On Dec. 15, “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” star Jen Shah will receive her prison sentence from U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein in New York.

Last month, Shah shocked Bravo viewers when she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Shah, according to federal prosecutors, “victimized 10 or more persons over the age of 55, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.”

Shah and her “assistant” Stuart Smith were accused of creating lead lists with names of vulnerable senior citizens, then selling those lists to known scammers who duped the elderly into spending thousands of dollars on nonexistent business support.

All the while, Shah flaunted her palatial Park City home, high-end cars, throngs of assistants and white-hot temper. This made Shah an early star of “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”

She was the yeller, the drink-thrower and the accusation-maker every reality television cast needs to spin drawn-out storylines and otherwise minuscule conflicts into a loyal audience. Whether or not her on-screen actions were moral was irrelevant. She was entertaining, even shocking.

But Shah’s arrest and revelations of her criminal activity have been a harsh wake-up call for fans. A reminder that when it comes to entertainment that blurs reality with hyperbole, the messes on screen can, and often do, affect the real lives of innocent people.

On the afternoon of March 30, 2021, my phone went bananas with text messages and DMs about Shah’s arrest. I had fashioned myself into a “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” aficionado, penning weekly recaps and co-hosting a podcast unpacking every episode.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in the moment, I felt flattered that so many fans of the show had thought to reach out to me. I was also giddy about the arrest in a way I’m not especially proud to admit. There are a number of questions I should have asked that day about the well-being of the defrauded victims. But the only question I asked over and over was, “Were cameras rolling during the arrest?” The answer was yes. And sadly, I was not alone in my glee.

The “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” community knew great television lay ahead.

It arrived with Episode 10 of Season 2, “Highway to Vail.” The housewives gathered in a Sprinter van headed for Vail, Colorado. Shah, in her now-infamous leopard boots and fur coat, received a mysterious phone call. She turned off her microphone, hopped in a black truck and fled the scene, claiming her husband, University of Utah assistant football coach Sharrief Shah, was in the hospital with internal bleeding. Moments later, Homeland Security agents swarmed the parking lot in search of Shah, who was eventually found and appeared in court later that day.

The rest of the season featured the typical Housewives nonsense, but with a surreal true crime flair. Conversations about designer handbags and facial injections mixed with arguments litigating who knew what of Shah’s shadier dealings. The program provided very little by way of explanation of the alleged crimes, and little mention at all of Shah’s alleged victims, providing a buffer for fans to enjoy the “drama” without facing the very real moral dilemmas unfolding away from the cameras. 

She was the yeller, the drink-thrower and the accusation-maker every reality television cast needs to spin drawn-out storylines and otherwise minuscule conflicts into a loyal audience.

The Bravo diet being served — gossip, intrigue and infighting — didn’t consider the dire state the alleged victims must have found themselves in. But then ABC News premiered “The Housewife & the Shah Shocker.” For the first time, the world heard from the victims of the telemarketing scheme in which Shah played a role. 

Penny Pucket claimed she was $29,000 in debt. She had been tricked into buying coaching services that promised to help her grow her baby blanket business, she said. She had yet to sell a single baby blanket. Marie Walker said she spent $18,000 on services purporting to help her grow her beauty business. When she encountered issues with her website and tried to reach out to Mastery Pro — the company run by Shah and Smith— she was unable to connect with anyone or even find a website. 

These victims’ lives were in shambles while Shah appeared on television every week, barking orders at assistants and demanding more loyalty from her castmates.

In November 2021, Stuart Smith changed his plea from not guilty to guilty. Smith had been portrayed on the show as Shah’s assistant. But, in his plea hearing, Smith told Stein, “I knowingly and intentionally discussed and engaged with other individuals to develop a plan or operation to obtain money by false representation by offering and inducing individuals, many of whom were over 50 years of age or older, to provide money to entities that I and others were involved with.”

He said that he knew the telemarketing companies, to whom he and Shah were selling their lists, were misleading customers by selling them information “that purported to be services to enhance their business opportunities.” He concluded by saying, “The services sold were of no value and of no real benefit to the customer.”

For the first time since Shah’s arrest, the parallel universe in which I believed the housewives existed came crashing into earth. Smith had actually hurt real, innocent people. And logic suggested that if Smith knew he was misleading customers, Shah did as well. 

But she maintained her innocence. Until she didn’t.

Shah, in pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, entered her plea deal on July 11. The bargain requires Shah to pay restitution up to $9.5 million, and spend up to 14 years in prison. Hopefully that restitution is paid quickly and the victims are able to make their lives whole again. But Shah’s life will never be the same. She’ll likely spend at least 11 to 14 years in prison, away from her husband and two children, one of whom is still in high school.

These victims’ lives were in shambles while Shah appeared on television every week, barking orders at assistants and demanding more loyalty from her castmates.

It would be foolish to suggest Shah committed fraud and victimized the elderly because of her role on “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” It was a scheme prosecutors said was a decade in the making, after all, and the show only premiered in 2020. But it’s not too wild to wonder if Shah landed a role on “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” in part because of her criminal activity.

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In her audition tape, Shah claimed to spend $50,000 a month, and in Season 1 spent $80,000 on a single party, the exact kind of lifestyle casting directors and viewers hope to see. In the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Peter C. Fitzhugh is quoted saying, “Shah and Smith flaunted their lavish lifestyle to the public as a symbol of their ‘success.’ In reality, they allegedly built their opulent lifestyle at the expense of vulnerable, often elderly, working-class people.” 

It’s impossible to say what, beyond simple greed, led Shah to a life of crime. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was the pursuit of a lifestyle beyond her means — one befitting the Real Housewives. It’s a trap easy for anyone to fall into, especially if one’s sights are set on fame and fortune, as Shah’s so clearly were.

It’s impossible to say whether or not Shah expected her actions to catch up with her. If she had, appearing on the show was ill-advised. But maybe she got so caught up in the pursuit of wealth and fame that she believed her lifestyle was honestly earned. The Real Housewives’ rabid fandom can almost validate actions like Shah’s with attention, ratings and copy from yours truly. If we require opulence of our Housewives stars, we must consider whether or not we are complicit in their pursuit of it, and, crucially, if we are in any way envious of it. 

Shah’s arrest is a harsh reminder that all that glitters is not gold, or if it is, it may very well have been stolen. Fitzhugh goes on to say of Smith and Shah, “their new reality may very well turn out differently than they expected.” So, too, may the reality of anyone who hopes to consume depravity-enabling entertainment free from consequences.

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