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Real Housewives Star Jen Shah Just Pled Guilty to Fraud. Here’s What Happens Next

8 minute read

The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City viewers got a taste of a different type of drama when Jen Shah, one of the cast members of the Bravo reality TV series, was arrested on March 30, 2021 in Salt Lake City for her alleged involvement in a national telemarketing fraud scheme. She was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with telemarketing and conspiracy to commit money laundering; later that week, she pled not guilty to both charges in court. Shah was released on a $1 million personal recognizance bond, with a $250,000 cash security.

On Monday, Shah changed her plea to guilty. Appearing in Manhattan Federal Court in front of U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein, Shah pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to reports. The judge agreed to drop Shah’s additional charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

“From 2012 to March 2021, in the Southern District of New York and elsewhere, I agreed with others to commit wire fraud,” Shah said in court. “I did this by knowingly providing customer names to people who were marketing business services that had little or no value… I knew this was wrong. I know many people were harmed and I am so sorry.”

Leading up to her arrest, the reality TV star had already stirred up curiosity regarding her line of work after her explosive debut in the first season of the show. Shah showed off a lavish lifestyle, complete with multiple assistants who she dubbed the “Shah Squad.” In the third episode of season 1, a whopping eight assistants appear on camera just to help her get ready for a party. One of Shah’s assistants, Stuart Smith, who appeared multiple times on the show, was arrested in Utah the same day that Shah was, and charged with the same crimes. (Smith initially pled not guilty in April 2021; in November, he pled guilty as part of a plea deal.)

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Shah was set to be tried in Manhattan Federal Court, with jury selection beginning on July 18. She was going to be tried in Manhattan because the telemarketing scheme she’s allegedly linked to has call centers based in New Jersey and New York, including Manhattan. “Jennifer Shah, who portrays herself as a wealthy and successful businessperson on ‘reality’ television, and Stuart Smith, who is portrayed as Shah’s ‘first assistant,’ allegedly generated and sold ‘lead lists’ of innocent individuals for other members of their scheme to repeatedly scam,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss stated in a press release. “In actual reality and as alleged, the so-called business opportunities pushed on the victims by Shah, Smith, and their co-conspirators were just fraudulent schemes, motivated by greed, to steal victims’ money. Now, these defendants face time in prison for their alleged crimes.”

While this is far from the first time that a Real Housewives cast member has gotten in trouble with the law, Shah’s situation has been especially buzzy because she was filming for season 2 of the show on the day of her arrest. In fact, the season 2 premiere, which aired Sept. 12, 2021, opened with footage of Shah about to embark on a group trip with the other women, receiving a phone call, then asking a co-star to take off her mic before hastily leaving filming—just minutes before the Department of Homeland Security arrived on the scene, a precursor of her legal woes becoming a main storyline for the season.

While Shah long maintained her innocence and seemed to take her criminal charges in stride, even referencing them in her tagline for the last season (“The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing”), she now faces up to 30 years in prison, but agreed as part of her plea deal not to appeal if she is sentenced to 14 years or less time. Shah may also be forced to pay up to $9.5 million in restitution, as well as $6.5 million to the federal government.

Jen Shah’s role on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City

On The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, Shah is an over-the-top personality whose volatile outbursts, flamboyant fashion sense, and sassy rejoinders provide plenty of drama. From throwing glasses to feuding with almost every single one of her other cast members, including, memorably, co-star Meredith Mark’s college-age son Brooks, her quick temper and unabashed embrace of messy situations has placed her squarely at the center of her franchise. She’s married to her college sweetheart, Sharrieff “Coach” Shah, the special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach at the University of Utah, with whom she has two sons.

On the show, Shah had initially positioned herself as a dark horse of sorts, often talking about how her experience growing up as Tongan and Hawaiian in the predominantly white and Mormon community of Salt Lake City affected her, feelings that she revisits as she mourns the death of her father and navigates the tricky dynamics of her friend group. The series, which relies heavily on religion as a general theme, also hones in on Shah’s conversion from Mormonism to Islam following her marriage and after she learns about the historical mistreatment of Black people in the Mormon church.

Why Jen Shah was arrested

Shah and Smith were arrested on March 30, 2021 in Salt Lake City for their alleged involvement in a telemarketing scheme, where they allegedly found elderly people who were easy targets for a scam, then sold “lead lists” of them to others, while taking a cut of the profits. According to their indictment, between 2012 and the time of their arrest, Shah and Smith allegedly “defrauded hundreds of victims throughout the United States, many of whom were over age 55, by selling those victims so-called ‘business services’ in connection with the victims’ purported online businesses.”

On-screen, Shah’s displays of wealth had raised questions about her line of work. During the season 1 reunion of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, host Andy Cohen asked Shah to describe her work in response to a viewer question about why she needed so many assistants. Shah responded: “My background is in direct-response marketing for about 20 years, so our company does advertising. We have a platform that helps people acquire customers, so when you’re shopping online or on the internet and something pops, we have the algorithm behind why you’re getting served that ad.” In a 2020 interview with Bustle, Shah disclosed that she had three companies—JXA Fashion, Shah Beauty, and the Real Shah Lashes—along with her “core business” of direct-response marketing.

“Shah and Smith flaunted their lavish lifestyle to the public as a symbol of their ‘success,'” Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent-in-Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh said in a statement. “As alleged, disturbingly, Shah and Smith objectified their very real human victims as ‘leads’ to be bought and sold, offering their personal information for sale to other members of their fraud ring.”

What happens next after Shah’s guilty plea

In April 2021, following their arrests, Shah and Smith both pled not guilty on all counts. Shah later accused the police that arrested her of using “deception and trickery” to get her to waive her Miranda rights, and said that her dry contact lenses also caused her to sign the wrong line on the waiver.

On Nov. 19, 2021, Smith pled guilty to all charges, making a statement when he changed his plea that he “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” and that “the services sold were of no value and of no real benefit to the customer.” People reported that a past court document showed that others involved in the same telemarketing scheme who pled guilty to similar charges were given sentences of 5-7 years (while pleading not guilty, the judge had said that Smith could be given a maximum sentence of 70 years for his combined charges).

Had Shah not changed her plea to guilty, Smith’s change in his plea could have had a major effect on her outcome; because their friendship has been well-documented both online and on the show, Smith’s admission that he knew that the services were of “no value” and “no real benefit” would have made it more difficult for Shah to prove that she was unaware of the fraudulent scheme. Shah tried to have the case dismissed after Hulu released the documentary The Housewife and the Shah Shocker in November 2021, claiming that it might ruin her chances of a fair trial. Shah has also filed a request that clips from The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City not be shown at her trial, making the case that the content is “highly edited and crafted through post-production.”

Now, Shah will await sentencing, which will take place in November.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com