Reality TV got a little realer on Vanderpump Rules last month as we watched the cast deal with the tragedy of the gun massacre at Pulse nightclub in an episode - titled 'Pride' - which aired on the six-month anniversary of the shooting. Anyone who's seen the show knows that LA Pride has always been a big event for both the show and the restaurant the show is set in—SUR is located right in the middle of West Hollywood, LA's gay district, and in every previous season, the cast has been up on a float representing Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump's LGBT+ friendly brand.
“I don’t know how to articulately talk about it, you know, because it was so emotional," Ariana Madix says of the mood in West Hollywood that day, where most of the cast lives and works. "Some people didn’t feel comfortable showing up, because they had safety concerns, I felt like it was our duty to go out there, put on a smile, and support the community that’s done so many wonderful things for us, you know? The LGBT+ community has done so much for us, with this TV show."
Of showing up to work the day after the massacre, Ariana says that she "felt like the biggest ‘fuck you’ to bigotry and hatred is to be loud and proud."
She continues: "I felt like, 'if you guys are gonna be out here loud and proud then I’m gonna be out here with you'."
"It was a very emotional day," agrees Tom Sandoval, who was visibly shaken in the episode. He continues: "I felt weird even talking about it - like I almost didn’t deserve to have an emotional response - because I haven’t gone through what the community has gone through.”
In happier times, Vanderpump Rules is a show that delivers everything you've come to know and love from a reality show about a close group of friends-who-are-sometimes-frenemies: scandal, drama, fights, and - as an afterthought - fun, romance, and adventure. But sometimes, in the downtime from the latest betrayal of trust or alcohol-fuelled fight, Pump Rules delivers moments that surprise the average reality TV fan.
"I hate heteronormative bullshit," Ariana proclaimed last season as Tom prepared to go on a 'boys trip', in what was probably the first time the word 'heteronormative' has ever been used on a reality show.
“There are some people who were like ‘I think you meant gender-normative’ and I was like, ‘I kinda meant both'," Ariana says of the reaction to the scene.
"It always bugs me when people are like ‘guys are supposed to like this, girls are supposed to like this, male and female roles in a relationship are supposed to be like this' and, you know, there’s no rules!" she continues, adding that she was surprised to see that the editors had left that scene in the final cut of episode.
While this may have been the first time a cast member had used the word heteronormative, the show's cast members have been - perhaps unintentionally - breaking down heteronormative expectations around gender and sexual identity fairly consistently.
In season two, we watched as rumours swirled around whether Jax had maybe slept with his older, male friend from Miami. The cast's reaction was sort of a collective shrug, as if to say 'eh, maybe he did, but who cares?'.
Last season's reunion episode had four of the six main female cast members (Ariana, Katie, Kristen and Scheana) reveal that they'd been with a woman before. As host Andy Cohen tried to play the moment off as a big reveal, again, the cast's response was less titillated and more 'yeah, so?'.
I ask Ariana if she'd planned on revealing that she'd been with a woman before, or whether it was just something that had come out in the long day of filming the reunion episodes.
“It was kind of like, one of those things that people who are in my life know, but I guess is just one of those things that I didn’t really think about, because I feel like honesty is important in that regard," she says. "There’s a lot of people who assume that if you’re saying something like that, that you’re saying it to like, be cool or edgy, but to me, it’s so much more important than that."
Aside from sexual fluidity, another running theme fans have observed is one where Ariana and Tom teach Jax about social issues. In a video that surfaced online earlier this year, viewers watched as Ariana taught a very drunk Jax about the tampon tax, prompting the possibly-reformed serial cheater to proclaim "I'm a feminist, I'm starting to believe in women's rights!"
In a scene that aired earlier this season, Ariana and Tom find themselves explaining to a (very, very) clueless Jax the difference between a drag queen and a transgender woman, and why it's not okay to say 'tranny'.
“I had so much second-hand embarrassment," Ariana says of that scene. "But I’m glad they showed that, I’m glad they kept it in the episode, because I mean, poor guy, he really just had no idea, and I’m glad that we corrected him," she says, adding that hopefully Jax now knows the difference and won't repeat the mistake.
"I feel like transphobia is something that is being addressed more now, and it’s good that it’s being addressed, because that’s how you get to stamp out this ignorance," she adds.
“Maybe it’s good that Jax is like that because when they’re filming it, and we’re correcting him, it maybe helps people that are watching the show,” suggests Tom.
"I feel like Jax is at a point now where he'll ask," says Ariana who adds that he is "well intentioned, but totally clueless."
When asked for advice on dealing with the Jax in our lives (someone generally well-meaning but totally clueless about their own privilege and / or any social issues), Ariana says that she's found that positive reinforcement - celebrating those small wins and lessons remembered - to be successful.
"I feel like the word 'ignorance' has such a negative connotation, but sometimes it can be that they just don’t know," she says.
"You know, I fuck up too, I make mistakes too," she says, "but I think, you put it out there, and some people are gonna like it and some people are gonna hate it, but you know what? It’s 2017, and I fucken' hate heteronormative bullshit.”