Jen Shah’s ‘Real Housewives’ Fraud Scandal Is So Tragic. Why Is It Also So Much Fun?

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Heidi Gutman/Bravo
Heidi Gutman/Bravo

This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.

The Real Housewives of Having No Real Money

It is my hope that every pop-culture enthusiast gets to one day experience the unbridled thrill Real Housewives fans feel when one of the franchise’s stars is mired in public scandal.

The feeling is unparalleled, an excitement and anticipation as details start to trickle that’s like the night before Christmas as a child, losing your virginity as a teen, and ordering a really good pizza and waiting for it to arrive as an adult were all wrapped into one.

More, these scandals double as uniting rally cries in a way that is almost heartwarming, with Bravo fans from all walks of life lighting up their group chats; tweeting jokes, memes, and puns; and passing the latest revelations along to each other like a busybody legion of Harriet the Spies. When Housewives news breaks, it’s like a Bat Signal for Bravo fans—only in the shape of a glass of white wine with a straw, typically beamed out by TMZ.

This week it came out that Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Jen Shah was arrested and indicted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with telemarketing and conspiracy to commit money laundering. (Stuart Smith, one of the many “assistants” Shah refers to as the “Shah Squad” while barking orders and eliciting adulation from them, was also arrested.)

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.” Knowing this now does help explain why I used to receive three robocalls a day warning me that my car warranty has expired, despite that I haven’t owned a car since 2005. (Interestingly, I have not received one of those calls since Shah has been arrested—makes you think!)

On the debut season of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, Shah was a memorable presence in ways both delightful and irritating. She was often unhinged and incoherent, slamming on the gas for drama at miscalculated moments. But her militance was also accompanied by an endearing vulnerability.

That she performed such a lavish lifestyle, constantly orbited by her Shah Squad minions as she traipsed through Utah in floor-length gowns and furs while bragging about her “Shah chalet” McMansion, made her a quintessential Real Housewife—right down to the current comeuppance. The self-proclaimed queen is falling from the top of her pyramid (scheme).

I guess you could call it Shah-denfreude. Or I guess Shah-den-fraud.

What happened is awful. Real people were preyed on and defrauded. But that’s the moral conundrum here. The reality of it is horrific, but the Real Housewives ridiculousness of it all makes tracking the revelations a darkly delicious game for Bravo fans.

The Shah-dropping details (puns pair with Housewives scandals like vodka with the 7 limes the cast members order at dinner) get juicier and, in some respects, funnier.

There’s the tantalizing scoop that Bravo cameras were rolling on season two when all of this went down. The women were even all gathered together because they were minutes away from departing on a group trip. During the first season, Shah repeatedly bragged about her business. If her explanations for how she made money seemed mystifying then, now they can practically be read as confessions.

Then there’s the botched attempt at a first hearing on Wednesday, which took place through a virtual call that was open to the public. As Variety’s Kate Aurthur reported, “This Jen Shah hearing is a technical nightmare. Someone flushed a toilet, Jen's lawyer was muted for a half-hour, and now Jen can't call in because too many people are on the call.” It was rescheduled for Friday. By then, I may have finally stopped laughing at those details.

Shah has said she was a fan of the Housewives franchise before joining the show, but I fear she studied too hard. She just pulled off a full six-season arc before season two has even premiered. Arrests should be saved until season four at least.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Tenor</div>

Even this late into the Real Housewives game—the franchise celebrated its 15th anniversary this month—I will never not be shocked that someone who is committing fraud goes on a reality show and draws attention to their (criminal) wealth.

Shah joins the hallowed ranks of Housewives who have been mired in legal trouble over their finances.

Famously, Teresa Giudice of Real Housewives of New Jersey went to jail for tax fraud.

At the moment, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Erika Jayne is making headlines amidst her divorce from ex Tom Girardi, who is facing disciplinary charges from the State Bar of California for “misappropriating millions in client funds, dishonesty and other acts of moral turpitude in his law practice.” That takes the heat off co-star Dorit Kemsley, who, along with husband Paul (“PK”), has faced a seemingly endless onslaught of bankruptcy and lawsuit scandals, which they defended on the show while, in an unfortunate styling choice, dressed as the con artists from Annie.

The number of cast members whose failure to pay taxes, lawsuits from former business partners, and bankruptcy filings have become plot lines on the show has grown too high to feasibly list here. It’s truly wild. Do any of these people actually have money? It doesn’t matter! They’ll still buy new mansions, hire private jets, and flaunt their $40,000-a-month glam squads.

I understand that to a non-Housewives fan, all this news just reads like gibberish. “Ashlynifer Watusi’s husband just stole money from Norma Rae, and Jessica Dungeon-Smoothie defrauded all the retirement homes in Utah.” I get it. But when you watch these shows, you become deeply invested in their lives. Especially in recent seasons that have taken great care to give space to how the women feel about politics, race, sexual orientation, and their faith.

You start to find yourself relating to them, no matter how outrageous their behavior becomes. But then this stuff happens and you’re zapped back to reality.

As a rational human, I can’t reconcile it. I have an outstanding dental bill and I’m considering not buying toothpaste in order to pay it off. I know that doesn’t make sense. But neither does going on a reality show when you’re operating a pyramid scheme, or modeling your new couture when there are headlines about how you’re not paying taxes.

It’s a precarious relationship that Housewives fans have with these scandals. It’s not that you wish ill on these women, which would be awful, toxic behavior. But there is a delight in watching how the drama, which these people willfully put in front of the cameras for our consumption, unfolds. You savor every detail as reminders that, yes, this ridiculous reality TV you love actually does take place in reality, where there are repercussions and consequences for this kind of behavior.

Maybe that’s the lesson here: Delusion makes great TV.

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