the ‘real housewives’ wire fraud scandal, explained for non-bravo watchers.
Also: ‘Tina,’ Trans Day of Visibility, ‘Zola,’ ‘The Prophets’ and more.
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Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Jen Shah was arrested and charged with running a nationwide telemarketing fraud scheme five days ago, and this story has continued to consume me.
Of course, legal troubles aren’t entirely new for celebrities of the Bravo variety. Among the housewife crowd alone: Tom Girardi (of Erin Brockovich fame) and his wife, Beverly Hills star Erika Jayne, allegedly embezzled funds meant for the families of victims of a plane crash. New Jersey’s Teresa and Joe Giudice were convicted of tax fraud and did time. New York’s Luann de Lesseps was arrested and charged with battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and disorderly intoxication. Atlanta’s Apollo Nida (Phaedra Parks’ ex) was charged with bank fraud and identity theft, and also went to prison. And that’s truly the tip of the iceberg.
But this scandal, to me, somehow tops them all. For the uninitiated, let me try and explain why:
First, Shah is a central figure of the newest offering of a franchise that has arguably been on a decline of late, and ratings for some of the original series — namely OC and Atlanta — have been falling. At the same time that many of Andy Cohen’s original Real Housewives series have grown stale, the franchise has also, rightfully, received criticism in recent years over how it handles race — and specifically how its shows’ casts have traditionally been segregated along racial lines. The franchise has also been criticized as upholding and accentuating sexist and misogynistic norms.
SLC, conversely, has won significant praise for featuring the franchise’s most racially diverse cast to date. And while some may have feared that the show would simply be a gathering of Mormon mommy bloggers, the cast features women from a range of professional and religious backgrounds, as well. To put it lightly, SLC has been a hit and Shah has played a huge role in that success.
Shah had one of the most polarizing first seasons of any Bravo housewife ever, so this scandal is adding fuel to an already-blazing fire. In the series premiere, she came out of the gate hot with an elaborate and bizarre birthday party for cast mate Meredith at her massive “Shah’s Chalet” in Park City, which we have since found out was a rented property all along. That episode was also our introduction to both the “Shah Squad” — her own personal glam squad and full starting lineup of four+ full-time personal assistants — and Shah’s boundless temper, which repeatedly reared its head throughout the entire season.
From the very start, her over-the-topness made no sense to fans, especially given husband Sharrieff Shah’s somewhat humble career as assistant coach for the University of Utah football team. When Cohen asked Shah why she needed so many assistants during the cast reunion in February, Shah said she runs “a lot of different companies and businesses, and a lot of them have different roles in the companies.” When pressed for more specifics, she offered a word salad of “direct response marketing” and ad algorithms. The red flags were already flying high.
The actions Shah and her “first assistant” Stuart Smith are accused of are incredibly predatory, and allegedly they have been at this work for nearly a decade. According to the charges, Shah is wrapped up in a massive telemarketing scheme that included the targeting of individuals over the age of 55 with an offer of business opportunities that were completely fraudulent. An explanation of what Shah and Stuart are charged with doing can be found here:
It’s possible that Shah was so hands on with this scheme that she may have even made some of these predatory calls herself. Audio leaked to Twitter alleges that Shah can be heard in her own voice warning an individual about their student loans.
The legal proceedings, so far, have been an unmitigated mess. Shah’s first hearing was held over Skype and was shut down because so many fans had dialed in — and kept interrupting the proceedings because they weren’t muted — that Shah herself couldn’t join the meeting.
When Shah’s first hearing finally did take place, on Friday, Shah’s representation claimed she owned no assets, and did not have a current passport to hand over to the court (which is incredibly strange given how much traveling Bravo housewives tend to do). Her trial date has been set for October.
Shah was reportedly filming for the show’s second season, and was preparing to take a cast trip to Colorado, at the time of her arrest. So, it’s likely that a lot of the fallout — complete with first-person accounts from Shah’s cast members — was all caught on tape. This would mark a Bravo first.
Finally, Shah is continuing on with life seemingly with zero remorse. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and is still posting glam shots to her Instagram. Ahead of her rescheduled arraignment, she shared videos of her redone hair along with the hashtag #unarrested. She has reposted a “Free Jen” image to her Instagram along with a message that she’s learned who her “true friends are” since her arrest. Messy messy messy.
Taken as a whole, this — last week’s World Figure Skating Championships aside — is my Super Bowl. If you need me, I’ll be rewatching season one of SLC and searching for more clues. More to come on Ms. Shah, to be sure.
Listen: Keeping with the SLC theme for this week, I’ve been listening to a lot of the dream pop band Choir Boy this past week. Their music has a goth ‘80s new wave energy to it, and kind of reminds me of output from acts like Wild Nothing and The Drums. Here’s “Complainer” off the band’s second album, Gathering Swans, which dropped last year:
As a sidebar, if you enjoy my weekly music picks, I’ve compiled all of them in a Spotify mix if you are interested in that sort of thing.
Read: I am falling behind on my reading goal for 2021 — I’m hoping to complete 50 books this year! — and I have the best reason why: I just completed Robert Jones, Jr.’s first novel, The Prophets, for my queer book club and this book is a masterpiece. The book tells the story of two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation who are also in love with each other. It so beautifully written that I found myself often going back to re-read lines just to experience them a second time, so it wasn’t a particularly quick read. But it’s still one of the best things I’ve read in years.
For a taste of what you’re in for if you pick this book up, you can watch Jones read a selection from the book and watch him in conversation with Heavy: An American Memoir author Kiese Laymon in a Greenlight Bookstore stream:
Watch: HBO Max just dropped its highly anticipated Tina Turner documentary, titled Tina, and it is living up to the hype. While journalists and culture commentators over the years fixated on the abuse she suffered with Ike to the point of making it a running joke, Turner persisted and attained rock and roll excellence— all on her own terms. What a life, what a career, what a story. We all owe Tina Turner her flowers now.
Also, the trailer for A24’s Zola, perhaps the first major movie based on a viral Twitter thread, is now out. It is based off a Twitter thread by A’Ziah Wells which described her experience getting exposed to and wrapped up within a Tampa sex trafficking ring. The full movie will be out soon, but in the meantime, this Rolling Stone feature digs into the back story.
Act: Last week marked the International Day of Trans Visibility. At the same time, lawmakers in some 30 Republican-led states are coming out with legislation aimed at banning transgender athletes from girls’ sports. The whole thing is sickening and incredibly angering. I think Chase Strangio with the ACLU summed up the ridiculousness well in an interview with The New York Times:
“What we have is a speculative fear of something that hasn’t materialized. They’re acting like LeBron James is going to put on a wig and play basketball with fourth graders. And not one LeBron James, 100. In reality, you’re talking about little kids who just want to play rec sports. They just want to get through life.”
If you want to stand up for trans people, and trans youth specifically, The Trevor Project has compiled a comprehensive guide to being an effective ally for trans and gender nonconforming kids. You can also use this tool from PFLAG and Athlete Ally to reach out to your elected officials at the federal, state and local levels to express your support for trans youth and urge them to do the same.