Here’s how it goes: On March 1, “Vanderpump Rules” star Tom Sandoval and his aptly named band, Tom Sandoval & The Most Extras, were performing at TomTom, Lisa Vanderpump’s West Hollywood restaurant in which he and his best friend and fellow castmate Tom Schwartz share a small ownership stake. Sandoval’s phone fell out of his pocket, and someone gave it to Ariana Madix — Sandoval’s partner in life and in work for nine years — for safekeeping.
On the May 17 season finale of “Vanderpump Rules,” Madix explains what happened next.
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“Call it woman’s intuition, call it lightbulb, call it whatever,” Madix says in a confessional interview to the cameras. “Literally in that moment, I went, I need to look at this.” What she saw on Sandoval’s camera roll was a FaceTime screen recording of him and Raquel Leviss, their castmate and friend on the Bravo show. “My stomach dropped into my fucking ass,” Madix says.
The show then cuts to an interview with Sandoval. “I quickly got us outside, so everyone around us couldn’t hear us talk,” he says.
All of this happened five-and-a-half months after Bravo and production company Evolution Media had officially stopped filming the show’s 10th season. Other than confessional interviews with the cast members, which are shot later, cameras had been down on “Vanderpump Rules” since mid-September. The season started airing on Feb. 8.
But once the news broke about the cheating scandal within the show — a sexual affair that began in August of last year, and has been termed the #Scandoval — production restarted immediately, with Bravo and the show’s producers springing into action to capture the aftermath of Madix and Sandoval’s breakup, as well as a reunion between Sandoval and Leviss and the tear-filled (and toldja-filled) ripple effects the news had on the cast.
Tonight’s bonus finale will be followed on consecutive Wednesdays by three episodes of an explosive reunion that was taped on March 23 under unprecedented circumstances due to the temporary restraining order Leviss had taken out against Scheana Shay, an OG “Vanderpump Rules” cast member whom Leviss claimed assaulted her after learning of the affair. (After Leviss didn’t show up in court on March 29, the restraining order was dropped — but that was six days too late to ease the logistics of the reunion.)
What caused this mayhem is that exactly two-and-a-half months ago, at 12:06 pm PT on March 3, TMZ broke the news about the breakup, with a headline that blared: “TOM SANDOVAL & ARIANA MADIX CALL IT QUITS … Allegations He Cheated With Costar Raquel Leviss.” The story said Madix, 37, had broken up with Sandoval, 40, and that “producers got word of what went down, and made the decision to fire up the cameras with the entire cast to document the fallout in the coming days.” In fact, Alex Baskin, the executive producer of “Vanderpump Rules,” tells Variety that Madix had called production the day before to tell them what had happened, and cameras were already at the Valley Village farmhouse she and Sandoval bought together in 2019.
With that TMZ alert, it was as if a bomb had gone off — one with a blast radius that extended far beyond the Bravosphere. As Baskin puts it, it’s a modern twist on the “‘Where was I when Kennedy was shot?’ moment.” For weeks, the story has resonated globally. The New York Times offered an explainer to its readers. Jennifer Lopez was asked about it on “The View.” And comedian Roy Wood Jr. joked from the podium of the White House Correspondents Dinner that Tucker Carlson’s abrupt dismissal from Fox News made him “like that dude from ‘Vanderpump Rules.’” Along with President Biden, Madix, Vanderpump and fellow cast member Lala Kent were also in attendance. (Madix covered her mouth in surprise, and laughed.)
To the outside world, the #Scandoval has been a widely covered news story with legs — an amusing curiosity. For Bravo watchers generally, and “Vanderpump Rules” viewers particularly, this thrilling controversy has been the payoff for watching the show’s cast — who at its inception were employees of Sur, one of Vanderpump’s restaurants — since it premiered in January 2013.
Only four episodes from this season had aired when the scandal broke, so there’s been a lot over which to pore. As the season has continued, fans have watched — mouths agape, every cell in their bodies activated — as the newly single, 28-year-old Leviss, who was introduced in Season 5 of the show as the girlfriend (and later the fiancé) of DJ James Kennedy, has seemed unmoored, taken care of by her older friends (in their late 30s, all), particularly Madix, Shay, Schwartz — and Sandoval. In Episode 14, an installment that was meant to be the finale, Leviss instigated a conversation with Madix about her moribund sex life with Sandoval. It was an act of cruelty regardless, perhaps, but especially mind-blowing when we now know that Leviss and Sandoval were already secretly together. As former “Vanderpump Rules” star Kristen Doute put it on her podcast, this experience has been like watching Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” when you know the twist at the end.
“How can you get any more real?” Vanderpump asks rhetorically in an interview with Variety in April. “I have never met such a group of people that are just so willing to film it all! That’s a magic that you can’t create.”
Indeed, it’s been gripping television, inspiring Bravo’s citizen detectives to clock every loving look Sandoval has shot Leviss’ way, every matching lightning-bolt necklace that’s been bought and every time Leviss has inexplicably shown up to hang out when she hasn’t been invited — say, to a Guys’ Night at the Mondrian. The rabid Bravo fandom has analyzed and dissected all of these details on TikTok and Instagram, on podcasts and in recaps, using ancillary materials gathered from “Vanderpump Rules” cast members’ own podcasts, their social media and leaks to DeuxMoi and TMZ — along with the show itself. Within days of the story breaking, avid fans had already heard about Sandoval’s fallen phone and the FaceTime video with Leviss — which doesn’t lessen the elation of hearing the story told by the subjects themselves.
All of this attention, naturally, has caused a ratings spike for “Vanderpump Rules.” Season 10 has been its most-watched ever, with an average combined audience of 2.5 million on Bravo, on-demand and the Peacock platform within three days — a 77% increase over last season. Episode 14 last week delivered a series high of 3.3 million total viewers in viewing across platforms, 1.9 million of whom are in Bravo’s target 18-to-49 demographic.
That Madix, a fan-favorite on the show, was already having a terrible time even before the news of this affair broke —her beloved dog and her grandmother died in late-summer in rapid succession — has only increased sympathy toward her. And yes, she has reaped the (surely bittersweet) benefits. In late March, Madix was cast in a Lifetime movie; she’s reportedly going to be on the next season of “Dancing With the Stars”; and her merch line with cast member Katie Maloney for their yet-to-be-opened sandwich shop, Something About Her, has grossed six figures and counting, according to Bravo. She even drew huge cheers onstage this week at NBCUniversal’s upfront to tout BravoCon, the network’s fan convention in November.
In a splintered pop culture universe, where one person’s passion is another person’s huh?, the #Scandoval has been galvanizing, almost community-building. As the season has unfolded, witnessing how their affair was hiding in plain sight — the cast finds out that Leviss slept over at Sandoval’s house, when Madix was out of town after her grandmother died, for God’s sake! — has propelled the season upward, toward this impromptu apex.
Variety spoke with Baskin and Vanderpump to break down the details of how this finale came together, how the reunion was filmed despite one cast member having a restraining order against another, the “revelations” from the reunion episodes that not even the cast knows — and what could possibly be next for the show.
“You guys, this is a moment.”
Madix spoke with production on March 2, after learning of the affair the previous night. “And we had cameras back up on March 3,” Baskin says. He credits Bravo with “getting us back up and running so quickly,” and they pulled in available crew from “Vanderpump Rules,” as well as “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which was filming, and which Baskin — who recently launched the production company 32 Flavors — also executive produces.
“For us to be able to go to the network and to say, ‘You guys, this is a moment’ — of course, we didn’t know what it would become, but we knew we needed to capture it,” he continues. “They got us all of the necessary approvals and clearances so that we could tell the story in real time. That’s why what you’re seeing is pure verité.”
Vanderpump says it was essential to capture these developments. “Because fundamentally, it changed everything in the group — changed everything!” she says. “We’d be remiss if we just said, ‘Oh, this happened.’ But I think that is the essence of a great reality show, to have people that are willing to share their lives authentically.”
Despite what a person not on reality TV might think, this cast — even Sandoval, Leviss and Madix — was primed to be on camera filming emotional bedlam, Baskin says. He’s known them since before “Vanderpump Rules” launched, because he developed the series around Vanderpump, whom he knew from “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” “It goes back to having the relationship with them over years, where those are just really direct conversations. And so there isn’t this big wind up of, ‘Well, there’s something we need to talk about…’ It’s like, ‘Look, we’re in on this, and we have to cover this.” (Had the reunion not already been scheduled for March 23, this one episode “potentially could have been more,” he adds.)
When the crew went to Madix and Sandoval’s house on March 3, they captured the devastating fight that will be shown in full during the finale, and was previewed in the show’s midseason teaser. According to Baskin, the former couple were “cohabiting the same space, but not really talking to each other,” and that scene “was one of the first times that they had spoken to each other since she found out about the relationship with Raquel.” They were already filming when the TMZ story published.
When production restarted, producers knew what they needed: “Tom and Ariana — and it would be disappointing if you didn’t see them,” Baskin says. “You wanted Tom and Raquel, you wanted to see Tom and Tom, and you wanted to see some version of the friend group. Now, in an ideal world, you would get everyone together, and you might have gotten Raquel talking to Ariana as well.”
Those last two agenda items would have to wait for the reunion. As for whether any of the cast expressed regrets about what they’d filmed in this raw state, Baskin says that as the #Scandoval went mega-viral, a loving scene between Sandoval and Leviss “that might appear to be very insensitive” became “a concern” for them. The scene remains, nevertheless.
This story moved at the speed of light in the hours and days after that first TMZ post, with details emerging about how Sandoval and Leviss had actually been together for seven months and were in love. This wasn’t just a regretted one-night stand, as seen in previous “Vanderpump Rules” cheating scandals. Yet as the rest of the cast posted real-time reactions to their social media accounts, Leviss went another route: through the courts. On the morning of March 7, TMZ broke the news that Leviss’ lawyers sent a legal letter to members of the cast about the FaceTime video that had exposed the affair in the first place, revealing that it was of an intimate nature (which hadn’t previously been known, and implied that Sandoval had recorded it without Leviss’ consent). That night, again according to TMZ, she filed the restraining order against Shay, claiming that Shay had hit her after in the hours after they’d appeared together as allies on Andy Cohen’s Bravo talk show, “Watch What Happens Live.”
As chaos reigned, production adjusted. “Fortunately, we did not get a cease and desist — I always joke that we have a coffee table book full of them, but we didn’t get one there,” Baskin says with a laugh, surely thinking of past “Real Housewives” experiences. “There were a lot of things that we knew that hadn’t leaked yet — but we had some inclination that the restraining order was coming.”
That restraining order, of course, would cause headaches for the March 23 reunion date, but Bravo and production were confident they could navigate it. For now, they were riding the wave, which was becoming a tsunami. “We felt like we were in the middle of something that we had to try to control, but probably couldn’t,” Baskin says. “Because it was just a juggernaut.”
“Try watching ‘The Sixth Sense’ again.”
On March 3, the reality television equivalent of D-Day, “Vanderpump Rules” Nation reacted in shock to the #Scandoval. But as we’ve seen as the season has gone on, the truth is more nuanced: People suspected the affair; Kent in particular was onto them. Which is why there are so many scenes of Madix defending Leviss, like in Episode 13 on May 3, when Madix says on camera that “Raquel is kind and sweet and loyal, and just a delight since the day I met her.”
Totally brutal — but also, why were people flabbergasted by this news, if it was something everyone was wondering about?
“It obviously was something that was discussed,” Baskin says. “But we didn’t take it that seriously, because it just seemed so farfetched and so devious. And so, I’m an idiot! I was completely dismissive of it.”
Baskin says no one in the cast or crew caught them beyond what we’ve seen: “Everything that we knew was on the show when we knew it.” That includes a confessional producer asking Sandoval point blank in Episode 12 whether anything physical had happened between him and Leviss, which Baskin says was recorded on Feb. 15 — two weeks to the day before Madix uncovered the truth.
Baskin says that edits had been locked through Episode 11 when the #Scandoval broke, and that “we tried to take great pains, frankly, not to alter the episodes as they happened in real time.” A few times, he says, they got notes from Bravo saying “it seems like we know too much here” — when, in fact, they hadn’t re-edited anything.
“It’s like, try watching ‘The Sixth Sense’ again,” Baskin says. “It seems really obvious after the fact — not because we edited it, but because you know.”
There’s an intricate scene in Episode 13 — a conversation filmed in September between Kent and Kennedy, about Leviss having been caught sleeping over at Sandoval’s house (when Madix was away because her grandmother had died) — that featured fast-forwarding and rewinding. It concludes with Kent saying, “I think Sandoval has a thing for Raquel,” to which Kennedy responds, “Damn.”
Baskin credits the concept of that segment to “great editors, and a really great story team — they were encouraged to try some things, and it worked brilliantly.” But at that point, how much were producers relying on Kent and Kennedy to be the show’s Greek chorus?
“A lot,” Baskin says. “At that point, even though Ariana talks about it with Tom, and says she keeps hearing it, she didn’t want to believe it. So, you absolutely are reliant on Lala and James to do that.”
“And by the way,” he adds, “they would’ve looked terrible had they not been proven to be correct!”
“Adults make adult decisions.”
How do you solve a problem like Raquel Leviss?
She’s an ex-beauty pageant contestant who never found much success in that world, yet mourned aging out of it at 28. She’s the Bambi-eyed ex-fiancé of the histrionic, sometimes vicious Kennedy, whom she met because she was his fan. She’s a young woman who had a panic attack on camera in Episode 6 of this season saying, “People have been literally asking me, ‘Raquel, who are you?’ And you know what my answer is? ‘I don’t know.’” And she’s a cast member without clear ties to the wider “Vanderpump Rules” group, who careened from (off-camera) kissing Sur manager Peter Madrigal to (on-camera) kissing Oliver Saunders, an employee of Vanderpump à Paris in Las Vegas to (on-camera) making out with Schwartz, whose estranged wife Maloney had been explicitly clear how hurtful such a thing would be. Even before the #Scandoval, Leviss was lurching through an erratic, worrying season.
“I just think she was going through more, clearly, than we knew that she was,” Baskin says, adding that she seemed to be “cast adrift” during filming: “But we have to be removed.”
On April 14, Leviss’ representative announced that she had entered a “voluntary facility for mental health counseling,” and confirmed to Variety on Tuesday that she remains there now. With that decision, Leviss appears to have acknowledged that her capricious behavior — that, as it turns out, was also deceitful — was unhealthy.
Yet since “Vanderpump Rules” producers didn’t know Leviss’ biggest secret as they filmed the season, her on-screen behavior seemed to them typical of someone finding themselves after a broken engagement. But with Leviss prodding Madix in Episode 14, asking those probing questions about her sex life with Sandoval — “It’s just really painful to watch,” Baskin says. “Raquel is very childlike.”
“There’s this sense that she’s this criminal mastermind. I don’t think it’s that deep!”
But plainly put, does Leviss creating these harmful storylines for herself, all while keeping the biggest one private, present production with an ethical quandary?
“We don’t want to exploit anyone — that’s not good in any sense,” Baskin says. “It’s not good morally, it doesn’t make good television. But adults make adult decisions.”
When asked about Leviss’ “journey” this season, Vanderpump, who does like her naughty innuendo, responds: “A ‘journey’ — that’s nice a nice word for it! A journey where she ended up flat on her back with her the legs in the air.”
Then, sympathetically, Vanderpump answers in earnest, rejecting that anything about the #Scandoval was done in bad faith to create a good story for the show. “I’d like to think that feeling superseded any quest you had for storyline. Because boy, it’s come at a hell of a price,” she says. “I think there were genuine feelings there. But she just handled everything wrong.”
As did Sandoval, she adds: “He just handled everything back to front, and upside down.”
Leviss, who was single, has borne the brunt of what happened; yet it’s Sandoval who was in a committed relationship. A cast member on “Vanderpump Rules” since its first season, Sandoval — a former model, actor and bartender, and a current restaurateur and musician — pays close attention to performance, and it may be that his shape-shifting qualities have made it harder for the full blame of the #Scandoval to stick to him. In the finale, the audience will see him try to affix fault to Madix for not listening to him when he tried to break up with her — which may not be a winning strategy with viewers, as he directs the signature yell he’s employed for 10 seasons toward Madix.
Leviss’ struggles were obvious. But, Baskin says, “Clearly Tom wasn’t doing well either, in a lot of senses.”
Googling “Tom Sandoval costume” yields an impressive array of transformations he’s made over the years. He’s done drag, he’s dressed as a vampire, he’s worn colored contacts and wigs. For last Halloween, according to photos from Leviss’ Instagram, it appears he dressed as Leviss.
“Because the group was a mob.”
Shay has always denied Leviss’ account of what happened, though paradoxically she does admit in tonight’s finale that she “shoved her so fucking hard” after “Watch What Happens Live.” But let’s begin by stipulating that even if Shay did pose a physical threat to Leviss, in this unique case, being surrounded by dozens of people at the reunion, including security, would have removed any true danger.
With that stated, Bravo and the show’s producers needed a plan to film the reunion around this temporary restraining order. Moving the taping date would have been the best way to avoid any hindrances, but “the logistics of it were too difficult,” Baskin says. They couldn’t get the TRO lifted, since restraining orders are hard to revoke, and require a court proceeding, nor could Leviss appear just on Zoom. “We came to find out that we couldn’t even have them remotely communicate with each other, because that arguably would’ve violated it,” Baskin says.
So they concluded they had to rotate Shay and Leviss in separate segments of the reunion, but even that wasn’t easy: The required 200 yards of distance between them meant the footprint of the Van Nuys stage wasn’t big enough for them both to be in the studio at the same time. “We had to bring in a trailer,” Baskin says. “That planning was really complicated and had a number of attorneys involved.”
“As much as it would’ve been great to get them together, just the choreography of that is pretty interesting,” he continues. “And we always say: that was the reality.”
Beyond the logistics dictated by the restraining order, there was another key question: Given the chaos reunions, which are hosted by Cohen, sometimes devolve into, how would the audience actually get satisfying answers about what happened? The producers decided that on top of the group discussion, Cohen would do separate one-on-one interviews with Sandoval, Madix and Leviss that will be edited into the three episodes amid the traditional group interaction. “The purpose of them was to be able to give the principals the chance to answer the questions without having the group around,” Baskin says. “Because the group was a mob.”
An even more significant question: Was Leviss actually going to come? The reunion filmed on a Thursday, and Baskin says he wasn’t sure she was truly attending until the Tuesday before. Yes, reunions are a contractual obligation, but this was a 28-year-old who’d been receiving death threats. “She was having a really tough time, and we were very clear with her and her team that she had to feel comfortable being there,” Baskin says. “And if she didn’t, we understood.”
In the end, Leviss did decide to attend, which she announced herself on Instagram that week. “I think that part of it was she wanted to be able to see Ariana, and she wanted to be accountable,” Baskin says. “And it’s sort of up to the viewers to decide what they think about all of that. But it was important for her to be there, and we were assured that she was OK being there.”
There were other plot threads on the show this season, like Shay’s wedding; Kent reentering the dating pool after her split from her fiancé, the vilified Hollywood producer, Randall Emmett; and how Maloney and Schwartz have navigated their divorce. But how do those issues even get addressed during the torrent of the #Scandoval?
The producers, Baskin says, “had very fierce internal debates about whether to begin the reunion with Tom Sandoval on stage or not. The concern that I had was that it’s very difficult to cover the rest of the season, which you need to do. Because it’s hard to do the typical sort of reunion control, where you say, ‘Well, we’re going to put all that on pause. But back to…’ It all feels small.”
In the end, they decided that Sandoval would be present from the start. “We covered everything else the best we could, but emotions ran as high as you would think, and I didn’t know if we were going to be able to get through the entire day,” Baskin says. “Raquel couldn’t be present from the beginning, because we had Scheana there. So I was just thinking, ‘Are we even going to get to her?’”
They did indeed get to her, as the riotous trailer released on May 11, revealed, with Madix calling Leviss “diabolical, demented, sub-human,” among, presumably, many other moments of censure.
“And I now think we need a minute.”
At this very minute, the cast members of “Vanderpump Rules” are out there living their lives — without cameras on them. Seems wrong!
But Baskin says the need for a delay became clear to him after they filmed the reunion, because to move forward, the cast needs to see all three parts, the last of which airs on June 7. “The reunion is not just a recap of what you know, and it’s not just an intense version of the emotions,” he says. “There is new information.”
Gasp — what?! “I’m not saying this as a mere tease,” he adds. “This is true.” Infuriatingly, Baskin won’t spoil what he means, even when pressed: “I will put it this way: There are revelations, and they are revelations that not all of them know now. So we need a little space.”
“I had thought that we needed cameras on them right away,” he says, sounding conclusive. “And I now think we need a minute.”
Sandoval and Madix are pros at being on reality TV, so presumably they will return. But contracts are only now on the horizon of being renegotiated, and, with everything that’s happened, it’s a fraught decision this time — not an automatic one. “I think everyone’s wrapping their heads around what that might mean,” Baskin says. “No one’s saying no, I’ll say that — but I think it’s hard for anybody to say yes right now, because they feel like they haven’t gotten any reprieve.”
That’s why, Baskin says, he’s committed to having “a minute down.”
What happens with Leviss, though, is a more delicate question. Since Leviss is currently off the grid, “We have had those conversations with her reps,” Baskin says. Were she to come back, “She and people around her have to feel OK about it. And so that’s why I also think that waiting a little bit helps.”
But financially, does this cast have Bravo and Evolution over a barrel? Could they ask for astronomical sums to return? Apparently not. “There’s a pay scale that we’ve tended to use for tenure,” Baskin says. “I think that the group knows that it isn’t like the ratings necessarily translate into — there aren’t riches on the other side, and there’s a sort of reality of the business.”
There’s also the question about whether several ex-“Vanderpump Rules” cast members — who were ousted in 2020 for racist actions against Faith Stowers, a Black castmate who appeared on the show for a few seasons — might come back. Kristen Doute, as well as married couple Jax Taylor and Brittany Cartwright, have all been recent guests on “Watch What Happens Live” as pundits about the #Scandoval, appearing on Bravo for the first time since their ignominious dismissals. Doute was fired in June 2020, along with Stassi Schroeder, shortly after Stowers revealed that in 2018 they’d reported her for a crime she’d had nothing to do with. That December, Taylor’s and Cartwright’s contracts also weren’t renewed — along with other toxic behavior, Taylor had also accused Stowers of a crime in a tweet.
Now, the audience appears to be embracing them. Taylor and Cartwright have scored on Peacock on a “Watch With” show, in which they comment on “Vanderpump Rules,” and on Twitter, Doute crowed about the season-high ratings of her appearance on Cohen’s talk show. She also makes a much-hyped appearance on this finale, since she’s actually friends with Madix, and was supporting her at the post-break-up wake at the Valley Village house. (Doute dated Sandoval before Madix, and there almost certainly was crossover, but all is forgiven now.)
Despite all the well-documented reasons these cast members were fired, Baskin’s view on their potential returns appears to be more practical than anything else.
“This is not a show that you can plug an outsider into,” he says. “So we definitely have those conversations. And in real life, they are still all friends.”
Vanderpump has always said she didn’t want them to be fired in the first place and reiterates that again during our conversation. “I like to see people learn from their mistakes, even if they’re held accountable as an example: chastised, castigated by me, by the audience — learn from their mistakes,” she says. “Bravo, they let them go. I don’t know if there’s any coming back from it.” But, she emphasizes, she’s all for Doute appearing on the finale, since it happened organically. “She’s got a right to be there, and we should capture it. Yeah, we should capture everything.”
After these #Scandoval heights, fans may need to adjust their expectations for Season 11 — especially given the lack of clarity on who would consent to be in scenes with Sandoval and Leviss, presuming they do return. “We will see; we will find out,” Vanderpump says. “I guess it’d be my job to try and facilitate some kind of healing.”
Baskin says the show will start production this summer — which is, of course, just a month away. “It’s definitely a balancing act, because we don’t want too much time to elapse,” he says. “We can also, as we’ve proven, get cameras up if we need to. If Tom and Ariana happen to move, we’re up.” (Indeed! Sandoval and Madix are still living together.)
“But,” Baskin continues, “I think that we need enough time to pass that we’re not just caught in this vortex.”
He’s been the executive producer of this show since the beginning, and has overseen all of its peaks and valleys. So Baskin isn’t taking this moment for granted: “I think how fortunate we are, that 10 years into this, we’re still this relevant.”
So what has this experience been like for him overall?
“Fun, exciting, maddening, exhausting, annoying,” Baskin says, as he smiles. “In a really sick way, you sort of live for it — within also being concerned about the people involved. But it’s been all those things.” He says after the TMZ story broke, he didn’t leave his house for days. “I couldn’t! There was no time to do that.”
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