Over the course of four seasons on Vanderpump Rules, Jax Taylor has done the following, on camera:
- Been reprimanded for poorly mixing a jalapeño margarita.
- Acquired, by my count, four really beautiful girlfriends, and been caught cheating on them all.
- Fought shirtless in a Las Vegas parking lot.
- Fought, with shirt, in a lounge in Hollywood.
- Taken a shit.
- Cried after being caught stealing a pair of sunglasses.
All of these actions would have cemented his place in reality television history. But with any luck, he’ll be remembered for a single line, one of the greatest ever spoken on the small screen:
“If I was sorry for it, I would’ve done it one time. I did it twice.”
Jax was raised in suburban Detroit, amidst the thick hedges and wood-paneled conservatism that surrounds the city’s industrial grit. His father was a good man, successful but stern, very conventional. Jax, who was then a boy called Jason, didn’t fit that mold. He liked to have fun; he didn’t like direction. He went to Michigan State because that’s what you did if you didn’t get into Michigan or get a job straight away with the Big Three. He was too wild to last there. He dropped out and went to community college, didn’t last there either. He joined the Navy because he had nothing else, trained at a base in Virginia, and was eventually stationed in Kosovo during one of those periods when you don’t think of our forces having much to do overseas. He doesn’t really like to say much about it, only that it happened.
Three years later, he was a civilian again, back in Michigan. Adrift, living at home, fucking around. He was walking through K-Mart with his mom when a woman approached and said he should model for the weekend coupon catalogues. At first, he didn’t like this. Where he came from, there were no gay people—well, you know, it seemed like it anyways—and he didn’t want to be a guy that put on makeup and posed for photos. But he eventually went through with it and made 600 bucks, and then he did it again. Then someone a little more important saw one of his pictures and it became a job. He went to Chicago and, boom—he was booking gigs for Target, Kohl’s, Old Navy. All of the sudden he was flying to Milan. Then Paris, then Australia, then Miami.
Then, finally, Los Angeles.
Once in LA, he hustled, doing this thing that he’d never planned to do. He decided to stop calling himself Jason. There are many Jasons, he thought, and so few Jaxes. He spent his time shooting ads that ended up on billboards, tending bar, and partying. He got in fights, got in trouble, met some people, kept partying, kept modeling, hit repeat. He was in his mid-twenties, then his late twenties. Then he was past thirty and tired, and the work was becoming less steady. It felt like LA had broken him—he had an overdrawn checking account and yet another relationship plummeting to a nasty end. He still had his pickup truck, though, and he filled it with everything he owned. He wasn’t sure if he had could afford the gas for the trip, but he was ready to move to Florida, where his parents had relocated. He was going to be a Florida fireman—a regular guy working a regular job in a regular place.
But then his boss told him to wait. He’d been working at one of the Real Housewives’ restaurants, a gig he scored through an ex. This housewife—a mother figure, really, as kind as she was shrewd—asked him to come into her office, and scoffed when he said he was leaving LA. Nonsense, she said. Just give her a few weeks. Trust her. She had something in the works. Something was about to change, Lisa Vanderpump told him.
Jax Taylor is the biggest, most ire-inducing star on Vanderpump Rules, a Bravo spin-off focused on the work, sex, and drinking lives of the employees at Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump’s Sur restaurant in West Hollywood (disappointing detail: Sur is an acronym that stands for “Sexy Unique Restaurant”). If the reality TV genre, in general, has profited largely off the appeal of democratized celebrity, Vanderpump has taken that appeal and honed it into something more targeted, more potent. For four seasons now, the show’s stars have been presenting pure willingness. Which isn’t exactly novel, but there’s no other conceit attached to it.
Vanderpump is humming at an all-time high, but from the beginning, the cast managed to break through the numbness that surrounds much of current-day reality television. The formatting of the show is similar to any Bravo fare—the slick production, the musical cues, the breezy styling—but the cast felt reassuringly unhinged from the very first episode, and not unhinged in the now-it’s-my-turn-to-go-batshit way of their housewife and real estate mogul counterparts.
Nobody expected Vanderpump to be the hit and cultural hallmark that it’s become, but that’s because nobody fully appreciated just how vibrant a person like Jax can feel alongside so many people who have become so indifferent to hiding their calculation. He’s the guy who gave the show’s producers a key to his apartment. He’s the one who, when he hears the door unlock, hops up to get mic’d and goes right on living without complaint. Most importantly, in a show that found its identity in good-looking people fucking and fighting, he is a good-looking guy who fucks and fights more than the rest.
The problem is, if you play the good-looking villain in a reality show, nobody says “great job.” They say, “Hey, there goes that dick.”
The first night we’re supposed to meet, Jax ditches me. “Fucking Jax, man,” I mutter to myself when I get the email from his PR person. What a Jax thing to do, I think, because it is. Dude is flaky, but on TV and even tonight, it’s somehow rakish, charming. At the very least, it’s on-brand.
As a Plan B, I take an Uber to Sur to get drunk and imagine he’s behind the bar.
“You a fan?” the Uber driver asks when I tell him where I'm headed. I avoid the question and say I’m writing about Jax. “He’s a fucking dog,” the driver sneers. “You know it’s all acting, right? Don’t let them fool you. Trust me, out here you gotta work every angle.”
As I saddle up to the bar, I get another email from Jax’s PR rep. Since drinks didn’t happen tonight, they’re happy to offer me the chance to work out with Jax the next morning. I may be aware, she tells me, that working out is a big part of Jax’s life. I may have seen him working out on the show. No better way to understand what makes him tick. As an extra bonus, we’ll be at LA Fitness with Jax’s trainer, who has also appeared on the show, playing the role of Jax’s trainer.
I check Instagram and see a picture of Jax and his boys in a suite at the Kings game. There’s bottle service. He’s leaning against the plexiglass, staring down at the ice, smiling. On the wall behind me, there’s a giant promotional portrait of the whole cast: the bosses—Lisa and Ken; the staff—Stassi, Katie, Tom, Kristen, and Scheena. Jax is in the middle of the shot posing hard with his arms crossed, his plucked, arched eyebrows holding the simmering-mischief look that is his go-to look.
The bartender on shift at Sur tonight is like Jax in that his jawline is wider than the top of his head and he behaves with the very liberating assumption that everyone wants to fuck him. As the happy hour rush ends and the jalapeno margaritas and goat cheese balls (another item featured on the show) are cleared away, I ask him if he’s jealous of Jax and the others.
“No way,” he says. “The producers keep asking me to do the show. I say, with all due respect, it’s not for me. I’m out here to act, write. Not gonna get caught up in all that.”
He even asks the Vanderpump producers to block his face out when they film. In scenes where a hundred extras are cramming to get in a shot, he’s the one fuzzy guy. People tell him he’s fucking crazy, but he knows the consequences of reality TV. He knows that some of the Real World people are only just now restarting their acting careers because it takes the public about a decade to forget your face, and he’s only got this one chance with this one face, you know?
The problem is, if you play the good-looking villain in a reality show, nobody says "Great job." They say, “Hey, there goes that dick.”
I finish my goat cheese balls and ask the bartender what he thinks will happen to the Vanderpump crew when the show finally runs its course. He grins and says, “Ask Jax that at the gym tomorrow. He might fucking punch you in the face, but you should ask him.”
The next morning, Jax is late. So is his PR person, who I’ve got to meet before I’m allowed to meet Jax, which is kind of ludicrous considering that I spent the night at the very public bar where he works, and our meeting today is at an LA Fitness where any old riff raff can go, not even a fucking Equinox.
When Jax does show up a half hour later, he’s wearing the same outfit I saw on Instagram last night. He apologizes and says he’s too hungover to work out and, if it’s okay with us, can we maybe just go hang out at IHOP?
“This is so bad,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m a mess. I screwed this one up.” He runs his hand through his unbrushed hair to bring it up off his forehead and gives a rueful, apologetic little smirk, first to his PR rep, then to me. We both rush to absolve him. This is one of Jax’s gifts: the speed with which he can screw up, confess, insult himself harmlessly, smile, and move on unscathed. I like the way it feels to have him apologize to me. The PR person beams and says, “I told you, Jax is Jax. No matter where you are, you’re gonna get the real him.”
Over pancakes, I ask him if there’s anything he feels uncomfortable talking about.
He says no. Honestly nothing, a fact he’s adamant about, proud of. It’s that quality, he says, that makes Vanderpump such a great show. It’s no B.S. “It’s authentic,” Jax says.
Talk to anyone working in reality TV right now and authenticity is the key. That’s what the networks say they’re looking for. The problem is that whatever the original excitement was of watching people be themselves has faded since the soft-scripting and various contrived conceits became so omnipresent and therefore obvious. Viewers have become both savvy and numbed.
Jax launches into a tirade about what’s wrong with every other reality show: “It’s bullshit, man. It’s not real. I don’t watch any show but ours because it’s too contrived. That’s not my style. And I’m sorry to say it, but some of the shows on our network, I don’t even bother to watch.”
Here he glances at the PR person, who nods encouragingly and allows this line of argument, possibly because Jax’s whole platform is just saying inflammatory shit and then going, “Sorry but it’s true.”
Not long ago, Jax bought his father a sports car. He tells me this with a good deal of emotion, a combination of learned wistfulness and lingering spite. “I wanted him to have it,” Jax says, sweetly.
“Plus it was nice to be like, look, I can buy this thing it’s not even an issue,” Jax says, less sweetly.
This brings up the question of exactly how rich Jax Taylor is, and where exactly this money comes from. It’s the only subject about which he isn’t open. When I ask him how much he makes off the show, looks fly across the table and he says, “I’m not sure if that’s…maybe you can answer?” He nods to the PR person next to me, who says, “Oh God, you know what, I don’t even think I know.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence. I try a different angle: “So then there’s…appearances, right? Stuff you get paid to promote?”
A lot of Jax’s Instagram account involves him thanking people for hooking him up with awesome stuff—hotel suites, sneakers, workout supplements. Then there are the club appearances—usually him and one of the Toms, his best buddies from Vanderpump, drinking at establishments with names like Liquid and Tabu, partying for pay in the greater LA area, in NYC, in Tallahassee and other random college towns. None of this is a dirty secret, of course—at this point, we can call it the Scott Disick economy, and it’s as ubiquitous as Uber.
“Yeah, there are always those opportunities,” Jax says. “But the other ones take advantage of that way more than me. I used to, but I’m old. I’m 36, I’m too tired for all that.”
He seems to mean this, but it’s a bit dubious, considering that it’s noonish on a Tuesday and we’re at an IHOP where he’s just now seeming to no longer be drunk after a night of complimentary skybox partying at the Staples Center. Throughout our conversation, I keep pushing about money, and finally he says, “Put it this way, if I’m smart about it, and if I live reasonably, I’ll be good for the rest of my life.”
Jax will disappear. Not from this earth, but from our gazes. He will re-become “regular.” He will do that thing that so many people in LA or similarly glamorous and exhausting places talk about doing and never do: he will leave it all behind.
He will finally make his move to Florida. His girlfriend, Brittany Cartwright—he’s serious about this one—will come with him. She’s a farm girl from Kentucky, and she will be happy to get out of this place, too. She moved out to LA to be with him; he got her on the show, got her new tits, and now she’s entering the kind of life that he’s been living, with nearly a hundred thousand Instagram followers of her own. But when the time comes to exit, she’ll be ready. Jax is sure. This life isn’t for her. Or him.
He’s not the kind of fool who thinks that the success of his TV show will go on indefinitely. He’s not the kind of reality star who thinks that this one kind of fame translates easily into any others. He has no desire to act or sing, no desire to push at the age-limits of the modeling industry. He’s the kind of pragmatist who knows that he hustled for a long fucking time, and that right now the hustle is cashing out—he struck the gold after years of digging around in mud—and he will not let greed ruin whatever comes next.
Really, he just wants a family. He’s 36 years old. He’s the kind of person who believes that a man needs roots. He will be a good dad, live a steady life, and maybe someday write the book about all the craziness he once lived through. But other than that, the circus will be over.
“I hate [hollywood]. i hate it. it's nothing. it's bulls**t.”
It’s hard to say whether this proposed Jimmy Buffet/American Gothic future is remotely believable. After all, immediately after Jax expresses a desire to be done with fame, we start talking about Jennifer Lawrence. They were on Watch What Happens Live! together, and when they were hanging out in the green room before the show, she was star struck by him.
“She was like, ‘I’m obsessed with you,” Jax tells me. “She wanted to know everything about me, she had opinions on everything. And I’m, like, shitting myself because she’s Jennifer Lawrence, she’s the biggest actress on the planet.”
A few months ago, he was at some industry party, and he ended up meeting Robert De Niro because De Niro’s wife is such a big fan that she wanted a picture. Another time, he and Lisa Vanderpump had dinner with Lady Gaga and Gaga spent the whole dinner going, “Did you really do that?” She knew more about Jax than he did.
He’s giddy as shares these anecdotes. How could he not be? “These are, like, great, great actors,” he says. “What do I do?”
Jax is just the trainwreck that viewers can’t get enough of. That’s his word choice: trainwreck. And ultimately, his appeal wouldn’t work if he felt like he was deserving. That’s the bind, but also his sweet spot. It’s better to be secure in what you are than to see this gig as a stepping stone to some truer, purer, earned fame. He’s unique in this acceptance. Of his co-stars, Kristen and Katie are still hustling for acting work, and Scheana is always debuting a new dance song on the show. Then there’s Tom Sandoval, Jax’s friend. They met modeling together years ago, but it’s important to Tom to note that he’s also an actor, a musician, an artiste.
“Look, I love Tom,” Jax says. “We’re best friends, he’s a brilliant guy, really talented, but I tell him all the time, to stop trying to act on the show. Stop trying to portray yourself in a certain way. It doesn’t work.”
Jax seems incapable of putting on these kinds of performances (we both laughed over Tom’s “cry face”), but maybe “incapable” isn’t the right word. Maybe he’s the savviest one. Maybe his greatest creative choice is to seem as though he makes none. It’s all confusing enough, suspicious enough, to make the viewer lean a little closer on the couch. It’s just so fucking hard to figure out if he knows what he’s doing.
A baby starts wailing at the IHOP, and Jax rubs his temples. He reiterates that he can’t wait to get out of this place—not just the IHOP, but Hollywood, LA, all of it.
“I hate this place,” he says. “I hate it. It’s nothing. It’s bullshit.”
As it stands, Vanderpump is at a bit of a precipice. It’s no longer an underdog show about an unknown group of restaurant workers, yet for four seasons it has continued to operate with that premise. As much as the authenticity is key, the show depends on the increasingly difficult suspension of disbelief at the notion that Jax, with his 300,000 Instagram followers and his life’s fortune already squirreled away, tends bar.
He says he’s on the bottom rung of fame, but still, it’s a lie at this point to pretend that he isn’t some sort of celebrity, and no other celebrities have to go play the part of normal at a popular LA restaurant. The show hasn’t let the narrative evolve with the lives of its characters. Instead, the strategy seems to be to attempt to reinvigorate the drama the way a scripted sitcom would, with new characters. Lala, the hot hostess with dead eyes, Jax’s latest temptress. James, the 23-year-old British busboy/DJ who snuck into the main cast after starting as Kristen’s boyfriend and is coming for Jax’s bad boy mantle. Jax hates him, on the show and in real life. He hates anyone outside the core group, the core cast. Lala, James, these people are trying, he says. That’s what’s so off-putting—how obvious it is that they’re trying to jump on the train by any means necessary.
“If they’re around next year, I won’t be a part of that,” he says. “I’ll stick to my guns on that. I will not be on a show that’s contrived. I will not.”
Jax is scared of Monday nights now, when the show airs. He doesn’t watch anymore, but he anticipates the fallout of whatever he did months ago that invariably becomes public right after the personal dust has finally settled. But he doesn’t blame editing, and he doesn’t lobby for the hardest material to be cut. This is what he signed up for. He was willing; he remains willing. He won’t try to act like he deserves better than what Bravo gives him.
It’s noble in its nothingness. It’s skillful in the way that he insists that it’s all nothing. Only after we leave the restaurant do I realize that Jax hasn’t really told me much about himself beyond what is already part of the filmed narrative.
I get in my Uber and the driver asks me what I’m in town for. I tell him and he groans and rolls his eyes—the driver is an actor. We pull out onto Wilshire and he starts talking about all the reality TV opportunities he knew well enough to turn down.