After Tom Schwartz filmed the most tumultuous Vanderpump Rules reunion in the reality show’s ten-year history, he fled more than 8,000 miles away to the small Australian town of Coober Pedy to take part in Fox’s new reality-competition series Stars on Mars. It didn’t take much to convince Schwartz to leave the drama of his friends and Bravo cast members behind.
“I heard a soft pitch for it and they had me at Mars,” Schwartz tells Rolling Stone. “I was looking for an escape. I know you have to be wary of escapism but there were a lot of things going on in my life, things were slightly chaotic, and after they gave me a soft pitch I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
In early March, news broke that Schwartz’s longtime best friend and business partner, Tom Sandoval, was having a monthslong affair with their friend and VPR cast member Raquel Leviss, something Sandoval had confided in Schwartz about. Schwartz helped Sandoval carry his secret for almost the entire duration of the affair, betraying the trust of Ariana Madix, Schwartz’s friend and Sandoval’s girlfriend of nearly a decade, as well as the rest of their friends and cast.
The news about Scandoval and its subsequent impact was impossible to avoid. Days after the rest of the world found out about the affair, cameras picked back up to capture the fallout between Sandoval, Ariana, and the rest of the group. In those moments, Schwartz had to confront Ariana and his now ex-wife Katie Maloney about his complicity in keeping Sandoval’s affair a secret. Weeks later, on March 23rd, they filmed the reunion in which Schwartz sat next to Sandoval as the only friendly face in a room otherwise filled with vitriol toward him.
The offer to head to another continent for about a month and surround himself with an entirely new group of people was appealing to Schwartz, who says he loves being comfortable “but too much of the comfort zone is dangerous.” Plus, he says he’s always wanted to visit Australia.
“For me, it was a welcome retreat,” he says. “I’ve been looking to get out of my little bubble that I’ve been in. We all have problems and this past year-and-a-half to two years, I happen to have had a lot of them all at once. You know, when it rains it pours. So it was a nice little sabbatical.”
For the last year, Schwartz has been managing compounded grief on a number of fronts. His divorce from Katie Maloney and the demise of their 12-year relationship was documented on Season 10 of Vanderpump Rules, his brother was diagnosed with testicular cancer, his father also suffered from nearly fatal blood clots and experienced health problems, he struggled to open Schwartz & Sandy’s, his bar and restaurant co-owned by Sandoval, and now his life was turned upside down because of the consequences of Sandoval’s affair.
“I hope I don’t seem overly self-indulgent or neurotic because I’m not that guy. It’s just the past few years really got me,” he says. “It was a combination of so many things happening with my family, you know, my dad almost dying multiple times, my brother getting cancer, my divorce.”
But joining the cast of Stars on Mars gave Schwartz a fresh perspective on life, he says. The reality-competition show, hosted by William Shatner, features 12 celebrities who live together in a fake spacecraft. Set in the Australian outback, they’re in the middle of nowhere and have to ration their food and water supply based on what’s already on the spacecraft. The contestants have to work together to survive missions and assignments that involve both physical labor and mental strategy, resulting in eliminations each episode. Production spared no expense, Schwartz explains, emphasizing how authentic the simulation felt. Every time contestants went outside, they had to wear their space suits, helmets and all.
Stars on Mars executive producer Chris Culvenor tells Rolling Stone he and his team started developing the idea for the show about 18 months ago. He’s always had a love for TV shows and movies that are set in outer space, plus the idea of more people heading into space has been normalized in the zeitgeist because of conversations started by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. All of this prompted Culvenor to bring this concept to the unscripted world in a way that authentically emulates a spacecraft simulation and Mars mission while also not taking themselves too seriously.
Culvenor, who’s been working in the television industry for 20 years, grew up in Australia and was familiar with the town of Coober Pedy because years ago his production company filmed the Australian iteration of The Amazing Race there. He thought it would make for the perfect unique and isolated location, so their 250-person production overtook the small town to create “the most accurate simulation we could.”
“There’s a huge emotional aspect that goes into the show,” Culvenor says. “You’re literally living through the experience of being away from your family and friends, and also there’s the social element of having to be around these people who you’ve never met. You kind of see how important comedy is, you see how important leadership is, you see how important a peacemaker is.”
As far as unscripted television goes, this is a different medium than Schwartz is accustomed to filming. Stars on Mars enlightened Schwartz to experience the overview effect, he says, which is a cognitive shift that astronauts sometimes experience when they view planet Earth from space; it changes their perspective. Schwartz says he experienced this to a degree — being far away from his life back home at the height of Scandoval and other issues plaguing his headspace gave him a new point of view.
“I was able to step outside of my little bubble and be like, ‘You know what? I’m so grateful. I’m so lucky for all the opportunities I’ve been given and everything I’ve got to experience thus far in life,” Schwartz says. “And I have so many great friends and family and I’m full of love and gratitude.”
Schwartz, who says he was an exercise physiology major and loves science and astronomy, was also fulfilling a childhood dream of simulating the experience of going into outer space and taking on the notion of being an astronaut. Stars on Mars has aired two episodes so far and the reality star has been candid, speaking to his fellow contestants and in his interviews about Scandoval.
“For the past three months, it’s like my life has become mired in someone else’s life,” Schwartz says. “We don’t have to dissect that but it’s been strange. Scandoval swept the nation and, you know, I don’t mean to sound insensitive because there was human cost and these are my friends, but it just was like, [being in Australia] I could step outside myself looking at it. It was just a very strange experience.”
Stars on Mars cast members were technically allowed access to their cell phones, but Schwartz says the physical distance as well as the time difference still provided a healthy separation from him and his life back home. He describes the three weeks he spent filming in Australia being disconnected from the drama at home as “bliss.”
“If it were up to me, I would have probably turned my phone off for the entire time, but I felt like it would have been irresponsible as a business owner. Also, my mom would have killed me,” Schwartz says. “Suffice it to say that I microdosed my phone.”
When he signed on to do the show, Schwartz didn’t know he would be competing in team missions with athletes like Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, Ronda Rousey, and Lance Armstrong, nor did he expect to see cast members like Tinashe, Ariel Winter, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin from the cult classic Superbad).
“It’s cool to wake up and the first thing you hear is, ‘Morning Tommy,’ from Lance Armstrong, you’re getting life coaching from Richard Sherman, roasted by Marshawn Lynch, Adam Rippon giving me love, I was getting life lessons from Tallulah [Willis],” he says. “Any self-help or motivational book or podcast or whatever will always talk about surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, more successful than you. As far as on Mars, that’s what I did. I was surrounded by greatness and it’s contagious.”
After filming the show in May, Culvenor says the production team is turning episodes around just weeks later, which makes Stars on Mars even more topical and relevant. One of those topics is Scandoval, something that Culvenor says was important to highlight because it was a driving force behind Schwartz’s decision to join the cast.
“For us, it was editorially important because it had a lot to do with [Schwartz’s] motivations for doing the show but also his experience on the show, and he speaks about this on screen. It was a really difficult time for him and difficult experience, and you can’t get much further from Hollywood than Coober Pedy and Mars,” Culvenor says.
A nice element of having Schwartz on the show, according to Culvenor, is being able to see him outside of the world of Vanderpump Rules because “it shows a different side of him.” Culvenor describes Schwartz as “an extremely authentic and vulnerable person” who used his time on Stars on Mars to open up about the difficulties he was experiencing back home and share his thoughts and feelings with his fellow contestants as well as viewers watching at home.
According to Schwartz, “the worst part of being in this business is having to watch yourself on TV,” but he says he has watched the episodes that have aired so far on Fox and Hulu.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love myself until I see myself on television and hear my nasally voice and my gangly walk,” Schwartz says. “I had the great pleasure of seeing my mom a few days ago and she wanted to watch it. I sat down and I watched an episode and I had to almost close my eyes during my parts. It is painful to watch myself but everything else about it, I love.”
Upon his return to his real life in Los Angeles, Schwartz says it wasn’t too harsh of a reintroduction to society. Overall he feels like he gained a newfound perspective on life and says he’s shifted his outlook, prioritizing himself and his own individuality.
“I felt like I was a little lighter on my feet when I got back here. My worries of the day all of a sudden didn’t seem so worrisome,” Schwartz says. “I felt like when I came back I recalibrated and I reset my mind, body, and soul. I just felt like myself again.”
He’s spending most of his time at Schwartz & Sandy’s, the Franklin Village bar he opened up with Sandoval in the last year. They took longer than expected to open their doors, spending a combined $1 million, and the bar also took a hit when fans found out about Sandoval’s affair with Raquel; people vandalized the bathroom mirrors with messages saying, “Team Ariana” and there was also a surplus of negative Yelp reviews. Months later, Schwartz says things are getting back to normal at Schwartz & Sandy’s and the bar is finding its rhythm.
“Listen, I’m not going to sugarcoat things. There’ve been trials and tribulations,” he explains. “We were so far behind getting the place open but it was a labor of love and we have such an awesome team.”
There have been rumors that the other partners and co-owners in the bar want to buy Sandoval out of the operation, given the negative impact he’s had on the business. When he appeared on Jax Taylor and Brittany Cartwright’s podcast When Reality Hits, Schwartz said he’s taken a step back from his friendship with Sandoval and isn’t in touch with him, a departure from the typical status quo of their relationship. Not only have Schwartz and Sandoval been best friends for over a decade and are cast members together on Vanderpump Rules, but they also are part-owners in TomTom, Lisa Vanderpump’s West Hollywood bar and restaurant, as well as Schwartz & Sandy’s. Their business relationship has also been affected by Sandoval’s decision to cheat on Ariana with Raquel and lie about it, on and off camera, for the better part of a year.
“It goes without saying: I didn’t even have to say this verbatim to Tom [Sandoval], but I’ve just been taking a little break, am focusing on myself and, you know, I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my life,” Schwartz says. “I gotta be honest, I’m not super proud of the way I responded to adversity for the past year and a half. I think I floundered a little bit. After my experience going to Australia, getting away for a while on a little sabbatical, I feel better equipped to handle whatever life throws at me now.”
Filming for Vanderpump Rules Season 11 is supposed to start up in a few weeks time. There isn’t a lot of certainty about what the upcoming season will look like now that there’s a division between cast members who do and don’t want to socialize with each other, which is also coming at a time when interest in the show has never been higher. Schwartz says the metaphorical overview effect he experienced while filming Stars on Mars has mentally prepared him to reenter the Bravosphere this summer and reunite with the friends he left behind for Australia.
“I just feel a little bit more confident and optimistic going into it,” he says. “It’s easier said than done depending on your circumstances, kids, and finances, but if you can just take a little break from whatever you’re going through and go to another country, another city, or give yourself a little breather, it does wonders for the soul.”