Scott D. Pierce: To spend less time in prison, Jen Shah says ‘Real Housewives of SLC’ is fake

In a court filing, Shah’s lawyers argue that the editing makes her look bad.

(Randy Shropshire | Bravo) Jen Shah, Heather Gay and Sharrieff Shah in "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

In an effort to minimize the amount of time that she’ll spend in prison, Jen Shah’s lawyers are arguing that “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” is not real — that it’s “a semi-scripted, heavily edited facsimile of ‘reality’ intentionally manipulated to maximize ratings.”

That’s not exactly a startling revelation. And whether it will weigh into the judge’s decision when Jen is sentenced on Friday remains to be seen.

(In July, she pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges in a scam that bilked thousands of mostly older people out of millions of dollars. In return, money laundering charges dropped.)

Prosecutors maintain that Jen continued to operate the scams up until the day she was arrested. Her lawyers argued that she has “indubitably proved to this court, and her former co-conspirators, that she permanently broke from the shadowy world of telemarketing fraud when she reinvented herself completely as a glamorous ‘Real Housewife of Salt Lake City.’ … In fact, for the past three years, Jen put her entire life under the blinding spotlight and scrutiny of video cameras, appearing on a hit reality television franchise that permanently changed the course of her life and made her a household name.”

(Andrew Peterson/Bravo) Jen Shah says she's innocent of the federal charges against her on "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

Don’t read into that being on the Bravo series led to Jen’s arrest and eventual guilty plea. The investigation was underway years before “RHOSLC” debuted in November 2020. The case dates back to 2012, and Jen was questioned by the Federal Trade Commission in 2015.

Viewers have seen Jen repeatedly, adamantly declare her innocence — including lying to her own mother. They’ve heard her declare, “The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing!” And vow that she “will fight for every person out there that can’t fight for themselves because they don’t have the resources or the means.”

That was all fake, Jen’s lawyers argued in their filing requesting she be sentenced to three years in prison. (Prosecutors are asking for 10 years.) Episodes of the show filmed since her arrest “misleadingly suggest that Ms. Shah’s statements and actions in these episodes … reflect her accurate sentiments about this matter.”

On the contrary, “due to editing, scripting, and the network’s complete control over the ‘story-line’ … Shah has been made to seem intransigent, defiant, and often even unrepentant about her actions here. … The effigy of Jen Shah portrayed in the ‘RHOSLC’ has no bearing on who she is, whatsoever, and should not enter this court’s calculus in fashioning an appropriate sentence for the real Jen Shah.”

(Bravo) Jen Shah goes after Meredith Marks in an upcoming episode of "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.

That is the oldest defense for reality-show contestants in the book: that they were edited to look bad. And it’s not entirely without merit. TV producers are in the business of attracting viewers, so they’re going to focus on the most interesting, most sensational developments they capture in thousands of hours of footage.

I’m reminded of an “Amazing Race” contestant who, 15 years ago, angrily shoved his wife during filming of the show. The shove was included in an episode, and the husband complained about the editing — it was, he insisted, the only time he got physical with his wife and should not have been included.

If he hadn’t done it, it couldn’t have been part of the episode. He knew what he signed up for, and he knew he was being filmed. That’s true for everyone who’s ever complained about how they were edited, including Jen Shah.

If some of her most offensive statements on the show were actually scripted by producers, that might be something else — although it doesn’t change the fact that she agreed to say those lines. But other cast members deny they’re told what to say. Heather Gay told me that, yes, the producers set up the situations — outings, meals, activities, trips — but that the Housewives’ reactions to what happens are genuine.

Jen’s lawyers tried this sort of thing before. They filed a motion to have the case dismissed after ABC News produced the Hulu documentary “The Housewife & the Shah Shocker.” They argued it made it impossible for her to receive a fair trial. The motion was denied.

(Full disclosure: I was interviewed for and appear briefly in that program. I did not talk about her guilt or innocence, because I had no idea that she was guilty before she changed her plea.)

It’s easy to make fun of the “Real Housewives” franchise. I’ve done it myself. But this filing seems entirely consistent with what we’ve seen of Jen on “RHOSLC” — she throws somebody else (in this case, the show) under the bus in order to divert blame.

I’m not a lawyer, obviously, but are judges swayed by the use of the word “indubitably” and attempts to blame a TV show?

Again, it will be interesting to see if the judge sentences Jen to 3 years, 10 years or something in between when she appears before him on Friday.

Racism and religion

Most of the filing from Jen’s lawyer requesting a 3-year sentence is filled with background about her and her family, and all the hardships, family issues and racism she says they’ve overcome.

The filing states that Jen “grew up as an outsider in a hostile and strange environment” — Utah — and “was deeply affected by the ridicule she had to endure from her classmates because her physical appearance differed from the predominantly caucasian community in Utah.” According to Jen, when her classmates asked why her skin was “dirty … she scrubbed it until it was raw.”

And this sentence about Jen’s parents jumps out: “Although Christian by birth, they both converted to Mormonism.” It doesn’t appear that Jen’s lawyers are familiar with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.