Three women walk into a bar: one perjured herself on the stand, one had a pop–star career funded by her husband stealing money from his class–action victims, and one ran a telemarketing fraud scheme that targeted vulnerable groups. What do they have in common? They're all stars of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise.
The Real Housewives franchise began in 2006 with The Real Housewives of Orange County, and has now expanded to ten other cities (Dubai and D.C. have been canceled, and Miami was recently revived as a Peacock exclusive), in addition to several highly–successful spin–offs such as Vanderpump Rules, Don’t be Tardy…, and The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip.
Some of the Housewives have become national celebrities, building entire careers off of their time on the show. Bethenny Frankel, former star of The Real Housewives of New York City, had her own daytime talk show on FOX, Bethenny, and reportedly sold her cocktail line, Skinnygirl, for $120 million in 2011. Lisa Vanderpump, the former queen of Beverly Hills, has expanded her restaurateur portfolio to include Tom Tom, the bar opened by Vanderpump Rules stars Tom Schwartz and Tom Sandoval, as well as two Vanderpump locations in Vegas.
And while many Housewives have found massive success on the show, much of the aspirational lifestyles of Bravo’s biggest celebrities are facades—their glitz and glamor is dependent on rental homes, questionable tax arrangements, and in the case of three housewives, federal crimes.
The most common descriptor of Teresa Giudice, the undisputed queen of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, was “table–flipping–Jersey–girl." But only until 2014, when she and then–husband Giuseppe “Joe” Giudice were charged with loan and bankruptcy fraud. Teresa served eleven months in federal prison, and her reunion with her family at home was captured in the Season 7 premiere of RHONJ. Despite her time in jail, she has never missed a season of the show.
Speaking of Teresa, Andy Cohen, the executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise and the “face” of Bravo, told Vulture that “‘There were people who said, ‘You have to fire her…[fraud] was something that her friends were accusing her of for years, and she was running from it. I’d rather see her grow as a human being than kill her off.’”
Erika Girardi, known to all by her stage name, “Erika Jayne,” made a splash when she popped up on Beverly Hills in its sixth season. With her over–the–top outfits, “pop–star” career (one of her songs is entitled “XXpensive,” which is an ode to how expensive it is to be Erika Jayne), and attorney ex–husband Tom Girardi (who is thirty years her senior), Jayne quickly became a heavy–hitter on the show. Fans loved her flaunting her lifestyle of private jets and luxury—she revealed in 2018 that it cost upwards of $40,000 to “be Erika Jayne”—until they learned it was all fraudulent.
Girardi had reportedly “‘resorted to embezzling the proceeds of settlements that should have been directed to his clients—including, as the basis for this Complaint, the widows and orphans who lost loved ones in the tragic crash of Lion Air Flight 610—in order to continue funding his and Erika’s lavish Beverly Hills lifestyles.’”
Right before the story broke, Jayne had filed for divorce from Girardi, prompting speculation that Jayne had knowledge of his crimes. Her legal status is still in limbo, but her spot on RHOBH has not been shaken.
Jen Shah, a more recent Bravolebrity, made her name on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City for throwing drinks and throwing shade, and for proclaiming herself to be “Shah–mazing.” But it turned out that behind the scenes, her “Shah–mazing” lifestyle was being funded by her telemarketing fraud scheme that would target elderly and disabled people.
Shah denied the claims, but pleaded guilty this July, and now faces up to fourteen years in prison.
Cohen’s sympathy for Teresa Giudice seems to not be extending to Shah; in an interview, he said, “Once we wrapped she pled guilty, I think that was kind of, unfortunately, the end of, you know, the engagement there," adding that he “[hopes] to sit down with her and talk to her at some point on camera.”
Shah’s situation begs the question of where to draw the line between good morals versus good television. Is Shah being ousted before Teresa and Erika because her show is newer, and doesn’t “need” her in the way Jersey needs Teresa, and Beverly Hills needs Erika?
It is easy to look at someone like Jen Shah and want to banish her from the spotlight forever, and the reasoning behind those thoughts is justified. However, many traditional celebrities have also gotten in trouble with the law, served time, and re–entered the spotlight. Martha Stewart, Felicity Huffman, and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino are only a few of the countless examples of celebrities who did time in jail. Now, Stewart is almost as relevant as ever, Huffman has a new show, and The Situation is back on Jersey Shore Family Vacation.
Bravo can make someone a legend just as quickly as they can chew someone up and spit them out. But these women have not received the axe as quickly as women like Teddi Mellencamp, who was just considered “boring.” People tune into New Jersey to see Teresa, so should Bravo be forced to fire her if she served her time and has been released from prison?
The issue of spotlighting these women is a morally gray area, and unlike most of the storylines on Housewives, nuanced. Teresa allowing herself to be complicit in her husband’s crimes is perhaps not the same offense as Jen Shah being the mastermind of a nine–year campaign to target vulnerable people for profit. There will inevitably be more Bravo–related lawsuits down the line, and if these three women were to give advice to future Housewives, they would likely tell them to read documents, know where their money is coming from, and if they’re doing something they know is highly illegal, maybe pass on Bravo’s offer.
Housewives, at the end of the day, is a business, and while they may not be seeking criminals, if those are the women (like Teresa) bringing in viewers, then the law’s “most wanted” will also be Bravo’s.