Why Is Fraud So Common in the ‘Real Housewives’?

With an explosive personality and extravagant lifestyle that included lavish parties, an endless parade of high fashion looks, and a “Shah Squad” of assistants handling her glam, Jen Shah has been a controversial character since appearing on the inaugural season ofThe Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. The business ventures that funded her lifestyle always seemed a little vague, so much so that even during the RHOSLC Season 1 reunion she was asked by host Andy Cohen to explain what exactly it is that she does for a living. Even her co-stars were confused. Considering Shah is the wife of an assistant university football coach and works in something that can vaguely be described as “marketing,” per her answer at the reunion, curiosity and confusion was inevitable.

Some clearer information about her profession came into focus this past week, information that has landed Shah in hotter water than a Park City resort jacuzzi, when she was arrested in the middle of filming Season 2 of the Bravo reality series. Shah and her assistant/business associate Stuart Smith were indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The 10-page indictment laid out a “wide-ranging telemarketing scheme” that alleges Shah, Smith, and a network of co-conspirators targeted people over age 55 or older by collecting their personal data to sell to other companies that would effectively scam those individuals by selling them business services like tax preparation or web design, “notwithstanding that many Victims were elderly and did not own a computer,” per a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. According to authorities, Shah and Smith were selling those “lead lists” of potential victims, and then receiving a cut from the fraudulent services that were sold to them.

The question many—including some of Shah’s fellow Bravolebrities—have asked is why would she seek attention and fame via a reality TV show when she was allegedly committing fraud? Why invite a microscope into your life when there may be some sketchy shit going on? It appears to be a dangerous cocktail of narcissism, hubris, greed, and good ole fashion fame seeking. Based on her performance on her first season as a Real Housewife, and one unfortunately on-the-nose old tweet, Shah seemed to have studied the form of what it takes to be a successful Housewife.

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Back in September, Shah retweeted a post from Twitter user @bravobravobrav0 which had screenshotted a scene where Shah looks like she’s about to throw a glass across a table at her foe. “Teresa walked, so I could run,” Shah tweeted. Viewers, and followers of this current legal mess, clocked that tweet immediately and shared it with a collective, “Well, well, well.” Indeed, Teresa Giudice from the Real Housewives of New Jersey is known for throwing dishware. Infuriated outbursts have made her one of the most polarizing and popular Housewives in the entire flagship. However, in light of the news, this tweet got a super dose of irony since Giudice, along with her then husband Joe Giudice, were arrested for various charges, including fraud. She served 11 months in prison.

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Shah pleaded not guilty to all charges against her, and will be going to trial to prove her innocence in October. If she is found to have committed these crimes, (which come with a maximum prison sentence of 30 years), the question remains: why risk it all—the money, her family, the various other excesses—for a bit of fame?

While there have been several arrests for various charges in the Housewife universe, including for DUI and assault, and a pile of legal troubles, Giudice and Shah are far from the only alleged or convicted fraudsters in the world of Housewives.

Erika Jayne Girardi of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is currently embroiled in her own fraud and embezzlement case stemming from allegations against her husband, famed personal injury attorney Tom Girardi, who is accused of embezzling millions from families of the victims of the October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight 610 plane crash, whom he represented in a class action lawsuit. The couple announced their separation in November, with many publications claiming the divorce is a sham to protect their assets. Earlier this year, Girardi’s brother Robert claimed Tom is suffering from late onset Alzheimer’s and filed to be made his legal guardian, though the California State Bar is not too sold on that diagnosis.

It’s wild to think that there are two major fraud cases against two separate cast members of the Real Housewives at the same time, but that these two are just the latest in a long line of charges against cast members of the various series is astounding. How do these people end up in all these legal battles like it’s on their to-do list? Well, the fact that many of these reality stars are millionaires with several revenue streams and various businesses places them in greater likelihood of finding themselves making some questionable financial decisions than your average working class person living paycheck to paycheck. Most of them were business people before they made their way to TV, including Shah. The concept of expanding one’s portfolio through various investments is not a foreign concept for those with the means. Wealthy people will do whatever it takes to maintain their wealth, and celebrities have certainly been susceptible to scams in the pursuit of furthering their fortune. It’s when greed and/or stupidity collides that celebs perhaps run into trouble.

The rich want to stay rich, often by any means necessary. And within the Real Housewives universe, it seems like attention can exacerbate that need. There’s a mutual understanding that Housewives are supposed to present a lavish lifestyle that they may actually not be able to afford, and that adds pressure to perform. They were cast because they have some level of wealth, after all, and who can afford what becomes a tacit (or sometimes very blatant) competition between the women. Shady digs about money are made. Arguments have even erupted on various Housewives franchises over who is lying about their finances or messing with someone’s business opportunities—Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Nene Leakes famously proclaimed “I am very rich, bitch” during a fight with Shereé Whitfield over a business issue.

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Apollo Nida, the ex-husband of Real Housewives of Atlanta star Phaedra Parks, was sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and bank fraud. Nida and his co-conspirators were running a $2.3 million scheme in which they stole victims’ identities to open bank accounts in their name, file fraudulent tax returns, and make claims against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was ordered to pay $1.9 million in restitution in 2014 and was released in 2019. Parks, who is an attorney, claimed she had no idea of her husband’s dealings even though he’d been committing the scam for four years, telling Ellen Degeneres in 2014 that she was in the dark until Nida was arrested. “I work, I just got my fifth college degree…I have two very small children,” she told DeGeneres. “I just stopped breast-feeding three months ago. So, I didn’t have any idea that any of this was going on until he called me and said, ‘Hey I’ve been arrested and I’m having this problem, but it’s not true.’”

Frank Catania, ex-husband and now live-in pseudo husband/best friend of Real Housewives of New Jersey’s Dolores Catania, was disbarred from practicing law in 2017 for “the knowing misappropriation of client and escrow funds” which entailed “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” according to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. It all stemmed from the transfer of $15,000 from a client’s escrow account into his personal business account, and taking another $10,000 to pay legal fees, per a report in In court, Catania explained he repaid his client several months later, but repayment took a while because of a “delay in remembering the existence of those loans.” Basically, he says he forgot—an unfortunate mistake with major repercussions.

Several accusations of fraud have also been lobbied at former RHOBH star Lisa Vanderpump; Sonja Morgan of the Real Housewives of New York was ordered to pay $7 million to the film studio Hannibal Pictures for fraudulent conduct after failing to fund a John Travolta-helmed film she had contractually agreed to finance; RHOSLC’s Mary Cosby has had rumors flying around regarding the source of her wealth, particularly in connection with her church and properties. Her husband, Robert Cosby Sr., who was married to her grandmother, was accused of fraud in 1997 and 2007 by his wife’s estranged mother, Rosalind Cazales, who claimed he forged her mother’s (his wife’s grandmother and also his former wife…whew!) signature on various deeds and mortgages. He was eventually ordered to pay Cazales $1.2 million in damages.

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For many, it’s hard to imagine wanting fame so bad that you’d put your entire empire in jeopardy. But in the world of Housewives where fortune and drama are practically prerequisites of the gig, it makes perfect sense. Reality TV stardom in general, but in particular within the Housewives franchise, doesn’t require talent per se, but it does require a big personality. On Housewives, it also requires the money to fund an opulent lifestyle that is both aspirational and ridiculous enough to make for fascinating and entertaining TV. The show, after all, began as a peek into the lives of kept middle aged women, but has evolved over time. And as our culture has shifted, that expectation has changed to a certain degree in that viewers increasingly want these Housewives to also have a sense of social responsibility. Even so, the DNA of a Housewife remains. We like the big, rich, loud ladies who do and say outlandish things, while holding them accountable as public figures. That line hasn’t been the simplest to tread.

When Shah walked onto the screen in 2020, it was clear she read the job description. Same goes for Erika Jayne and for many others. Bravo and their flagship series have a massive and fervent fanbase. Becoming a popular Housewife translates into big money, spinoffs, and celebrity. (See: Bethenny Frankel, Kandi Burruss, and Lisa Vanderpump as prime examples.) But that ego that is needed to put yourself on camera might not be too far from the part of the brain that tells people they can commit a crime and get away with it.

Greed and narcissism breed the desire for attention, the belief that one is untouchable, and the willingness to gamble it all for a shot at the limelight. Many have gone to extreme lengths in their quest to conquer it all, like Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort or the crew of Hollywood thieves behind the infamous Bling Ring. And then there’s also plain and simple entitlement. Being a celebrity leads to access to information and privileges that are often the breeding ground for scams. Living in front of the camera can make life seem like a performance. Take the hubris of Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and their involvement in the college admissions scandal. And no two words have more been associated with fraud in recent history than Fyre Festival, and plenty of celebs got caught up in that mess, including co-organizer Ja Rule, who seemingly wanted to be seen as a jethopping entrepreneur, details be damned.

Money and fame are too delicious to turn down, even if it means making a deal with the devil. Perhaps Jen Shah will walk away from this scandal and find her notoriety grows; it’s certainly happened before. Judging by the thirst viewers have expressed for Season 2 of RHOSLC, and how badly they want to see the arrest play out, it seems like it’s already begun.


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