Why 'Real Housewives' star Jen Shah, accused of fraud, went on reality TV, according to experts

Kerry Justich
·6-min read
Jen Shah's ability to commit fraud would align with her reality television persona, according to experts. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jen Shah's ability to commit fraud would align with her reality television persona, according to experts. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jen Shah quickly made a name for herself as the breakout star of Bravo's The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City for flaunting her immense wealth, large chalet, flair for fashion and vague employment (she described her job to Andy Cohen as a "platform that helps people acquire customers"). Recently though, she found herself at the center of a different kind of jaw-dropping drama after being arrested on Tuesday — and pleading not guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering on Friday — for allegedly running a nationwide telemarketing scheme with one of her assistants. This character development has left many wondering: Why did Shah sign up to put intimate details of her life on display while allegedly committing a crime? 

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"Fame is either something that you acquire because of hard work because of your accomplishments or it's something that you seek — you want to be famous," Cristel Antonia Russell, a leading researcher at the intersection of entertainment and marketing at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, tells Yahoo Life. "Sometimes being famous to the point of being infamous."

Mass popularity is something that Shah, the first Housewife of Polynesian descent, has seemed to strive for, using social media to boast about her luxuries and to make a name for herself by integrating Shah into a number of now-notorious and flashy statements like "shahmazing." 

"She just seeks that people know her and that she's out there and people recognize her when they see her and they know her name. And maybe that desire to be known comes at the cost of what you're known for," Russell continues. "She probably doesn't care what people will think of her."

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In fact, Shah has made that very clear. In an Instagram post from January 2020, 11 months before the show even aired, she wrote, "If they love me or they hate me, it don't make no difference..." In hindsight, the sentiment reveals who Shah is and the notoriety that she might have been after. But she's not unique. 

Within the Real Housewives franchise alone, Shah is just one of many stars who've faced criminal charges, lawsuits and arrests during their time on screen for acts committed either before or during filming. Most notably, The Real Housewives of New Jersey's Teresa and Joe Giudice were indicted on fraud and tax charges in 2013 leading both of them to serve time in prison. Beverly Hill's star Erika Jayne is also expected to carry a large storyline in the franchise's upcoming 11th season since filing for divorce from her husband Thomas Girardi who has been accused of embezzlement. 

What's so stunning about Shah though, is that her alleged crime was uncovered after just one season. Shah's dubious wealth and even more confusing team of eight assistants was a popular topic for the Salt Lake City. And despite her attempts to explain her Shah Squad marketing business, it didn't seem to add up.

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Still, the confusion surrounding her source of income didn't dim Shah's spotlight nor did it give her cause for concern. In fact, Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, tells Yahoo Life that Shah's desire to be a reality television star and her ability to scam so much money out of innocent people are likely aligned.

"The most successful con artists have three similar personality characteristics known as the 'dark triad' that increase their ability to persuade: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism," she explains. "Narcissism is associated with a sense of superiority and entitlement—ego gratification. Machiavellianism is associated with manipulation and a focus on self-interest and personal gain. And psychopathy is a measure of impulsive and antisocial tendencies. All traits lead to motivations to act out of self-interest with a lack empathy and remorse."

Rutledge goes on to explain that while motivation and tactics may vary, behaviors among those with these characteristics may be more universal and even included bullying — something that Shah was often accused of and many times helped to carry the show's storyline forward. "The opportunity for fame and celebrity is very appealing to this personality profile," Rutledge says. "Reality TV plays into these traits as well as it rewards aggressive, unempathetic and impulsive behavior to create conflict in the shows and maintain ratings."

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And while producers likely love to have the drama play out on screen, so do the audiences.

"Audiences see this as just another drama," Russell explains. "They're not seeing the demise of a person. It's all the dramatic structure of a storyline. So it happens to be reality, but it still gets your attention and keeps your attention because you want to know what happens next."

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Although nobody can know if Shah felt that she would inevitably get caught after further exposing herself, her team and her wealth on television, experts assume she didn't care. "It might actually be even more thrilling for her to think that she's going to get more attention," Russell says, while Rutledge hypothesizes that Shah's "feelings of entitlement" likely allowed her to "justify bad behavior."

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"Since Jen Shah was engaged in fraud as early as 2012 and was part of the RHOSLC in 2020, the appeal of celebrity would have been as much of a business asset as personal gratification. Notoriety and admiration would confirm self-beliefs about superiority and entitlement and reality TV is a perfect place for manipulation and displays of self-interest as part of the narrative," Rutledge says. "The last thing producers want is a bunch of nice people who all get along and care about others."

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