“The Luckiest Bitch in NYC”: Jeremy O. Harris and Zak Stone on Jen Shah’s Sentence
Getting into federal court is a bit like getting into an exclusive nightclub. There’s limited capacity, high security, and a strict cell phone policy (they’re checked in, in exchange for a numbered poker chip). But no one can put you on the list. So if you want to catch a high profile hearing —say, Real Housewives of Salt Lake City Star Jen Shah’s sentencing yesterday at the Southern District of New York’s courthouse in Chinatown—you have to show up early.
I’m expecting pandemonium when I arrive nearly two hours before the sentencing is to begin. Shah was set to receive as many as 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to masterminding a telemarketing fraud conspiracy that stole millions, mostly from the elderly. But it’s just a handful of fans and journalists waiting outside the courtroom. Some are out for blood after devouring the accounts of victims whose retirement funds were emptied at Jenn’s behest while she joked about their tears in texts with her subordinates. Others feel ambivalent about rooting for someone’s imprisonment. “It won’t smell like hospital any more,” another fan joked, a reference to former SLC co-star Mary Cosby’s famous dig at Shah. By 10am, we’re sitting in the courtroom on the 23rd floor with Shah’s friends and family, journalists and lawyers, and a few dozen fans filling out the pews. (A spillover room live-streamed the proceedings while a throng of paparazzi and others waited outside).
Jeremy O. Harris somewhat randomly called me afterwards and we dished on my morning in court, a fitting bookend to to the time I met Shah at the Hustler Club in October 2021, a few months after she was raided in the Beauty Lab parking lot and indicted. Now, I wondered if the ruby ring she had rested upon my chest that night was a part of the “30 luxury items” or “78 counterfeit luxury items” the court demanded she turn over in restitution.—ZAK STONE
JEREMY O. HARRIS: So you were at the hottest club in New York today?
ZAK STONE: Pretty much! I got there really early. I was the sixth person to arrive, maybe. So it was a lot easier to get in than I thought it would be.
HARRIS: Were there hordes of people?
STONE: It was hard to say, because we got there early, we got inside, and at a certain point people started to wait in line to come into the courtroom. It seemed like there were probably 50 people or more waiting in line. Then, all of a sudden, there were three rows worth of family who showed up, and certain credentialed press people who got to just walk right in, and various lawyers. So the courtroom filled up, and there were probably 100 to 150 people inside, and then they had an overflow room. Outside, it was a big mob of people waiting for Jen to come out.
HARRIS: I think some of the most harrowing stuff I’ve seen about today was from people like this guy on Twitter named Inner City Press, who tweeted that Jen Shah was apparently laughing in text messages asking, “Did you get her to stop crying?” about an 80-year-old woman [she had defrauded]. What was the energy like hearing some of that testimony?
STONE: The way that it went down, she’s already pled guilty. She was asking for three years, the prosecution had asked for 10 years, but that was actually already below the sentencing guidelines, which called for a minimum of 135 months or something. So the defense spoke first, justifying why she should have some leniency.
HARRIS: What was their justification?
STONE: Really stupid stuff, honestly. Her lawyer kept emphasizing how sorry she was. They tried to say she never directly spoke to any of these victims. And the judge interrupted to say, “Well, that’s because she was so high up in this scheme that she didn’t have to. Everyone did it for her.” And also, “Well, what about her selling all this ‘Free Jen Shah’ merch?” And they were, “No, she’s going to use that for restitution money.” It seemed like the judge really had no sympathy for her and that the government had really done its homework. So I was really surprised when Judge Stein gave her 78 months. Her team gave him this huge binder full of letters from supporters. I don’t know if we’ll ever really know why the judge decided to give her a bit of a break.
HARRIS: In our text you called her the luckiest bitch in NYC.
STONE: I really think she got extremely lucky.
HARRIS: This is a weird pop cultural thing. Maybe 15 months ago she was dancing in the Lower East Side with all the gays we know. Now some of those gays are lining up to take her picture outside of a courtroom.
STONE: I met her! I went to her Hustler Club appearance. That was exactly 15 months ago. That was after she’d already been indicted. What’s weird is, she tried for so long to embrace this persona that she was innocent, and that’s what her lawyer kept saying. Her lawyer was like, “She’s been running away from something, running away from a life where she felt less than. She tried to feed the hole with shiny trinkets. She defrauded herself. She spent years trying to escape, trying to fake it till she made it. Her main fraud was of herself. She wanted to become glamorous and important and kept telling herself that no one was hurt.” It was interesting because it almost did make you sympathetic. She was lying and above all, she was lying to herself.
HARRIS: Didn’t the judge, at one point, say the thing that’s most ridiculous is that unlike the other people that were part of the conspiracy, she lived a life of luxury? She didn’t even need this money.
STONE: The government made that case. They were, “Other people that we’ve charged had serious drug addiction problems and got involved in these schemes.” She didn’t have that. The judge was funny. He has this old Jewish grandpa vibe. I almost felt like his sympathy was coming from this sort of grandfatherly place. At one point they were talking about deterrence and there seemed to be a lot of agreement that she’s not someone who’s going to commit crimes again, partially because she’s too well-known. But I was kind of, “I don’t know if I really believe that.” First of all, I could totally see her in prison being one of the head bitches, getting involved in running shit on the outside or something.
HARRIS: Is he getting a divorce?
STONE: I hope that he divorces her for his sake, but who knows? Maybe he’ll stick with her. The judge was like, “She said she was Shah-mazing. That’s over, that’s in the past.”
HARRIS: Is that the great takeaway from this?
STONE: What was interesting was also the attitude about the show. The judge was like, “We need to realize that the character your client plays in Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is a character. Real Housewives franchises involve role-playing, editing, characters who are given scripts. The court is not going to confuse the character she plays on an entertainment show with the person I have before me. One is acting, one is reality.” That kind of language came up. The fans would definitely bristle, even though I think people accept that the show is scripted.
HARRIS: When the verdict was read, what was the response in the room?
STONE: It was kind of anticlimactic. Her husband and her sons were sitting there blank-faced the whole time, and I couldn’t really see her face, but I could see her hair. She got to speak before the sentence was read and said, again, how the world doesn’t know the real Jen Shah, it’s a character. And she read from her [television] contract, which said something like, “The network may create fictional information about and representations of her.” And she said that the tagline—”The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing”—was not her. She repeated some things she’s said before. She was born in Hawaii in this Tongan family. Family is at the center of Tongan life. She’s the eldest of six siblings, which means she’s called the “Fahu” in Tongan culture, which means she’s this sort of matriarch. Then she goes, “There are four core values in Tongan culture,” and read aloud the Tongan words and translations: mutual respect, another is sharing, one is humility, and generosity, one is loyalty and respect. But she didn’t say anything about how her life has reflected any of those values. So it was like, “Okay, thanks for the anthropology moment, but you didn’t really live up to your culture or its values.” She said she was going to repay every cent and the judge was like, “How?” And she had no idea what to say. There was a lot of whispering. It was very halting. She mentioned that her manager was working on different deals, and the judge was like, “I hope that you’re not planning to profit off of this court case, if that’s what you meant by your manager being here.” And she said, “I struggled to express remorse for the longest time. Longstanding trauma caused me to create this fractured reality. It was all my fault and all my own doing.” She said properly taking her meds has allowed her to see things clearly. She’s been volunteering in Salt Lake City with Polynesian Anti-Racist Women’s Group and LGBT groups. It was sad. I actually got weepy a bit. People were crying. It was definitely sad.
HARRIS: Oh my god. That is sad. I want to hear your final take of the day.
STONE: It was interesting. I guess I was just surprised by the level of complexity of the conversation in the courtroom. Instead of being about bad people and good people and punishment, it was very sophisticated. I felt like her case seemed weak, so if I was the government I’d be pissed. She looked great, though. She was wearing a camel-colored suit with leopard accessories, stilettos, this leopard scarf and little leopard bag. So she was still serving. One of the fans saw her come in and goes, “”She’s very understated today.”
HARRIS: She was understated in leopard print.
STONE: Everyone who was there seemed to recognize the ambiguity of it all. Like, this is someone’s life, we don’t want to see it destroyed. And she did legitimately destroy a lot of people’s lives. But we feel for her family. It’s complicated.
HARRIS: Yeah, people really don’t like any of the women from Housewives of Salt Lake City, which I find curious.
STONE: Have you been watching?
HARRIS: I have to catch up before Sundance.
STONE: Heather has this black eye and she won’t reveal how she got it. But it seemed like she and Jen were really wasted and either Jen fully lashed out and punched her, or accidentally, like, elbowed her in the face. Unclear. At the gate I was asking everyone, “Do you think Jen gave Heather the black eye and Heather’s not saying it because she knew the sentencing was going to happen?” People are definitely divided on the black eye. One person told me they thought it was botched Beauty Lab Botox.