The "Real Housewives" and "Vanderpump Rules" star has become known as an ardent campaigner against the controversial Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival. We caught up with Vanderpump to talk about about why she feels it's her activism—for dogs as well...
Photo courtesy of Lisa Vanderpump
From suburban New Jersey to Dallas, Bravo's Real Housewives franchise documents the diverse lives of affluent women. Reality TV is a crowded pool, and standing out—let alone creating a lasting presence—is a long, dirty battle.
Lisa Vanderpump is a champion in this arena. She has been a fixture of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for all six seasons, and in 2013 she created her spinoff series, Vanderpump Rules, which has earned acclaim from even the highest-browed of publications. With her lavish lifestyle and snarky British wit, Vanderpump is one of the most iconic TV personalities of recent years.
In season three, Vanderpump's tagline was, "Life isn't all diamonds and rosé, but it should be." With her flashy cars and flashier jewelry, Vanderpump has become known as an indulgent woman, particularly because she's made her name as the owner of lavish bars and restaurants. But, she told me, her lifestyle is not what she's ultimately hoping to portray through these shows. Rather, Vanderpump wants to be known for her charity work, with her two primary focuses being LGBT rights—many of her venues are explicitly gay or gay-friendly—and dog activism. We spoke on the eve of the southern Chinese city of Yulin's Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, an annual 10-day celebration during which an estimated 10,000 cats and dogs are killed and eaten, and in the wake of the tragic shooting in Orlando.
BROADLY: How did you become involved with LGBT rights?
Lisa Vanderpump: The LGBT community has always been close to my heart—I chose to create gay venues in London, like Freedom and The Shadow Lounge. It's always been about standing up for what I believe in. I was raised to treat people equally, regardless of color or sexual orientation, and to judge people, but to judge them by their character and the qualities they have, not by anything else. So I've stood up for equal rights and marriage equality.
I suppose I also realized that the heterosexual voice is needed because, even now, I'm looking at interviews and you still see so many bigots. Of course, it isn't as much [in] progressive places like London or West Hollywood, but as a result of this bigotry, you see what happened [in Orlando]. I think it's sometimes easier for people who are against LGBT equality to listen to someone who is heterosexual. I've had kids come to me and say their mothers watched [my shows] and said, "I've seen Lisa be so supportive, so maybe I need to rethink this." I've had mothers directly tell me, "When my son came out as gay, my life really fell apart. I've seen how you've really been supportive of LGBT people, and it gave me a better understanding." So, yeah, I think the heterosexual voice is very important to stand up on behalf of the gay community. I am proud to be one of those voices.
You were involved with LA Pride the morning after the Orlando massacre. What was that like?
It's so hard to understand why that happened in Orlando, but I'm proud of the fact that everyone together in WeHo still carried on.
With my restaurants SUR and PUMP being right in the epicenter of the parade, we always do a float or a little party for organizations like GLAAD or [anti-bullying organization] Friend Movement. This year was different. Vanderpump Rules was being filmed, and I rode on the "British Bum" with the British consulate. There were a few hair-raising moments. Just before we got on the Bum, we'd been alerted that someone had been apprehended with explosives and guns. Everyone feared for the security of the parade, but we all had to make a decision.
Some of my staff didn't show, and I understood that. Other people chose to have courage in the face adversity and to stand up and show their support. We had a lot of tears and moments of silence in PUMP. It was a very sad but poignant day, with 49 people having been killed in the gay bar the night before. It was a somber shadow on what should have been a celebration.
Real Housewives doesn't define me—it documents my life, and that's all.
When did you start advocating for animals?
I'm not an animal activist. How can I be, when I wear leather and eat meat? I'm a dog activist. I've always loved dogs, and I've been a judge for the Hero Dog Awards for the last few years. Now, not only do I know from personal experience how incredible dogs are, but I've also been able to see what empathetic creatures they are and all the things they are capable of. We've got cancer-detecting dogs, dogs that predict seizures, seeing eye dogs, and arson dogs. For people suffering from PTSD, they're a conjugate to life.
On the show you organized a march against the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China. How did this cause become so important to you?
[After] I met my partner, Dr. John Sessa, we decided to create a dog line, Vanderpump Pets, with collars and leashes. Everything we do has a philanthropic aspect. At [my restaurant] Villa Blanca, we feed the homeless once a week. PUMP hosts a lot of LGBT events. So we tried to think what we could do for Vanderpump Pets. Then we heard about the barbaric torture [of the] Yulin festival. [Ed. note: According to the BBC, critics say the dogs are kept in small cages, transported to the city in unsanitary conditions, often denied food and water, and are "sometimes beaten to death and cooked alive."] Right away I knew fighting the festival was something I wanted to get behind.
If you go to my website, StopYulinForever.org, you'll see so many pictures. We did a PSA last year with images to intimate what's going on. I've got pictures of golden retrievers being strung up by their neck with all of their limbs severed while they're alive, and other dogs are being cooked in front of them. It's hard to choose what to retweet with a big social media following. Sometimes I retweet things and take it down, because I fear it's too graphic.
I frankly feel quite beaten right now, because though I'm sure we've drawn some attention to the festival, it's hard to permeate Chinese culture. My social media has no standing over there. I can be on the news in ten minutes if I say something provocative here. But with the Yulin Festival, all I can do is try to get worldwide attention because China is disconnected from a lot of the social media channels in which I have some kind of standing.
How much traction have you been able to gain since last year?
I do believe that during the last year we've raised awareness through news articles, my PSA, social media, and the documentary that's being produced. We had World Dog Day to celebrate dogs to garner support against the dog meat trade. We've done the PSA, spoken on news outlets, and created the Vanderpump Dog Foundation.
Dr. Sessa has infiltrated some of the dogs on trucks in China. A petition [against the festival] was signed with 11 million signatures, and I think they did a poll that said 65 percent of Chinese were against eating dog meat.
[Editor's note: In the poll Vanderpump refers to, conducted by the state news agency Xinhua, 64 percent of Chinese people between the ages of 16 and 50 say they would support a permanent end to the nearly 500-year-old festival, which celebrates the summer solstice. An additional 51.7 percent believe the dog meat trade—which is legal in the country—should be banned; 69.5 percent of respondents say they've never eaten it. The survey group included Yulin residents.]
How many pets do you have?
I have two miniature horses, eight swans, seven turtles, and eight dogs. I've had cats as well, but I can't trust them here with coyotes. I already have an eight-foot perimeter fence and underground barbed wire to stop the coyotes from digging under the fence. They're so prolific around here.
On Real Housewives, you see the two horses, and my swan Hanky who was sick and had to go to the vet. Hanky had to be force-fed, but he's doing much better now. I had a few dogs. Then I adopted Giggy's father, and then Rumpy went off to doggie school and came home with a wife. I just adopted Harrison from the Sacramento Rescue Center. When he came home, he was totally bald and stressed, and now he has a fluffy coat after three months.
How have The Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules helped you promote your philanthropic causes?
They've both been fantastic in that sense.
When people [call me] "Real Housewives Lisa," it makes me laugh that that's how people know me. Real Housewives documented my life, so to speak. I've opened 29 restaurants and been involved in many charities and things like that. Real Housewives doesn't define me—it documents my life, and that's all. But it is an incredible platform.
For me, it's a medium with such a huge outreach. To get the Yulin march on the show was a struggle; Bravo doesn't like to make political statements, but I told them it wasn't a political statement, but rather something I'm passionate about. My tagline is, "I'm passionate about dogs, just not crazy about bitches." They were like, "You cant say 'bitch' on TV in titles." I said, "It's about the dogs—it's not about women." They let it go through, and that validated my work against Yulin.
I've also ordained a same-sex marriage on Bravo, and this year we'll show World Dog Day, as well. So, you can certainly use it to your advantage, and I plan to carry on doing so. I don't just want to document a bitch fest at dinner.
I'm not one of these—and I use the word loosely—"celebrities" who just shows up at the event, takes a picture, and then goes away. I believe if you're going to talk the talk, then you'd better walk the walk. I will organize the event, pay for it, and shout it from the rooftops.