With its luxury cars and multimillion dollar houses, reality television often functions as a sort of wealth porn. They flaunt their extravagances, and we eat it up bite by bite. There’s something more sinister there hiding under the Birkins and Ferraris, but audiences are happy to ignore it (so long as the show is pumped full of petty social drama). That is, until those crimes are put on gross public display.
On Nov. 16, 2019, Bravo announced a new destination for their classic “Real Housewives” franchise: the snowy, spiritually clad Salt Lake City. Filled with chiding ex-Mormons and bona fide cult leaders, “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” (2020–) stirred mass appeal for its chaotic first season. With lines like “you smell like hospital,” it quenched that deep-seated need for minuscule, ineffectual fighting. It seemed too good to be true.
Just three days after that initial announcement, the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York directly named Jennifer Shah in a grand jury proceeding for the conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. This was before Shah was even cast on “The Real Housewives,” let alone making her mark as one of the most volatile, reckless wives to date. From shattering a glass in rage to saying that her castmate Mary M. Cosby “f---ed her grandfather,” Shah brought a frenzied, surprising energy to the show. And then, to top it all off, she was chased and arrested on camera.
Having now pled guilty to the above charges, Shah was recently sentenced to 6.5 years in prison for her assistance in illegal telemarketing schemes. In short, Shah would create lists of susceptible (often older) individuals and then sell these lists to scammers. The fan response was… mixed. Many were rooting for Shah’s imprisonment, adding drama to the show. Others were campaigning for Shah to be acquitted, noting how boring the show would be without Shah’s presence. And, for two whole seasons, Shah championed this cause. Hell, she even printed “free Jen Shah” T-shirts.
And now, as the third season comes to a close, Shah’s castmates are forced to reckon with her sordid fate. In the three-part reunion (which Shah did not attend), host Andy Cohen grilled the wives on Shah’s case and their tangential associations. The common theme? Shah got wrapped up in the reality TV machine. She gained a squadron of fans, cheering her on and praising her delusions. With the illusion of her reality TV life, Shah lost touch with her true, present being.
Shah is not the only reality TV maven facing a daunting legal fate. Back in late 2020, star lawyer Tom Girardi was publicly charged with stealing settlement money from the clients that he represented, including the widows and orphans of plane crash victims. Implicated in Girardi’s crimes was his ex-wife Erika Jayne, who hastily filed for divorce from Girardi just days before the charges were made public. Jayne was then questioned ad nauseam about the charges on her Bravo home show, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (2010–). The central question: Did she know?
Like Shah, Jayne’s reality TV presence seemed to embolden her aggression. As she threatened her castmates, shouting a biting “or what?” to the questioning Sutton Stracke, fans were left largely uncomfortable. She flip-flopped between a better-than-you, over-indulgent attitude and a cosplay of poverty. How tragic that she needed to move from her mega-mansion to a smaller, multi-bedroom bungalow! With the camera in her face, Jayne put on her own show trial.
Of course, other housewives have faced criminal charges. Let’s not forget Teresa Giudice’s infamous jail term, serving 11 months for her involvement in her ex-husband’s fraud scheme. Like Shah, Giudice’s legal proceedings were thoroughly documented on her franchise, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” (2009–). Even outside of the Bravo-verse, Todd and Julie Chrisley of the USA Network’s “Chrisley Knows Best” (2014–) were recently sentenced to a combined 19 years for bank fraud and tax evasion. Crime runs rampant throughout the reality TV universe. One just needs to look.
To ask the obvious question: Why go on a reality show if you’re committing hideous crimes? It seems that the camera would bring more intrigue andmore suspicion. Still, maybe these C-list celebrities don’t care. It’s all about image, the creation of a public persona. From Shah to Jayne, these reality stars seem to become more emboldened in their lies as the film crew documents them. For their victims, their crimes are life-altering tragedies. For these stars, though, it’s just another storyline. A new way to grow their following.