Lisa Vanderpump, Inc.: The Art of Leveraging Reality TV and Growing a Modern Hollywood Empire
Lisa Vanderpump leveraged 'Vanderpump Rules' to modern Hollywood empire with five restaurants, 350 employees and a net worth bested only by Kardashians; as her show returns (and she ditches 'The Real Housewives'), she reveals the secrets of her unusual success.
On a Wednesday in mid-December, the bouncer at Lisa Vanderpump’s TomTom Bar nods in a parade of Korean tourists, West Hollywood locals and several dozen others who have come to pay homage to Vanderpump Rules, the Bravo docuseries following its eponymous restaurateur and her staff.
The 59-year-old Vanderpump, whose genteel British facade is prone to break for sexual innuendo, has parlayed her show’s popularity — on the eve of its eighth season, which premieres Jan. 7, it still ranks among Bravo’s most watched with a weekly audience of 2.3 million — into a hospitality empire that also includes neighboring eateries SUR and Pump Lounge. An exceptionally strong Friday or Saturday can lure as many as 2,000 diners and drinkers to Vanderpump’s over-the-top trio of venues, decorated with glass-encased chandeliers, bouquets of fresh flowers, oversized clock parts and bronzed Hindu deities.
The velvet rope has the air of exclusivity, but it’ll drop for anyone willing to wait in line and pay $15 for a Pumptini to re-create the nights out they’ve seen on Bravo or read about in Page Six. Whether Vanderpump or any of her TV staff shows up is beside the point. Platters of deep-fried goat cheese balls are devoured, technicolor cocktails are consumed and Instagrams are most assuredly posted.
“The restaurant business has always been a public arena,” the former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star says of her clientele. “We’ve just got a bit of a different energy now, with the whole celebrity factor from the show.”
Three first-timers in town from Florida for an environmental conference braved the hour-plus Uber from downtown’s Marriott to Vanderpump’s hub (roughly the intersection of Santa Monica and Robertson boulevards) for a meal at SUR and a nightcap at TomTom.
“We call that the Vander-crawl,” says Tom Sandoval, an original Vanderpump Rules castmember who began slinging margaritas at SUR and now shares a 5 percent stake in TomTom with castmate Tom Schwartz. “People will start off at SUR, maybe stop by Pump and then go to TomTom.” When asked whether the experience proved worthy of their only free time in Los Angeles, even though none of the cast ultimately showed up, the three women enthusiastically nod in agreement.
Vanderpump, whose net worth ranks behind only Kardashians and Jenners among entrepreneurial reality talent with reports painting it as high as $75 million, is now extending her business well beyond WeHo. Alongside husband and partner Ken Todd, Vanderpump has a fourth Los Angeles restaurant (Villa Blanca in Beverly Hills), a year-old Las Vegas outpost (Vanderpump Cocktail Garden at Caesars Palace), a dog shelter/boutique (Beverly Grove’s Vanderpump Dogs) and, for those eager to bring the Vander-magic home, a wine label (Vanderpump Rosé) and a forthcoming line of lighting. Those in her professional orbit describe her as “street smart,” “the only truly successful Real Housewife” and “not Kris Jenner-level savvy, but savvy.”
Offers Vanderpump: “I’ve just always had quite a work ethic. I think it ties into being a mother, being a creator and being a hostess. I like to make people feel good … except in the sack, of course.”
The previous week, I meet Vanderpump for mid-morning tea at her 2-acre Beverly Park manor. A contemporary castle with a moat, “Villa Rosa” also houses the animal lover’s seven dogs, four swans and two miniature horses. During a tour of the three towering Christmas trees that she’s personally adorned with white and pink baubles, she mentions the next item on her day’s agenda: a trip to the flower market in downtown L.A. that will entail descending into the canyon below and making the 20-mile drive. “I don’t like people to do things for me, and sure, a bit of that stems from my being a control freak,” says Vanderpump. “I don’t want to just point my finger. I want to create it myself. That’s why I’m incapable of being passive in any relationship.”
Vanderpump arrived in Beverly Hills after a stint in the South of France in 2005 — “ostensibly retired,” having unloaded the first generation of her hospitality empire and long-finished with a patchy career as an actress. She started performing as a teenager, played Glenda Jackson’s daughter in 1973’s A Touch of Class and landed small parts in American TV shows like Silk Stalkings but closed the book on that chapter with a scene opposite David Hasselhoff in a 1995 episode of Baywatch Nights.
Her day job had much stronger legs. Vanderpump and Todd’s original nightlife business began shortly after their 1982 wedding with a wine bar on London’s Oxford Street. They went on to open 30 restaurants, bars and clubs in the city over two decades, catering to both the glitterati (George Michael and Elton John partied at their Soho club Shadow Lounge) and the proletariat (Cheers, modeled after the set of the 1980s sitcom, was a Piccadilly Circus tourist trap). The most successful of their establishments were sold in two batches, one for $16 million in 1998, and helped finance their increasingly haute lifestyle. It wasn’t until 2005, when the eldest of her two children decided to attend college in Southern California, that the couple set their sights on Beverly Hills.
They invested in their first L.A. restaurant, SUR on Robertson Boulevard, mainly for the visa. “We needed to do something right away,” says Vanderpump, “so we shook hands that day and started developing.” Vanderpump and Todd sunk $500,000 into the then-minuscule 25-seat eatery, blowing it out into the 400-capacity compound that it is today. Todd, a taciturn fellow whose television appearances tend to focus on him toting one of his wife’s smaller dogs, managed partnerships and operations. Vanderpump handled design. It’s pretty much the same dynamic they’ve always followed, with one significant difference. In England, the couple was so intensely reserved that The Evening Standard once labeled them “clubland’s most private power couple.”
“That was the antithesis of the life we live now,” she says of their London years. “We had two young children, we were in the country half the time — but we moved here, and within a few years I ended up on Housewives. God help me.”
A Pomeranian named Puffy saunters into the formal living room. With some assistance, he hops onto the couch, spending a moment pressed to Vanderpump’s cleavage before she invites me to greet him. I compliment Puffy on his Christmas sweater, a piece apparently more utilitarian than sartorial. “He has alopecia,” she whispers, trying to not remind her dog of his hair loss. Moments like these, opulent yet accessible, have made this woman the subject of more than 350 hours of original programming since 2010.
Housewives proved to be a much bigger platform than Vanderpump anticipated. Functioning as the series’ one-woman Greek chorus (with a British accent), she gained a following for her dry commentary, wry double entendres and chess-master approach to castmate confrontations. Though her personal life was on display, her professional life was largely left on the cutting-room floor. So, in 2011, Vanderpump and Real Housewives producer Alex Baskin of Evolution Media began discussing a spinoff set at SUR that would focus on the lives of waiters and bartenders, with Vanderpump occasionally stepping in as boss and maternal figure.
Bravo feared a show about a restaurant staff — kids in their 20s surviving on tips and living in dingy West Hollywood rentals — wouldn’t jibe with NBCUniversal’s most aspirational cable brand. “Cottage-cheese ceilings are antithetical to Bravo,” several recall former chief Lauren Zalaznick saying. But Vanderpump pushed back. If Downton Abbey fans were equally interested in servants and gentry, a few ugly couches wouldn’t keep Real Housewives viewers from following dramas a few miles outside of Beverly Hills. “Somebody said that it was going to be a show about wannabes,” Vanderpump says. “Everybody who’s waiting tables in Hollywood is a wannabe something or another. That’s why it’s interesting.”
In the end, Bravo saw the potential. “As poor as they were,” says one former network exec, “they were all attractive.”
Vanderpump Rules made it on-air with a test eight-episode order, grabbing enough of the Housewives audience and, more importantly to Bravo, luring in new and much younger viewers. By the time its annual episode count had swollen to 24, diners were showing up at SUR in hopes of seeing the cast. And, at least for a few years, they could easily get a table in the same section as the waitress whose marriage they knew wouldn’t last or order a drink at the bar from the recovering lothario who’d slept with an alarming percentage of the cast.
“Customers want to see the cast working, but what they most want to see is the crew shooting while the cast is working,” says showrunner Bill Langworthy, describing the biggest obstacle of the three-month shoot that takes place every summer. “You can ask them, ‘Maybe put your phone down?’ but they don’t. They physically can’t.”
Pump opened in 2014, and TomTom followed in 2018 — each getting an arc on Vanderpump Rules and a bevy of boldface reservations. TomTom’s arrival brought out Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Pharrell and Miley Cyrus; Chrissy Teigen posted an Instagram of herself and husband John Legend at the bar re-creating a photo of co-owners and castmates Sandoval and Schwartz. Her caption: “FINALLY.”
Still, the restaurant industry is fraught enough without the circus a reality show brings. On Jan. 5, a Ferrari crashed through Pump’s front patio. (“We are not a drive-thru,” Vanderpump posted on social media. “Thank God no one was hurt.”) Villa Blanca, which Vanderpump and Todd have twice quietly tried to sell, has been the subject of multiple lawsuits — with a 2014 sexual harassment complaint by a former waitress winning her a $100,000 award. Just before the new year, a TomTom bartender and Pump doorman filed a class-action suit for unpaid wages. Vanderpump declines comment on the suits, but she does make a point of noting that she is as concerned about hiring as she is about the plotlines.
“A lot of people see this as an opportunity to jump into reality [television],” says Vanderpump, who employs roughly 350 and flew to her Las Vegas bar (featured in Vanderpump Rules‘ new season) days before Christmas to interview candidates for a GM post. “I’ve got to be careful to make sure they’re qualified and the right fit.”
As for her original cast, they don’t put in much time at the restaurants. Only two of the original six (Jax Taylor and Scheana Shay) have punched in at SUR in the past year. They don’t need to. Barely netting $10,000 for their participation in the entire first season, sources say the core castmembers each take in roughly $25,000 an episode since signing new contracts in 2017 and 2018. (CAA-repped Vanderpump is said to make more than double that, before lucrative incentives, though Bravo reps would not comment on any salaries.) Within a six-month period of 2019, the series’ three main couples bought eerily similar houses for roughly $2 million within the same 1-mile radius of Valley Village. Many close to the show, however, question how the series will be received now that its main players are more upstairs than downstairs and increasingly deliberating babies instead of bar crawls — endangering a popularity that, alongside other top Bravo performers, helped drive 2018-19 ad revenue up 2.3 percent as the overall linear TV market fell 4 percent. If Vanderpump is anxious, she doesn’t show it.
“The things that we’re all dealing with here, that’s what good reality shows are about,” she says, “not the mindless bullshit.”
Vanderpump dances around the subject, but her “mindless bullshit” comment is unquestionably a nod to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills — which she, much to Bravo’s chagrin, abruptly quit in July before completing production on its ninth season.
“Puppygate,” an almost-too-petty-to-put-into-words chain of events that precipitated her exit, focused on co-star Dorit Kemsley bringing home a dog — a chihuahua mix named Lucy Lucy Apple Juice — from Vanderpump’s adoption center, with that dog ending up in another shelter and an item about the ordeal running in Radar Online. Seven grown women, bound only by their famous ZIP code, sucked up a season’s worth of oxygen fighting about who knew what and when. Vanderpump was accused of planting the story. She denied it. But it was too late. She was stuck in the reality mud she’d gingerly sidestepped (and occasionally slung) for nearly a decade. “They carried on for 24 episodes, all of them coming at me, just relentless … calling me a liar in front of the whole world,” says Vanderpump.
Puppygate aside, Vanderpump eagerly discusses the Vanderpump Dogs brand — a nonprofit she says placed 1,300 strays in its first year. (Rumblings that its flagship boutique is being considered as the setting for a potential Vanderpump Rules spinoff are neither confirmed nor officially denied.) And while she’s mum on any new restaurant plans, aside from the January opening of TomTom’s 2,000-square-foot expansion, Vanderpump insists she has not opened her last venture. “I still have a mortgage,” she says, gesturing around her $12 million home. “I still have bills. And even if I could just sit around in bed, eating bonbons, I probably wouldn’t want that.”
Vanderpump repositions her balding canine so that his silent farts waft in my direction. “Can you smell that?” asks Vanderpump. “Oh, ridiculous! He’s got terrible gas. Here, you can have his rear end,” a not-so-subtle cue that our time together is coming to an end and she’s got flowers to buy. That a visit to her home or a decent night out at one of her restaurants can offer even a sliver of the energy and absurdity she throws on TV is no accident. Vanderpump’s ability to manipulate nearly any room or scenario with her camera-ready personality is just part of her brand as perpetual hostess.
“I know I’m eccentric — with the dogs and the pink and the flowers and the sex jokes — but I don’t take myself seriously,” says Vanderpump, her smile an open invitation for a selfie. “Work, that I take seriously.”
HOW THE ORIGINAL ‘PUMP RULES’ CAST CASHES IN
The founding six series regulars have leveraged reality fame into a variety of side hustles. Says Tom Sandoval, “It starts as club appearances, and suddenly you’re paid to post on social. … A lot changes.”
Instagram followers: 986K
Still putting in SUR shifts, Taylor, 40, briefly had a fitness app and now primarily plugs sports drinks. Wife Brittany Cartwright, the series’ most popular late addition, has 1.3 million Insta followers.
Instagram followers: 719K
Fired from SUR in 2014, Doute, 36, has relaunched fashion line James Mae. Self-help book He’s Making You Crazy, co-written by How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days author Michele Alexander, arrives in June.
Instagram followers: 1M
Maloney-Schwartz, 32, the latest SUR defector, teamed with Doute and Schroeder for Witches of WeHo, a wine label from actor Stephen Amell‘s Nocking Point Wines.
Instagram followers: 1.1M
Still pursuing a singing career while occasionally waiting tables, Shay, 34, interviews other reality TV talent on her primary side hustle: weekly podcast Scheananigans With Scheana Shay.
Instagram followers: 1.9M
Not above shilling Taco Bell on social media and the first to ditch SUR back in 2013, Schroeder, 31, hit No. 3 on the New York Times charts with 2019 book Next Level Basic: The Definitive Basic Bitch.
Instagram followers: 887K
On top of his investment in TomTom, Sandoval, 36, is plotting a whiskey label after the December release of Fancy AF Cocktails — a mixology guide he wrote with girlfriend Ariana Madix.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.