When Jesse Montana filmed Vanderpump Rules last summer at the height of Scandoval, he didn’t realize Season 11 would be his last time in front of the cameras for the hit Bravo series. For years, Jesse has been in the background of the show as a server at Lisa Vanderpump’s West Hollywood restaurants SUR and Pump (the latter shuttering recently), as well as a good friend of some of the cast members. He’s spent the last decade in the Vanderpump universe on and off camera. As Jesse puts it, “I’ve just been living my real life with my real friends and every summer when the cameras pop up, things get heightened and exaggerated and you just kind of go with the flow.”
But over the holidays, Jesse says he “cheated death” after surviving a life-threatening health scare, which gave him a new perspective and made him realize he’s ready to move on from SUR and Vanderpump Rules.
“What happened in December was such an earth-shattering experience. It really changed my whole perception on life in general and what I want and and what I need. I’ve dedicated so much of my time to working for Lisa Vanderpump [at SUR and Pump]. It’s been great money, and I’m so grateful to her and for the experience,” Jesse tells Rolling Stone.
“I just want to be happy and I want to be successful. I want to channel all the energy that I put into making fans and people happy at all of Lisa’s restaurants into just being as successful as all my other friends on the show. I want to get to a space where my story is actually being heard versus overlooked.”
Days after hosting their first Friendsgiving, Jesse and his boyfriend Joe spent the weekend decorating their first Christmas tree and getting excited for the upcoming holiday season. Then, in the early hours of November 27th, Joe unexpectedly woke up to Jesse having a seizure and rushed him to the hospital. Jesse says he woke up two days later in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in a hospital bed with tubes down his throat. Doctors discovered a tumor on the front side of his brain they wanted to remove as soon as possible but couldn’t operate on him because his kidneys were failing from his seizure. Days later, on December 4th, surrounded by his family members and boyfriend, Jesse underwent surgery.
“It was the craziest experience of my life. I felt like a pincushion. I just never thought that was going to be a reality for me,” the 35-year-old says. “I remember being rolled into the surgery room on my bed at Cedars-Sinai looking out onto San Vicente Boulevard, which is the street I would take to go to work at SUR every single day, and I was so scared.”
While the surgery was successful and Jesse’s tumor was removed, it’s taken him months to fully recover. Speaking to Rolling Stone in February, Jesse says he was “a zombie for weeks” following the surgery, lacking mental clarity. After being stripped of his independence, he says he’s slowly getting it back by beginning to leave the house again and having more social interactions.
“I’m still alive, I’m here,” he says. “And I’m on this new trajectory where I know I can’t take life for granted.”
Jesse was working at SUR up until his health scare and now he’s not able to be on his feet for five days a week like he used to be. Outside of his inability to be a server, Jesse also says he wants to “let go of the petty stuff that doesn’t matter at all.” A lot of his Vanderpump friends showed up for him during this scary and sensitive moment, including Ariana Madix, Scheana Shay, Lala Kent, and Katie Maloney, amongst others, posting encouraging messages on Instagram and sharing a GoFundMe link to help raise money for his medical costs. While Jesse didn’t see a lot of these messages in real time because of his mental and physical capacity, his boyfriend kept him in the loop about which friends of his reached out and he saw a lot of their well wishes later, reaffirming to him “why they’re a part of my chosen family.”
“I’m all about affirmations so it was a nice affirmation of my genuine love for a lot of my friends in this group, why I’ve loved them for so long, and why I’ve given them so many allowances,” Jesse says. “I’m not perfect; none of us are perfect. I’ve seen the good qualities in all of these people and this is why I ride or die for them. I love them to death. It was really, really beautiful.”
Vanderpump Rules Season 11 premiered on Bravo last week and Jesse makes a cameo when the cast shows up to TomTom for DJ James Kennedy’s set. In one scene, he’s sitting next to Ariana when Schwartz approaches the two of them and says hello. Ariana ignores Schwartz but Jesse says a cordial hello back, signaling his place in all of the drama: smack dab in the middle.
For Jesse, the fallout of Tom Sandoval and Rachel Leviss’s cheating scandal had a massive real-life impact. According to Jesse, his closest friends at the time that Scandoval was revealed to the world were, in fact, Ariana, Sandoval, and Rachel. He was uniquely positioned behind the scenes of Vanderpump Rules as someone who spent a lot of his life personally and professionally with the three of them, making him feel especially betrayed by Sandoval and Rachel.
“It felt like two stabs in the back for me. It was really, really hard because I never once got a true, genuine apology from Tom or Rachel saying, ‘I’m holding accountability, I’m so sorry if you felt slighted in any way,” Jesse says. “That was very frustrating. I felt like I didn’t get what I needed from the two of them and I honestly thought that I might have gotten some of that over the summer, but it all went so differently.”
Jesse says he was completely in the dark about Sandoval and Rachel’s affair despite having spent so much time with the two of them, noting, “They were really, really good about hiding this thing.” On top of feeling betrayed and lied to by Sandoval and Rachel, Jesse says it was heartbreaking for the dynamics of his friend group and chosen family, as he calls them, to dramatically shift overnight, let alone in front of the rest of the world.
“I looked at Tom and Ariana like a brother and a sister. I always admired their relationship because they had been together for nine years and I was like, ‘This is so beautiful. You guys have such a beautiful life together,’” Jesse says. “We always had so much fun together so it was really, really, sad for me to see that dynamic completely drop away in literally the blink of an eye and come to the realization that that dynamic will never be a thing again. We’ll never be going on our trips together, spending holidays together. It’s going to change completely.”
According to Jesse, he was approached by Vanderpump producers regarding filming last summer because they were interested in his story as someone who existed “genuinely in that gray space” and had authentic relationships with Ariana, Sandoval, and Rachel. Initially, Jesse says he found Scandoval difficult to navigate because even though Tom and Rachel’s monthslong affair was “unforgivable,” he wanted to try to be a good friend to everyone, and was worried about Sandovall and Rachel’s mental health given the massive hate that was being hurled at them.
“I was kind of pulled back in. The producers were like, ‘We really want to hear your side of what’s going on with Scandoval so I was like, let me give it one more go and speak to the gray area of the neutral territories,” Jesse says. “A lot of people made it very clear and drew a line in the sand that they were Team Ariana and Team Tom. For me, even in these last ten years, I always think for myself, I speak for myself, and I have singular relationships with everybody in my life. I pride myself on that.”
Longtime VPR star Scheana Shay is responsible for bringing Jesse into the fold, he says. After moving to Los Angeles from the state of Montana to pursue a career in music, Jesse was working at a hair salon in Beverly Hills when he met Scheana. She mentioned Lisa Vanderpump was opening a new restaurant at the time, Pump, and they needed to hire bartenders and servers. Jesse helped open Pump with the rest of the inaugural staff and says he organically grew closer to some of the Vanderpump cast members. Filming for the show was also a part of the gig, which was something Jesse says he was always open to.
“I was always in the background and adjacent to the experience, but open to it. First and foremost were the friendships for me and I just was like, ‘Sure, why not do this cool experience of a show with my best friends?’” Jesse says.
The reality-TV landscape looked different a decade ago when Jesse agreed to participate in Vanderpump Rules. In 2014, shows like The Hills were a few years in the rearview and Bravo was just at the beginning of launching what would eventually become their crowned Real Housewives franchises. Not only was Jesse younger and inexperienced when it came to unscripted television, but production companies and networks were figuring out their recipes for success.
“I was so young so I didn’t know so much. I think I definitely thought it was going to be a bigger opportunity. Now I think in the Bravoverse the term ‘friend of’ is coined, and looking back on my experience, I really do feel like that’s exactly what I was contracted for,” Jesse says. “When you film so much in an entire summer and then you see a fraction of that shown [on TV], you learn so much. I’m thankful to Bravo, Lisa, and all my friends for the opportunity. It was a wild ride but I loved it. No regrets.”
I know what I filmed last summer and I know where my headspace was before my incident. But I’m in such a different headspace now.
After the Scandoval news broke, Jesse says he didn’t see most of his friends for months and then when he entered into the world of filming, he didn’t know what to expect. He only had a brief cameo in the first episode of this season and isn’t sure how he’ll get edited in — or out — of the rest of Season 11, but Jesse says he’s “afraid to see what is going to unravel for the rest of the season” considering what he remembers filming and taking part in. It’s always hard for Jesse to watch episodes back after filming; he doesn’t love watching himself on screen, he says, and it can be triggering to relive dramatic situations. When it comes to last summer, he says they’re all ready to move on.
“I know what I filmed last summer and I know where my headspace was before my incident. But I’m in such a different headspace now,” he says. “The things I cared about and the things that were upsetting me last summer versus what I’m going through right now, it just makes everything I went through last summer so irrelevant.
When cameras started rolling last summer, Jesse says it didn’t feel like a typical season of filming. The vibes were heavier, he says, because everyone involved in the show was dealing with dynamics that were intense and shifting in real time. People were navigating their individual feelings as well as their place in the larger group, all the while aware that viewers would eventually be tuning in.
“We know that this is going to be shown to the rest of the world and the world is waiting for these stories to unfold. The pressure was really, really high for everybody, including me,” Jesse says. “I didn’t know what the producers wanted out of me so I was very nervous. I had a lot of anxiety going into the summer. I was still navigating my own issues with everything that went down. It was definitely different, way heavier, way scarier, and way more intimidating.”
Ultimately, Jesse says he was disappointed in Sandoval’s lack of accountability and behavior over the summer. Their relationship isn’t the same, he says, because Sandoval hasn’t been able to acknowledge his wrongdoings or demonstrate much growth.
“I was genuinely mourning the loss of my friendship with Tom and realizing, I don’t think we’re ever going to be the same again. But I knew that everybody had obviously abandoned him so I was worried for his mental health as well,” Jesse says. “I wanted to make sure he understood the door is open but I’m not going to sit here and tell you what you did was OK. I don’t want to hear any excuses. I honestly didn’t even really want to talk about it because I was so mad at him, but I wanted him to not do something scary.”
Before Scandoval happened, the first major rift in Jesse’s group of friends came when DJ James Kennedy and Rachel ended their engagement. He’d been close friends with the two of them, but after they broke up he says James was immersed in his new relationship with Ally Lewber and Rachel “was in her single-girl era,” so he ended up spending more time with her.
“Before I met my boyfriend I was in my single-boy era and wanted to blow off some steam. I wanted my friends to be able to go to events with me and go out and just have fun. I’ve always worked so hard so I like to play hard as well, and Rachel kind of slipped into that,” Jesse says. “That’s why leading up to the scandal it’s crazy to think I was going out a lot with Tom and Rachel exclusively, because they were my party friends.”
As far as Ariana goes, Jesse says he’s prioritizing her friendship because she’s been supportive of him, has never betrayed him, and has been a major inspiration to him and people around the world for handling the last year “like a champion.”
“Ariana is a true friend. Even the week that the scandal was blown up, she reached out to me and was like, ‘How are you doing?’” Jesse says. “I was going through it too because I was upset for her and we were all stabbed in the back by Tom. For her to even take a break from her own grief and trauma shows you what kind of a friend and human Ariana is. She’s so genuine. She’s so incredible. I’m proud of her. She deserves everything she’s getting.”
After a tumultuous season filming and a fresh perspective on life, Jesse says he’s ready to leave the show in the past.
“I’m thankful to Evolution, Bravo, NBCUniversal, and all of my friends who are on the show. I’m so proud of them for being even more vulnerable than me by sharing their lives on camera the way they did. They’ve touched lives all over the world. But it was never my show,” Jesse says. “I was always a ‘friend of.’ I was there to support. Over the years, I always did think maybe there would be a space for me to have a voice for the LGBTQIA community and Asian Americans around the world, but everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t my destiny and I’m OK with that. I think now let’s close that chapter.”
Jesse will continue to be monitored every four to six months with MRIs and scans to make sure the tumor doesn’t come back. He says his doctor also mentioned the possibility of oral chemotherapy as a means of treatment, and he hopes sharing his medical journey will help others who have been through similar situations or even inspire younger people to check in with their doctors regularly regarding their health.
Music is also a way that Jesse hopes to connect with people. While he’s put his musical career on the backburner for the last few years, Jesse says he’s now prioritizing his dreams of being a popular singer-songwriter. VPR superfans are familiar with Jesse’s songs, some of which he’s performed in passing on the show. Now, Jesse hopes to pursue that passion.
“Fans from different countries come to SUR and are like, I love your song ‘Kings and Queens’ and DM me about it, and I’m able to connect with people through my music,” Jesse says. “Growing up, it’s always been a pillar of therapy for me, purging my emotions and my feelings and my passions. Then I channel that into my lyrics, take that to a stage, and get to feel that feedback in real time. It’s the most exhilarating drug you could ever experience.”