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The Real Legal Battles of the Housewives Franchise

artistic rendering of several groups of women from various real housewives series against a red background

Merriam-Webster defines reality as “the true situation that exists.”1 When reality television first began, viewers were attracted to the idea of watching its subjects’ true situations unfold on screen. With the introduction of The Real Housewives (“The Housewives”), a franchise that has aired on the television network Bravo since 2006, viewers tuned in for an inside look at the fabulous lives of wealthy women from different parts of the country. Since the show’s inception, viewers have watched with fascination as these women strive to legitimize their places in elite social circles by displaying their affluence on national television. The show tells captivating stories about opulence complete with cheating scandals, financial crises, and backstabbing exposed for the world to see.

Over the last decade or so, The Housewives has garnered increased interest by offering viewers a front row seat to the ultimate exposure, as the legal system has threatened to out several housewives as criminals and downright frauds. This haughty trinity of housewives consists of Teresa Giudice, Erika Girardi, and Jennifer Shah, all who have filmed for The Housewives while facing legal allegations that the wealth they exhibit on television is actually the result of their own corrupt conduct. What results is often a blurry picture about the legal system and the women’s culpability, due in large part to the housewives’ use of the show to project their innocence. This depiction has effects on the housewives themselves, the viewers, and the alleged victims, effects which warrant an examination of whether the show should be portraying a more truthful reality.

The Housewives Gets Real Legal

Many housewives over the course of the franchise’s eleven series have faced legal issues, including bankruptcies, custody battles, and nasty divorces (Luann de Lesseps was even arrested for assaulting a police officer). However, it does not come as a surprise that the biggest legal scandals of a franchise built on people in wealthy and privileged positions would involve some of these people using illegitimate means to reach that status. The first of these scandals hit in 2013, when Teresa Giudice, an original cast member of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (RHONJ), and her husband Joe Giudice were charged with multiple federal fraud crimes, including accusations of making false statements on loan applications and in relation to a bankruptcy proceeding.2 Ultimately, Teresa and Joe plead guilty, and Teresa received 14 months in prison, while Joe received 41 months.

Recently, the legal problems of another housewife and husband duo were captured on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (RHOBH). In December of 2020, a lawsuit filed in federal court alleged that Erika and Tom Girardi, a prominent Los Angeles personal injury attorney, misappropriated settlement money owed to Tom’s clients, family members of the victims of the Lion Air crash off the coast of Indonesia.3 In essence, Tom was accused of committing a cardinal sin of lawyers, stealing money that belongs to clients. Recently re-filed in California, the lawsuit describes Erika as the “frontwoman” of Tom’s schemes.4 Other former clients and creditors have filed similar lawsuits against Tom, including one that alleges that Tom’s law firm loaned 20 million dollars to Erika’s entertainment company, EJ Global LLC, in order to finance her career as alter ego pop performer Erika Jayne.5

For one of the newest housewife franchises on the block, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City (RHSLC), it did not take long before one of its housewives became embroiled in legal scandal. After just one season of the series aired, housewife Jennifer Shah was indicted in the Southern District of New York on fraud and money laundering charges. The indictment accuses Shah and her business partner, Stuart Smith, of defrauding hundreds of victims through a telemarketing scheme that involved selling lists of “leads,” people generally over 55 who were deemed susceptible to purchasing fake business services.6 The fraud and money laundering charges against Jen carry substantial maximum sentences of 30 and 20 years respectively.7

Building a Narrative on the Show

While some might think it prudent to keep a low profile while under federal investigation, all three of these housewives continued to film throughout their legal ordeals. That they continued to film, even though doing so has the potential to harm them in the courts (Jen Shah has been fighting to keep prosecutors from using footage from the show in court),8 is evidence that filming offers a housewife a particular advantage. Besides the paycheck, which itself is no small benefit, filming provides an accused housewife an opportunity to influence the court of public opinion, and hopefully to monetize its support. All three housewives in this article have attempted to use the cameras to project innocent—or at least sympathetic—personas, and even their own victimhood.

Erika certainly took this approach when the Los Angeles Times published “The legal titan and the ‘Real Housewife’: The rise and fall of Tom Girardi and Erika Jayne”9 while the housewives were filming Season 11 of RHOBH. The article, which detailed the allegations against the Girardis, raised questions among the cast as to whether Erika knew that Tom was mishandling client money, questions which some voiced to the cameras and to Erika herself. Viewers wondered the same and looked to the show to find answers. “It’s Expensive to be Me,” one of the lines from Erika Jayne’s song XXPEN\$IVE, suddenly took on new meaning. The lavish lifestyle she had been flaunting on camera now seemed as though it was at the actual expense of victims of horrible accidents.

Instead of shying away from cameras, or her castmates’ inquiries, Erika responded publicly to the accusations. The decision to keep filming conveyed an “I have nothing to hide” attitude. On camera, she consistently framed the case as a sad story about a devoted, aging attorney who lacked the mental capacity to understand his actions. She downplayed the allegations against Tom as much as possible, choosing not to apologize for him or express any sorrow for the victims. When Erika filed for divorce with cameras rolling, she explained that she did so as a result of a cold and distant marriage to a man prone to affairs and workaholism, not because of Tom’s legal and financial peril.

Erika’s stories did not always add up, and producers made the obvious choice to center the season around the tension between Erika and some of her more suspicious castmates. To some viewers, Erika came off a liar, at best, and at worst a criminal, but she still earned support from a substantial portion of the audience. She maintains an Instagram account of 2.5 million followers, many of whom proclaim their allegiance to her at every post. For all of the drama her case brought to RHOBH, Bravo has rewarded her with a return for Season 12, where she can continue to hold some power over how her story gets told to the public, all while earning a hefty paycheck. The money and publicity she gains from being on the show enable her to pursue other financial endeavors, including a luxury hair extension line.10 In January of 2021, she moved into a three-bedroom Hollywood home estimated at almost 2.5 million dollars,11 and she did it while still wearing designer clothes that cost more than the average person’s rent.

Like Erika, Jenn Shah has used filming as a platform to counter the allegations against her. When Bravo’s cameras captured law enforcement in pursuit of her arrest, Jen’s chances at having a favorable season seemed bleak. To my surprise, her full-scale defense of her innocence, starting with her opening credits tagline, “The only thing I’m guilty of is being shah-mazing,” seems to have resonated with viewers. One need look no further than her Instagram page to see viewers’ signs of support for her as she heads to trial in July 2022. In March 2022, she released a line of merchandise promoting her innocence featuring “Not Guilty” and “Free Jen Shah” t-shirts and hoodies, all of which are sold out as of the time of writing.12 Bravo rushed filming of Season 3 of RHOSLC in order to capture more of the lead up to Jen’s trial.13 For now, Jen can continue to put on a shah-mazing face for the cameras.

Teresa’s return to RHONJ is an example of how continued filming can rehabilitate even a convicted housewife. Teresa was such an integral part of RHONJ that filming ceased while she was in prison, but it resumed immediately upon her release in December of 2015. Fan of Teresa or not, while watching Teresa return after a year in prison and embrace her family beneath a homemade “Merry Christmas Mom” banner, it is hard not to feel some sympathy. For the next six seasons, Teresa and the producers leaned into the image—and the redeeming narrative—of Teresa as a struggling single mom who was duped by her ex-husband (shortly after Teresa returned, Joe left to serve his sentence and they ultimately divorced).

No doubt this portrayal has supported Teresa in marketing herself as a “survivor,” writing several books including Turning the Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again and Standing Strong, the latter of which is a New York Times Bestseller.14 Since the conclusion of her case, Teresa appears to live the type of life some might consider enviable. Season 12 of RHONJ premiered in February of 2022 with Teresa returning for the twelfth time. She is paid over a million dollars per season and is one of the highest paid housewives in the franchise’s history.15

The Effect of Filming on the Viewers and the Public

These housewives’ successes invite questions about comeuppance and whether the advantages of filming outweigh any punishment doled out by the legal system. There is no question that continuing on The Housewives is profitable in that it provides these women a way to promote themselves and their brands. This way, assuming they are not locked up for life, they can continue to earn a living off of their name. A more complicated question is how the filming of these legal “realities” affects the viewers.

On the one hand, filming can be educational. For example, as a legal studies professor who teaches Ethics, I suppose I should be thanking The Housewives for Tom Girardi and for providing me with a fantastic lesson on client trust accounts and what it means to steal client money. In fact, a whole legal studies curriculum could be derived from the housewives’ legal issues – torts, contracts, family law, white collar crime, and ethics are just some of the topics covered. But it is not just those in the legal field who take an interest. Viewers seem to love engaging with our legal system through The Housewives. As Matt Hamilton, a reporter for the LA Times who has covered the Girardi case in depth notes, “ ‘Housewives’ fans are uniquely ravenous for information … I think because watching the show tends to turn you into a combination of an anthropologist, detective and prosecutor.”16 I would be willing to bet that many people, who otherwise would not, know what mail and wire fraud is because of The Housewives.

Whether the show trivializes the legal system is a more complex question. To a certain extent, The Housewives portrays crime and punishment in a serious way. We certainly see the housewives “struggle” as a result of the accusations against them. Their finances and personal lives often take a hit, at least initially, and at least one of them has gone to prison. On the other hand, in coming back on the show, continuing to have a platform, and continuing to promote businesses, the housewives have a way of coming out on top. They exude an invincibility that could make some feel angry at the legal system’s inability to punish them adequately. More concerning to me, is the possibility that elevating these women on a reality TV pedestal diminishes the seriousness of their crimes in the eyes of viewers. I doubt that anyone is watching The Housewives and deciding to commit fraud because of how great Teresa’s life looks, but I also do not feel confident that the entire audience comprehends how serious these crimes actually are.

I think I would feel differently if the victims’ stories were featured more prominently in the production, but they have virtually no presence on the show. Of course, Bravo is under no contractual obligation to tell the stories of these victims. They do not appear as glammed-up faces in a confessional, they do not have a point of view, and they are rarely even referenced. In the Girardis’ case, Hamilton writes that “the widows and orphans and other alleged victims of Girardi mostly remain out of the picture, and if they’re discussed, it’s in a vague or remote way, or as rhetorical bludgeons. Their suffering and loss really gets short shrift, compared to the other topics that absorb attention.”17 Erika made a clear choice that it would be better for her image if she ignored them. Jen Shah seems to be making a similar choice. The hundreds of vulnerable individuals that the federal government says Jen has defrauded were barely mentioned in the last season of RHOSLC.

Viewers must look outside the franchise for a fuller picture of the legal system and the victims’ stories. Specifically, two Hulu documentaries address the Girardi and Shah cases, paying special attention to the victims. In The Housewife and the Hustler, several of Tom’s former clients speak out about their experience. The Girardis’ voices are limited and appear only to amplify the stories of the victims (for example, in devious voicemails that Tom left for his clients). Similarly, The Housewife and the Shah Shocker focuses on the stories of two women who claim to have been scammed by companies named in the Shah case. Viewers can also immerse themselves in media coverage about these legal cases—the LA Times exposé is a great example. But I am not sure the existence of these sources compensates for the lack of factual content on the show, because I do not trust that viewers engage enough with these pieces. The show is not exactly encouraging them to, especially where several Beverly Hills housewives were filmed responding to the LA Times article with “TLDR.” Without these sources, however, viewers are only getting part of the story.

From the victims’ perspectives, Jen and Erika continue to brazenly flaunt stolen goods on national TV. “Maybe American people like to watch some stupidly rich people get famous and get more money and get more recognition from the public, but it’s not [Erika’s] money to begin with,” says former Girardi client Bias Ramadhan, an Indonesian man whose mother died in the Lion Air plane crash and who a court found was owed a $1.2-million settlement.18 Ramadhan’s critique of The Housewives should not be ignored. The question for Bravo is how it can be addressed without destroying the show, which, as a fan, is not something I want to see happen, but it is a question I hope the network is grappling with.

What the solution involves is a delicate question, one that should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Possibilities range from bringing in more points of view and encouraging more castmates and producers to challenge certain housewives’ narratives to removing certain housewives altogether. I don’t advocate that every accused housewife be fired, or even that every housewife found to be legally culpable be fired. It should be noted, however, that removal of a housewife for poor behavior is not totally unheard of. In fact, Bravo has dismissed certain housewives for racist conduct, at least where those housewives are not very popular with viewers.19 However, where to draw the line for housewives implicated in legal scandal remains to be seen.

In Teresa’s case, some fans felt that by continuing to film the Giudices, Bravo was now guilty of giving criminals a platform for fame, self-promotion, and ultimately more money. As producer Andy Cohen points out,

It was an interesting dialogue. On the one hand, you had an argument being made that these were criminals we were glorifying. On the other hand, I certainly felt like these were people who’d been sharing their lives with us for years, and now we were seeing arguably the most dramatic thing that could happen to them. How could we not show that?20

This justification makes sense if all that we expect from reality TV is entertainment. However, if we expect from reality television, as we sometimes do from other genres, that the people behind and in front of the cameras maintain a certain moral or ethical standard, questions about who and what to film and how to produce it become more complex. These questions are particularly significant when human victims are on the other end of the crime, as in the Shah and Girardi cases.

Short of housewife removal, the show does have certain tools it can use to draw viewers toward truth. Most significantly, producers and castmates who ask hard-hitting questions can be an effective check on a housewife who is trying to run away with a narrative. For example, the “reunion episodes,” which air at the end of each season, feature Cohen asking the housewives questions about their behavior during the past season. In seasons where legal issues have featured prominently, these reunions have been a powerful way to confront housewives about their defenses. In the most recent RHOBH reunion, Cohen called out Erika for “manipulating the narrative” by claiming that Tom’s behavior was a result of long-term cognitive decline.

Producers, however, tend to go in harder on a housewife when doing so furthers their own interest in building an intriguing storyline. On RHOSLC, questions about Jen’s innocence took a backseat, perhaps because there was enough compelling drama to pursue with other castmates—one who exposed her true feelings about a fellow housewife during an unforgettable hot mic moment and another who was being accused of leading a cult. On RHOBH, it made sense to capitalize on the drama surrounding Erika’s credibility over some less interesting story lines, especially where there were housewives willing to push back. Housewife Sutton Stracke is a great example of this. She continually challenged Erika about her lack of remorse for Tom’s alleged victims and her questionable explanations for Tom’s behavior, even though it landed her on the receiving end of Erika’s wrath.

While more of this type of behavior would be helpful, its shortage is not surprising, given that the women involved in these scandals, Erika, Teresa, and Jen, are known for having rather volatile personalities. It can be intimidating for a cast member to speak out against them and risk isolation from the rest of the cast (if no one will film with a housewife, she is unlikely to be asked back), or even a poor edit from producers depending on how they frame the controversy. Perhaps that is why other castmates think it is safer to be more enabling. In one scene, fellow housewife Kyle Richards listened intently as Erika cried about her difficult marriage to Tom. Fans speculated that Erika premeditated this conversation and deliberately wore non-waterproof mascara in order to play up the emotion for the cameras.21 It is a memorable scene, and serves as a reminder that while the legal system does exist on the show, it is mostly in the role of supporting cast. Meanwhile, Erika and her version of reality take center stage. The ultimate exposure never really comes.

Truthfully, The Housewives has never been purely about portraying reality. It is about reality according to Teresa, Erika, and Jen and every other housewife who has graced the cameras, and those realities are filtered through producers and editing in order to make an interesting story for viewers. This can often result in storylines that lack clarity on the truth. Part of the entertainment for viewers has become sifting through a muddy plot and looking to media outside of the franchise to piece together their own version of the truth. To be clear, I am one of those viewers. I offer these thoughts out of love for a franchise that I think invites important cultural insight and discussion, but that I worry sometimes has become too much a stage for the puffery of guilty housewives. Perhaps where housewives are accused of illegally harming people in the real world, the show should work harder to ensure that viewers are seeing the true situation that exists.

  1. “Reality,” Merriam Webster, accessed January 11, 2022, (↩︎

  2. United States v. Giudice, (↩︎

  3. “Tom Girardi and reality star wife sued for alleged theft of Lion Air settlement funds,” Reuters, December 2, 2020, (↩︎

  4. Rebecca Alter, “Erika Jayne Called Racketeering ‘Frontwoman’ in $55 Million Lawsuit,” Vulture, April 5, 2022, (↩︎

  5. Matt Hamilton and Harriet Ryan, “The legal titan and the ‘Real Housewife:’ The rise and fall of Tom Girardi and Erika Jayne,” The Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2020, (↩︎

  6. United States v. Shah, (↩︎

  7. Sarah Felbin, “Why Was Jen Shah Arrested? What To Know About The ‘Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’ Star’s Legal Drama,” Women’s Health Magazine, January 10, 2022, (↩︎

  8. Ryan Naumann, “ ‘RHOSLC’ Star Jen Shah Moves to Block Prosecutors From Using Bravo Clips In Court, Radar, February 16, 2022, (↩︎

  9. Hamilton and Ryan, “The legal titan” ↩︎

  10. “The Pretty Mess Shines On,” Pretty Mess Hair, accessed April 24, 2022, (↩︎

  11. Sarah Hearon, “Erika Jayne Moves Into $2.4 Million Dollar Home Amid Tom Girardi Divorce, Financial Woes,” Us Weekly, January 22, 2021, (↩︎

  12. Samantha Holender, “Merch Mania! RHOSLC’s Jen Shah Is Selling ‘Not Guilty’ Shirts Ahead of Her Trial,” Us Weekly, March 11, 2022, (↩︎

  13. Brian Moylan, “New Year, Same Old Housewives,” Vulture, January 17, 2022, (↩︎

  14. “Teresa Giudice,” Bravo, accessed April 24, 2022, (↩︎

  15. Lynn Gibbs, “Real Housewives: How Much Are the 10 Highest-Earning Housewives Paid?,” Screen Rant, October 21, 2021, (↩︎

  16. Matt Brennan, Matt Hamilton, and Harriet Ryan, “They wrote the story that rocked ‘Real Housewives.’ And they still have questions.” Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2021, (↩︎

  17. Brennan, Hamilton, and Ryan “They wrote the story.” ↩︎

  18. Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton, “The ‘Real Housewife’ under real scrutiny: Erika Girardi and the Hunt for the Missing Millions,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2021, (↩︎

  19. Alex Abod-Santos, “Bravo fired one housewife over racism. What about the others?,” Vox, January 27, 2022, (↩︎

  20. Dave Quinn, Not All Diamonds and Rose: The Inside Story of the Real Housewives from the People Who Lived It (New York: Andy Cohen Books, 2021), 275-76. ↩︎

  21. Alex Abed-Santos, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has become a true crime doc,” Vox, August 12, 2021, (↩︎

About the Author: 

Regina Stuart is an Assistant Professor at St. John’s University in the Division of Criminal Justice, Legal Studies, and Homeland Security. She received her J.D. from St. John’s University School of Law and her B.A. from Fordham University.

Volume 7, Issue 1

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