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Real Housewife Jen Shah is sentenced to 6.5 years in prison

The Real Housewives’ spectacle of unearned wealth was all fun and games until Jen Shah defrauded the elderly. 

The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City - Season 1
Jen Shah.
Chad Kirkland/Bravo
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Friday, Real Housewife of Salt Lake City Jen Shah was sentenced by a federal judge to 78 months, or six and half years, in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Shah’s sentencing caps what has been an almost two-year saga, which began with an early 2021 arrest. Shah will have to surrender herself to prison on February 17, 2023, and will be subject to five years of supervised release after serving her sentence.

Before she admitted to being a wire fraudster, Shah had made a name for herself on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. She rose to fame by flaunting her money on television and starting fights with her fellow cast members, in particular by calling ex-Housewife Mary Cosby a “grandpa fucker” (Cosby married her step-grandfather and has a child by him). In their season-long spat, Cosby said that Shah smelled like a hospital. And with that, Bravo had a delirious first season hit on its hands.

But the charges Shah faces aren’t as frivolous as the petty fights on a Bravo television show. Authorities say, and Shah admitted, that she used telemarketing to target and defraud unwitting strangers, many of whom were older and living off their savings.

During the sentencing, Assistant US Attorney Robert Sobelman spoke about how Shah showed no remorse about defrauding her victims, pointing out one case in which Shah reportedly mocked an 80-year-old victim to her fellow defendants. Sobelman stated that there were “thousands” of victims just like the ones she mocked.

Shah and her attorney Priya Chaudhry spoke about Shah’s remorse, saying that she’s had a change of heart. Hearing the victims’ accounts, Chaudhry said, made Shah realize the massive amount of fraud and damage she had done. Shah said that her television persona, including her “Shah-mazing” tagline, were all Bravo’s doing. Shah also seemed to imply that the judge should be more lenient to her scheme because she is an immigrant.

“I stand before you as an immigrant from Tonga and Hawaii,” she said (Hawaii is a US state), stating that she violated Hawaiian and Tongan culture by committing crimes against elderly people. “The principles are humility and loyalty and respect. I have come to terms I have gone against these. I am sorry. My actions have hurt innocent people.”

Jen Shah isn’t the first criminal to be sentenced, nor will she be the last. But there are a few elements that make her case striking: For one thing, she’s part of a growing trend of lawbreakers who are convicted and sentenced while starring on reality shows — from her fellow Real Housewife Teresa Giudice to Chrisley Knows Best stars Todd and Julie Chrisley. But while others have been rung up on charges from DUIs and assault to tax and bankruptcy fraud, Shah stands out for running a criminal conspiracy with unwitting elderly victims. And she did it, supposedly, before and during Bravo’s filming.

What Jen Shah pleaded guilty to and was sentenced for

Shah’s legal case has been going on for over a year. Back in March 2021, Shah was arrested (during filming, and more on this in a bit) along with Stuart Smith, whom the show described as her “assistant.” The pair were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. According to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, this was “in connection with telemarketing and conspiracy to commit money laundering.”

The term wire fraud refers to the act of using a phone or the internet to commit financial fraud. When it comes to Shah, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York explained that she sold lists of individuals, usually older adults, to other members of her “scheme” so that they could defraud them. Through telemarketing, Shah and her cohort would promise these individuals business opportunities, but after the victims handed over their cash, those opportunities never materialized.

The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City - Season 1
Jen Shah during the first season Real Housewives of Salt Lake City reunion.
Heidi Gutman/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The US Attorney’s Office added that it was an intricate and expansive web that crossed state lines: Leads were initially generated by sales floors operating in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, among other places. The owners and operators of those sales floors operated in coordination with several telemarketing sales floors in the New York and New Jersey area, including in Manhattan, and provided lead lists and assistance in fighting victim refund requests to other participants operating those floors.

Shah pleaded not guilty a month later, in April 2021. Smith pleaded guilty that November.

For the next year, Shah maintained her innocence, even in her television appearances — especially during the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City reunion episodes that aired in March 2022.

This all changed during a court hearing later that year, when Shah pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud on July 11. According to NBC News, Shah agreed to forfeit $6.5 million and pay up to $9.5 million in restitution.

“In 2012 to March 2021 in the Southern District of New York and elsewhere I agreed with others to commit wire fraud,” Shah told the presiding judge at the hearing. “I knew this was wrong. I knew many people were harmed and I’m so sorry.”

Shah faced a maximum penalty of up to 30 years in prison. During that July hearing, she said she would not appeal if the sentence was for 14 years or less.

How Jen Shah’s guilty plea changed The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City

When it comes to any candid reality show — and especially the Real Housewives franchises — audiences aren’t really getting reality. Real Housewives are on contracts, which are up for renewal each season. If a cast member fails to add to the drama or spectacle of the show, they’re not asked back. That creates an incentive for Housewives to perform for the cameras and really lean into the drama of a season, even though that might not necessarily be “real” behavior.

Housewives have also formed a symbiotic relationship with the franchise in the sense that they use their respective shows to launch new businesses or promote existing ones. Perhaps the biggest example is Bethenny Frankel’s low-cal margarita brand Skinnygirl, which Forbes reported that she sold to Beam Global in 2011 for millions. If someone’s selling a business, it’s in their best interest to project an image that doesn’t tarnish the brand — and again, that isn’t really “real” behavior.

Suffice to say, it’s hard or maybe even detrimental for Housewives to be their “realest” selves on camera. In Jen Shah’s case, her tenure on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City began much like any other cast member — a ravenous hunger for the spotlight, constant flaunting of wealth (with no real explanation of how it was attained), an attempt to launch a brand (Shah spent a lot of the first season touting her “Shah Squad” team and “Shah Squad” merch), and a clear desire to secure a second season. But her time on the show slowly morphed into a weird, often bleak, look at the legal fight to keep her out of jail.

The show soured for Shah in her second season when her March arrest was caught on tape. Real Housewives episodes do not air in real time, so the news came first. Anyone, whether or not they were familiar with Shah or a fan of the Housewives, could find news stories detailing what she was accused of, how she was arrested, and the case that federal prosecutors had against her.

The second season of RHOSLC then premiered in September 2021, roughly six months after Shah’s arrest. Bravo promoted Shah’s arrest as a major plot point, and teased out footage of the law enforcement officials trying to corner Shah right before she took a cast trip to Vail, Colorado. As her cast members had their immediate reactions (fellow housewife Lisa Barlow called multiple lawyers) to the arrest preserved in Bravo amber, Shah leaned into her arrest. Her tagline for that season: “The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing!”

The cycle of something happening in Shah’s case — lawyers dropping out, the trial being postponed, new developments in the case — appearing in the news and the wait to see that play out months later onscreen became intrinsic to the show. As with Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Erika Girardi — whose lawyer husband Tom was accused of stealing from clients — it’s almost as if Bravo was producing a true crime documentary.

I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t imagine that any attorney would want their client, especially one accused of committing a federal crime, filmed by a camera crew and edited by a team that said client has no control over. That just seems like it would open a very large door for self-incrimination. Yet here Shah was, living her post-arrest and pre-trial life on camera. To what benefit, it’s unclear.

Throughout that second season, though, there are segments where Shah does meet with lawyers to discuss her case and affirm her innocence. The legal advice she seems to have been given, as evidenced by how she approached her case on the show, was to keep reiterating, on camera, that she was innocent and reminding us that in the American justice system, people are innocent until proven guilty. Shah also seems to shift into a less abrasive and less flamboyant personality as the season goes on, perhaps in an attempt to appear more sympathetic. In an especially desolate episode, the 15th of the season, Shah’s mother Charlene tells her daughter that she liquidated her 401(k) to help her pay for legal fees. (My sympathy here lies more with Charlene.)

The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City - Season 1
Jen Shah’s first season of Real Housewives involved her flaunting an enormous amount of wealth, but no explanation where it came from.
Fred Hayes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

That season ends with the three-part reunion in which Shah proclaims her innocence again, saying that she’ll fight to the very end. It aired in March 2022, around five months before Shah changed her plea. Shah’s plea change occurred during filming for the third season, which premiered on September 28, 2022. Shah’s guilty plea, in fact, functions as the season finale.

But Shah’s preempted plea reflexively informs, even undercuts, everything we see from her this season. She talks often about how hard the trial is, how hard it is to fight against a system that she says is stacked against her. She also says she’s worried about the example she’s setting for her kids.

Knowing that she pleaded guilty, these scenes feel even more hollow than usual Housewife shilling can be. Instead of diet-friendly alcohol, Shah is selling her own innocence. As the season goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine that this woman actually believes anything she says on camera. And it becomes a particularly heady game with producers: It seems like the editors’ intent is to show how much Shah was willing to put herself on camera in an effort to save her case. Now that time is over; Shah said she declined an invitation to the season’s reunion episodes (which filmed before her sentencing on Friday), stating that Bravo wanted her to discuss her case and that she could not fulfill that.

The question for Bravo is what will become of the show now that Shah likely won’t return. So much of the franchise has been built around this wigged, explosive, over-the-top glamour queen, and the bulk of the last two seasons parlayed her trial into its marketing strategy. Will the franchise be able to survive as a show that isn’t about the Jen Shah trial? And is that something that fans will even want to watch?

But it also feels a little icky in that the show provides Shah and her co-stars, on camera, a platform to speak profusely about Shah being wrongfully accused — but never really paints a clear or complete picture of the victims Shah now admits to defrauding. In court documents obtained by People, victims wrote about how Shah and her cohort had — through multiple rounds of telemarketing schemes promising business services — swindled them out of their savings and left them with mountains of debt and damaged relationships.

“I almost lost everything that I worked for, as well as my life and almost cost me my marriage as well as ruining my kids’ lives for eternity. What I thought started out to be an investment in a company that I could pass on to my children if the business got off the ground successfully, ended up almost ruining ALL OF OUR LIVES,” one of the victims wrote to the presiding judge, asking for appropriate punishment for Shah.

Undergirding the Real Housewives franchises has always been the joy and stink of unearned wealth — first from the portrayal of cast members as dilettantes who had married into money and then, as the show became more and more of a launching pad for businesses, with often silly and self-serving attempts at entrepreneurship (from skin care lines to toaster oven cookbooks to music careers) mixed in with the more legitimate products. While some of these Housewife careers may have been hollow or, practically speaking, worthless, they only had the air of a scam. But as more and more crimes have piled up, and now with the criminal charges against ex-Housewives husband Tom Girardi and accusations of religious abuse against former RHOSLC cast member Mary Cosby, it seemed almost inevitable that the day would arrive when the money we loved to watch would come, in clearly criminal and unwilling form, from us.

Update, January 6, 12:55 pm ET: This story has been updated with Jen Shah’s surrender date and more details about her sentencing hearing.

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