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The Real Housewives: Fraud and Fame

There have been many scandals amongst the stars of the Real Housewives, but why do so many commit fraud despite being in the public eye?

Teresa Giuradi with fellow inmates

When signing on to a reality TV show, we assume the people in these shows are ready to ‘bare all’ and let us in on some of the most intimate moments of their lives. That is what we watch them for, after all. Although, I still do have PTSD from watching Kourtney Kardashian literally pull Mason out of the womb herself.

Reality TV is nothing without a good personal scandal. But what is it about these people that makes them insist on letting thousands of people into their lives while they know they are doing something ‘bad’ and, bound to be, scandalous?

This seems to have escalated in recent years with reality stars being involved in more ‘extreme’ cases of “why TF would you do that if you’re on a reality show?!”. However, one reality TV show franchise with perhaps the most scandal is the Real Housewives. This started with relatively minor scandals back in the earlier seasons but, over the years, it has escalated from divorce and cheating scandals to literal federal crimes.

But why is it that so many reality stars have been convicted of fraud in recent years, with some being investigated for it as we speak?

Why – if you knowingly sign up for cameras to follow you around for most part of the year and are opening yourself up for wider scrutiny – why would you even bother doing anything remotely illegal?!

Teresa and Joe Giudice – Real Housewives of New Jersey

Credit: Bravo TV

In 2013, we saw Teresa Giudice and her then-husband Joe Giudice get investigated for, and then be convicted of, multiple counts of bankruptcy fraud and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Teresa was sentenced to 15 months, and her husband Joe, 41 months. They were allowed to serve their sentences at separate times to look after their four children.

Their legal trouble started in 2013, but included crimes committed as far back as 2008, one year before they joined The Real Housewives of New Jersey. They were officially indicted on federal fraud charges in 2013 and were accused of exaggerating their income back when they were applying for loans prior to RHONJ. Joe also had additional accusations of failing to file tax returns between 2004 and 2008. They both pleaded guilty, and Teresa was released in 2015. However, on top of the fraud, it turned out Joe was also not a legal citizen of America, so instead of being released from prison he was sent to detention centre ICE and eventually deported to Italy in 2019, despite living in America since he was a baby.

While all of this was obviously devastating for their family, this made incredible TV. Real Housewives of New Jersey suspended filming for the year Teresa was in prison and, instead, aired a spin-off, Teresa Checks In, which showed what life was like for Joe and the girls while she was in prison and documented her release and reunion with her family.

But the question still remains, although these crimes were committed prior to letting cameras into their home, were they not concerned this would come out? Joe being an illegal immigrant posed a massive risk to himself and his family, yet still did nothing to change his status?

Teresa has and still does claim to this day that she didn’t know about any of their financial dealings and just “signed wherever Joe told her to”. This is hard to believe, but nonetheless if that is true, maybe that is why she agreed to air her life on TV, because she didn’t know she’d done anything wrong. Or perhaps they both assumed because this was in the past, this wouldn’t come up. Or maybe it was narcissism. Perhaps their new found fame gave them a sense of false security, after all fame and living in an upper-class society often does make you exempt from consequences.

Why do people commit fraud?

In an article published by Forbes, Dr. Thomas Plante, psychology professor at Stanford and Santa Clara University, explains that scammers have a few different motivations. The first is narcissism: 

Basically, the thinking is that ‘I’m important and the rules just don’t apply to me. [These scammers] do and take what they please and find a way to justify it given their superiority, importance, or desire.

While Joe and Teresa both display narcissistic tendencies on the show, this doesn’t fully explain why they would do it, and continue to do it, whilst already being under such a fine microscope. Surely, no one is that narcissistic, or stupid.

Plante offers another explanation: other scammers have antisocial tendencies, like sociopathy, that drive their behavior; they believe that societal rules do not apply to them and they also have no empathy for others. Plante states: They feel like if folks are cheated, then it’s their own fault. Their interests are what matters, regardless of the consequences for others.

Again, Teresa and Joe definitely show traits of this on the show also. Teresa often decimates her castmates on the show by revealing or just entirely making up really harmful rumours or secrets about them, and if the same is done to her is extremely hypocritical about it. There were also rumours on the show about Joe cheating on Teresa, which would indicate similar behaviour. Avoiding taxes and fraud obviously also indicates this type of behaviour. Similarly acquiring more wealth in the Real Housewife World means more story lines, which leads to job security. It’s no secret that housewives have to host all these fancy parties and go on luxury trips themselves, which clearly costs money and puts pressure on the cast. However, I’m sure their salaries from the show and the multiple sponsorships that come with being a celebrity would more than enough to cover their costs.

Plante continues,

Some scammers make a small compromise or act unethically in a way that isn’t much of a big deal, no one really cares or notices, and they get away with it. So they do it again and perhaps try a larger or more significant scam.

Before you know it, they’re caught in a big scam, and people finally notice. Perhaps this is the psychology behind Teresa and Joe’s fraud. Since they got away with more minor crimes in the early 2000s, they then graduated to more ‘serious’ frauds.  

Some people, though, commit these crimes because they believe what they’re doing is ethical. This is, as Plante explains, called ‘bounded ethicality’ – when someone convinces themselves they are committing fraud for the ‘right’ reasons.

This could be another reason for the Giudices’ fraud – they wanted to save their family and livelihood. Upon reflection of the four psychological explanations behind why people commit fraud, it could be argued that the Giudices’ are a combination of all four. And perhaps their narcissism, sociopathic tendencies, the fact they got away with it before, and that they had a large family to take care of, may all have been contributing factors behind their crimes.

Jen Shah – Real Housewives of Salt Lake City

Credit: Bravo TV

But what is most jarring, is that the Real Housewives stars have not learnt from Teresa and Joe’s mistakes. Just this year, two other housewives have been accused of fraud. Jen Shah of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City – which only aired its first season in late 2020 – has been arrested and charged in connection with a telemarketing scheme that defrauded hundreds of people. To make this worse, many of the victims are over the age of 55. Her assistant Stuart Smith was also arrested and charged; they have been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Shah and Smith were part of a nine-year scheme in which prosecutors say, they “sold alleged services purporting to make the management of victims’ businesses more efficient or profitable.” This included tax preparation and website design services, even though many of their elderly victims did not own a computer. Shah and Smith “undertook significant efforts” to hide their part in the scheme. Part of these efforts included “incorporating their business entities using third-party names and telling other participants to do the same.”

The duo instructed others to use encrypted messaging applications to communicate with other members of the scheme and to send shares of fraudulent proceeds to offshore bank accounts. According to CNN, they “made numerous cash withdrawals structured to avoid currency transaction reporting requirements.”

Similarly to Teresa and Joe, Jen’s alleged crimes took place prior to finding fame. But surely, you would know that being on a reality show would bring up questions into your life. 

During the first season of the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City cast members constantly asked Jen what she did for a living and had questions about how she afforded her lavish lifestyle. Multiple homes of Jen’s were featured on the show, as well as her “Shah Squad” – a team of makeup artists, stylists and assistants that travelled with her everywhere. These questions were raised because Jen never seemed to be at work and her husband has a humble basketball coaching job. At the reunion show fans had even written in to ask Jen what her job is, to which she gave a vague statement: “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.” This response still doesn’t make sense, nor answer the question of what her actual job is. It also came out that Jen Shah didn’t actually own any of the properties she claimed to on the show – which probably gave investigators more ammunition when building their case.

Erika and Tom Girardi – The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills 

Credit: Bravo TV

Erika Girardi of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, who is married to Tom Girardi (known as the lawyer from the Erin Brokovich case), are also facing their own legal battles this year. Just like Jen Shah, Erika’s multiple homes, private planes, glam squads, stylists, etc., are all featured on the show as part of Erika’s lavish lifestyle. Erika is also not ashamed to admit she can afford such things due to her husband’s generosity and his successful career as a lawyer. This year though, Tom Girardi has been stripped of his law licence, divorced by Erika due to an alleged affair, and accused of fraud. Erika has insinuated that Tom has been unfaithful, and that’s why in the wake of these accusations she has filed for divorce, but that’s a little hard to believe, since he is 81 years old.

Tom Girardi has allegedly been skimming the settlements of his clients for himself – some of these clients included plane crash victims (WTF). He has also allegedly been involved in inappropriate relationships with politicians and state bar officials: by inappropriate they mean too close and insinuate he may have been bribing them, or let off the hook for some of his crimes due to the close personal relationships he acquired with these officials. Erika’s lifestyle on the show has been used as evidence to support the case as the opposition theorise that Tom engaged in this fraudulent activity to provide for his wife. In a trailer for the upcoming season of RHOBH, Erika claims she knew nothing of his fraudulent activity or business dealings, but it has come out that Erika’s signature is on multiple documents that could prove she did know. It has been theorised that Erika filed for divorce to protect assets that may be liquidated if Tom is found guilty and made to pay the money back. There are so many rumours and so much drama surrounding this case that we will probably never truly know the truth.

But why?! Why, after watching Teresa and Joe do the same and be convicted of similar crimes years before them, why would they still think that they wouldn’t be caught?

WHY would you invite so many people into your life when your whole life is a lie? Surely, no matter how narcissistic you are, no matter how many times you’d gotten away with it before, no matter what your reasonings behind it are – ethical or not – you’d know and have a fear of this being uncovered. Are rich people truly that untouchable? Or, do they just think they are?

Whatever their psychology behind their crimes, it takes a special kind of stupid to truly believe you can get away with them, whilst simultaneously promoting yourself and your ‘lifestyle’ for the world to see. 

Written By

Elish is co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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