In February, Tom Sandoval bombed through Laurel Canyon in his Mercedes E-400 coupe, talking excitedly about the time he asked his hero, Neil Degrasse Tyson, if our evidence of dark matter is solely based on gravitational lensing.
Sandoval, 36, is an unlikely science enthusiast. The star of Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules is better known for his elaborate grooming routine—the flatiron, the level 5 hairspray, the forehead shaving—than for his intellectualism, but he’s drawn to science because it gives him something to believe in as an alternative to religion. “Something that I love about scientific truths is that they are true—but not fact. They’re true until proven otherwise. ” He pauses, and his voice quiets as he considers why he’s so drawn to truths that are not necessarily fact: “It keeps people from being so close-minded.”
Tom Sandoval’s universe is ordered by a different set of laws. Sandoval is one of the core cast members of Vanderpump Rules, the Bravo reality show set in way gay West Hollywood that centers around the lives of straight—and that’s important—bartenders and servers at Lisa Vanderpump’s SUR Restaurant. (SUR stands for Sexy Unique Restaurant, making it Sexy Unique Restaurant Restaurant, which isn’t important but it is funny.) Sandoval’s storylines are classic reality TV: they have included a messy breakup rife with cheating and lying, and a shirtless fist fight in a Vegas parking lot. His grooming is so legendary it’s practically a secondary character.
“He’s a peacocker, he’s a preener, he is someone who likes to make an entrance,” said Tom Schwartz, Sandoval’s best friend-cum-VPR costar-cum-business partner. On TV, Sandoval can come across as vapid. Reality shows have a flattening effect—it Shrinky Dinks people into characters, playing up the outer edges of the yin and yang of their personalities, focusing on the extremes. And while Sandoval is a real person, with interests and opinions that don’t fit quite so well into the VPR plotline generator, he is also very definitely a person of extremes.
His showmanship, which is ridiculous and irresistibly watchable in that “is this guy for real?!” reality TV way, is part of what makes him a compelling star. He’s unabashedly vain about his appearance in ways that men typically don’t talk about; he doesn’t just tan—he has a tanning strategy. (It involves his ankles.) He cries openly and easily. He effusively tells his male friends, “I love you,” often through those tears. In an incredible display, he arrived at BravoCon in full drag. He’s flashy, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. But as the seasons have gone on, eight of them so far, something more significant emerged about Tom Sandoval—he is seemingly unbound by the strictures of masculinity. He calls it being “extra AF.” But there’s something more zeitgeist-y, less just-for-camera, about his extraness. And as people increasingly question and push against antiquated notions of what it means to be a man—and as the show reckons with its place in 2020, firing four cast members involved in racist incidents—something strange has happened: the cartoonish star of a show about straights behaving badly in a gay playground became a compelling model for a kinder, gentler, more tolerant, and far more aggressively groomed brand of masculinity.