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When a criminal case like Jen Shah's plays out on reality TV, the public gets a front-row seat

Jennifer Shah leaves federal court in New York, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Jennifer Shah leaves federal court in New York, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)

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Contrary to what she asserts in her “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” Season 2 tagline, Jennifer Shah is guilty of much more than just being “Shah-mazing.”

The reality starlet, known for her big blowouts with cast members and fierce devotion to her family, received a 6-and-a-half-year prison sentence for her involvement in a decade-long telemarketing scheme that defrauded thousands of victims, many of whom were working class and elderly.

The case against Shah became the central plot point of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” Seasons 2 and 3. The inciting incident occurred in Season 2 episode 10, entitled “Highway to Vail,” when federal agents and New York police officers descended on the Sprinter van as the wives prepared to take off for a girl’s trip to Colorado. The officers stated they were looking for Shah, who had left only moments earlier under the guise that her husband was severely ill.

“The thing that was so stunning about this is when the news broke of her arrest, we also knew that Bravo cameras were rolling,” says Emily D. Baker, legal analyst and former Los Angeles deputy district attorney.

That same season saw a raid on Shah’s Salt Lake City residence, her arrest and a subsequent courthouse visit. In the Season 3 finale, which aired on Jan. 11, Shah is seen leaving court after taking a guilty plea.

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Celebrity trials have always drawn massive amounts of public interest — news media coverage of OJ Simpson’s murder trial was vast and, more recently, social media played largely into Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation case. But reality TV gives viewers an even deeper look into not only the day in court but the events leading up to it.

“You get a 360-degree view of a case. We’re watching it break in the news. People are talking about it online. And then you also know that the cast is being filmed,” Baker says. “Then months later, when it goes to air, we get to watch the inside conversations of what that day was like for everyone who was being filmed. So you get this whole overview of it.”

Between 2012 and 2016, the Federal Trade Commission launched multiple investigations into Shah’s fraudulent company Mastery Pro Group. People she worked with were being arrested on fraud charges. Still, Shah signed on to start filming “Real Housewives” in 2019.

“I do have to wonder, would Jen have been cast on ‘Real Housewives’ if it weren’t for the very lavish lifestyle she was portraying that we now know was through ill-gotten gains from fraud schemes?,” Baker says.

On camera, Shah works with her assistant and co-conspirator Stuart Smith on undisclosed business dealings and brags about Smith making her money. Smith also pleaded guilty after being charged in the case and awaits sentencing now.

Over the course of the season, Shah flaunts her wealth while simultaneously maintaining her innocence. That insistence on her innocence, along with her Season 2 tagline, “The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing,” were both used against her by prosecutors claiming that she was mocking the justice system and showing no remorse for what she’d done. In her sentencing memorandum, however, Shah blames Bravo TV editors for painting a picture of her that was not accurate.

“We often see housewives blame Bravo editing on social media and saying that their storylines are not really them, but we’ve never seen it in a federal criminal trial,” Baker says. “It was very interesting to watch how boldly she talked about her case as opposed to saying, ‘This is a pending criminal prosecution. I would love to tell you more about it, but my lawyers have told me that I can’t.’ Just blame your lawyers. You’re paying them.”

This isn’t the first time a Real Housewife has been implicated in a crime and had the proceedings broadcast to millions of Bravo viewers. In 2014, Teresa Giudice of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” was convicted on multiple fraud charges with her then-husband Joe Giudice. And on the most recent season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” Erika Jayne Girardi faced allegations of involvement with her former husband Tom Girardi’s embezzlement charges. The Girardi case is still playing out with more indictments expected soon.

These cases keep appearing on the small screen because viewers keep watching them, Baker says. The fascination with Shah’s case ran so deep that when her arraignment hearing was open to the public on Zoom, “Housewives” fans flooded the virtual room to the extent that Shah herself couldn’t even log on. Her sentencing was also made public in person, and the hearing needed to be moved to a larger courtroom because so many fans showed up.

“The court even commented, ‘I’m sure it’s because of the show that we see so many people in the audience,’” Baker says. “I think there’s a bit of fascination, not just with court cases, but with watching the rich and famous kind of have this fall from grace.”

Grace Griffin produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Griffin also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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