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Column: I went to a Vegas wedding chapel, strip club and casino — all in the name of Taylor Swift

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Column: I went to a Vegas wedding chapel, strip club and casino — all in the name of Taylor Swift

When I pitched covering the Taylor Swift Effect at the Super Bowl, I was envisioning tracking down fans decked out in Eras tour apparel, gleefully trading friendship bracelets and then heading to a karaoke bar to belt out “Karma” together.

Instead here I was, in a strip-club Champagne room.

A $10,000-per-hour private suite at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, to be exact. Strings of faux roses and fairy lights hung from the ceiling, illuminating a metallic tufted sofa. On a small coffee table rested a small arrangement of balloons, one of which read “Touchdown.”

It was difficult to envision Travis Kelce or Swift here, in a man cave where the red bulbs had been dimmed just enough to mask things I probably did not want to see.

Yet this is where the club is hoping Travis Kelce and Swift will come following the Super Bowl on Sunday, which is being held at Allegiant Stadium, less than two miles away. The 75,000-square-foot facility on the Strip is offering a package worth $1 million to the couple, including limo transportation, unlimited access to the pricey suite, a Champagne bottle parade, $50,000 to shower on the club’s entertainers and lifetime VIP membership.

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The Hustler Club is just one of dozens of businesses trying to capitalize on the “Swelce” frenzy in Sin City this weekend. And on Friday, I decided to go on a tour of them.

Even if I hadn’t read about Hustler’s promotion on TMZ — where else? — it would have been difficult to miss the glaring neon billboard outside the club: “NOW AUDITIONING SWIFTIES FOR THE BIG GAME 2024 — SEE CLUB FOR DETAILS.”

The Hustler Club is hoping to attract new dancers for Super Bowl weekend who also happen to be Swift fans.

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

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The marketing brains behind the sign got the idea after noticing that many new dancers were auditioning specifically for Super Bowl weekend, and all its potentially bill-waving attendees.

“Travis was spotted wearing a Crazy Horse shirt once, so obviously he’s been to a strip club here before. So who knows, he might roll in here,” said Nick Vardakis, marketing director for GoBest, the network that manages the club.

I have no idea if Kelce has ever actually been to Crazy Horse, or any other strip club; I certainly have not. (When I let my editor know I was viewing the suite, her only request was that I wear a mask to avoid “strip club Covid.”)

Balloons rest on a coffee table next to a tufted metallic couch in a Champagne room.

Balloons rest on a coffee table next to a tufted metallic couch in a Champagne room.

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

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It was 7 p.m. when I arrived, and I guess I’d been expecting, well, more action? There were only a couple of topless dancers slinking around poles, and barely any customers; apparently this hour in Las Vegas night life is equivalent to noon somewhere else.

Vardakis said the club has received a handful of calls from entertainers responding to the Swiftie billboard, though he seemed to have a realistic perspective about the odds of Kelce and Swift actually turning up post-game. On the off chance it happened, though, was the idea that the club would offer Kelce blond dancers who resembled Swift?

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said, noting that the general manager “would coordinate our top grossers” to keep him company. “We’ll have to see how the game plays out. He’s either going to be out celebrating or, who knows, she might leave him if they lose.”

Just then, a man stumbled out of a Champagne room and approached me. “OK, I gotta ask, seriously: Why is everyone wearing masks again?”

Cue the getaway car. It was time to move on to my next spot — another first for me — making a prop sports bet.

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A sports bet is written out asking about Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce

Station Casinos is offering a Kelce-Swift prop bet this weekend.

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

Station Casinos, which operates 17 properties in town, has added a Taylor-Travis-themed question to its 28 pages of Super Bowl-related bets this weekend: “Will Travis Kelce have more total receptions in the championship game than his pop star girlfriend’s total of 10 platinum albums?”

Wildfire Gaming, the company’s location on Fremont Street, was in a business park and attached to an IHOP. I opened the doors and was greeted by a blanket of cigarette smoke. I needed to make this quick, lest the smell linger in my hair. (Likely an unavoidable side effect of five days in Las Vegas, but a girl’s gotta try.)

I walked over to the sports betting station and inquired about the Swift bet. I had three options: 11 or more receptions, exactly 10, or nine or less. My boyfriend, who had accompanied me on this journey, pulled up some quick stats on his phone so we could try to make an educated guess.

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The man behind the counter, in his 20s and slack-jawed, attempted to explain to me how the payouts worked. He struggled to make the calculations. “It’s all math,” he said and shrugged.

The smallest amount I could bet was two bucks, he said. (Yes, I was spending my own, non-company money on this.) But two dollars felt extremely lame. I went to the ATM at the center of the room and decided on $20. I put $10 on exactly 10 — giving Kelce and Swift a tie — while my boyfriend used his half on Kelce getting more than 10. If I win, I’ll get $35; he’ll get $50. The odds of me actually wanting to return to collect any winnings, however? Unclear.

A sign for the Little White Wedding Chapel advertises celebrities who have been married inside

Joan Collins was the first star to get married at the Little White Wedding Chapel, turning it into a celebrity hot spot.

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

I was far more excited about my next stop, anyway: the Little White Wedding Chapel. The site of countless celebrity nuptials, including Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck‘s in 2022, it is offering Kelce and Swift a free wedding, should the conspiracy theory about a possible Super Bowl proposal occur.

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With a massive Elvis Presley sign out front with mechanically moving hips, the Little White Wedding Chapel was the first chapel in Vegas to offer a drive-through wedding option. It’s called the Tunnel of Love, and yes, you can literally drive through the gates and up to a window to get married, without stepping out of your vehicle.

You do need to have gotten a wedding license first. But unlike most cities, the Vegas marriage license bureau is open from 8 a.m. to midnight every day, including holidays and weekends, has no waiting period and doesn’t require a blood test. It’s still illegal to wed if you’re not of sound body or mind, of course, but the two-step process tends to weed out those who have partied too hard.

Melody Willis-Williams, president of the Little White Wedding Chapel, was already planning on offering anyone associated with the two NFL teams in the Super Bowl — players, coaches, staff members — free vow renewals when she heard the game would be held at Allegiant Stadium.

“But that was before the whole Taylor and Travis thing started,” she said. When the two began one of the most famous courtships in the world, she knew she couldn’t let the opportunity slip by. “That’s all everybody’s talking about, right? And then she wore the white Grammys dress and I was like, ‘This is so stupid. We should just do a shoutout. She’s a serial dater, but she hasn’t yet got married.”

A pink Cadillac convertible sits parked in a drive-through wedding tunnel

The Little White Wedding Chapel is offering Swift and Kelce — or anyone associated with the 49ers or the Chiefs — a free wedding or vow renewal this weekend.

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

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I withheld my personal feelings about one of the world’s most successful women being branded as “a serial dater” and followed Willis-Williams around the property, which offers four different venues. My favorite, predictably, was the Tunnel of Love, where couples can pose on a vintage pink Cadillac under a roof painted with cherubs.

The venue became a favorite with celebrities after its late founder, Charolette Richards, decided to put Joan Collins’ name on the sign outside. Collins stopped by in 1985 — when Richards was on the brink of closure due to financial trouble — and her endorsement turned everything around. Since then, Michael Jordan, Kim Kardashian, Nick Jonas and Sophie Turner and many others have all said their vows here.

Willis-Williams likes to play up the business’ Hollywood ties. After Lopez and Affleck wed, the couple later shared pictures of the actor changing into his white tux in the men’s room, his phone held up to a graffiti-laden bathroom mirror. Afterwards, the president decided to anoint the spot “Ben’s Bathroom,” hanging a sign to the left of the toilet.

“We remodeled the other bathroom [after the wedding], took out the wallpaper and replaced the mirrors, but I didn’t do it in here. I was like, ‘Nope, it’s Ben’s.’ ”

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A bathroom that has a sign reading "Ben's Bathroom"

Ben Affleck got changed in this bathroom at the Little White Wedding Chapel before marrying Jennifer Lopez. It has since been dubbed “Ben’s Bathroom.”

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

Should Swift and Kelce decide to tie the knot Sunday night, the venue has already prepared a gold-and-red bouquet for her — even dusting the roses with glitter. Usually, this would run someone about $185, but again, it would be free for the famous pair. Not that getting married at the Little White Wedding Chapel is that expensive, anyway: You can do it for as little as $80.

“This is not your big, let’s have a bridal party, everybody walks down the aisle kind of thing. These are very simple ceremonies,” Willis-Williams said. “I call it the rock-star wedding, because you just get married and go party.”

The speedy nature of the affair, she contended, might appeal to Swift and Kelce, whose schedules are packed.

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“She’s already flying in from Japan, and if they need to get it done, they just need to get it done that night. Let’s go,” she said, somehow kind of selling me on the idea. “I mean, JLo did it and just went home and then had a big wedding. If he wins, she’s in Vegas, his mom’s here? Bring that gorgeous Grammys dress, bring your man and let’s get her done.”

And if Taylor forgets the Grammy dress, well, “tell her to put on a winning jersey and let’s roll,” Willis-Williams said. “He didn’t have time to shop but he’s got the Super Bowl ring. It’s impromptu! It’s romantic!”

A bouquet of red and gold flowers for a wedding

A Chiefs-themed bouquet has been made available to couples getting married at the Little White Wedding Chapel this weekend.

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

Wait, could eloping with an Elvis impersonator serving as my officiant actually be kind of romantic? I needed to get out of the Tunnel of Love, stat.

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The last destination of the evening was Flanker Kitchen + Sports Bar in Mandalay Bay, which has created a special menu entirely devoted to Swift and Kelce. The spot was offering a Swelce Sando ($24) filled with smoked brisket, cheese, pickles and onion rings and two special drinks: A “Shake It Off” milkshake ($15) and “Love Story” cocktail ($20).

We’d already stopped for dinner, so we decided to opt for beverages only. The coolest part of of the alcoholic drink — made with tequila, lime juice, triple sec, blood orange puree and simple syrup — was that it arrived with a Swiftie-related image dusted on top. Flanker’s manager, Christina Haddon, allowed me to select an image of my choosing, so we flipped through Google images until we settled on some cute pictures of the couple.

She led me back to the bar’s Ripples machine, a $2,000 contraption that uses plant-based extracts to print images on foam-topped drinks. Haddon placed the cocktail on a base that was quickly sucked up into the machine. Within 10 seconds, it descended again, now adorned by the couple’s faces.

I wish I could give you detailed tasting notes on the “Love Story,” but a) I don’t drink, b) I gave it to my boyfriend and c) I barely let him drink it because I was so fixated on taking pictures of it. He said it was “enjoyable enough and heavy on citrus.”

A milkshake with whipped cream and chocolate sauce on top

The “Shake It Off” milkshake includes Swift’s favorite candy: Squashies.

(Amy Kaufman/Los Angeles Times)

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The milkshake, however? I got down on that. It was made with vanilla and double chocolate cookie dough ice cream, chocolate sauce and Squashies — Swift’s favorite candy from the United Kingdom and a deep cut that I had to respect.

I’ve never had Squashies before, which are a gummy candy with a marshmallow consistency, and I feel like I still have not; I did not spot any Squashies in the drink. I’m assuming they were blended in well, which is good, because gummy candy in a milkshake kind of seems wack.

Walking out of Mandalay Bay, I kept my eyes peeled for Swifties — fans in her gear, any of her music wafting out of a club. Nada. But there’s still one day until the Super Bowl. And if all else fails, maybe I’ll just head back to the Hustler Club. I’m bound to cross paths with at least one fateful auditionee lured in by that billboard.

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Richard Lewis saluted by 'Curb' co-stars, said he was 'quite well' weeks before death

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Richard Lewis saluted by 'Curb' co-stars, said he was 'quite well' weeks before death

Comedian Richard Lewis, who died Tuesday from a heart attack, said that he was “doing quite well” a few weeks before his death, despite being absent from the Season 12 premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

The so-called Prince of Pain, who played an exaggerated version of himself alongside real-life friend Larry David in the HBO series, told People on Feb. 9 that he skipped the Jan. 30 premiere because he wasn’t feeling up to it.

“I have some occasional walking difficulties with Parkinson’s the last couple of years,” the 76-year-old told the magazine. “It’s not major. I’m getting through it fine so far.”

Lewis added that he didn’t want to “spend five or six hours mingling with so many people,” because “it’s just asking for trouble.”

The “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and “Anything But Love” star revealed in April 2023 that he had been diagnosed with the degenerative brain disorder and would be retiring from stand-up comedy after 50 years, as well as countless self-deprecating jokes detailing his neuroses. However, the talk-show regular said he still planned to write and act.

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The actor already appeared in the third episode of “Curb’s” final season, notably bickering with David over his objection to Lewis making him the benefactor in his will. HBO also confirmed that Lewis will appear in three more episodes.

“We have this profound affection for one another and respect for our craft,” Lewis told The Times ahead of the premiere. “And we’ve always been there for one another. Some of my idiosyncratic things in my behavior that he picks up on — and he has ever since we were adolescents — he really has remembered most of the juicy ones and has put them into the show.”

“Because we’re such old friends, I can say anything I want to him and vice versa,” David said. “So there’s a certain freedom that comes with that. … Anything I say to him on the show, I would say to him in life. I think I treat him worse in life.”

Upon word of his death, Lewis’ friends and fans paid tribute to the iconic funnyman.

In a statement to the Associated Press, David described his co-star and longtime friend as a brother: “He had that rare combination of being the funniest person and also the sweetest. But today he made me sob and for that I’ll never forgive him.”

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Jamie Lee Curtis, who co-starred in the ABC sitcom “Anything But Love” with Lewis from 1989 to 1992, shared two tributes on Instagram, remembering him as a “deep and freaking funny comedian.”

“He also is the reason I am sober. He helped me. I am forever grateful for him for the act of grace alone,” she wrote. “He found love with Joyce and that, of course, besides his sobriety, is what mattered most to him. I’m weeping as I write this.”

His “Curb” co-star Cheryl Hines tweeted that Lewis “would take time to tell the people he loved what they meant to him.”

“In between takes on Curb, he would tell me how special I was to him and how much he loved me. To be loved by Richard Lewis. A true gift. I love you Richard. You will be missed. #RichardLewis,” Hines wrote. She also told “Entertainment Tonight” that when she was young, she had “the biggest crush” on Lewis.

“He was the funniest person on stage and the most handsome comedian. Then when I was cast on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ I got to work with him and it was a dream come true,” she said, adding, “Yes, he was the comedian I fell in love with, but he was also one of the most loving people I know.”

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“RIP Richard Lewis. A brilliantly funny man who will missed by all. The world needed him now more than ever,” tweeted “Curb” co-star Albert Brooks.

“Rest Richard Rest,” co-star J.B. Smoove wrote on Instagram stories. “Thanks for encouraging me to shoot for the stars. @shahclectic and I will miss you dearly. #teamcurb”

“You are so loved,” Smoove’s wife, Shahidah Omar, added. “Thank you for being so wonderful, hilarious and kind.”

“Richard was an original brilliant voice that cannot be replaced. I was lucky to call him a friend. He made me laugh and he was one of the most supportive and kindest people I’ve ever known,” “Curb” co-star Susie Essman told “Entertainment Tonight.”

Cary Elwes, the “Princess Bride” star who co-starred with Lewis in Mel Brooks’ 1993 comedy “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” said that he and Lewis were “literally just making plans to get together.”

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“Besides your remarkable talent there was no one sweeter or more generous than you, my friend. I miss you already & forever. Rest in Power, Richard. Our sincere condolences to Joyce, his family & fans @TheRichardLewis,” he tweeted, along with a photo from the “Robin Hood” set.

“Richard was my hero when I was a standup,” filmmaker Paul Feig added. “I was lucky enough to get to know him and he was the most wonderful man. So supportive and kind and truly one of the funniest people on the planet. You will be missed, my friend.”


“He was one-of-a-kind & always hilarious. Thank you for a lifetime of laughter,”
wrote “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill.

“God bless, Richard Lewis peace and love to Joyce peace and love,” tweeted the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.

“Richard Lewis was part of a changing of the guard in stand-up history during the 1970s; his work exemplified and anticipated the deeply personal, raw, introspective and yes, neurotic, tone that has come to color so much contemporary comedy. His influence on the art form was profound, and we are proud to preserve his enduring contribution to comedy’s heritage,” Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center, said in a statement to The Times.

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Freelance writer Whitney Friedlander contributed to this report.

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Movie Review | ‘Dune: Part Two’ improves on first film’s grand formula

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Movie Review | ‘Dune: Part Two’ improves on first film’s grand formula

When your first movie is a hit, the studio tends to give you more cash to spend on the sequel.

And when your film adapts what essentially is the second half of a book, it tends to be more exciting than the installment that came before it.

Not surprisingly, then, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s excellent “Dune: Part Two” — in theaters March 1, after being pushed into 2024 as a result of last year’s Hollywood strikes — is greater in scale and more frequently riveting than its strong predecessor, 2021’s six-time Academy Award-winning “Dune.”

This second “Dune,” costing a reported $190 million, isn’t a giant leap forward, the science-fiction epic matching the first ($165 million) precisely in terms of look and tone. And it picks up where “Dune” left off, with possible future messiah Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, mystical Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning”), living among the Fremen, the native people of the remote desert planet Arrakis.

The giant sandworms of the planet Arrakis are an even bigger presence in “Dune: Part Two” than they were in 2021’s “Dune.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

In case you need a refresher, “Dune” and “Dune: Part Two” are based on Frank Herbert’s influential 1965 novel “Dune,” a work interested in ecological themes, among others.

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In Herbert’s world — set thousands of years in the future and following humanity winning a war against artificial intelligence — computers are outlawed in the universe. Instead, to traverse space, folks depend on spice, the mind-altering substance that grows in the sands of Arrakis. As a result, control of the otherwise desolate planet is important — so important that it cost Paul his father and saw the great House Atreides fall to the merciless types of House Harkonnen.

Now, the prescient Paul desires to express his distinct displeasure with what has happened to that house’s leader, the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, “Andor”), and the man pulling the strings from above him, the Emperor (Christopher Walken, “The Deer Hunter”), seen in “Part Two” for the first time.

“Your father didn’t believe in revenge,” Jessica reminds her son.

“Well I do,” Paul responds.

Paul wishes to learn the ways of the Fremen, who exist in the harsh lands of Arrakis despite the ever-present threat of the giant sandworms and do not appreciate outsiders coming to take the planet’s valuable resource. Fortunately for Paul, a key Fremen, Stilgar (Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”), believes him to be the prophesied off-worlder who will lead the Fremen to a better existence. Paul isn’t so sure about that, and neither are others, among them Chani (Zendaya “Spider-Man: No Way Home”) — literally the woman of his spice-fueled dreams and to whom, of course, he grows closer in this film.

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As the story progresses, Paul works to pass tests administered by Stilgar to prove his worth; encounters an old friend and mentor in Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, “Avengers: End Game”); and faces a new and possibly more dangerous enemy in Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), the psychopathic nephew of the baron, who rises to power as his brother, Beast Rabbanas (Dave Bautista, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), struggles to defeat the constantly attacking Fremen.

Most importantly, Paul wants to avoid the potentially catastrophic results of choosing the path he takes in his visions. However, other forces, including his mother — traveling her own rise to power in this chapter — may pull him there nonetheless.

Visually, at least, “Dune: Part Two” is a masterpiece. With contributions from returning contributors including director of photography Greig Fraser, production designer Patrice Vermette, editor Joe Walker, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert and costume designer Jacqueline, the film is regularly wondrous while also presenting a very gritty and lived-in world. It is a sight to behold, for example, every time Fremen warriors rise from the sand and charge at the Harkonnen spice-harvesting operation. Ultimately, we seldom get world-building as stunning as what Villeneuve has offered with these two films.

Like the 2021 release, “Part Two” is a little slow at times, not a shock given its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime. Even still, this is yet more topnotch filmmaking from Villeneuve, whose previous directorial efforts include the outstanding films “Sicario” and “Blade Runner 2049.” He knows how to pull you into a story and keep you invested, even a narrative as strange and sprawling as that of “Dune.”

Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with another returning collaborator Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange”), the tandem continuing to show tremendous work in the realm of adaptation, bringing to the screen only what we need for a compelling tale.

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Within the frame, Chalamet (“Wonka,” “Call Me by Your Name”), as he was in the first film, is merely a semi-engaging hero — that is until a rousing late-affair scene where the actor goes big and truly impresses. It’s a performance that’s needed to sell what’s to follow, and sell it he does.

The cast is too large to do much more singling out, but know that Butler, following impressive performances in projects including “Elvis” and “Masters of the Air,” is rather terrifying as the especially horrendous Harkonnen. Feyd-Rautha is one-dimensional and a disappointingly underdeveloped character, but Butler is terrifying as the villain all the same.

The huge ensemble of “Dune: Part Two” also includes notable newcomers in Florence Pugh (“Black Widow”), as Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor, and Léa Seydoux (“No Time to Die”), as Lady Fenring, an enigmatic Bene Gesserit who pays a visit to Feyd-Rautha. Both actors get relatively little screen time, but one imagines they could get significantly more in a third “Dune.”

As you’d expect given that Herbert penned sequels to “Dune,” there is room for this story to continue. And as likely as a “Dune: Part Three” is to be green-lit, there are reasons to suspect it won’t arrive as quickly as this film has.

Regardless of when it arrives, with the gift Villeneuve so far has illustrated for spice-navigating us through space, we’ll follow him back to Arrakis as beyond.

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“Dune: Part Two” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some suggestive material and brief strong language. Runtime: Two hours, 46 minutes.

 

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Scandoval put Ariana Madix center stage. Can she stay there?

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Scandoval put Ariana Madix center stage. Can she stay there?

At the end of the musical “Chicago,” Roxie Hart, a chorus girl who has been charged with murdering her lover, is declared not guilty. It should be a victorious moment for the aspiring vaudeville star, but just as the verdict is announced, the press gets wind of another bloody crime unfolding down the courthouse hall. The media scrambles out of the room to cover the juicy new story, leaving a dejected Roxie behind.

“Wait! I’m Roxie Hart! Don’t you want my picture?” she yells after them, alone with just her lawyer. “Where are all the reporters? Photographers? The publicity?”

Watching Ariana Madix deliver these lines on a Broadway stage feels particularly poignant, given the tabloid scandal she’s lived through.

Who are the people shaping our culture? In her column, Amy Kaufman examines the lives of icons, underdogs and rising stars to find out — “For Real.”

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It has now been one year since Madix learned that her longtime boyfriend was cheating on her with a close friend. The revelation — like much of her nine-year relationship with her ex, Tom Sandoval — played out on the reality show “Vanderpump Rules,” where the two began dating while working as bartenders at a West Hollywood restaurant.

Madix has been one of the less sensational members of the cast, a go-along-to-get-along type without the pick-me energy that dominated the group. Cameras followed her castmates as they got arrested, were booted from work for public intoxication, tried to become pop stars and got engaged to much older movie producers. In contrast, she and Sandoval appeared to be fairly stable, the Valley Village home they purchased together in 2019 serving as a gathering spot for their oft-troubled friends.

But when “Scandoval” — the name Bravo fans assigned the cheating affair — became public knowledge in March 2023, Madix went from an average Jane on a decently popular reality show to the people’s heroine.

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For Real With Amy Kaufman Ariana Madix cover

Season 10 of the series, which had wrapped filming months prior, was already airing, but production made the unprecedented decision to pick up cameras to capture the drama. As the episodes unfurled, “Vanderpump” fans eagerly dissected every scene shot during the seven-month period when Sandoval and his lover, Rachel Leviss, were having clandestine relations. The audience rallied behind Madix when she verbally annihilated the pair on the reunion show. Even people who’d never seen the program tuned in, with Season 10 reaching its largest audience ever — 11.4 million viewers on average — and earning its first Emmy nominations.

Madix, who moved to Hollywood in 2010 to become an actor, capitalized on the opportunity to secure the career — and the paycheck — she’d always wanted. She set up partnerships with 17 brands she’d never worked with before. Trading on her single-girl empowerment, she has promoted everything from Glad trash bags (“There’s something about STRENGTH”) to Bic razors (“Unclog your life”) and T-Mobile phones (“We’ve officially entered my upgrade era”).

She got a book deal to release “Single AF Cocktails: Drinks for Bad B*tches”; her second mixology book, but her first without Sandoval as a co-writer, became a New York Times bestseller. The WeHo sandwich shop she will soon launch with a “Vanderpump” co-star sold $200,000 in merchandise before it had even opened its doors.

She was invited to the White House Correspondents’ dinner, was cast in a Lifetime movie, served as a guest host on the dating series “Love Island” and finished in third place on “Dancing With the Stars.”

And for the past month, the 38-year-old has been playing Roxie Hart in “Chicago.” The role in the Broadway musical for decades has been used to draw in new theatergoers — something derisively called stunt casting; Roxie has been portrayed by Pamela Anderson, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Jayne, Rumer Willis and Brandy.

Ariana Madix stands next to a poster advertising her as Roxie Hart in "Chicago" at Broadway's Ambassador Theater

But Madix’s run has been particularly successful. The production had its highest-grossing non-holiday performance week in its 27-year history when she joined the company in late January. And she recently was asked to stay on for an additional two weeks , concluding April 7.

Madix doesn’t give stereotypical musical theater girl vibes; she’s not boisterous or especially extroverted. But it makes sense that she’d feel comfortable playing Roxie — a straight shooter who won’t be underestimated, the kind of woman who knows how to turn a difficult hand in her favor.

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“Aside from cheating on her husband and murdering someone, I find I can really relate to Roxie a lot,” Madix says, laughing. “She’s somebody who wanted to be a performer. She got kicked around a lot. The reason it seems like she’s grasping for fame is because without fame, she doesn’t really have any other way.”

a pull quote from the story

Madix insists she isn’t desperate for the spotlight in the way her character is, that “working is the goal and working was always the goal.” But there’s no denying that until paparazzi began staking out her San Fernando Valley home last year, documenting any evidence of cardboard boxes or moving vans, she didn’t have the job opportunities she has now.

Even if, as she says, she doesn’t care about being famous, her career prospects are very much tied to her pop-culture relevance.

And it’s unclear how much longer “Vanderpump Rules,” let alone Scandoval, will remain relevant. Season 11, which debuted Jan. 30, was filmed just a few months after the cheating was unveiled, so much of the on-screen drama revolves around the affair fallout. The program has continued to attract respectable ratings, but viewers who not long ago clamored for any morsel of gossip relating to the liaison are already declaring it old news.

“They say that all the time — ‘I’m over it,’” Madix says, assuming the voice of an irritated fan. “But them saying that feels a little bit like, ‘Oh, you own my life? You’ve decided that you’ve consumed enough content?’”

Ariana Madix stands onstage at Ambassador Theater in New York City, NY Feb. 1, 2024.
A blurry black-and-white photo of Ariana Madix looking at herself in dressing room mirror

Style Director: Emily Men; Blouse and Pants: AKNVAS; Jewelry: Simon G.; Shoes: Jimmy Choo; Makeup: Taylor Fitzgerald, Celebrity Makeup Artist / Mane Addicts; Hair: Alison Farfan, Celebrity Hair Stylist / Mane Addicts

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It’s late January, three days before Madix will have her premiere at the Ambassador Theatre, and she’s dashed across the street for dinner after a day of rehearsals. There aren’t many restaurants in Times Square that aren’t swarming with tourists, but she chose this chain Italian spot because it is close, and she can order meatballs.

She walks in wearing fuzzy earmuffs, a turtleneck and a puffer vest. Even without her SoCal wardrobe — crop tops, cutout dresses, wide-brimmed hats — she is recognized by three young women, who approach her table before her wine has even arrived. One girl apologizes profusely for interrupting, shares that she was rooting for Madix on “DWTS,” and then continues to say “sorry” before backing away timidly. She is soon replaced by two friends who announce themselves as members of “Team Ariana” and ask for a picture. “We love you. You can sit. We’ll stand behind you like psychos,” they say, crouching beside her chair.

After they leave, she picks up our conversation as if the fans never came by. I stop her to ask if this kind of interaction has become more commonplace in her life over the past year. “Yeah. Yeah, it happens,” she says, shrugging it off. “I want people to know it’s cool to come up to me and say hi. Like those girls saying they were sorry? It’s not like, ‘I’m on the show, and you’re not,’ and there’s a line between us.”

But it’s no longer just “the show” that Madix is known for.

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Even before Scandoval erupted last March, Madix had informed her team that she was interested in pursuing non-”Vanderpump” opportunities. In addition to her portion of the mortgage on the $2-million Valley Village home, she was investing heavily in the sandwich shop, Something About Her, with castmate Katie Maloney.

“I was like, ‘I’m not OK,’” she recalls telling her representatives. When she and Sandoval broke up, she was petrified about her financial situation. “There’s no one here about to bail me out. I don’t have rich parents. I don’t have an inheritance from anybody who’s passed.”

Mere days after TMZ broke the news about the cheating scandal, Madix’s friends were receiving DMs from companies looking to get in touch with her. (Madix temporarily deactivated her social media accounts in the wake of the split.) “They were pinging us like, ‘Hey, we want to give her this thing,’” says Meredith Brace Sloss, who has been friends with Madix since college. “Airbnb was like, ‘Oh, we’ll give her a house,’ and someone wanted to send her a grocery gift card.”

Sloss referred any outreach to Madix’s manager, Kasra Ajir, who had been working with the aspiring actor since 2011, two years before she first appeared on “Vanderpump Rules.”

“Ariana has always been somebody fans loved and saw themselves in, so I was not surprised that brands wanted to work with her. I was surprised by the number of brands that showed up — almost on, like, day two,” Ajir says. “It was a pressure cooker, but it was so exciting. Every day you woke up and didn’t know what was going to come.”

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Madix was thrilled by the offers but admits she also felt almost obligated to accept the majority of them given due to her bank statements.

“My team would be like, ‘This is a really great offer from Bic, look at it.’ And I’d say, ‘It is a fantastic offer, but even if it wasn’t, I’m not in a position to say no right now, because I have to make myself financially stable from now until kingdom come.’”

It’s been an incredible hustle, with Madix turning a personal tragedy into a reported $1-million payday. (Asked to comment on the accuracy of this figure, she says she is in the midst of filing her tax returns and hasn’t yet calculated her 2023 income.) But while most fans have commended her savvy in cashing in on Scandoval, others have criticized what they see as Madix’s transition into a “walking billboard.”

“Those people don’t want women to work,” Madix says, growing frustrated. “I think those people are confused about what it is that I do for a living. Those are acting jobs. I’m doing the same job I have done for many years; I’m just working more. And that’s why I signed up for ‘Vanderpump Rules’ in the first place — to work more.”

a woman in a gown poses with her hand on the wall

Gown: FWRD & Retrofete; Jewelry: Simon G.; Shoes: Jimmy Choo. Makeup: Taylor Fitzgerald, Celebrity Makeup Artist / Mane Addicts; Hair: Alison Farfan, Celebrity Hair Stylist / Mane Addicts

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Madix has never known anything other than work. Her great-grandmother was an employee at a bank until she was 90; her grandmother stayed at her own real estate agency until that age too. Her mother, 71, still has a job at a technology company; in Madix’s family, the topic of retirement does not come up.

She was raised in a middle-class home on Florida’s Space Coast, not far from Cape Canaveral. Her area code was 321, and as a result of her mother’s job at a technology company she got to watch occasional satellite launches. Her father, who died of a heart attack in 2013, was a commercial roofing contractor whose projects included building pavilions outside the rides at Universal Studios.

Madix wanted to be an actor and pleaded with her parents to attend a conservatory theater program after high school. They insisted she get a liberal arts degree, so she enrolled at Flagler College, a private institution about two hours north of her home. She studied theater and broadcast journalism but never landed major roles in the program’s productions, according to Sloss.

“Our department was — I mean, folks were a little bit homely, so they were all really intimidated by Ariana because she came in looking like a leading lady,” Sloss says. “She was kind of ostracized.”

The two became friends freshman year while auditioning to be characters at Disney World. Because you “have to be fur before you do face,” Madix explains, she initially played both Chip and Dale before working the princess circuit as Ariel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

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After graduation, she moved to New York and then L.A. to pursue acting. In between auditions, she worked as a bartender at Villa Blanca, the now-defunct Beverly Hills restaurant owned by Lisa Vanderpump, then starring in “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” In 2013, Bravo decided to give Vanderpump a spinoff centered on a different establishment she owned, the WeHo lounge Sur. Madix, blond and feisty but with the heart of a peacemaker, was transferred from Villa Blanca to Sur so she could join the show.

She had qualms about how being on reality television could affect her career. But her acting teacher, Lesly Kahn, urged her to jump on the opportunity.

“She was like, ‘Is this like a Honey Boo Boo situation where they’re trying to exploit you and make you look stupid?’” Madix says her instructor asked. “She was like, ‘As long as you’re you, I think you’ll be OK. Think about it this way: Martin Scorsese is not knocking on your door. You don’t have those kinds of opportunities at the moment. Take this, and make of it what you make of it.’”

Still, her friends worried. Sloss expressed concern that “maybe her being associated with a reality show could be considered frivolous or surface-level.”

Plenty of established actors have gone on to appear on reality television shows, but the pipeline doesn’t flow as strongly in the other direction. And Madix did not end up doing many outside acting gigs during her decade-long stint on “Vanderpump.” She appeared in rapper Yung Gravy’s music video, did an episode of the Charlie Sheen sitcom “Anger Management” and had a supporting role in a Michael Madsen movie called “Dirty Dealing 3-D” that was never released in theaters.

“My hat has been in the ring since the dawn of time if anybody ever wanted to express interest,” Madix says of her approach to acting while on “Vanderpump.” “I remember being 26 and moving to L.A. and meeting with agencies who told me I was too old to be a developmental client for them. So after a while I thought, ‘OK, well, I’ll focus more on opportunities that are in front of me.’ Maybe my path is different than the one I initially wanted, but it’s still great.”

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It was only when she got “Dancing With the Stars” post-Scandoval that she started to feel like her luck might be changing. She’d internalized the Hollywood idioms about there being no roles for women in their 30s, but while competing in bedazzled leotards on a prime-time network television show, she felt that “maybe everything hasn’t passed by. Maybe I still have room to grow.”

Her performance caught the attention of the “Chicago” producers, who brought her in for a work session last fall to test her ability to sing, act and pick up choreography.

David Bushman, the production’s dance captain, says he was looking to see if Madix was able to understand the musicality of the steps. “Right away, I could tell, ‘Oh, she doesn’t want anything dumbed down,’” says Bushman, who has been with the New York version of “Chicago” for a decade. “She really wanted the real deal, and she was willing to work for it.”

A woman sits on a man's lap onstage

Ariana Madix as Roxie Hart and Max Von Essen as Billy Flynn in “Chicago” on Broadway.

(Jeremy Daniel)

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Onstage at the Ambassador a few days before opening night, Madix is running through a few of her solos. She has slicked her bob back into a short ponytail and is outfitted in black spandex and character shoes. After practicing her signature number, “Roxie,” Madix receives notes from Gary Chryst, the dance supervisor.

“You don’t have to make anything bigger. We have to be careful not to give it all away at the beginning,” Chryst cautions, mentioning the moments in the song where she accentuates her body parts: “My hair! My teeth! My boobs! My nose!”

“I know, I get really excited,” Madix replies, taking in his observations with gentle laughter and polite “mm-hmms.”

“We don’t want to see the work,” Chryst says, “because you’re organically fun.”

That’s what Madix’s manager, Ajir, wants industry folk to pick up on when they see her in “Chicago.” His strategy has been to invite as many casting executives from networks and studios to the show as he can in the hopes that the performance can serve as her calling card.

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“I think when they see what she’s capable of, it’ll open a lot of doors for her in the scripted space,” Ajir says. “What an opportunity for them to see her in a different light. And to see how many fans she has from ‘Vanderpump.’”

At Madix’s debut performance Jan. 29, Bravo fans appeared to fill much of the sold-out theater. Lala Kent and Scheana Shay, two of Madix’s “Vanderpump” castmates, had flown from L.A. to attend the first performance, and clumps of selfie seekers amassed in the aisles by their seats.

Even Madix’s friends who aren’t on the show but frequently appear on her Instagram page were attracting attention.

“I took a two-hour train to see her,” one young woman told Madix’s off-screen best friend, Brad Kearns, as if he might later convey the message. “I wish I could wait after to get a signature, but there’s no 10 o’clock train back to my hometown.”

But the Bravo fan base can be as fickle as it is loyal. After one season as America’s Sweetheart, Madix has already fallen from grace in the eyes of some who feel her newfound fame has gone to her head.

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“I have never experienced someone who gets cheated on and suddenly she becomes God,” hisses Kent in the Season 11 trailer.

“It gives me tall poppy syndrome a bit,” Madix says. “The tallest poppy has to get cut down. There’s a lot of eyes on me, so it’s like, ‘Let’s cut this girl down to size.’

“I feel like I’m working, living and being pretty f— quiet about everything,” she adds, a touch defensively, “while also putting my life back together and trying to find a way to set myself up for a decent life as a middle-aged woman who now has to take everything on herself.”

Ariana Madix leans against a wall at the Ambassador Theater in a red-lit portrait.
Ariana Madix leans against a wall at the Ambassador Theater in a red-lit portrait.

Over the course of our three hours of conversation, money comes up repeatedly. Specifically her fear about not having it.

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There was a time, during her first year in L.A., when she lived out of her car; she still feels like it was “f— yesterday,” a phrase she utters with such intensity you start to visualize the fogged-up windows, a sleeping bag rolled up in the back seat.

She doesn’t ever want to be back there, and has a real desire to create generational wealth for her family. She would like to be able to move her mother out to California to be closer to her and her brother.

And much as she wants to believe she is taking the next step in her career, Madix hasn’t allowed herself to even visualize life after “Vanderpump Rules.”

“The only way I could ever see myself moving away from the show is if I had another job,” she says.

A few weeks later, when I call to catch up with her, I mention the reaction to the new season of the reality show — how some fans feel as if it might be reaching its natural conclusion.

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“I always feel like the show thrives when it’s at its most authentic, and if it feels like everyone’s stories have been told, I certainly don’t think it would be wise to just try to drum things up to keep it going,” she says.

Raquel Leviss in a green shirt, smiling, seated next to Tom Sandoval in a black shirt and Ariana Madix in pink

Raquel Leviss, left, was the center of the “Scandoval” on Season 10 of “Vanderpump Rules,” which ended Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix’s nine-year relationship.

(Nicole Weingart / Bravo via Getty Images)

But she can’t imagine Bravo pulling the plug when the show‘s ratings are strong. And even while 3,000 miles away from the cameras and her ex-boyfriend, Madix still finds herself attached to the drama of it all, including Sandoval’s travails.

The 40-year-old has been largely unable to find an effective way to market his villain era. He appeared on “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test,” a Fox show where celebrities endure grueling military-grade training, but did not make it to the final. He started a podcast that has not found an audience. And earlier this month, he issued an apology after saying in a New York Times Magazine cover story that “the O.J. Simpson thing and George Floyd” were “a little bit the same” as Scandoval.

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“I was just blown away by how anybody could say something so awful,” Madix says. She also was disturbed by the article’s claim that after he made those remarks in his initial interview, Bravo intervened to restrict further access to him.

“It was interesting how much Bravo was trying to cover for him,” she says. When I respond that it seemed like standard practice for a network publicity department, she disagrees. “Are they doing that right now with me and you?” she asks rhetorically, alluding to the fact that no one has stepped in mid-story to monitor our interviews or text message exchanges.

When Madix returns to L.A. in April, she is likely to move back into the home she and Sandoval still co-own. The property has become its own source of tabloid drama: Neither party wants to leave, so both have continued to live there while ignoring each other, communicating exclusively via third parties such as friends and assistants.

They each put $250,000 down to buy the home, and post-split, Sandoval has stated his desire to buy Madix out. She says he sent her a letter of intent stating he would give her $600,000 for her portion, based on a valuation of $3.1 million. “No formal offer was made. He didn’t get an appraisal,” she says.

In January, she filed a suit asking the L.A. County Superior Court to approve a partition by sale, which would force the couple to sell the five-bedroom property and split the proceeds. Sandoval responded to the request this month, claiming Madix needs to repay a $90,000-loan before they move forward.

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Remaining attached to her ex in this way — and to the entire Scandoval — is difficult for Madix, especially during the months she’s been in “Chicago,” trying to ignore so many other negative narratives — stunt casting, being a leading lady at 38, the clock ticking on her 15 minutes. She’s grappled with her identity as a reality star for a long time, unwittingly absorbing the notion that if you were in the profession, you “hadn’t done anything with your life. … You were beneath everything.”

Ariana Madix looks at her reflection in a dressing room mirror

It was only recently, when a friend pointed out that she’d amassed 10 years of on-camera experience — more than most actors get in their entire career — that her perspective started to shift. So she has no time for those who say she’s being “rewarded” for Scandoval. She won’t be reduced to a “passive participant in my own life.”

“I’ve had eyeballs on me that were not on me before. That gave me an inch, and I said, ‘OK, let me prove to you that I can do the mile. I can run this marathon because it’s what I’ve been preparing for this whole time.’”

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