In early March, Ariana Madix’s world turned upside down when it was revealed that her boyfriend of nine years, Tom Sandoval, was cheating on her with her close friend and fellow Vanderpump Rules costar Rachel “Raquel” Leviss. What followed was a surreal chain of events for Madix as “Scandoval” gripped the nation, setting social media ablaze and breathing new life into the Bravo reality series.
A longtime fan favorite thanks to her refreshing mix of girl’s-girl energy and vulnerability, Madix was suddenly the TV star everyone everywhere was rooting for. As the demise of her relationship played out IRL and on the show (production on season 10 resumed as soon as the news broke), the Florida native, 38, released breakup merch, was cast in a Lifetime movie and even got invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Her now-iconic confrontation with Sandoval during the season finale was a master class in badassery, and in September, it was announced she was joining season 32 of Dancing With the Stars.
Eight months after the drama unfolded, Madix — who’s been dating New York–based fitness coach Daniel Wai since April — says she feels more confident than ever and is focused on looking forward.
“This situation made me realize that I can do hard things,” she tells Us. “The worst-case scenario literally did happen, and I was OK. Like, look — you can handle what’s thrown at you.” Madix sat down with Us on the set of her cover shoot in L.A. to talk about what’s next for her.Were you aware of how big Scandoval was when it was happening?
I was off social media initially, so friends filled me in here and there. I was like, “This is crazy,” but it was also happening in the midst of not eating and not sleeping. It was a weird juxtaposition of emotions and feelings.
Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
I can’t believe there was a mention made during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The president heard it. I was like, “That’s awesome.”
Fans really embraced you in the wake of the scandal. Has it been nice to connect to them in a new way?
It’s incredible. Sometimes I’ll go to the mall and meet someone who’s been through a similar situation. And then we’ll talk in the middle of Sephora and cry and hug each other.
This deeply personal scenario gave VPR a huge boost. How does that feel?
I know it’s a show, and it’s very entertaining, and I’m happy about that, but it’s also my real life. Sometimes that line is blurred, but of course, I want the show to do well.
What’s been the hardest part?
The wear and tear on the body. Regardless of being in shape or not, you’re not dancing in heels every day. That starts to affect you in ways you didn’t expect. [It’s] intense — I spend a lot of time icing my feet at home.
Has anything surprised you about the experience?
It doesn’t feel like a competition [but] more like this fun thing that we’re all doing together, that we’re all lucky to experience — the cast, the pros and the crew included.
Who’s your biggest competition?
I am. I can’t be Lele [Pons] or 17-year-old Xochitl [Gomez]. I can only be 38-year-old Ariana Madix. I’m just trying to be the best version of myself, stay in my lane and keep my eyes on my own paper.
Who have you gotten closest with?
I’ve really connected with Lele. We’re very similar, and she’s just so fun. Barry [Williams] is so lovely. I’ve made friends with some of the pros, too. There isn’t anyone I don’t love.
Has dancing changed how you feel about yourself?
If you were to put me in my samba outfit three months ago and say, “OK, go have lunch in this on Vanderpump Rules,” I would’ve been really self-conscious. But I’m focused more on what I’m doing and less on how I look, and that’s different for sure.
You have a lot going on with DWTS, filming VPR and your sandwich shop with castmate Katie Maloney. How do you balance it all?
I’m not balancing anything! [Laughs.] I’m on the verge of falling apart at all times. No, I mean, when it’s time to rest, I make sure I truly rest. I have no social life right now. I don’t remember what it’s like to go to a bar.
What do you do for self-care?
Sleep. And honestly, being outside and cuddling with my animals and getting to spend time with my friends and family is the best.
You’ve said you go to therapy. Did that help after the breakup?
Therapy helped 100 percent. Some of the work I was doing in therapy right before all of this set me up to be in a much better position. It could’ve been so much worse.
How are things with Daniel? Are you exclusive?
How does it feel to have him flying to see you on DWTS every week?
It’s awesome. He’s incredibly supportive. He sacrifices his sleep and time to help me with anything I need, and then he takes a red-eye back and goes straight to work.
Sounds like a keeper!
He’ll clean up things that are left out and [does] little things you don’t really think about. When I come home from the show and everything’s clean and there’s food in the fridge that he made, it’s like, “Wow, that’s so nice.”
Were you nervous about getting into another relationship?
I’m nervous about everything all the time. [Laughs.] It’s just part of my personality.
You’ve talked about not being into the idea of marriage. Do you think that will change?
I don’t know.
Do you have plans to do anything with them?
During season 1 of VPR, you were hesitant to be on camera. What advice would you go back and give that version of Ariana?
Don’t date abusive men who won’t let you shine and be on a TV show — because that’s what was going on and why I didn’t want to be on camera.
How have you changed since the show began in 2013?
I’ve grown up. I’m somebody who never really wanted to grow up. [But] over time, I’ve been able to love myself more and give myself a lot more grace when it comes to things we go through during filming. And that has allowed me to give others more grace.
Would you ever do your own spinoff series?
Sure. Why not? [I’d bring] all the girls. And James [Kennedy].
You’re close with Lala Kent, Scheana Shay and Katie. How did they support you through everything you’ve experienced?
They’ve been there for me, physically in the sense of coming over or giving me a place to go, and giving me advice and being there to cheer me up.
Were you surprised by anyone’s support?
Nobody surprised me. It’s been exactly what you would think.
You have a new book, Single AF Cocktails, coming out December 5. What was your inspiration?
I was inspired by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves to put all of it out there in an almost breakup-album style. I’ve always expressed myself through creative outlets. I’d love to do other kinds of books, too.
What’s your signature cocktail?
A mezcal Paloma. That’s my sh*t right there.
You used to bartend at hotspots in NYC. Any memorable celebrity encounters?
At Butter we saw everybody. Kanye [West] and LeBron [James] used to come in together. Leonardo [DiCaprio] was friends with the owners, so he used to come in a lot. As an elder millennial, I was obsessed. I would walk by [his table] so slowly, like, “Just notice me.” I’m from a small town in Florida. I couldn’t believe he was there.
Is it true you lived out of your car when you first moved to L.A.?
I was living with a friend who decided not to renew their lease at the last minute. I didn’t have anywhere to go, and I didn’t have any money. I was in and out of my car and couch surfing. I ended up getting into a really bad relationship because the guy had said I could stay with him.
Back then, did you imagine you’d find the stardom you have now?
Absolutely not. I was just hoping that, at some point, I could have steady acting work and be able to pay bills. I still have that mindset in the sense that if I don’t take a job or don’t say yes to things, I’ll be back in that position. It’s not like working in a bank, which is straightforward. Things are always up in the air in this world.
Do you have any other goals?
Owning my own home and being on Broadway. I dreamed about that when I was a little kid and still do. I’d [also] love to host my own dating show — specifically a queer dating show. There needs to be more of that.
Are there any other reality shows you’d you like to try out?
I’d love to be a judge on Top Chef because I really like to eat.
What about more acting?
Oh, absolutely. I want to do everything.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Oh, man. I’d love to be living in Ojai [California] and have goats and a small but successful goat cheese business. It sounds so good, right?
What do you want your reality-TV legacy to be?
For everyone who comes on reality TV to be able to be themselves, whether or not it makes them a “good” reality star. A lot of people might consider me somewhat bad at this job, but I feel like that’s what makes me, me.
With reporting by Sarah Jones
To read more of our exclusive interview with Ariana Madix, pick up the new issue of Us Weekly, on newsstands now.