James Kennedy (left) and Tom Sandoval on 'Vanderpump Rules' Credit - Casey Durkin—Bravo
When the trailer for the Vanderpump Rules season 10 reunion dropped last week, it wasn’t the high-octane emotions or tough questions posed by Andy Cohen about “Scandoval”—the cheating debacle that has dominated the season—that captured the internet. Instead, what went viral was a handful of silly bon mots lobbed at the cheating parties by cast member James Kennedy. Most popular: Kennedy’s instantly memeable line directed at Tom Sandoval, whom he deemed “a worm with a mustache.” The phrase has since garnered over 1.8 million searches on TikTok and spawned viewer-created merch from t-shirts and hoodies to mugs and candles.
— blonde hair 🖤 black heart (@blndhairblckhrt) May 11, 2023
It’s no easy feat to capture attention during a season like this when a single storyline has dominated headlines. And yet Kennedy, who has been a cast member on the show since 2015, may be having his best season yet. As the cycle wraps up with the finale episode on May 17 and reunion episodes to come beginning May 24, fans are eager to hear more from the 31-year-old London native. His extreme transparency, biting wit, and lack of a filter have often gotten him in trouble in the past—even costing him his job and fracturing important relationships. But now, in a season marked by deceit and darkness, his no-holds-barred commentary has been a welcome source of levity and humor.
Deeply attracted to James Kennedy this season… monitoring this
— Carey O'Donnell (@ecareyo) April 27, 2023
A long-running bit on the show, originated by Kennedy’s former castmate Jax Taylor, often has fans opining on who they consider to be “the number one guy in the group.” (Taylor infamously declared himself top dog in a season 4 fight with Sandoval and other cast members.) With Taylor no longer a part of the show and both “the Toms” in disgrace—Sandoval for cheating on his longtime girlfriend Ariana Madix and his best friend Tom Schwartz for helping to cover up the affair and for generally being terrible to his ex-wife Katie Maloney—Kennedy has emerged as the prime candidate.
— Queens of Bravo (@queensofbravo) May 11, 2023
For Maggie Kelley, the administrator of @BestofBravo, a fan account with over 240K followers, watching people act out is a huge part of the appeal of reality TV. “People behaving badly make for funnier episodes and more interesting storylines,” Kelley says, adding that some situations—like Scandoval—cross into unsavory territory.
The cardinal rule of reality TV is that you can—and should—behave badly up to a point, but you can’t hide it from the cameras. Sandoval and Leviss’s secret affair violated that boundary. Which is why Kennedy’s honest and indignant reactions to the story as it has unfolded this season have made him a fan favorite.
It’s a significant shift. For the better part of the seven seasons that he has been a cast member of Vanderpump Rules, the DJ and part-time server has held the role of a villain. A true enfant terrible, Kennedy’s storylines have been marked by his sharp (and at times cruel and misogynistic) tongue and his tendency to spontaneously erupt in a tantrum or engage in outrageous antics (chugging a bottle of Fireball, starting a screaming match with his best friend Lala Kent over who ate a plate of pasta). His most problematic moments, which range from dubbing himself the “white Kanye” (a nickname he’s since retired) to relentlessly fat-shaming Maloney until it led to him getting fired from his job at SUR, are striking. But his candor has also been wielded in more positive ways. Kennedy has always been willing to openly share the ups and downs of his life with the audience, from discussing his struggles with alcohol and later, sobriety, to divulging painful memories about his family life growing up. Kelley attributes his success, especially this season, to that element of authenticity.
“He’s super relatable and puts it all out there, and I really respect him for it, because that’s what he signed up for,” Kelley says, likening Kennedy to Luann “the Countess” de Lesseps of The Real Housewives of New York City, who has become beloved in the Bravo universe for her willingness to let viewers in on her mistakes, including the story behind her 2017 arrest in Palm Beach, Fla. “He’s showing his whole life and taking us along for the ride—the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Kelley says.
It’s not hard for Kennedy to look good this season: his only male counterparts in the ensemble cast are the Toms, both of whom have drawn ire for their deceit and hypocrisy. Sandoval has always attempted to present himself as someone who stands up for what’s right, taking showy stands like going out of his way to affirm Madix’s bisexual identity or calling out Taylor’s intention to hire an anti-gay pastor to officiate his wedding. Over the years, it’s been clear he’s hungry to be perceived as the person with the strongest moral compass in a crew of self-absorbed Hollywood hopefuls. But with the discovery of his sustained affair with Raquel Leviss, who also happens to have been Madix’s best friend and Kennedy’s former fiancée, he’s proven himself to be disingenuous. Meanwhile Schwartz, recently divorced from Maloney, has carefully modeled the persona of a bumbling, hapless “nice guy” since the first season of Vanderpump Rules—an act that has allowed his bad behavior, from gaslighting and cheating on his wife to throwing drinks, to go largely unchecked by viewers and cast members alike.
By contrast, Kennedy is not here to make friends. He has rarely seemed to be concerned with being liked or appearing a certain way on the show. He shows uncensored emotion, whether that means bursting into tears in SUR co-owner Lisa Vanderpump’s office or telling Taylor exactly what he thinks of him as a coworker. This lack of a filter has resulted in explosive moments, but it has also established Kennedy as someone who doesn’t alter his persona for TV. For Vanessa Rizi, who co-hosts the podcast Real Moms of Bravo with Abby Steffens, Kennedy’s willingness to be real makes him one of the show’s most trustworthy characters, especially in a season like this.
“He’s unfiltered, uncensored, and doesn’t come across as super rehearsed… He’s the one willing to call it like he sees it. He’s not afraid or intimidated like Sandoval or Schwartz,” Rizi says, noting that those qualities have recently made him one of the most enjoyable cast members to watch. Kelley adds, “His confessionals are up there with the housewives.”
For Rizi’s co-host Steffens, Kennedy’s appeal lies in his evolution over the years, particularly when it comes to his treatment of women. “We all love a comeback story,” Steffens says, citing the reality TV star’s past behavior and how he seems to have a respectful relationship with his current girlfriend and genuine friendships with the women on the show. “We’ve seen him put in a lot of work. He’s been able to rise.”
Kennedy hasn’t abandoned his old ways. This season alone, his decision to begin drinking again and a subsequent incident earned him a reprimand from Vanderpump; he threw a drink in Schwartz’s face; and he made sexist comments about Leviss on social media. He will never be mistaken for a “nice guy,” but he won’t pretend to be one, either. That’s what sets him apart from his castmates.
And for Rizi, like many other viewers, good behavior and “good people” are not the reason to watch reality TV. “As viewers, we are complicit in allowing naughty behavior, because it’s all the stuff we don’t do in our everyday lives,” she says. “We have to have the ‘bad,’ because that’s what makes reality TV so good.”