The last time Thomas Ravenel ran for office, he’ll now admit to me, his message needed work. “I kept saying during the campaign, I’m good on policy, I’m good in business,” Ravenel said. “Not so great in my personal relationships, but hey, two out of three ain’t bad. But I think that I was wrong. You really have to have three out of three. You really have to have your personal life in order.”
Ravenel, a 53-year-old commercial real estate developer and former South Carolina state treasurer, was on the phone, under the close supervision of the NBC Universal PR department, to discuss his starring role on the Bravo reality show Southern Charm. Over the course of three seasons, Ravenel has joked about his previous use of cocaine, fathered two children with a woman 29 years his junior, and, by conservative estimate, spent around a million dollars in a failed political comeback.
Before he became a reality-TV plot line, there was a time when Ravenel had an honest-to-God national political career squarely in his sights. He has the parentage for it, at any rate, with a last name that means something in a place where last names still matter. Ravenel—as in the Ravenel Bridge, which spans the horizon of downtown Charleston—is the son of Arthur Ravenel, Jr., the 89-year-old former Republican South Carolina state senator and beloved U.S. congressman who’s still politically active today. Let one of them talk long enough and they’ll tell you that the French Huguenot Ravenel family name has held sway in Charleston since at least the 1680s, when their forefathers first settled there.
The youngest of six children, Ravenel received an education befitting the Southern gentry: high school in Charleston, college at the Citadel, and business school at the University of South Carolina. In 1992, he founded a real estate development firm called Ravenel Development Corporation, which he still runs.
In Charleston politics, his name and business background, coupled with his healthy bank account, helped him stand out to voters. By the early 2000s, Ravenel already had three solid election cycles under his Gucci belt—a 1988 challenge for a South Carolina house seat, which he lost; a 2004 self-funded $3 million run for Congress, in which he took a close third place out of six candidates; and finally, a 2006 run for state treasurer, which he won.
In 2007, Rudy Guiliani, who was then running for president, named Ravenel as his state chairman. CNN called him a “rising political star.” He was the “South Carolina GOP’s brightest star,” the Post and Courier reported at the time, who many believed was on the cusp of launching a serious challenge to Sen. Lindsay Graham. He was young, wealthy, and charismatic as hell—and he got caught with a lot of cocaine. On June 19, 2007, federal agents arrested Ravenel, alleging he had purchased some amount “less than 500 grams of cocaine,” which he used and shared with his friends.
Ravenel was indicted along with the man who sold him the cocaine, a 26-year-old DJ and dealer named Mike Miller, who everyone called Hash. By that point, authorities had been investigating Ravenel for around two years. “He’s in pretty bad shape, you know. He’s got a drug problem,” Arthur Ravenel told the Associated Press when the news broke. “We suspected it.”
Within an hour of the initial reports, Ravenel had been suspended from his treasury position by then-Gov. Mark Sanford. He went to rehab before pleading guilty to the charges, served seven months in prison, two under house arrest, and reportedly paid a $350,000 fine. Upon his release, he had to live in a halfway home, and later, his mother’s retirement community, thanks to sentencing regulations that prohibited him living in his own home.
He has not held office since. South Carolina law bars felons from office, so Ravenel often points out that the only positions he can run for would be in the United States House of Representatives, the Senate and (this he says with an implied wink) the White House.
The road to reclaiming his political birthright, or trying to, led him back into the public eye through territory that would surely baffle his ancestors. In 2012, he agreed to appear on a demo reel for Southern Charm, which was being executive produced by his close friend, Whitney Sudler-Smith. Bravo picked up the show in April 2013 and it premiered in March 2014.
By the 2014 election, Ravenel was a TV regular. This was not a straightforward act of image repair. In one early episode, he was flippant about his drug use: “It was just something I did in my personal life and I didn’t really have a problem with cocaine,” he said on-camera. “What I realized later was I just really liked the smell of it.”
“Bro, no more coke jokes, please,” Sudler-Smith advised his friend later in the episode.
Ravenel, whose official stance is that private citizens should be free to do what they want, including cocaine, in the privacy of their own home—was at least consistent in his response: “Fuck public perception,” he replied.
The first season of Southern Charm did not make Ravenel look particularly appealing. Nor, for that matter, did the second, or, so far, the third. Ravenel has a penchant for self-sabotage, but he also blames the show to some degree.
“Donald Trump had editorial control of his reality TV show. I have none. There’s a huge difference there,” Ravenel said, when asked if he sees any parallels between their careers. “Were Donald Trump on a reality show, you wouldn’t see the trailer you’re seeing of me right now. There’s no way in hell he would allow that. Calling a couple of girls thin-skinned bitches, that would never happen. You would never see that in a Donald Trump reality show.” So why do a show he had no editorial control over? “I promised Whitney I would do it. I promised myself, too, that I would handle myself better,” he said sadly. “That’s hard to do when you... Sometimes you’re driven to certain lengths.”
Ravenel was referring to the many televised fights between him and cast mate, Kathryn Dennis, a 23-year-old from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, with whom he has fathered two children: Kensingston, who is two, and St. Julien Rembert, who is five months old.
Ravenel says the pair met before the show officially started filming, when producers invited Dennis to shoot an interview at Ravenel’s home. She was two hours late, and Ravenel was immediately attracted to her. “She was dynamite. She was absolutely dynamite,” he said of her audition. “She did the interview and we thought, ‘Where in the hell do we sign this girl up?’”
Once filming for the season began, Ravenel and Dennis “met” on-camera at an afternoon party and shot scenes together designed to suggest Ravenel had taken her home the same day they met. As Ravenel would repeat, ad nauseam, Dennis wasn’t just a pretty face. She was also a direct descendent of John Calhoun—a Southern belle, at least in name, whose grandfather, Rembert C. Dennis, was the former chairman of the South Carolina state Senate finance committee.
“She’s a scion of two of the most powerful political families in South Carolina. Kathryn’s reputation is a sort of South Carolina celebutante,” Ravenel explained in the pilot episode, noting with pride: “She had been a page in the state senate and they called her Senate Barbie.”
Their courtship, in front of the cameras and apparently off, was less than traditional. Dennis was ultimately accused on camera of having sex with two of of the show’s other male leads during filming—Shep Rose and Sudler-Smith, one of Ravenel’s real-life best friends. Ravenel also openly pursued other women. Still, by the end of the season, Dennis was pregnant with Ravenel’s child.
Around the same time, Ravenel began revving up for a campaign. Within two months of the show’s premiere, Ravenel announced he’d be challenging Senator Lindsay Graham in the 2014 midterm election. He wasn’t planning to win but he thought maybe he could show. Then he derailed his own chances, yet again.
If Ravenel was merely running for the attention, it was an expensive gambit, even for him. According to federal filings, he loaned the campaign $1,029,850 and spent $234,946 of his own money outright. He received only $38,705 in donations. By contrast, Ravenel reportedly makes about $5,000 an episode, or somewhere north of $60,000 a season from doing the show. And he repeatedly threatened to quit filming midway through his 2014 Senate bid, claiming Bravo had misled him.
But they were just threats. He said publicly that he stayed on the show because he thought it might help him reach a larger audience. And though at least one of his campaign managers, Scott Wheeler, told US News & World Report he was hired by Bravo, Ravenel ultimately framed the network’s presence on the campaign trail as an interference, not a benefit.
The Bravo affiliation also gave Ravenel’s opponents an easy way to disparage him. Graham outright refused to debate Ravenel, saying he had a duty not to turn the election into a reality TV “circus.” Instead, Ravenel debated Democrat Brad Hutto, the only contender who would appear onstage with him. The next day’s big story was that Bravo cameras were turned away from the debate. Ravenel told the Charleston City Paper he only consented to them filming because they told him they’d send a discreet news crew from an NBC affiliate.
“I just told them I’m not going to participate anymore, because after that last lie, the whole story is about Bravo trying to gain entry, which furthers the Graham narrative that it’s all about Bravo,” Ravenel told the paper. “It’s not. I’m dead serious about this campaign, and I have been from day one.”
Not serious enough, though, to avoid two separate run-ins with the police in the months leading up to the campaign—one in 2013, when he was busted for a DUI in the Hamptons, and one in 2014, when an argument at his home in Charleston led to a criminal complaint alleging he had assaulted a woman.
According to the Charleston City Paper, which obtained the East Hampton Village Police Department report, Ravenel was observed swerving across Montauk Highway some time after 2:30 a.m. in July 2013, when filming for the show’s first season was already underway. The officer noted Ravenel “smelled strongly of an odor of an alcoholic beverage, his eyes were red and glassy, he was unsteady on his feet, [and] he failed several roadside sobriety tests.” Ravenel, who reportedly lost a chance at a better plea deal when he refused a station house breath test, ultimately pleaded guilty and his license was suspended for six months.
It wasn’t quite headline news. But an October 2014 report that police were investigating Ravenel for assaulting 32-year-old Lauren Wells Moser was. The allegations broke less than two weeks before the election. According to the Post and Courier, which obtained a copy of the police report, Moser—a hairdresser and friend of Dennis’s—told police she arrived at the couple’s home on Oct. 17 around 11 p.m and relieved the nanny, who was watching the couple’s seven-month-old child. At some point after Ravenel and Dennis returned to the residence, an argument broke out.
Moser told police that Ravenel was yelling at Dennis when he accidentally fell in the pool while holding the baby. She claimed that when she followed Ravenel to the house and tried to film him, he slammed the door on her twice, hitting her once in the knee and once on the arm, knocking her down a flight of stairs. Then he returned naked, according to the account she gave police, and screamed “Bitch get your stuff and get out,” while giving her back her belongings.
In the video referenced in the police report, Ravenel, who does appear to be fully naked, can be heard arguing with Dennis over whether someone was smoking marijuana inside. Both women accuse him of “throwing the baby in the pool,” and he instructs both of them to “get out of the house.”
“I’m calling the cops,” says Moser, who also indicates she left her belongings in the couple’s bedroom. The video cuts off as Ravenel retreats upstairs.
The rest of the cast—save for Ravenel, who was campaigning—was away filming on Jekyll Island in Georgia when the allegations broke the next weekend. Dennis agreed to come home early to defend him, but never showed up. Ravenel faced the press alone.
A week later, Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis described the allegations that Ravenel had assaulted Moser as “unfounded.” Ravenel maintains it was Dennis’s refusal to stand by his side, and not the allegations themselves, that killed his chances.
“I was [polling] at 15 to 20 percent before the hairdresser girl released her allegations, which were completely false. I never even peeked out of my house. It showed me walking around completely naked. Got up at 6 a.m., she was still in my house. I walked downstairs naked and she filmed me and it came out that this had just happened,” Ravenel said, by way of explanation. “The fact was, I went to bed, woke up at 6 a.m., she was still in my house. I slammed the door. It’s the only way to shut the door because the door jamb was so tight in the weather you had to slam it. She had it all on—she was trying to film me. I ended up throwing this person out of my house probably 20 times.”
He continued, saying that Moser, who is friends with Dennis, would often stay in the guest bedroom of his home.
“I would have to kick a different guy or two guys out every night, these different bartenders that she would receive free drinks from,” he said. “And she would come into the house and bring these people into the house and it was a bad influence on Kathryn. I was always constantly having to throw her out of my house. One night I threw her out of my house and she was with a son of a very prominent trial lawyer, and the trial lawyer was the largest contributor to Lindsey Graham.”
Neither Dennis or Moser responded to requests for comment.
In the meantime, Ravenel says, his relationship with Dennis was falling apart. The weekend Dennis failed to return home, he posted and later deleted a Facebook status announcing their breakup:
“When the allegations surfaced that I had assaulted Kathryn Dennis’ hairdresser, I pleaded with Kathryn to leave the Bravo shoot in Jekyll Island. They had even packed her bags and had lined up a driver. She told me she was coming to clear my name but then she backed out at the last second and delayed telling the truth by 1 an 1/2 day. $900k of my campaign money down the drain. The investigators even told me that if she would have just come corroborated the accuser’s story I would be cleared. The temptation of missing film time was a more a important value to her. So telling. Our relationship is over.”
And things got worse from there. “I don’t want to badmouth her in front of my children, but you had to have been there. It was horrible,” Ravenel said on the phone, before doing just that. Ravenel claims Dennis usually stayed out all night with friends, leaving him to watch the baby.
Relations don’t appear much warmer now. “After we separated, she was demanding that I couldn’t see my children unless I had the visitation supervised. And then she wants to pick and choose who the nanny is, and I have to submit a picture. Unless the girl is a two, a negative two [out of ten], there’s no way she can be employed as the nanny. If the girl’s a three, there’s no way. If she even weighs under 300 pounds, no way.”
Ravenel may not express discomfort with his past, but his family does. Some of them, at least. His parents are “at the age where they just don’t like anything,” he said. “They could care less.” Not that the Ravenel family is a stranger to controversy. Thomas’s father, Arthur Ravenel Jr., was an ardent supporter of the Confederate flag who once referred to the NAACP as the “National Association of Retarded People.” When he apologized, he said it was to the “retarded people”—for confusing them with the NAACP.
Still, in the South it’s one thing to make a joke at the expense of black people, and another entirely to air your dirty laundry on a basic cable show. It’s bad enough that Ravenel says when he first signed, his family threatened to stage an intervention.
“My mother would not participate because she thought it would not... She didn’t want to hurt my feelings,” Ravenel said. “I’m the youngest of six and they had organized an intervention for me not to do the show. It’s all South of Broad Charleston. It’s more my younger siblings. They’re of the downtown fabric, the South of Broad societal fabric, and they strenuously object to the show.”
He said: “My sister told me that her one daughter said that thank goodness her last name was not Ravenel.”
Ravenel says he now knows that he was never going to get a sympathetic edit on the show. (He noted, several times, that soon-to-be aired events will help justify the rude comments he’s shown making to his cast mates in the season-three trailer that began airing earlier this month.)
“This is a business. They have to keep the audience guessing. They even had me fooled—oh my goodness, I called my friends and I yelled at them, ‘Why did you do this, that and the other?’ They said, ‘Thomas, you’re going to have to wait, you didn’t see the other side of the story.’”
Suddenly breaking from the interview, Ravenel addressed Ryan McCormick, the NBC Universal PR guy listening in on the call.
“They’re showing what they want to show so people will stick around and watch,” Ravenel said. “Correct me if I’m speaking out of turn here, Ryan, but it’s what you have to do to get the ratings, I guess.”
McCormick did not correct Ravenel.