To enjoy American reality television, you have to watch with the tacit understanding that the word reality is used ... generously. Like, I still watch House Hunters even though I’ve been informed that the house hunters have already chosen their homes prior to filming. I still enjoy the competition of Top Chef even though producers and the network have input on which contestants get eliminated. And I don’t mind that Bachelor contestants are in it more for growing their Instagram presences than they are at finding true love.
Perhaps that’s why when actual reality intrudes on the world of these shows, it feels so alien.
Over the past two months, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has morphed from a plandid look at very rich women bickering about petty things — previous tiffs have included being late to a meetup and the adoption and return of a dog named Lucy Lucy Applejuicey — into a show centered more and more on one woman’s too-desperate performance to prove her innocence.
The change in tone is the outcome of legal actions taken against Erika Girardi and her husband Tom — chief among them a lawsuit accusing the Real Housewife of using a phony divorce to hide millions of dollars that her ex-husband allegedly embezzled from his clients.
Instead of avoiding the cameras as she undergoes her divorce and other legal woes, Erika (also known by her stage name, Erika Jayne) filmed multiple episodes this season in which decisions, hearings, and news reports break in real time. Her cast mates — who the show claims are her very best friends — appear to have been repeatedly blindsided on camera by these events.
While no one on the show says it out loud, Bravo experts and Housewives watchers alike posit that Erika has sought legal counsel as to what to say on the show to not do further damage. Her appearances this season have become peculiar, suddenly asking both cast mates and the audience to forget everything she’s shown us about her fabulous life over the past six years. It’s likely why her behavior this season resembles a community theater’s enthusiastic revival of The Glass Menagerie.
It’s reality, bursting through the layers of TV production and legal artifice. And I cannot stop watching.
Who is Erika Girardi, the woman also known as Erika Jayne?
For practical purposes, Erika Girardi is one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, a show that’s part of the Real Housewives franchise. Girardi has been on the show since 2015. Like all Housewives, however, to get picked up by the Bravo network, Girardi has a larger-than-life story that warrants cameras following her around.
Away from Real Housewives, Erika is a part-time pop star who goes by the name Erika Jayne. Her songs “Pretty Mess,” “How Many F**ks,” “Xxpen$ive,” and their ilk have garnered top spots on Billboard’s Dance Club and Hot Dance charts. A lot of Erika Jayne’s recent success — she appeared on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago right before the pandemic shutdown began in 2020 — coincides with her immense popularity as a Housewife. Both her sold-out concerts and her famed $40,000-per-month hair and makeup team were featured on the show.
Her music career, Erika has said in interviews, was spurred by her marriage to the very wealthy and, until recently, very successful attorney Tom Girardi, whom she wed in 2000. The pair met when the future pop star was working as a cocktail waitress; she was 27, he was 60.
“I was living Tom’s life,” Girardi told People in 2018. “There are only so many material things you can have before it becomes boring. There are only so many dinners, so many things you can buy. I was complacent. I was in a wealthy coma and I wasn’t looking inward.”
Tom Girardi was the trial lawyer in the 1993 case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company of California, a case that would go on to inspire the movie Erin Brockovich. (Girardi has said he was depicted in the film by actor Peter Coyote.) Girardi also helped families of the victims of the October 2018 Boeing 737 Lion Air crash reach a settlement with Boeing. He co-founded the law firm Girardi & Keese in 1965.
Part of what made Erika a fan-favorite housewife was how she unapologetically lived the life of a “trophy wife” to a man 33 years her senior. In her six years on the show, Erika never shied away from talking about their age gap, his wealth, the things he’s bought for her, the sex they have, the money she spends on her career, and others’ preconceived notions about her being a “gold digger,” or someone who married for money.
The lawsuit against Erika and Tom Girardi, explained
Erika’s unapologetically lavish, intensely photographed life was one of the big reasons her divorce from Tom in November 2020 was a shock to fans. And it’s why the subsequent lawsuit, filed in December 2020, in which Tom’s former clients accuse both Girardis of cheating them out of their settlement money, has become national news.
On December 2, 2020, the class-action firm Edelson PC filed a lawsuit against Tom and Erika for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars from the victims of the Lion Air crash. The Los Angeles Times reported that same month a pattern of Tom’s clients not seeing their settlement money and Tom borrowing against high interest, and then not paying back his creditors. According to the new lawsuit, Tom was using that money to fund their lifestyle and, further, that the divorce was actually a strategic move to hide Tom’s assets.
“While Erika publicly filed for divorce this month, on information and belief, that ‘divorce’ is simply a sham attempt to fraudulently protect Tom’s and Erika’s money from those that seek to collect on debts owed by Tom and his law firm GK,” the lawsuit states, accusing Tom of funneling money into Erika’s company.
“This would not be the first attempt by Tom to hide and divert assets” the lawsuit adds. It explains that Erika’s company, EJ Global (also named in the suit), likely violated the California Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act by allegedly receiving tens of millions in “loans” directly from GK. Tom, it notes, is the sole equity shareholder of his law firm.
That same month, a judge froze Tom Girardi’s assets, and any assets owned jointly by the couple, and referred Tom to the US attorney’s office for investigation. At that hearing, the LA Times reported, two attorneys representing Tom said that Tom — who until recently had reportedly been spending nearly half a million dollars a year on Erika’s hair and makeup — did not have $2 million on hand to pay back his clients. In January 2021, a US bankruptcy judge placed Tom and his law firm into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Tom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in February, but the California State Bar challenged that diagnosis, stating that it came as Tom was “enmeshed in mounting legal troubles and as he is facing imminent State Bar discipline.” The diagnosis and ensuing conservatorship would, the Times reported, “impede [the Bar’s] ability to prosecute him.”
This past June, Hulu released an ABC News documentary about the Girardis and their lawsuit called The Housewife and The Hustler. It features interviews with the victims involved in the lawsuit and details how extensive these accusations are.
All these legal battles boil down to a few things with regards to Erika: Did she know about the embezzlement? Was she a party to maneuvering money away from victims, as the lawsuit contends? And how much of Erika’s extravagant lifestyle and music career was funded by settlement money?
This is far from the first time a Real Housewife has been embroiled in legal drama. Teresa Giudice of New Jersey and her husband Joe were sentenced to jail for fraud during the run of the show in 2015, while Erika’s fellow cast mate Dorit Kemsley was accused of owing money to her ex-business partner in 2018. (The lawsuit against Kemsley was eventually dropped.)
Usually, however, these events occur behind closed doors and are, at most, narrated for the audience by cast member talking heads. It’s a combination of Bravo’s lucky timing and Erika’s willingness to be filmed that so much of this scandal, which occurred during production last fall, has played out on the show this season. (It should be noted that New York’s Luann de Lesseps’s arrest and threatening of an officer was caught on a police camera and Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah was arrested on fraud charges while filming the upcoming season of the show.)
It’s turned this 11th season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills into something that resembles a true crime documentary.
How we watch Real Housewives and how the Real Housewives expect to be watched
Understanding how people watch Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or any iteration of Housewives is key: Fans are fully aware of the fiction involved. It’s also why this lawsuit has really turned this season into something different.
Regular viewers know that the women on Bravo’s shows aren’t exactly friends as much as they are contracted players on a television show whose premise is that they are friends. The cast members probably wouldn’t go on lavish vacations with their co-stars under normal circumstances. The phone calls between the women are always on FaceTime or speakerphone so they can be recorded. The lunch dates they go on are predetermined and cleared ahead of time.
“We’ve all accepted these things as part of the deal,” Gibson Johns, host and producer of the pop culture interview podcast We Should Talk, told me. Johns frequently hosts Housewives on his podcast.
Johns explained to me that while there are elements of the show that aren’t “real” and that the show creates scenarios (vacations, coffees, parties, dinners, etc.) for these women to interact, how the women act in those contrived situations is what fans want. Fans love melodrama, catchphrases, and fights. And, granted, cast members on the show are aware that it’s in their best interest to calibrate their reactions to deliver the best television.
What makes this season so different is that the very serious lawsuit, Johns says, has affected how Erika, who is presumably under legal guidance not to implicate herself while on television, presents herself on the show. It is in her best interest not just to appear not guilty but to actively come across as innocent as possible.
The ninth episode this season has Erika and cast mate Kyle Richards meeting for a chat, which culminates with Erika talking about her divorce and a rough relationship that the cameras following Erika for six years ostensibly did not capture. Erika also explains that people have turned on her because of the divorce.
With Kyle watching, Erika begins crying, tears of not-waterproof mascara streaming down her face. It’s a moment that’s been scrutinized by viewers and even former Housewives for being overtly faked — even more so than what’s usually tolerated on the show.
“The viewing experience now has an extra level of deciphering,” Johns told me, explaining the social commentary that follows every episode. “Like, what elements of this are really real? What elements of this are being put on? What elements of this are a PR person in one ear and a lawyer in the other?”
Essentially, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills now has a true crime element to it. Fans pore over every single moment Erika appears in for any clues about Tom’s lawsuit and how much she did or didn’t know about his alleged embezzling. Every episode feels like a piece in the “did she or didn’t she” puzzle, and each one feels like it’ll bring fans closer to the truth.
This mystery — and the other Housewives’ reactions to its unfolding — makes for great television.
“Like when the Housewives don’t know how to react to something that’s happening, and it feels like completely off script from what they’re used to. When it’s just it’s an unhinged human moment — to me that is what makes a good season,” said Carey O’Donnell, a TV writer and co-host of the Sexy Unique Podcast.
O’Donnell pointed out that the show has been good for other reasons this season, too, bolstering its cast with newcomers like Crystal Kung Minkoff, Kathy Hilton, and Sutton Stracke.
But what O’Donnell loves is watching these newbies and established cast members adapt and react in real time to the unpredictability of Erika’s news and her actions. O’Donnell says watching Erika “feels like sci-fi” this season and that in some moments she’s channeling vintage actresses (think: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) and slipping in and out of accents in peculiar ways.
“You’re watching a group of performers who are in on this ruse that we’re also in on, and we know everything they’re doing is a little fake. But now this other performer that they thought was on the same page is acting in a performance that they didn’t know about,” O’Donnell told me. “You almost feel like they’re looking off camera and are asking, like, what pages of the script is this on?”
I’m not sure if there is a script for how to act when your coworker is accused of being an accomplice to embezzlement, stealing settlement money from her ex-husband’s plane crash victim clients. What we’re seeing, for the first time in a while, is the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills acting in very real, very unrehearsed ways. It just took a very real lawsuit to make it happen.