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Culture

The Dangerous Pattern of Real Housewives Scams

With Jen Shah’s arrest on charges of fraud, it was only a matter of time before the curtain was drawn back on reality TV’s richest women

01.04.2021

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For 15 years, the Real Housewives franchise has afforded a peek into the frenetic lives of the privileged, be that in lofty, comically overpriced apartments on the Upper East Side, or over the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills and beyond. Millions of viewers relished the opportunity to see how the other half lived only a few timezones and tax codes over. But in the last 10 years, the rich have gotten richer. A 2019 report from Oxfam found that the world’s most moneyed 26 individuals had the same amount of wealth as the poorest half. Of course, Lisa Vanderpump is no Jeff Bezos, but low taxation, wage stagnation and deregulation have proved a boon for the ruling class – and much like the bogus Wall Streeters that safeguard financial institutions, it seems the Real Housewives aren’t averse to a little fraud here and there.

At the end of March, Jen Shah of the show’s Salt Lake City chapter was arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering as part of a telemarketing scam that allegedly conned thousands with bogus ‘business services’. Her assistant Stuart Smith has also been arrested in connection with the crime, and, well, things aren’t looking particularly great for the self-styled “Queen Bee and MVP”. Of the charges, a Homeland Security Investigations special agent said “Shah... flaunted [her] lavish lifestyle to the public as a symbol of [her] ‘success’. In reality, they allegedly built their opulent lifestyle at the expense of vulnerable, often elderly working class people.”

IMAGE | SHUTTERSTOCK

Throughout the course of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’s debut season, Shah surrounded herself with a travelling entourage dubbed the ‘Shah Squad’; a dozen or so paid sycophants that primped, preened and pandered to the 47-year-old in-between increasingly erratic episodes. In one notable exchange, Shah explodes at a co-star for accusing her of smelling “like hospital”; in another, she splashes an understandably incensed camera crew during another confrontation – all while wearing Gucci, diamonds and furs as part and parcel of the show’s ‘lifestyle porn’ mantra.

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But is it all that aspirational when Balenciaga stoles have been earned on the back of stolen cash? Can we really call this – a bunch of entitled women screaming over Chanel – entertainment when a wealth divide yawns ever wider? In a time when the 1% are looting families of pensions and savings, there’s an inherent ick to Bravo TV’s cash cow – especially when those looters are taking centre stage.

Shah is not an outlier. Erika Jayne Giradi, a star of the Beverly Hills chapter, fascinated viewers with a strain of fabulousness that bordered on extreme. Married to Tom Giradi, a former attorney who made his millions in David and Goliath cases (his most prominent being the basis of the Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovitch), the 49-year-old told People magazine that she was afforded a budget of $40,000 a month for hair, makeup, clothing and more. Giradi’s husband was also known to have financed her aspiring musical career, which saw the reality TV star cavort onstage in catsuits with backing dancers to bland electropop songs with names like ‘XXPEN$IVE’ and ‘How Many Fucks?’ The sheer absurdity of Bravo’s resident Rebecca Black-cum-Marie Antoinette amassed a legion of fans. Erika Jayne’s life was ridiculous. It was also real.

In December of last year however, things took a turn for the worst. Just as Erika Jayne filed for divorce after 20 years of marriage, a damning article by the LA Times revealed that the would-be pop star was embroiled in a lawsuit filed by families that her husband’s firm had represented. This included the relatives of those involved in the fatal Lion Air Flight 610 crash, in which all 189 passengers and crew died as the result of a Boeing design flaw, and 24 women who were awarded $17 million in another case that involved cancerous hormone replacement therapy. The Giradis had allegedly held onto payouts, and delayed the transfer of these funds as the firm found itself in financial dire straits. Several outlets reported that the divorce was a ruse to hide further assets from the authorities. As the accusations mounted, Erika Jayne was pictured on Instagram raising a glass of champagne above the caption: ‘Bubbles…’

Ms Giradi’s upcoming appearance in the next season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has been a gift to the Bravo marketing department, with the series’ creator and executive producer Andy Cohen confirming that yes, we will see the fallout of Erika Jayne’s legal woes and divorce. The victims of the Giradis’ financial misdeeds were not mentioned. What’s more, the franchise has not only afforded a platform for wrong-doers, but actually cemented their position within the Real Housewives pantheon. Like Giradi, Teresa Giudice of the New Jersey chapter faced a criminal conviction. In 2014, Giudice served 11 and a half months in prison on 41 counts of bank, mail, wire and bankruptcy fraud that allegedly netted her family over $5m during a 10 year period. She is the longest serving housewife of the New Jersey series and has appeared in every single season at a reported fee of $60,000 an episode.

The show insists that everything you see is real. There’s some truth in that. The plundering of normal people by the wealthy is a very real thing, and an increasingly common thing. As some of the richest people on the planet (and on our TVs), it makes sense that the Real Housewives walk among a 1% that seek to buttress their ring fence using funds stolen from others. And though a question mark remains over the direction of Shah’s case, one thing is for certain: Bravo will continue to pay scammers to fill our screens, to let scammers orchestrate a media narrative of their choosing, to allow scammers to give ‘their side’ from an ivory tower built on the backs of innocent, working class people they have robbed. We’re all the poorer for it.