This week, reality TV fans across the world let out a collective gasp when Jen Shah, star of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, was charged with fraud over allegations involving “hundreds of victims” and millions of dollars.
As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon wrote, “The charges allege that, since 2012, she and Smith had been running a telemarketing scheme aimed at defrauding people, explicitly those over age of 55, by selling nonexistent business opportunities. They would sell those ‘lead lists’ of easy targets to others to scam, taking a share of the profits. The victims believed they were buying services including tax preparation, coaching, and website design, even though, according to the indictment, ‘many Victims were elderly and did not own a computer.’”
Shah’s arrest on Tuesday happened as cast members were busy filming the second season of the Bravo reality show, which debuted last year. It’s been reported that, as cameras rolled, police showed up to arrest 47-year-old Shah, who had already left the scene. When Shah was eventually found, she and her assistant (Stuart Smith, 43), were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering. The multi-million-dollar fraud accusations could result in a potential sentence of 30 years in prison. Shah pleaded not guilty to both charges on Friday and her bail was set at $1 million.
A scandal of this scale sent shockwaves through the Housewives fandom. On social media, stan accounts reacted to the news, dissecting every detail and sourcing new information like investigative reporters. Shah’s virtual arraignment hearing, which had to be rescheduled because of technical difficulties after hundreds of people tried to join the call, was live-tweeted. As shocking parts of the story kept emerging, the meme machine sprung into action, too. Awkward clips resurfaced of Shah looking uncomfortable as Andy Cohen, the show’s executive producer and reunion host, probed her on how she got so rich (or so it seemed, but we’ll get to that later).
Shah is far from the only Real Housewives cast member to run into legal troubles. In fact, there’s barely one of Bravo’s franchises, which follow the lives of wealthy women in places such as New York City, Beverly Hills, Orange County, Potomac, and Atlanta, that hasn’t been hit by allegations of crime.
Where to begin? Let’s start with Tom Girardi. The estranged husband of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast member Erika Girardi (also known as Erika Jayne) was accused of misappropriating millions of dollars in funds due to clients, as well as dishonesty and other questionable behavior throughout his once-well-respected legal career. It has been alleged that Tom—the lawyer who partly inspired the film Erin Brockovich—now owes more than $56 million to former clients, creditors, and lenders. Erika—whose memorable on-screen mantras include “being broke sucks and being rich is a lot better!" and “I’m an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, and cash”—was accused of embezzling $2 million from plane crash victims alongside her husband. She strongly denies any wrongdoing. The show’s upcoming 11th season, which she stars in, will undoubtedly spotlight her side of the story.
Several of Girardi’s co-stars have also run into legal difficulties, mostly to do with money. Dorit Kemsley and her husband Paul (“PK”) Kemsley recently settled a reported $1.2 million lawsuit filed against them by her former business partner in her beachwear company. The couple denied they were at fault but were ordered to pay nearly $30,000 to the plaintiffs. Lisa Vanderpump and her husband Ken Todd have been hit with several lawsuits relating to working conditions and unpaid wages in the Los Angeles restaurants they own, including most recently a $100,000 lawsuit for unpaid produce in February 2021. They’ve also denied wrongdoing and said they’ll pay any money they owe. Former cast member Taylor Armstrong was forced to sell her wedding ring on eBay after being sued for $1.5 million owed by her husband Russell Armstrong, who took his own life in 2011.
Outside of the scandal-hit 90210, the most notorious incident in the alleged “Housewives crime wave” went down in its New Jersey franchise. Teresa Giudice, the longest-serving cast member on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, was jailed for mail, wire, and bankruptcy fraud alongside her husband Joe Giudice. In 2015, she was released after serving 11 months of a 15-month sentence. Joe was sentenced to 41 months and was eventually deported by ICE to Italy, where he now lives, as he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
So what’s driving this trend? After all, why would anyone go on reality TV if they’ve got skeletons in their closet?
Firstly—and this might seem painfully obvious—it’s important to remember that rich people commit crime. Our idea of what the “stereotypical criminal” looks like might not include a mansion, and fraud might’ve been neatly rebranded as “white-collar crime,” but these crimes aren’t victimless or uncommon. When the former president of the United States is a reality star who was elected after setting up a fake university and spent his presidency openly pouring taxpayer funds into his own properties, it’s hardly surprising that reality stars further down the food chain like the Giudices (who are friends and supporters of Trump) are breaking the rules too.
Wealthy people exploiting the corrupt systems that enable them to commit crimes like tax fraud crosses partisan lines, of course. And this pattern massively predates Trump’s presidency and the reality TV phenomenon. Some might argue that the alleged “Housewives crime wave” is down to reality TV attracting people who are risk-takers, vain, or simply airheads who want a luxury lifestyle but don’t want to work for it. These stereotypes might be true, to varying degrees, but it’s more likely that it’s just a snapshot of the sort of thing that goes on all the time, and we’re only noticing because they’re on TV.
This makes it all the more important that we keep watching. On Housewives, we’re seeing reality TV—a relatively new medium—reflect a very basic truth of how America works. It’s giving viewers a masterclass in the ways wealthy people bend the rules then use their resources to shield themselves from consequences.
So how did we get here? It feels impossible to separate the existence of a reality TV juggernaut like Housewives, which follows the lives of rich people, from a wider culture that celebrates wealth and materialism. An iconic ‘tagline’ from Nene Leakes, a veteran of the Atlanta franchise, sums this up: “I don’t keep up with the Joneses—I am the Joneses.” Money is paraded on the show, from $60,000 kids’ birthday parties to “million-dollar weddings” and a now-infamous pair of (hideous) $25,000 sunglasses. It’s also common for cast members to probe each other about their finances. Whether Housewives and their husbands are as rich, or squeaky clean, as they seem is a regular storyline. (The IRS is practically a recurring character in the Potomac franchise because of its cast’s messy tax affairs).
After Shah’s arrest, it was reported (and later confirmed by her attorney) that her palatial Utah home, nicknamed the “Shah Chalet,” is in fact rented. Although this has no bearing on whether she’s guilty of the crimes she stands accused of, renting a home—something that millions of people do—is often characterized as a source of shame in the Housewives world. The show’s executive producer Andy Cohen, who straight-up asks the wives about whether they own their homes during reunion episodes, said in 2019: “I don’t understand the concept of renting at all. It’s just throwing money away. Especially a huge home. I don’t get it.”
But surely it’s easy to see why someone who aspires to run in the same social circles as the Real Housewives might rent a home, a car, or anything else? Alongside an image of wealth comes connections and access to opportunities for fame and money. The wider culture they live in and their immediate surroundings encourage them to fake it until they make it—often, as we’re seeing, with dire consequences.
It’s also important to point out that so-called “white collar crime” represents just one strand of the legal dramas Real Housewives find themselves embroiled in. The last season of The Real Housewives of Potomac, for example, storylined a physical altercation between two cast members which ended up in court. Previous seasons of the show lifted the lid on sexual misconduct charges made against Michael Darby, husband of cast member Ashley Darby, by various crew members, which were eventually dropped. Other Housewives, past and present, have been accused of assault and smashing up their husband’s car with a baseball bat. Several husbands of the wives have also been accused of physical abuse.
Bravo leans into these dramas, often showing fans the fall-out from highly-publicized incidents that happen off-camera. On season 10 of The Real Housewives of New York City, we saw the aftermath of Luann de Lesseps (known as “Countess Luann”) being charged with four felonies relating to a drunken arrest in Florida on Christmas Eve in 2017. Other reality stars from the New York franchise who have mugshots include socialite Tinsley Mortimer, who was arrested for trespassing in 2016 (though charges were eventually dropped), and Sonja Morgan, who was arrested for drunk driving in 2010.
Substance misuse and addiction issues are a common theme in Housewives arrests. The list of Housewives, past and present, who’ve been handed DUIs is long, from Brandi Glanville (Beverly Hills) to Gina Kirschenheiter (Orange County). Kim Richards, whose relapse and recovery from alcoholism was storylined on the Beverly Hills franchise, was arrested for public intoxication and then shoplifting in 2015.
Alcohol issues are explored on the show with mixed results. It’s normal to see the same cast members appear drunk on camera, or to watch their peers debate whether they’re an alcoholic behind their back and accuse them of having “a problem” to their face. Fan favorite Dorinda Medley was reportedly let go from The Real Housewives of New York City last year for being a “mean drunk,” while her newbie co-star Leah McSweeney and OG housewife de Lesseps returned to sobriety after watching the show’s boozy (and dark) 12th season. Real Housewives of Orange County star and recovering addict Braunwyn Windham-Burke recently told The Daily Beast that the show helped her stay sober. But it still seems fair to question whether adequate support exists for reality stars who are regularly intoxicated on camera, and ask why heavy drinking is such a big part of Housewives as a franchise—even after so many alcohol-related arrests.
When it comes to substance-related legal issues on Housewives, we again see how wealthy people—who have access to top lawyers—use their resources to shield themselves from the punishments that others are subjected to. De Lesseps, for example, was ordered to complete community service, a year of probation, and attend meetings after accepting a plea deal of three misdemeanors (resisting an officer with violence, trespass, and disorderly intoxication). While it’s totally legitimate to argue no one should be imprisoned for victimless substance-related crimes—both morally and practically—America has a history and current reality of imprisoning people of color, particularly Black Americans, for minor offenses. Housewives highlights that the benefits of any tiny shift away from a carceral approach to substance-related crime are mostly enjoyed by rich white people.
It’s in the DNA of the reality TV beast to feed off the turbulent behavior of its stars—especially, in the case of Real Housewives, when they break the law. Time and time again, Bravo’s flagship franchise shows us a pattern of downfall, followed by a narrative arc of repentance and resurgence. This makes for addictive TV and can help stars make big money, too. Teresa Giudice—who wins the prize for being Bravo’s most bankable lawbreaker—not only filmed the lead-up and aftermath of her time in prison, but she penned a book about her time in custody and her family filmed Teresa Checks In, a spin-off about her time behind bars. Her per-season salary reportedly skyrocketed to over $1 million when she rejoined the show after being released. De Lesseps similarly bounced back from her arrest with a successful career in cabaret. “The Countess”' poked fun at her brushes with the law on stage to packed audiences across the country and her tagline on the show the following season was: “I plead guilty… to being fabulous!” (Lucrative comebacks like this are, of course, less accessible to people without resources and a platform.)
In the aftermath of Shah’s arrest, an old tweet came back to haunt her. “Teresa walked, so I could run,” she joked, referencing the fact that both women are known for losing their temper and a specific incident where a rage-filled Giudice flipped a table. Now, charged with fraud, it’s very possible that she might.
So will a book deal and a spin-off show be in Shah’s future? The jury is still out on that one (so to speak). What’s clear, though, is that fans cannot get enough of Housewives legal scandals. The anticipation for the next seasons of Beverly Hills and Salt Lake City couldn’t be higher, largely because fans are salivating to hear more about what’s happened. In the meantime, there’s an endless stream of memes, Twitter threads, and YouTube videos explaining the latest legal developments.
It feels like what we’re seeing in the Housewives world is a similar celebration of “scammer culture,” and “bad” women in particular, that’s pervaded TV and film for some time, from Gone Girl to Hustlers and most recently Netflix’s The One. There’s plenty of recent examples of rich women who’ve scammed their way into notoriety in contemporary culture, such as the trial of New York socialite scammer “Anna Delvey” and the college-admissions scandal featuring Felicity Huffman from Desperate Housewives (the drama that partly inspired Real Housewives). HBO documentary The Inventor followed Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley health scam (Amanda Seyfried just signed on to play her in an upcoming movie).
The focus on scammer women is curious, given that rich men, like the bros of big tech and the men who created Fyre Festival, are much better placed to scam us. This could have roots in misogyny, or gay culture’s much-repeated (and fairly problematic) pattern of creating icons out of tragic, reckless women. It does seem like, within the scammer era, there’s an attempt to celebrate women who reject the societal norms that dictate they should be “well behaved” and quiet, or who use scamming as a way of “getting even” with a system that suppresses them.
But as Jia Tolentino wrote in her bestselling book Trick Mirror, far from being subversive, scamming is “the quintessential American ethos.” To grow up in America, she argues, is to learn that “one of the best bids a person can make for financial safety in America is to get really good at exploiting other people.”
Before COVID-19 hit and accusations against her estranged husband surfaced, Erika Jayne was starring as Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway. In the musical, the two protagonists, Roxie and Velma, employ a wealthy lawyer to help them get away with murders. They are eventually rewarded with 15 minutes of fame and their own all-singing, all-dancing double act. The show was written almost 50 years ago and is set in the 1920s, but it’s a quintessentially American scammer story that feels connected to what we’re seeing play out on Real Housewives today (minus the murders, thankfully).
Legal troubles don’t automatically make someone a bad person, or unworthy of redemption, whether they’re on TV or not. To viewers, Bravo’s glamorous reality stars might feel far removed from “normal life,” particularly when they’re traveling the world, serving us high-fashion looks, or getting arrested. But the accelerated pace at which they rise, then use their money and status to shield themselves from the worst consequences when they fall—or better still, to help them bounce back even stronger—is an accurate reflection of how the elite get to live. Just look at the man who just left the White House.
Jen Shah probably won’t be disappearing anytime soon. And it’s unlikely that she’ll be the last Real Housewife to be at the center of a storm like this. Because where scandal goes, a hungry audience follows—and there’s nothing quite as American as feeding the beast.