After Jen Shah’s Arrest, How Can We Keep Enjoying Real Housewives?

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On March 30, Real Housewife of Salt Lake City Jen Shah was arrested on two counts for allegedly running a national telemarketing scheme that targeted the elderly and computer-illiterate people. With her arrest, Shah became the newest addition to a specific echelon of Real Housewife: the one made up of those who’re fraught with legal woes.

For the women of Bravo’s flagship franchise, a level of duplicity and, well, messiness, is not only expected but encouraged. In a recent story for Vulture probing the racial reckoning currently occuring at Bravo, writer Anna Peele elucidates what the figurehead and face of the network, Andy Cohen, calls “the Bravo wink”—i.e. how producers signal to the audience that they know these women are “behaving terribly.” It’s “not an explicit rebuke,” she writes, “but editing that lets viewers know the producers understand that what’s happening is ridiculous.”

For the millions of us that deeply enjoy watching outrageous women acting on their worst impulses, the “Bravo wink” is a necessary part of the formula—a moral safety net that allows us to tell ourselves we’re still “good people” even as we gleefully tune in to watch women hurl insults and beverages at each other. But Shah’s recent arrest—and the specifics of the alleged crimes she’s been charged with—prompts an uncomfortable question: How bad should we feel, exactly, for being entertained by this woman? For supporting a franchise that, in its efforts to feed our unquenchable hunger for drama and high stakes, may be not only finding but actively creating monsters? Are we still “Bravo winking”—or are our eyes fully closed?

It’s always been a delicate balance—a tightrope walk of sorts—to calibrate the opposing reactions that the Housewives inspire: empathy and derision, delight and disgust. Bravo has attempted to change with the times, deciding in the past year that at least some kinds of bad behavior should no longer be tolerated from its stars: In 2020, the network fired several members of the Vanderpump Rules cast for racist infractions; earlier that year, Real Housewife of Dallas LeeAnne Locken stepped down from the show after coming under fire for racist remarks she made on the program in 2019.

Allegations of fraud, however, seem to be approached differently. Table-flipping Real Housewives of New Jersey O.G. Teresa Giudice, who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud with her now ex-husband, Joe Giudice, in 2014, remains a star of said franchise, returning to the show after spending 11 months in prison. Shah, prosecutors argued, was involved at the “highest level” of the alleged telemarketing scheme, and could spend as many as 50 years behind bars if convicted on all charges. Yet her legal battle reportedly may play a role in season two of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. (Shah has pleaded not guilty to both charges.)

In an article for NBC News about Shah’s arrest, preeminent Housewives scholar Brian Moylan wonders why Bravo’s flagship franchise seems to be such a breeding ground for fraudsters. Does the show merely draw con artists, he asks—or “does its dedication to conspicuous consumption lead people to a life of crime so they can afford to stay on the show?”

There’s evidence to suggest Moylan’s question has merit. Erika Jayne, who filed for divorce from her husband of more than 20 years, lawyer Tom Girardi, not long before he was accused of misappropriating funds from families of the victims of the 2018 Lion Air Flight 610 plane crash to support their lavish lifestyle, is prominently featured in the trailer for the upcoming season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. (Girardi, 81, has been formally charged by the California State Bar for misappropriating millions in client funds, with the Lion Air case cited in the filing. In February, Girardi was placed in a temporary conservatorship due to what his family claimed was dementia and subsequently was moved to inactive status by the bar.) Also featured in the new Real Housewives of Beverly Hills trailer is Jayne’s castmate Dorit Kemsley, who often wore stunning, high-fashion outfits and raved about her $6.5 million Encino mansion, only to put the house up for sale less than a year after she and her husband, Paul “PK” Kemsley, settled two lawsuits filed against them for an undisclosed amount. One lawsuit alleged that PK owed creditor Nicos Kirzis approximately $1.2 million in loan repayment, while the other claimed the Kemsleys owed business partner Ryan Horne $205,000 for a loan used to start Dorit’s swimwear collection, Beverly Beach, which was featured on the show.

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