Few things are as comforting as when the internet unites behind a cause, even if the reason is negative (the reason is always negative). And not since Harry Styles possibly spat on Chris Pine have so many of us been on the same page, especially when it comes to a Bravo scandal. Bravo watchers have seen an FBI SWAT team surround a sprinter van. An exile to Italy. Snow in Pasadena. We’ve seen a lot, yet Tom Sandoval cheating on Ariana Madix feels bigger than all of it.
The moment news broke that Vanderpump Rules’ most stable couple had broken up because Tom was in a long-term affair with fellow cast member and James Kennedy’s ex-fiance Raquel Leviss (née Rachel, as it turns out), we all flocked to our own proverbial back alleys of Sur (group chats, TikTok comments, Reddit, the meme market). As we processed the cast reactions and the weekend’s paparazzi shots (including Tom’s seemingly self-staged shoot via Backgrid), the analysis and rewatching began. I started my own re-watch, and it hit me like the strongest of Pumptinis: just as water is the essence of wetness, infidelity is the essence of Vanderpump Rules.
Sopranos might be the blueprint for a final scene, but VPR has its own equally inventive introduction over in the lowbrow galaxy. In what some might argue was the most memorable opening to a reality show, former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills housewife Brandi Glanville confronts Scheana about her affair with Eddie Cibrian. Scheana’s Housewives-adjacent affair with Cibrian was the hook that gave the Sur crew a foothold in Bravo primetime, a fitting preview for a season that would reveal several cast members cheating and the shadowy origins of Sandoval and Ariana’s own relationship.
The VPR cast has always stood out as uniquely authentic amidst a world of heavily produced “reality” shows. They were messy from the first frame and seemed to have the bandwidth to live with constant dramatic stakes that us normies had only experienced during college spring break. It felt like they would be acting the same exact way, with or without cameras and a contract. They were the friend group that says “we could totally be a reality show,” but in their case, it was actually true. It was inevitable that we would become attached to such an authentic cast dynamic, but after 10 years, it makes the specific flavor of Tom Sandoval’s betrayal especially hard-hitting (like this journalism).
In this crew of authentic psychos, Ariana was the Greek chorus and voice of reason. She was the one who could rationally vocalize what you were screaming at Jax and Schwartz through your screen. And despite the fact that her own starring role on the show stemmed from infidelity (early drama revolves around Tom denying that he kissed Ariana in Vegas while dating Kristen), their relationship earned respect over time.
Apart from Sandoval, Ariana consistently projected groundedness in the face of issues, and she seemed able to weather the show’s bumps while embodying that rare Bravo version of grace. She never caved to the pressure of the big finale wedding, or was pulled to help produce the next generation of Vanderpump kids, no matter how cute her fellow cast members’ mom & me playdates looked on the feed. On a show fueled by bad behavior, Ariana separated herself from the bullying that not only got several cast members fired, but also from heinous and legitimately consequential behavior like calling the police on their Black cast mate. Even if you couldn’t relate to Ariana’s unconventional approach to life, it was easy to respect her as a person.
Of course, the top beneficiary of Ariana’s reputation was her long-term boyfriend, Tom Sandoval. Along with their general air of stability, it was encouraging that Sandoval was open to respecting her choice to go the non-traditional route, even though he appeared to personally want marriage and kids. The implicit exchange for his commitment and implied sacrifice was a halo by Ariana’s association, which allowed him to channel and act the part of the good guy. He was able to walk between the raindrops largely because he had the stamp of approval from “the normal girl.” It was good for his brand and not particularly challenging to uphold, given how much Jax, James, and Brock’s flagrant shadiness and alleged abuse occupied storylines. When you couple Tom with Tom Schwartz’s “aw shucks” affability, TomTom seemed like a bar you wouldn’t be embarrassed to patronize. It seemed obvious why Lisa would bet on them for her next restaurant venture and television storyline. (And I couldn’t help but wonder… why not bet on any of the women as the faces of a new venture before the Cheating Toms got to open two, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
It’s not just that Tom betrayed Ariana after benefiting financially and optically from the safety of her public image, it’s also how and who he did it with that earns him the distinction of #1 worst guy in this group. With Raquel, while Ariana was allegedly sleeping, in their house, where Ariana invited Raquel to stay. Secret love jewelry. Going on dates in disguise. Evidently using Tom Schwartz as a decoy, fuck Katie’s feelings. There are even rumors that he brought Raquel home for Christmas while Ariana was with her family in Florida after her grandmother died. All of this was while Raquel and Ariana were supposedly growing closer, making Tom’s choice to cheat specifically with Raquel all the crueler.
When you contextualize the manner in which Tom and Raquel pursued this affair, it feels even beyond what we’ve seen with any other cheating story. From taking advantage of Ariana’s trust to gain proximity to each other, to their professed timeline (which indicates they were hooking up and therefore lying while they filmed season 10), to the easter eggs they publicly flaunted, it’s clear that Sandoval (in a public way) and Raquel (in a personal way) were trading on the positive assumptions of both Ariana and the audience. So if you’re questioning why you had ever believed that Sandoval would stay faithful, perhaps that answer is more about Ariana’s credibility than it is a credit to Tom. And that’s what makes his affair feel especially disgusting. Cheating is the glue of the group in which Jax once staked his claim to number 1, but with this Taquel fiasco, it’s clear that Tom has done cheating the best… which makes him the worst.
While we’re still learning the full story, I have my own theory on how this really went down. I have a strong suspicion that this didn’t really start at Coachella in 2022, but that it had been percolating in some capacity, though possibly only emotionally, for some time before. I don’t think that Raquel would have left James at the specific moment she did (especially after all of the terrible things she had already let slide) if she didn’t feel, or know, on some level that Tom Sandoval was a viable option. And who pays for half of a $25,000 engagement for a girl they’ve known for four years, especially when simultaneously taking a home equity loan to invest in the restaurant that they’re publicly opening on TV? Was Tom paying for the engagement acting on a feeling with a particular hope or intention? Is that maybe what opened Raquel up to a relationship with Tom, or did their spark even precede that gesture? We might find out, but it’s possible that it may be a mystery for Sandoval and Rachel’s future therapists to solve.
[Updated theory: Taquel picked Coachella as their “start date” because that was the first time it went beyond just the two of them, establishing it as something they were going to work at continuing to hide. Coachella is when Schwartz found out, which only happened because he was the smoke screen for their hookup rumors. He took the hit for them (so selfless), but it also made sense to claim as the beginning of the relationship because it was the first moment of any public evidence.]
I predict that what we’re about to watch for the rest of season 10 is how Taquel went about covering for themselves, and that simmering beneath the surface is a Raquel that very much wanted Tom to go public and leave Ariana. Tom might allegedly see the dalliances with Schwartz, Peter, et al. as decoys, but for Raquel, they’re also opportunities to make Sandoval jealous. If she didn’t believe that this was all heading in the direction of him eventually leaving Ariana for her, why would she risk losing all her friends and filming partners? Why hide in plain sight if she didn’t want Tom to be her future and reasonably believe that it was going to happen? Contrary to popular belief, there are other men in LA, even hot ones who would move mountains (fine, they’d skip leg day) to join the cast as Raquel’s rebound. That’s exactly what Raquel herself did with James. But the idea that we were watching Raquel move on from James this season is a distraction, because she was already in her next relationship. The only real question is when it transformed from a flirtatious ~vibe~ to an actual thing, but I’m confident that the fantasy predated reality.
Like DJ James Kennedy said, this explains everything.
Follow Sami on TikTok as she documents Tom Sandoval’s infidelity tells. Photos courtesy of Getty Images.