Scandoval put Ariana Madix center stage. Can she stay there?


At the end of the musical “Chicago,” Roxie Hart, a chorus girl who has been charged with murdering her lover, is declared not guilty. It should be a victorious moment for the aspiring vaudeville star, but just as the verdict is announced, the press gets wind of another bloody crime unfolding down the courthouse hall. The media scrambles out of the room to cover the juicy new story, leaving a dejected Roxie behind.

“Wait! I’m Roxie Hart! Don’t you want my picture?” she yells after them, alone with just her lawyer. “Where are all the reporters? Photographers? The publicity?”

Watching Ariana Madix deliver these lines on a Broadway stage feels particularly poignant, given the tabloid scandal she’s lived through.

Who are the people shaping our culture? In her column, Amy Kaufman examines the lives of icons, underdogs and rising stars to find out — “For Real.”

It has now been one year since Madix learned that her longtime boyfriend was cheating on her with a close friend. The revelation — like much of her nine-year relationship with her ex, Tom Sandoval — played out on the reality show “Vanderpump Rules,” where the two began dating while working as bartenders at a West Hollywood restaurant.

Madix has been one of the less sensational members of the cast, a go-along-to-get-along type without the pick-me energy that dominated the group. Cameras followed her castmates as they got arrested, were booted from work for public intoxication, tried to become pop stars and got engaged to much older movie producers. In contrast, she and Sandoval appeared to be fairly stable, the Valley Village home they purchased together in 2019 serving as a gathering spot for their oft-troubled friends.

But when “Scandoval” — the name Bravo fans assigned the cheating affair — became public knowledge in March 2023, Madix went from an average Jane on a decently popular reality show to the people’s heroine.

For Real With Amy Kaufman Ariana Madix cover

Season 10 of the series, which had wrapped filming months prior, was already airing, but production made the unprecedented decision to pick up cameras to capture the drama. As the episodes unfurled, “Vanderpump” fans eagerly dissected every scene shot during the seven-month period when Sandoval and his lover, Rachel Leviss, were having clandestine relations. The audience rallied behind Madix when she verbally annihilated the pair on the reunion show. Even people who’d never seen the program tuned in, with Season 10 reaching its largest audience ever — 11.4 million viewers on average — and earning its first Emmy nominations.

Madix, who moved to Hollywood in 2010 to become an actor, capitalized on the opportunity to secure the career — and the paycheck — she’d always wanted. She set up partnerships with 17 brands she’d never worked with before. Trading on her single-girl empowerment, she has promoted everything from Glad trash bags (“There’s something about STRENGTH”) to Bic razors (“Unclog your life”) and T-Mobile phones (“We’ve officially entered my upgrade era”).

She got a book deal to release “Single AF Cocktails: Drinks for Bad B*tches”; her second mixology book, but her first without Sandoval as a co-writer, became a New York Times bestseller. The WeHo sandwich shop she will soon launch with a “Vanderpump” co-star sold $200,000 in merchandise before it had even opened its doors.

She was invited to the White House Correspondents’ dinner, was cast in a Lifetime movie, served as a guest host on the dating series “Love Island” and finished in third place on “Dancing With the Stars.”

And for the past month, the 38-year-old has been playing Roxie Hart in “Chicago.” The role in the Broadway musical for decades has been used to draw in new theatergoers — something derisively called stunt casting; Roxie has been portrayed by Pamela Anderson, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Jayne, Rumer Willis and Brandy.

Ariana Madix stands next to a poster advertising her as Roxie Hart in

But Madix’s run has been particularly successful. The production had its highest-grossing non-holiday performance week in its 27-year history when she joined the company in late January. And she recently was asked to stay on for an additional two weeks , concluding April 7.

Madix doesn’t give stereotypical musical theater girl vibes; she’s not boisterous or especially extroverted. But it makes sense that she’d feel comfortable playing Roxie — a straight shooter who won’t be underestimated, the kind of woman who knows how to turn a difficult hand in her favor.

“Aside from cheating on her husband and murdering someone, I find I can really relate to Roxie a lot,” Madix says, laughing. “She’s somebody who wanted to be a performer. She got kicked around a lot. The reason it seems like she’s grasping for fame is because without fame, she doesn’t really have any other way.”

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Madix insists she isn’t desperate for the spotlight in the way her character is, that “working is the goal and working was always the goal.” But there’s no denying that until paparazzi began staking out her San Fernando Valley home last year, documenting any evidence of cardboard boxes or moving vans, she didn’t have the job opportunities she has now.

Even if, as she says, she doesn’t care about being famous, her career prospects are very much tied to her pop-culture relevance.

And it’s unclear how much longer “Vanderpump Rules,” let alone Scandoval, will remain relevant. Season 11, which debuted Jan. 30, was filmed just a few months after the cheating was unveiled, so much of the on-screen drama revolves around the affair fallout. The program has continued to attract respectable ratings, but viewers who not long ago clamored for any morsel of gossip relating to the liaison are already declaring it old news.

“They say that all the time — ‘I’m over it,’” Madix says, assuming the voice of an irritated fan. “But them saying that feels a little bit like, ‘Oh, you own my life? You’ve decided that you’ve consumed enough content?’”

Ariana Madix stands onstage at Ambassador Theater in New York City, NY Feb. 1, 2024.
A blurry black-and-white photo of Ariana Madix looking at herself in dressing room mirror

Style Director: Emily Men; Blouse and Pants: AKNVAS; Jewelry: Simon G.; Shoes: Jimmy Choo; Makeup: Taylor Fitzgerald, Celebrity Makeup Artist / Mane Addicts; Hair: Alison Farfan, Celebrity Hair Stylist / Mane Addicts

It’s late January, three days before Madix will have her premiere at the Ambassador Theatre, and she’s dashed across the street for dinner after a day of rehearsals. There aren’t many restaurants in Times Square that aren’t swarming with tourists, but she chose this chain Italian spot because it is close, and she can order meatballs.

She walks in wearing fuzzy earmuffs, a turtleneck and a puffer vest. Even without her SoCal wardrobe — crop tops, cutout dresses, wide-brimmed hats — she is recognized by three young women, who approach her table before her wine has even arrived. One girl apologizes profusely for interrupting, shares that she was rooting for Madix on “DWTS,” and then continues to say “sorry” before backing away timidly. She is soon replaced by two friends who announce themselves as members of “Team Ariana” and ask for a picture. “We love you. You can sit. We’ll stand behind you like psychos,” they say, crouching beside her chair.

After they leave, she picks up our conversation as if the fans never came by. I stop her to ask if this kind of interaction has become more commonplace in her life over the past year. “Yeah. Yeah, it happens,” she says, shrugging it off. “I want people to know it’s cool to come up to me and say hi. Like those girls saying they were sorry? It’s not like, ‘I’m on the show, and you’re not,’ and there’s a line between us.”

But it’s no longer just “the show” that Madix is known for.

Even before Scandoval erupted last March, Madix had informed her team that she was interested in pursuing non-”Vanderpump” opportunities. In addition to her portion of the mortgage on the $2-million Valley Village home, she was investing heavily in the sandwich shop, Something About Her, with castmate Katie Maloney.

“I was like, ‘I’m not OK,’” she recalls telling her representatives. When she and Sandoval broke up, she was petrified about her financial situation. “There’s no one here about to bail me out. I don’t have rich parents. I don’t have an inheritance from anybody who’s passed.”

Mere days after TMZ broke the news about the cheating scandal, Madix’s friends were receiving DMs from companies looking to get in touch with her. (Madix temporarily deactivated her social media accounts in the wake of the split.) “They were pinging us like, ‘Hey, we want to give her this thing,’” says Meredith Brace Sloss, who has been friends with Madix since college. “Airbnb was like, ‘Oh, we’ll give her a house,’ and someone wanted to send her a grocery gift card.”

Sloss referred any outreach to Madix’s manager, Kasra Ajir, who had been working with the aspiring actor since 2011, two years before she first appeared on “Vanderpump Rules.”

“Ariana has always been somebody fans loved and saw themselves in, so I was not surprised that brands wanted to work with her. I was surprised by the number of brands that showed up — almost on, like, day two,” Ajir says. “It was a pressure cooker, but it was so exciting. Every day you woke up and didn’t know what was going to come.”

Madix was thrilled by the offers but admits she also felt almost obligated to accept the majority of them given due to her bank statements.

“My team would be like, ‘This is a really great offer from Bic, look at it.’ And I’d say, ‘It is a fantastic offer, but even if it wasn’t, I’m not in a position to say no right now, because I have to make myself financially stable from now until kingdom come.’”

It’s been an incredible hustle, with Madix turning a personal tragedy into a reported $1-million payday. (Asked to comment on the accuracy of this figure, she says she is in the midst of filing her tax returns and hasn’t yet calculated her 2023 income.) But while most fans have commended her savvy in cashing in on Scandoval, others have criticized what they see as Madix’s transition into a “walking billboard.”

“Those people don’t want women to work,” Madix says, growing frustrated. “I think those people are confused about what it is that I do for a living. Those are acting jobs. I’m doing the same job I have done for many years; I’m just working more. And that’s why I signed up for ‘Vanderpump Rules’ in the first place — to work more.”

a woman in a gown poses with her hand on the wall

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Madix has never known anything other than work. Her great-grandmother was an employee at a bank until she was 90; her grandmother stayed at her own real estate agency until that age too. Her mother, 71, still has a job at a technology company; in Madix’s family, the topic of retirement does not come up.

She was raised in a middle-class home on Florida’s Space Coast, not far from Cape Canaveral. Her area code was 321, and as a result of her mother’s job at a technology company she got to watch occasional satellite launches. Her father, who died of a heart attack in 2013, was a commercial roofing contractor whose projects included building pavilions outside the rides at Universal Studios.

Madix wanted to be an actor and pleaded with her parents to attend a conservatory theater program after high school. They insisted she get a liberal arts degree, so she enrolled at Flagler College, a private institution about two hours north of her home. She studied theater and broadcast journalism but never landed major roles in the program’s productions, according to Sloss.

“Our department was — I mean, folks were a little bit homely, so they were all really intimidated by Ariana because she came in looking like a leading lady,” Sloss says. “She was kind of ostracized.”

The two became friends freshman year while auditioning to be characters at Disney World. Because you “have to be fur before you do face,” Madix explains, she initially played both Chip and Dale before working the princess circuit as Ariel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

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After graduation, she moved to New York and then L.A. to pursue acting. In between auditions, she worked as a bartender at Villa Blanca, the now-defunct Beverly Hills restaurant owned by Lisa Vanderpump, then starring in “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” In 2013, Bravo decided to give Vanderpump a spinoff centered on a different establishment she owned, the WeHo lounge Sur. Madix, blond and feisty but with the heart of a peacemaker, was transferred from Villa Blanca to Sur so she could join the show.

She had qualms about how being on reality television could affect her career. But her acting teacher, Lesly Kahn, urged her to jump on the opportunity.

“She was like, ‘Is this like a Honey Boo Boo situation where they’re trying to exploit you and make you look stupid?’” Madix says her instructor asked. “She was like, ‘As long as you’re you, I think you’ll be OK. Think about it this way: Martin Scorsese is not knocking on your door. You don’t have those kinds of opportunities at the moment. Take this, and make of it what you make of it.’”

Still, her friends worried. Sloss expressed concern that “maybe her being associated with a reality show could be considered frivolous or surface-level.”

Plenty of established actors have gone on to appear on reality television shows, but the pipeline doesn’t flow as strongly in the other direction. And Madix did not end up doing many outside acting gigs during her decade-long stint on “Vanderpump.” She appeared in rapper Yung Gravy’s music video, did an episode of the Charlie Sheen sitcom “Anger Management” and had a supporting role in a Michael Madsen movie called “Dirty Dealing 3-D” that was never released in theaters.

“My hat has been in the ring since the dawn of time if anybody ever wanted to express interest,” Madix says of her approach to acting while on “Vanderpump.” “I remember being 26 and moving to L.A. and meeting with agencies who told me I was too old to be a developmental client for them. So after a while I thought, ‘OK, well, I’ll focus more on opportunities that are in front of me.’ Maybe my path is different than the one I initially wanted, but it’s still great.”

It was only when she got “Dancing With the Stars” post-Scandoval that she started to feel like her luck might be changing. She’d internalized the Hollywood idioms about there being no roles for women in their 30s, but while competing in bedazzled leotards on a prime-time network television show, she felt that “maybe everything hasn’t passed by. Maybe I still have room to grow.”

Her performance caught the attention of the “Chicago” producers, who brought her in for a work session last fall to test her ability to sing, act and pick up choreography.

David Bushman, the production’s dance captain, says he was looking to see if Madix was able to understand the musicality of the steps. “Right away, I could tell, ‘Oh, she doesn’t want anything dumbed down,’” says Bushman, who has been with the New York version of “Chicago” for a decade. “She really wanted the real deal, and she was willing to work for it.”

A woman sits on a man's lap onstage

Ariana Madix as Roxie Hart and Max Von Essen as Billy Flynn in “Chicago” on Broadway.

(Jeremy Daniel)

Onstage at the Ambassador a few days before opening night, Madix is running through a few of her solos. She has slicked her bob back into a short ponytail and is outfitted in black spandex and character shoes. After practicing her signature number, “Roxie,” Madix receives notes from Gary Chryst, the dance supervisor.

“You don’t have to make anything bigger. We have to be careful not to give it all away at the beginning,” Chryst cautions, mentioning the moments in the song where she accentuates her body parts: “My hair! My teeth! My boobs! My nose!”

“I know, I get really excited,” Madix replies, taking in his observations with gentle laughter and polite “mm-hmms.”

“We don’t want to see the work,” Chryst says, “because you’re organically fun.”

That’s what Madix’s manager, Ajir, wants industry folk to pick up on when they see her in “Chicago.” His strategy has been to invite as many casting executives from networks and studios to the show as he can in the hopes that the performance can serve as her calling card.

“I think when they see what she’s capable of, it’ll open a lot of doors for her in the scripted space,” Ajir says. “What an opportunity for them to see her in a different light. And to see how many fans she has from ‘Vanderpump.’”

At Madix’s debut performance Jan. 29, Bravo fans appeared to fill much of the sold-out theater. Lala Kent and Scheana Shay, two of Madix’s “Vanderpump” castmates, had flown from L.A. to attend the first performance, and clumps of selfie seekers amassed in the aisles by their seats.

Even Madix’s friends who aren’t on the show but frequently appear on her Instagram page were attracting attention.

“I took a two-hour train to see her,” one young woman told Madix’s off-screen best friend, Brad Kearns, as if he might later convey the message. “I wish I could wait after to get a signature, but there’s no 10 o’clock train back to my hometown.”

But the Bravo fan base can be as fickle as it is loyal. After one season as America’s Sweetheart, Madix has already fallen from grace in the eyes of some who feel her newfound fame has gone to her head.

“I have never experienced someone who gets cheated on and suddenly she becomes God,” hisses Kent in the Season 11 trailer.

“It gives me tall poppy syndrome a bit,” Madix says. “The tallest poppy has to get cut down. There’s a lot of eyes on me, so it’s like, ‘Let’s cut this girl down to size.’

“I feel like I’m working, living and being pretty f— quiet about everything,” she adds, a touch defensively, “while also putting my life back together and trying to find a way to set myself up for a decent life as a middle-aged woman who now has to take everything on herself.”

Over the course of our three hours of conversation, money comes up repeatedly. Specifically her fear about not having it.

There was a time, during her first year in L.A., when she lived out of her car; she still feels like it was “f— yesterday,” a phrase she utters with such intensity you start to visualize the fogged-up windows, a sleeping bag rolled up in the back seat.

She doesn’t ever want to be back there, and has a real desire to create generational wealth for her family. She would like to be able to move her mother out to California to be closer to her and her brother.

And much as she wants to believe she is taking the next step in her career, Madix hasn’t allowed herself to even visualize life after “Vanderpump Rules.”

“The only way I could ever see myself moving away from the show is if I had another job,” she says.

A few weeks later, when I call to catch up with her, I mention the reaction to the new season of the reality show — how some fans feel as if it might be reaching its natural conclusion.

“I always feel like the show thrives when it’s at its most authentic, and if it feels like everyone’s stories have been told, I certainly don’t think it would be wise to just try to drum things up to keep it going,” she says.

Raquel Leviss in a green shirt, smiling, seated next to Tom Sandoval in a black shirt and Ariana Madix in pink

Raquel Leviss, left, was the center of the “Scandoval” on Season 10 of “Vanderpump Rules,” which ended Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix’s nine-year relationship.

(Nicole Weingart / Bravo via Getty Images)

But she can’t imagine Bravo pulling the plug when the show‘s ratings are strong. And even while 3,000 miles away from the cameras and her ex-boyfriend, Madix still finds herself attached to the drama of it all, including Sandoval’s travails.

The 40-year-old has been largely unable to find an effective way to market his villain era. He appeared on “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test,” a Fox show where celebrities endure grueling military-grade training, but did not make it to the final. He started a podcast that has not found an audience. And earlier this month, he issued an apology after saying in a New York Times Magazine cover story that “the O.J. Simpson thing and George Floyd” were “a little bit the same” as Scandoval.

“I was just blown away by how anybody could say something so awful,” Madix says. She also was disturbed by the article’s claim that after he made those remarks in his initial interview, Bravo intervened to restrict further access to him.

“It was interesting how much Bravo was trying to cover for him,” she says. When I respond that it seemed like standard practice for a network publicity department, she disagrees. “Are they doing that right now with me and you?” she asks rhetorically, alluding to the fact that no one has stepped in mid-story to monitor our interviews or text message exchanges.

When Madix returns to L.A. in April, she is likely to move back into the home she and Sandoval still co-own. The property has become its own source of tabloid drama: Neither party wants to leave, so both have continued to live there while ignoring each other, communicating exclusively via third parties such as friends and assistants.

They each put $250,000 down to buy the home, and post-split, Sandoval has stated his desire to buy Madix out. She says he sent her a letter of intent stating he would give her $600,000 for her portion, based on a valuation of $3.1 million. “No formal offer was made. He didn’t get an appraisal,” she says.

In January, she filed a suit asking the L.A. County Superior Court to approve a partition by sale, which would force the couple to sell the five-bedroom property and split the proceeds. Sandoval responded to the request this month, claiming Madix needs to repay a $90,000-loan before they move forward.

Remaining attached to her ex in this way — and to the entire Scandoval — is difficult for Madix, especially during the months she’s been in “Chicago,” trying to ignore so many other negative narratives — stunt casting, being a leading lady at 38, the clock ticking on her 15 minutes. She’s grappled with her identity as a reality star for a long time, unwittingly absorbing the notion that if you were in the profession, you “hadn’t done anything with your life. … You were beneath everything.”

Ariana Madix looks at her reflection in a dressing room mirror

It was only recently, when a friend pointed out that she’d amassed 10 years of on-camera experience — more than most actors get in their entire career — that her perspective started to shift. So she has no time for those who say she’s being “rewarded” for Scandoval. She won’t be reduced to a “passive participant in my own life.”

“I’ve had eyeballs on me that were not on me before. That gave me an inch, and I said, ‘OK, let me prove to you that I can do the mile. I can run this marathon because it’s what I’ve been preparing for this whole time.’”