She did so one afternoon through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in Midtown Manhattan (staying there is like having “a bedroom off of Bergdorf,” she says), as if she owns the joint, balanced on her vertiginous Gucci stilettos, carrying a purple Chanel bag in one arm and cradling a fluffy if lethargic rescue Pomeranian named Puffy in the other.
A public relations wrangler attempts to guide her to a table at the Palm Court, the opulent tea parlour within the hotel, but Vanderpump, a reality television star, pushes ahead, confidently, toward a banquette in a far corner.
With her lustrous mane the colour of dark-roasted coffee, her glinting blue eyes, her hip-hugging Victoria Beckham pencil skirt and her floral Dolce & Gabbana pussy-bow blouse, she is a queenly sight to behold. The whole room turns to gaze at her, as if on cue, but it doesn’t appear to bother her. After all, she is used to being watched.
“I always used to roll my eyes when celebrities – and, now, I don’t consider myself a celebrity, I use that word very loosely – when they’d say, ‘Oh, the paparazzi,’” she says in her honey-dipped British accent. “I’d think: ‘Well, you signed up for it. Don’t go out, then. Shut up!’”
She laughs before pausing and dropping her voice to a whisper. “Then, I got it,” she says. “Everywhere you go, people stare at you and are very aware of you being on the show. You start to choose your vacation based on where the show wasn’t aired. You start to live your life differently.”
The show, of course, is Bravo’s hit reality series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, now in its eighth season, which chronicles the boozing and brawling among a group of privileged female frenemies in the luxurious Los Angeles enclave.
It has helped transform Vanderpump from glamorous restaurateur into an avatar of the city’s obsession with wealth, good looks and success.
She is also the producer of the popular spinoff Vanderpump Rules. That show focuses on the mudslinging among the hard-drinking staff at her restaurant SUR, which she owns with her husband, Ken Todd.
Vanderpump, however, makes it clear that she’s not complaining. She not only embraces her peculiar form of fame, she also capitalises on it.
Vanderpump uses her celebrity to promote her restaurants (she is also an owner of Villa Blanca); the magazine Beverly Hills Lifestyle, of which she is editor; and most recently Vanderpump Rosé, a libation that matches her feminine and bubbly worldview. It’s a fitting tie-in. During one recent season, her tag line during the show’s title sequence was “Life isn’t all diamonds and rosé. But it should be.”
She also uses her platform to champion causes important to her, like gay and lesbian equality, AIDS awareness and animal rights (she has seven dogs, two miniature ponies and eight swans). Last year, she opened Vanderpump Dogs in Los Angeles, a rescue shelter tricked out with luxurious trappings like velvet sofas and chandeliers.
Vanderpump orders tea at the Plaza, but on the show, she’s best known for spilling it, aided by her quick wit and way with a bon mot. Upon seeing the hotel had yet to take down its Christmas trees a week into January, for example, she says: “I liken Christmas decorations being up too long to watching a porno after an orgasm. It’s just not the same.”
She has honed a television persona charismatic enough to demand ample screen time without resorting to confrontational theatrics. “I’ve been accused of being cold or removed, but I think that’s because I wasn’t as volatile or I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction,” she says, her hands glistening with jewels and her lips glossy and pink like a glazed French confection.
She remembers the first time she watched two co-stars verbally spar during filming. “I sat there and thought, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this in my life,” she says. “After we stopped filming, I went to the elevator and thought, ‘Oh God, I don’t think I can do this.’ I phoned my husband and said, ‘That was bizarre.’”
She pauses and adds, “But that was eight years ago.”
Since then, she has found herself at the centre of plenty of arguments, broadcast for public consumption. And she hasn’t made it out unscathed, either. At times she has been portrayed by her co-stars as outwardly warm but secretly Machiavellian. When a reporter suggests that maybe they’re jealous of her position as the show’s de facto star, she is too savvy to take the bait, perhaps proving her co-stars’ point.
“Anybody who says it’s jealousy is stupid because you’re setting yourself up for failure,” she says. “The next statement is, ‘What have you got to be jealous of,’ right?”
As producer of Vanderpump Rules, also on Bravo, Vanderpump is in the unique position of being both puppet and puppeteer. But she emphasises that authenticity is crucial for success and said that none of the scenarios are staged.
“They don’t have to produce us,” she says, leaving a platter of crustless sandwiches untouched, adhering to the unspoken Real Housewives rule that one should eat out often but not be seen actually eating.
Vanderpump notes that her dual role doesn’t mean she has any control over how she is portrayed on Real Housewives. “I have been told that I am one of the only Housewives to never have asked to have anything edited out,” she says, proudly. “But I have asked for things to be kept in.”
The afternoon has dissolved into early evening, and Vanderpump needs to ready herself for her appearance on Watch What Happens Live. As she leaves the Palm Court, tourists and patrician patrons alike stop to tell her how much they love her. She handles it with the diplomacy and efficiency of an experienced politician.
With the gap between reality TV and politics forever closed, Vanderpump even teases about running for office, possibly as governor of California.
“Could you imagine me? I’d love it,” she says, laughing. However, she does have one concern. “Would I be a governess? Because I’m British, and that’s like an old nanny.”
© NYT 2018