We’ve all seen them. The iPhone Notes-app screengrab, circulated on our Twitter or Instagram feeds, is the hallmark of a celebrity (or brand) in crisis. Somber, often black-and-white messaging in this format is the international signal of damage control. Immediately, we think, Wow, they must have really fucked up.
Bravo fans have read a lot of these hostagelike statements since “Scandoval” — the Vanderpump Rules cheating scandal that sent fans into a frenzied, shocked state — broke last Friday. To briefly summarize: Original cast member and creepy-facial-hair devotee Tom Sandoval was discovered to have cheated on Ariana Madix, his girlfriend of nine years, by having a secret seven-month affair with their co-star (and one of Madix’s besties) Raquel (neé Rachel) Leviss.
To complicate things further, former pageant queen Leviss was also linked to Tom Schwartz, Sandoval’s best friend, co-star, and business partner and ex-husband to their co-star Katie Maloney. And she was recently engaged to James Kennedy, a DJ with anger-management and mommy issues who has starred on the show since 2014. Fans have been captivated by every messy detail from the explicit video discovered on Sandoval’s phone to their matching “lightning bolt” necklaces.
Sandoval and Leviss have taught us many important lessons on the show, including how to take two years to open a garishly decorated bar and where not to go for filler, vocal-coaching, or fashion advice. And now they’ve blessed us with another: how not to respond to a PR crisis.
Before social media, the standard move would be for a celebrity to release a brief statement or say nothing at all during controversy. They would starve the fire of oxygen while their reps covertly released information to sympathetic journalists to limit its damage. Now not only do PR strategies run the risk of being leaked on social media, but people expect a different level of intimacy and directness. This is partly what drove the phenomenon of YouTuber breakup videos in the 2010s, when influencer couples gave fans extra access to their thoughts, feelings, and (sometimes) tears while aiming to protect their brands from post-breakup backlash.
The main characters of Scandoval handled things a little differently. Let’s start with Sandoval: Two days (an eternity) after the news broke, he finally released a statement. Bizarrely, he chose to focus on anger directed at his businesses, which he has promoted on the show. The statement didn’t mention Madix once but did seek to defend Schwartz, insisting he didn’t know about the affair.
Fans fumed at Sandoval’s response, which came across as clinical and self-centered. He then posted another statement, a whole three days later, finally apologizing to Madix. By then, the apology felt too little too late.
Over the weekend, Sandoval was spotted entering Leviss’s apartment to film a scene for the show, which has restarted production for its current season amid all the drama. (The devil works hard, but Andy Cohen works harder.) Rumors started to circulate that Sandoval was threatening to stop filming unless he was portrayed favorably and that he had “gaslit” Madix by blaming his lies on her mental-health issues. Just like that, the narrative was decided: Sandoval was unremorseful and cared only about himself.
Leviss’s response has been different but equally disastrous. Rather than release a statement, she chose to stay silent. It was rumored that her parents hired various crisis-PR firms and lawyers to help “salvage” her reputation. A post by infamous gossip page DeuxMoi alleged that Leviss’s plan was to try to shift blame to Sandoval for allegedly recording their intimate FaceTime without her permission. Fans reacted angrily to the suggestion that she was trying to reframe herself as the victim of the situation.
Sure enough, Leviss’s lawyers sent a legal letter to her co-stars claiming the video that tipped Madix off to the affair was recorded without her permission and that it may constitute “revenge porn.” She also filed a restraining order against Scheana Shay, a co-star and close friend of everyone involved, who she claims assaulted her upon learning about the tryst after filming an episode of Watch What Happens Live together. (Shay’s lawyer has denied the allegation.) Eventually, five days after the news of the scandal broke on TMZ, Leviss put out her own statement. She apologized to Madix and said she was seeking therapy to understand her behavior. But after a week of various alleged PR strategies being leaked then seemingly confirmed, her narrative had been written too: Leviss was a master manipulator who should not be trusted.
Narrative control can be particularly difficult in an acrimonious situation like this one, where, in the current social-media landscape, the key is getting your story out there as quickly as possible. If you stay silent or fumble your initial response, the narrative will be written for you.
Over the past week, we’ve seen Sandoval and Leviss’s co-stars react in a way that feels on brand for people who’ve made their names being messy on a reality-TV show. In self-filmed Instagram Live videos, Lala Kent said she had Madix’s permission to “torch” the pair. In another, she screamed at Leviss to send legal correspondence “to Darryl!” (her lawyer), which has already become a meme. Kennedy, Leviss’s ex-fiancé, urged fans of Sandoval’s cover band (if such people really exist) to throw tomatoes at him. Other current and former cast members vented on social media and podcasts as more developments were revealed.
These reactions might seem over the top, but they feel authentic compared with Sandoval and Leviss’s more distant responses. Conveniently timed leaks to TMZ and statements that were likely ghostwritten by PR reps have only compounded the feeling that, after deceiving those closest to them, Sandoval and Leviss are now manipulating fans, too.
Distrust of Leviss has become particularly intense. Fans speculated whether her apology statement — which was released exclusively to Entertainment Tonight before being published on her Instagram — was provided in exchange for money or favorable coverage. Disturbing pictures of her bruised and grazed face were met with ambivalence rather than condemnation. (Like so many parts of her story, they landed on TMZ, which raised eyebrows.)
Leviss has now posted another statement, insisting she needs to focus on “healing” over any potential relationship with Sandoval. He liked the post, seemingly endorsing her decision. Perhaps, as the villains of this tale, there was never a perfect way for them to handle it — in Leviss’s own words, their actions were “indefensible.” As I look at (probably staged) paparazzi pictures of Leviss walking the streets of West Hollywood, makeup free and dressed entirely in black, I wonder whether this phase of the PR strategy will work for her. Will fans now decide that this has all finally gone too far, particularly when Vanderpump Rules was founded on awful behavior? Maybe, but it still feels as if we’re only one leak away from another QAnon-level conspiracy theory about all this.
On Watch What Happens Live, the show’s matriarch, Lisa Vanderpump, appealed for calm, saying, “It’s not like they murdered anyone,” which is a testament to how hysterical some fan reactions have become. Wherever it goes next, there’s a lesson here about handling a crisis: On social media today, you have to get your narrative out there fast in a way that feels authentic and direct. Otherwise, a scandal can quickly spiral into a Scandoval.