reality tv

Would You Trust This Man?

Vanderpump Rules star Jax Taylor lied and cheated his way to reality-TV fame. But he swears he’s different now.

Jax Taylor and his fiancé Brittany Cartwright.
Jax Taylor and his fiancé Brittany Cartwright. Photo: Nicole Weingart/Bravo
Jax Taylor and his fiancé Brittany Cartwright.
Jax Taylor and his fiancé Brittany Cartwright. Photo: Nicole Weingart/Bravo

If you know one thing about Jax Taylor, you know that he lies. As I sit across from the model/bartender/reality star on the porch of a West Hollywood restaurant, it’s the first thing I remind myself. Even with his ADD-fueled energy — head flipping back toward the street to investigate every honk, screech, or shout — Vanderpump Rules’ leading man seems present, fully engaged. On a warm Tuesday last November, the conversation flows naturally, with moments of unexpected wisdom tucked into wild anecdotes and petty beefs. His impossibly wide shoulders sit below an impossibly wide jaw, which is peppered with just the right amount of stubble. He feels easy to trust.

For seven seasons now, Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules has followed a group of beautiful servers and bartenders at SUR, Lisa Vanderpump’s West Hollywood establishment, as they cheat, fight, and make elaborate cocktails. Throughout that time, Taylor has been the blundering Lothario behind the bar, philandering, spreading rumors and, just as importantly, getting caught. The show’s first two seasons centered around a Big Jax Lie: a Las Vegas infidelity-fueled pregnancy scare in season one, and sex with his best friend Tom Sandoval’s girlfriend Kristen Doute in season two. Both times, Taylor convinced both the show’s behind-the-camera staff and his friends that he was wrongfully accused; both times, he was caught red-handed as the season ended.

Taylor’s ability to lie with gusto helped build Vanderpump Rules into a reality-TV powerhouse in which anything felt possible. It’s what makes him a perfect reality star: compulsively anti-monogamous, seemingly unaware of cameras, lacking in basic self-control, and fast and loose with the truth. Yet somehow — perhaps because of what Taylor himself calls a lack of forethought or malice behind his lies, or perhaps because of his dopey magnetism — he’s still redeemable in the eyes of Vanderpump fans and his castmates. This coming July, the West Hollywood bartender will turn 40. He recently proposed to his girlfriend Brittany Cartwright, while mourning the death of his father, and producers and castmates swear he has changed. He drinks less (“six drinks in six months”), has started smoking weed (favorite strain: Jack Herer; favorite method: “Brittany’s blunts”; favorite blunt wrap: Swisher), and seems genuinely in love. He’s even found God, attending the Wednesday service at Beverly Hills’ Churchome (“Bieber and Hailey Baldwin are back there, and the Kardashians are in front of me”). Somehow, perhaps because of what one producer referred to as “weapons-grade charisma,” those closest to him, and much of the viewership, still root for Jax Taylor. Maybe, this time, the change will stick.

As we wait for our food to arrive, Taylor dives into a hypothetical story about an unnamed Midwestern women who was the prettiest girl in her small town. “You lived in Ohio, you’re the pretty one in Ohio. But now you put all the pretty ones in California,” he says, placing his sleek prescription glasses on the table. “Guess what? You’re all the same. Everybody’s the same. You should be an actress in Hollywood. You’re pretty. Next thing you know, you’re a waitress for 20 years, you know?” In his telling, two-faced producers promise the aspiring actress bit parts and even that she’ll get her own show one day. The tangent seems non sequitur, until it does not.

Raised in Michigan, Taylor — then known by his given name, Jason Michael Cauchi — was a strikingly handsome, if slightly unmoored, man’s man. He went to Macomb Community College before quitting school and joining the Navy as a seaman recruit. Afterward he modeled, living for moments in New York, Miami, and Milan. At 26, he arrived in L.A.. He was told again and again by producers that he’d get his break. For seven years, it never came.

Eventually, Taylor took a job as a bartender at SUR to pay the bills. He was past 30 and ready to quit modeling, move back to Florida where his father lived, and try to join the fire department. His relationship with Stassi Schroeder — with whom he’d been set up by her SUR co-worker Doute — was on the rocks, and he had told his friends he was going to drive his truck across the country any day now. But Schroeder convinced him to talk with Vanderpump about the show she was pitching to Bravo executives. Taylor had just started bartending at SUR and says he’d barely met Vanderpump at the time, but respected her and let her explain her vision. He’d been promised the world before, but Vanderpump already was on a Bravo show, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, so her offer felt a bit more substantial. After a couple meetings, he signed on and opened his life up completely to a team of cameramen and reality-TV producers.

A few weeks before he agreed to be on Vanderpump Rules, Taylor says he had two commercials canceled and was cut out of a bit-part on a television show. He’d been screwed again and again by Hollywood; he was tired of it all. “That informed who he was and who he is in a lot of ways,” says Alex Baskin, one of Vanderpump’s executive producers. “He was like, ‘This town sucks and there’s no honor amongst thieves.’ I think his fuck jar was empty.”

Bravo’s Andy Cohen knew right away that the network had something special in Taylor. To celebrate the release of Cohen’s first book, Most Talkative: Stories From the Front Lines of Pop Culture, the talk-show host and Real Housewives producer brought together his cadre of friends, reality stars, and celebrities at SUR. This was May 2012, seven months before the first season of Vanderpump Rules premiered. Taylor, whom Cohen describes as being in “the prime of his good looks,” met the Bravo executive while serving him a drink. They small-talked for a moment before Cohen went on with his night.

According to Cohen, it was what he heard later that gave him a window into Taylor’s potential. Apparently the handsome bartender had spread gossip to his future castmates that he and Cohen had “really connected” and that they’d be grabbing lunch to talk about his future. It was a perfect lie, meant to create chaos within the friend group. In a group of aspiring actors and pop stars, Taylor’s fabricated lunch meeting with a Bravo executive was social currency. “Like, why was I paying all this attention to Jax?” Cohen recalls, laughing. “Of course it was totally untrue and if you confronted him with the story now, he would probably say it didn’t happen. But I’m telling you, it happened.” (Taylor, for what it’s worth, says he doesn’t know “if that’s 100 percent true.”)

The first season of Vanderpump Rules covers the summer of 2012, and unlike many similar reality shows, the beautiful young cast had lived and worked together for years before getting their lives filmed. “We were already a group of friends,” Taylor says. “They didn’t go and say, Let’s go to Laguna Beach and cast five people and be like, okay, we need you guys to be high school best friends. You need to not like her. You need to pretend to like him.

That preshow history helps to both anchor their friendships and create the kinesis that still threatens to pull them apart today. As part of their pitch, Baskin and the producers showed Cohen a map with lines charting the SUR staff’s prior and current relationships and beefs. “We put together a flow chart with arrows going in all sorts of directions,” Baskin says, laughing. “It was super messy and complicated in the best possible way.”

But no character’s past was richer, or more unlikely, than Taylor’s. His 20s are a potpourri of incredibly far-fetched details and anecdotes. Many articles, and Taylor himself, claim that he served in the Navy (which he did), that he played college hockey at Michigan State (which he did not), and that he was roommates with Channing Tatum (Tatum’s rep did not respond to a request for comment, and neither Taylor nor Bravo had photographs to share from the time because “it was before iPhones”). Schroeder warned me that Taylor might lie about his past; during the years they dated before the show, she would often track down unexplainable inconsistencies. “He lied to me and told me he was a Navy SEAL. He was not,” Schroder says. “He literally had a Navy SEAL sticker on the back of his truck, so he wouldn’t get pulled over by cops.”

Vanderpump Rules showrunner Bill Langworthy, who has spent seven years trailing his leading man and grilling him in interviews like he’s “under FBI surveillance,” still finds himself surprised by details of Taylor’s preshow existence. “I don’t think he really lives in the past, so his stories aren’t quite as crystallized and clear in his mind the way that they would be for me,” Langworthy explains, generously. “But there are parts that you think couldn’t possibly be true that all of sudden become confirmed.”

Right on the first day of filming, it was clear to the producers that Taylor’s combination of leading-man looks and a desire to exist in a perpetual present would translate to reality stardom. Langworthy, a veteran of the reality genre, remembers seeing the sales reel — shot to test talent on screen before a show is picked up — and being instantly charmed by Taylor. “The audio guy is putting the lavalier [microphone] on Jax and he’s already revealing very, very sensitive information about his best friends, Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz,” Langworthy says. “He literally could not wait for the crew to be set to just start being awesome on a reality show.”

Taylor had been bit by Hollywood and was ready to take advantage of an honest-to-goodness break. He was 32 years old and knew how rare a real chance was in this town. He couldn’t act and was sick of modeling, but he was born for reality TV.

Aging all these years on screen, especially since the arrival of his brash and baby-faced co-star James Kennedy (“I watch him,” Taylor remarks, “and, I’m like, God, did I act like this?”), has softened the once-impetuous wild card. The older, and perhaps wiser, he gets, the more the regret shows on his face; incredibly, it’s become possible to empathize with Jax Taylor. He is a liar, but a radically transparent one. The Vanderpump producers have a key to his apartment and, unlike many reality stars, Taylor has allowed the viewers to see an authentic portrayal of himself on screen, warts and all. Even as he successfully deceives, the truth of his motivations shows through.

“When he lies, he lies authentically,” Baskin says. “He lies because that is his natural response, so it is a true-to-character lie.”

That strange brand of authenticity has allowed Taylor to avoid becoming the villain, both among his friends and among the viewership. The promise of reality TV, rarely delivered, is the unfiltered real. Taylor is far from trustworthy in a relationship or around expensive sunglasses, but he delivers truth on screen. For producers and devotees of the genre, authenticity — even in the form of a lie — is a breath of fresh air.

Taylor believes he gets so much leeway because his dishonesty isn’t mean-spirited, and the Vanderpump producers agree. But a quick glance at the back of his baseball card shows that, at times, he clearly has hurt those closest to him: He’s cheated, he’s slandered, he’s spread rumors. Yet Taylor will never be confused for a mastermind, so it rarely feels conniving. That fact, along with his charisma, is why he says his friends and Vanderpump-heads still stand by him.

“I do a lot of fucked up shit. That’s a hundred percent true. But I’m not mean. I don’t set out to hurt you. There’s no — what do you call that? Calculated. I’m not malicious,” Taylor says. “I’m a pretty silly, funny, outgoing guy. You know, I do a lot of fucked up shit, but so what? I don’t hurt anybody. No one’s ever got pregnant. No one’s ever gotten divorced. We all do dumb shit. I’m not gonna walk around and be walking on thin ice all my life. I do dumb stuff. So what?”

But as his ex, Schroeder felt the more poisonous end of Taylor’s impulsivity and untruth. Throughout the first season, she tried in vain to convince her and Taylor’s mutual friends that he’d impregnated a woman in Vegas. Though he actually had, Taylor gaslit Schroeder, persuading everyone that she was delusional. When Schroeder’s new boyfriend Frank Herlihy came forward as a witness of Taylor’s duplicity, the move backfired, swaying friends and viewers alike to see Schroder’s rebound as sleazy and untrustworthy. “When someone’s a really great liar, you believe everything. He would cry, he would literally cry. So how could you not believe a grown man who is crying?” she says. “Even my truth isn’t as good as his lie.”

The reality-TV world overflows with fantastic fabulists, and so any decent reality-TV producer needs to have a great bullshit meter. Yet, Langworthy told me the entire team was slack-jawed when Taylor came clean during the last hours of shooting on the first season. Langworthy talked with a stunned lead camera operator who’d just filmed Taylor and Schroeder’s conflicting accounts of the Vegas incident. “Having heard both sides, he came back and said, I guess I no longer know what it looks like when a person is lying to me,” Langworthy remembers.

Schroeder spent the show’s first season alienated by her friends, who backed Taylor. When the show aired, it was Schroeder who was cast as Vanderpump’s villain. And yet, even she has managed to let Taylor back into her life. “Everyone is always like, How can you hang around that terrorist of a human being? How? How? How?” Schroeder says. “But the charm of Jax is that he likes to have a good time, he’s very charismatic, and he’s funny but in a dumb endearing kind of way. So you want to be around him even though he’s done awful things.”

Taylor owns his past transgressions as we talk over lunch. He says he’s different now, changed since his father’s passing in December 2017. “After my dad died, I was very close to doing something really bad to myself, extremely close,” Taylor says. “And Brittany single-handedly saved me and our relationship.”

In the spring of 2015, Taylor fell in love at first sight with the Kentucky-born Cartwright in Las Vegas, and convinced her to move into his L.A. apartment. The relationship was quickly rocky (in Vanderpump’s season five premiere, Taylor spread a rumor that she’d slept with Doute), but the two rode their love affair into a spinoff, Jax & Brittany Take Kentucky, which aired on Bravo in 2017. That show cast Taylor as an ill-equipped outsider on the farm and in Cartwright’s conservative and religious family; it also revolved around Taylor’s cold feet when it came to settling down. The couple’s breaking point arrived months later when it was revealed that Taylor had cheated with SUR waitress Faith Stowers. He and Cartwright finally split in August 2017, but soon reconnected. When his father passed a few months later, Cartwright met him in Florida and “Brittany took over,” according to Taylor.

Since then, Taylor has traded in alcohol for marijuana, reiki for a celebrity megachurch, and has asked Cartwright to marry him. Cohen, the Vanderpump producers, and Taylor himself say they were all shocked by how much he stayed above the fray throughout filming the show’s seventh season. During an episode that aired in late February, the SUR staff had boys’ and girls’ nights apart. When the lone single friend Peter Madrigal brought a group of women back to the guys’ hotel room, Taylor nervously paced and then hid on the porch, before finally calling his fiancé. It was an unexpected moment of transparency and of restraint, more than a bit bungled in execution. It looked a lot like growth.

Even Schroeder has witnessed this evolution. “It was almost immediate, this incredible change and shift,” she says. “I don’t even know how to explain it; he isn’t the same person he was before. He got the sense smacked into him.”

The Jax Taylor Experience through the first six years of Vanderpump Rules was the male model id unleashed. That’s why watching him toe the line this season has been fascinating. He became a reality star for his lack of inhibition and factual pliancy. As he cheated and lied, surrounded by cameras with no regard for future consequences, it was impossible to take your eyes off him. It felt brazen, or perhaps compulsive, but never false. The new Jax Taylor, faithful and truthful despite every instinct to the contrary, threatens to alter the show. But the devil on his shoulder is still easy to see and every ounce of effort shows on his face as he tries so hard to be good. It’s not the same Jax Taylor Experience, but it still feels true.

As the waitress brings the check at the end of our meal, Taylor begins in on his strangest anecdote of the afternoon. When he first moved to Los Angeles, he tells me, years before Vanderpump Rules, he lived in Westwood, near UCLA. He had found a student ID card on the sidewalk and began to use it to access the school’s gym. But then one day, on a whim, Taylor decided to rush a frat, posing as the student on the ID. He tells me he kept up the ruse for six months, living for cheap in a frat house he believes was Sigma Nu, while pretending to be a handsome, overly developed underclassman. At the time, he was 26.

The story was odd and surprising, delivered casually between other fascinating nuggets of a crowded and varied past (hockey scholarships, high-fashion modeling gigs, time in the Navy, dreams of fighting fires). Only later, as I started to sift through the details, did the cracks begin to show. How did he rush and then live in the house right away? What was the final straw that led to his ouster? Why didn’t the producers or his ex-girlfriend know this story when I asked them about it?

It was a throwaway anecdote, but it felt revelatory. So I began to dig. According to residents of the frat house, Taylor did not live in Sigma Nu under an assumed name in 2005. The story of a 26-year-old living in a house under false pretenses for six months didn’t ring a bell with other UCLA fraternity members of that era either. Yes, this was almost 15 years ago. Perhaps Taylor did live in some house for some time. (A Sigma Nu alum said it would have been much easier to rent a spot in the house over the summer when rules were more relaxed.) But why tell this specific story in this specific way in the first place?

It was not until I’d made contact with the eighth member of that era’s UCLA Greek system that I began to realize that I’d fallen down the rabbit hole. Like so many SUR co-workers before me, I was chasing details of an aside by a known tall-talesman. I was taking a tape measure to Babe, forgetting that it was the idea of an ox the size of building that truly mattered.

I’d spent a week on the phone trying to debunk the detail because it befuddled me. I could not for the life of me understand what was to gain from it. But so far as I can tell, a Jax Lie doesn’t work like yours or mine; it needs only to survive a moment, the future be damned. In explaining his brand of dishonesty, Langworthy tells me, “The present is very loud for Jax. He is not too worried about, How am I gonna keep this going tomorrow?

A Jax Lie can burn a friend or break up a relationship, but it’s just as likely to do nothing at all. It’s created only to serve whatever story Taylor’s telling in his perpetual present. At the time he told this one to me, I was rapt. I leaned forward. I laughed. I watched him closely as he spoke. As I chased the truth of it later, it became an irritation, but also a fascination. It was aimless and half-conceived, but it held some truth, not in its details but in its telling. And it kept me entertained.

Would You Trust This Man?