keep up the facade that most of them were still working at SUR. It became hard to believe that any of the stars would still be waiting tables there if it weren’t for the cameras. Despite the fact that most fans knew the “SUR staff” were making bank on the reality-star-to-influencer gravy train, the show tried hard to avoid any mention of it. This made it feel inauthentic, not to mention confusing, when the cast started living a lifestyle that was more luxurious than most servers at a medium-tier restaurant could afford. Soon there were weddings that cost in excess of $100,000 and six of the main cast bought huge homes in Calabasas with swimming pools. Schoenhals thinks refusing to acknowledge the group’s fame marked the first phase of the show’s decline: “It initially felt so real and genuine, but the show started trying to sell us a different picture than what reality really was.”

When Schoenhals first discovered Vanderpump Rules, in a hungover haze, things were very different. Clutching a take-out pizza, she binge-watched the first two seasons. “At one point I realized: this is actually making me feel a lot better about my hangover,” she says. “I thought, ‘my life isn't so bad, because right now these delusional people are burning their lives to the ground on this show.’”

But the increase in wealth has changed that dynamic. “These people used to make you feel better about your own life. But then they start to surpass your life,” she says. “Suddenly, they’re millionaires buying houses and signing booked deals. You’re like, ‘Wait, I thought I was supposed to be looking down on you?!’ But that’s not the relationship anymore.”

This is a common challenge that faces reality shows. It’s no coincidence that when the Kardashians went from rich to super-rich, their show became less enthralling. But for all their faults, the Kardashians were at least honest about the fact that the money was coming from opportunities from the show, rather than pretending it came from working at Dash (their Calabasas clothing store).

As reality stars become more famous and wealthy, they tend to rely less on the show and have more agency. There isn’t the same desperation driving their behavior and, often, they become more guarded and seek more control over the parts of their lives that they film. The final season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, for example, was dominated by arguments over Kourtney Kardashian refusing to film as much as her sisters. A similar trend is visible on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which was no-holds-barred in its first three seasons, but got gradually less so over the years. It wasn’t until the latest season, which followed the legal scandal engulfing Tom and Erika Girardi, that the show briefly recaptured its glory days.

Vanderpump Rules is no different. The on-camera humiliation of its cast, which peaked in the early seasons, became gradually less intense. After all, most had brands to protect, so drunken brawls were replaced with comparatively tame, lower-stakes disagreements. Of course, from an ethical standpoint, it’s not a bad thing that reality stars are setting these boundaries. But shifts like this change the vibe and output of a show, which viewers aren’t guaranteed to like.

Another reason the behavior of the Vanderpump Rules cast is more tame now is that the expectations on reality stars have changed. Writing on the future of Bravo, Vulture’s Anna Peele noted that the network is increasingly sensitive to fan backlash. Writer Brian Moylan also observed this in his 2021 book about the Real Housewives franchise. Vanderpump Rules became an early target of such backlash: Schroeder was repeatedly forced to apologize for offensive remarks made on her podcast about the #MeToo movement and #OscarsSoWhite. Taylor and Cartwright hired, then were forced to drop, Cartwright’s family’s pastor as the officiant of their wedding, when fans discovered his long history of anti-LGBTQ+ remarks.

Peele writes that, by season 8, Vanderpump Rules had “become a liability.” Two of the season’s new cast members, Brett Caprioni and Max Boyens, ended up being fired for racist tweets from before they joined the show. As the end of the eighth season aired, at the exact moment the Black Lives Matter movement captivated the world, Faith Stowers—the previous season’s only Black cast member—went on Instagram Live. Stowers described an incident in which co-stars Schroeder and Doute bragged on a podcast about reporting her to the police. The pair had seen a news report that a Black woman was stealing from men in Los Angeles. “It was a Black woman with a weave,” Stowers said of the real thief. “They called the cops on me. It didn’t work, so they were upset about that.” Schroeder and Doute were fired days later. A few months after that, Taylor and Carthwright’s contracts were terminated too.

Vanderpump Rules finally returned to Bravo in October, having taken a year off because of COVID. The show feels very different now: after the firings became an international news story, it finally embraced that its main cast members are public figures, most of whom no longer wait tables. Storylines about media appearances and Instagram beef are in full flow, bringing its approach to the fourth wall more closely in line with Bravo’s other long-running reality shows.

But something still feels off. Without the backdrop of the restaurant, or the cast members who were fired, there is very little tying the remaining cast together. In a similar vein to other long-running shows, like The Real Housewives of Atlanta, there is the distinct feeling that most of the cast can’t stand each other and would never speak again if the show was cancelled.

Against this backdrop, storylines have become much darker. Suddenly, fans are being asked to arbitrate whether several cast members committed domestic violence, with the same offhand tone that the show once used to ask us to decide whether or not we thought someone had cheated. To make matters worse, while conflicts feel deep, resentful and repetitive, comic relief is rarer now too. The failure to integrate new faces into the increasingly sparse cast means we often have to watch them argue about people who are no longer on the show. As Moylan recently put it in one of his recaps for Vulture: “This season feels both rooted in the past and utterly devoid of it.”

The show has dealt with this heaviness and lack of cohesiveness by inserting Vanderpump into scenes where she clearly doesn’t belong. Her presence made sense when she was the cast’s boss at SUR. In fact, her hammy schtick of acting as though her cluster of mid-level LA restaurants were an international conglomerate, while taking every chance to discipline her staff and underline her status as the head honcho, was entertaining. But watching her film scenes with people half her age, who haven’t been her employees for years, is far less so. In fact, it feels borderline ridiculous.

Vanderpump’s star has begun to fade since she left Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in 2019. This often happens with former stars of the Real Housewives: even Bethenny Frankel, a fan favorite of the NYC show, has struggled to find the same success with various TV projects after flying the nest. Atlanta’s breakout star NeNe Leakes ended up returning too, before leaving again. Schoenhals thinks the manner in which Vanderpump left Housewives—dramatically no-showing to the season nine reunion after being accused of leaking stories to the press—has hampered her ability to carry the spin-off show. “I really hold a grudge against Lisa for the way she left Housewives,” she says. “It was such a cop-out, so it’s hard to respect her now as the ‘boss’ or as any kind of authority on how the cast should behave.”

A lack of culpability is a recurring theme in the timeline of Vanderpump Rules. The show capitalized on its stars behaving badly and drinking excessively. Yet when several cast members struggled with anger and addiction issues, the extent to which the reality-TV lifestyle of being paid to have drunken altercations and make paid appearances at nightclubs fed into that was barely examined.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The current cast of Bravo's <em>Vanderpump Rules</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Randy Shropshire/Bravo</div>

The current cast of Bravo's Vanderpump Rules

Randy Shropshire/Bravo

Similarly, the race controversies were never mentioned after cast members were fired. Alex Baskin, the show’s executive producer, made the call to fire Schroeder and Doute. He still wonders whether it was the right decision, or whether there was potential for it to have become a “teaching moment.” Vanderpump has since said she wishes she had been able to “chastise” Schroeder and Doute on-camera. But there were definitely ways it could have been addressed without them. And even if Bravo’s decision to fire the pair is debatable, the choice to pretend like nothing happened is a blatant error. “It’s so shocking that they’re not even addressing what happened. It’s like we’re living in another dimension,” Schoenhals says. “The show didn’t get even slightly more diverse afterward—there were no new storylines featuring people of color—so it feels like the firings were truly meaningless.”

As the sun sets on Vanderpump Rules, perhaps we, as fans, should also think about our own culpability. We bought into a show where clearly fame-hungry, desperate and in some cases damaged people behaved awfully. By tuning in, we rewarded them for all types of behavior, from physical altercations to fat-shaming, slut-shaming, stealing, threats, bullying, and verbal abuse. But after feeding the beast for so long, when things inevitably went further, we virtuously demanded swift justice. And now that the show’s stars have altered their course to meet our ethical expectations, or have set filming boundaries of their own, we’re turning off and washing our hands of them.

Vanderpump Rules has made no shortage of bad decisions. Its demise is, in part, a story of how not to navigate the transition from capturing the lives of “normal” people to following newly-“famous” reality-star influencers. But the show is also a casualty of a wider conflict across the reality-TV genre, between what most fans say they want, and what they actually want to watch. Social media has made this more difficult to decipher, and it now feels like the fans are executive producing from their smartphones. On some reality shows, giving the audience this level of influence might present opportunities for improvements, but Vanderpump Rules clearly isn’t one of them.

For Vanderpump Rules superfans, watching its descent has been tough. “The first six seasons were some of the most important reality TV ever created. It held a mirror up to society in a lot of ways, even if we didn’t like it,” Schoenhals says. “It’s been painful to see something that used to be so incredible and interesting lose its momentum and slowly die.”

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