Why go on reality television with skeletons in your closet?

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

“You have to be very clean to go on a show like Housewives,” Margaret Josephs, a cast member on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, recently told In The Know. “The viewers will pick up on any and every single thing that you are doing, good and bad.”

If this was the beginning of a Housewives episode, you’d hear Josephs’s “good and bad” echo through interior shots of empty rooms in a giant, over-furnished home. 

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s roll footage:

“People are wondering, how’d you get so rich?” Andy Cohen asked Jen Shah during the reunion of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.

“Our company does advertising,” she said mid-way through a vastly unintelligible explanation. “I don’t know what she does,” her co-star and frenemy Heather Gay responded, “But I like it!” 

That exchange aired during a segment on the three-part reunion in February. Shortly after, on March 31, Shah was arrested during filming for the show’s second season. The federal charges? Conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering, including allegations that Shah and her assistant, Stuart Smith, cheated hundreds of people in a decades-long telemarketing scheme. Shah has pleaded not guilty to all charges. She follows in a long lineage of arrested Housewives, both former and current, including Teresa Giudice, Luann De Lesseps, NeNe Leakes, Sonja Morgan, Tinsley Mortimer, Kim Richards, Danielle Staub and more.

Not all of these instances are the same, of course. In the case of De Lesseps, for example, her arrest took place while she was a cast member on the series, and was never something she attempted to cover up. In fact, it became a central plot point on the following season. There have also been several other reality stars outside of the Housewives series who have faced legal woes and even jail time (Abby Lee Miller and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino come to mind), but these run-ins were after the peak of their reality television fame.

Shah’s instance is particularly unique in that it was, allegedly, an ongoing scheme even up to and through her time on the series.

“People going on these shows knowing they’re criminals and thinking they’re going to get away with it tells you why Batman would always be fighting the same criminals,” concluded Keep It co-host Ira Madison on this week’s episode of the hit podcast. “Criminals are stupid. Imagine going on a reality television show and hiding crimes.”

You’d think this might be reason enough to pivot to recluse, at least in the immediate, but not so for Shah.

“The powers that be at Bravo are planning to make the federal fraud and money laundering charges she faces a central part of the reality show’s second season — including exclusive footage of the embattled businesswoman’s arrest,” a source told Page Six earlier this week.

For her part, Shah has been regularly posting on her Instagram since her arrest, including re-posting messages of support and even fan-made “Free Jen” merch. “Absolutely!” Shah responded over Instagram DM when a fan asked if she’d continue to film season two.

Shah is hardly the first instance of this. Perhaps the most memorable occurred over a decade ago, when cameras began rolling on the E! reality series Pretty Wild. Two days into production, the police showed up to arrest the series central star, Alexis Haines (née Neiers). An 18-year-old Haines spoke to police without a lawyer present and ended up incriminating herself…and it was all caught on camera.

“When the police showed up to arrest me, I really wish that someone, one of my parents, would have stepped in then and been like, ‘We’re not doing this show anymore. We’ll give your signing bonus back,’” she told The Cut in 2020. 

But why agree to be on a television show at all without the foregone conclusion that any and all skeletons in your closet will be revealed — and some with grave consequence?

“I think that they think truly that they are doing nothing wrong,” Josephs, who dealt with her own legal woes in 2018 when she first joined Housewives, told In The Know. “I believe that there is a certain personality type that could convince themselves that there are not skeletons [in their closet]. They go on TV without even the thought that they’ll be found out because they believe they are doing absolutely nothing wrong. Just look at the way they behave after they’re found out. They show no remorse.”

The difference between Josephs and some of her cohorts? She says she never tried to hide her skeletons. In fact, she speaks frankly about them in her new book, the title of which — Caviar Dreams, Tuna Fish Budget: How to Survive in Business and Life — denotes Josephs’s outlier status among the wealthy Housewives.

So, why continue filming once the truth comes out? With a $1 million bond required to be secured by $250,000 cash or property, Shah might see continuing on with the series as her only viable path to securing such funds.

But won’t continuing on with the series amplify public scrutiny over her case? Of course. But feeding that curiosity will likely increase viewership, which, in turn, will keep the profits rolling in.

“In addition to fame, wealth and egoism, I imagine motivations vary,” a high-powered attorney who’s helped negotiate Housewives contracts in the past told In The Know on the condition of anonymity. According to him, someone like Shah may consider reality shows as a get-rich-quick scheme to avoid bankruptcies, loans coming due and other looming ruinous financial obligations.

Still, he doesn’t see it as a net positive, despite potential short-term gains.

“From a legal perspective, I only see downfall,” the lawyer added. “Cameras record the good, bad and ugly, and may be used against the participant in a criminal or civil investigation or in a court of law. Even the day to day behaviors of a reality show participant may raise red flags. Consider in RHONJ season one when Teresa Giudice bought tens of thousands of dollars of furniture in cash. From there, it is not a far leap to IRS inquiries of her ex-husband’s and her businesses, real estate holdings and other finances.”

As for Josephs’s advice to anyone that finds themselves in this uniquely precarious situation: “I think they should follow the advice of their counsel. That, and be humble.”

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