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In this video, Chelsea dives into the world of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City to talk about Jen Shah and the historical precedence of pyramid scheme-ing among those who preach or practice the "prosperity gospel."

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Sources:

https://www.wired.com/2008/02/motivational-ma/

https://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/pictures/the-housewife-the-shah-shocker-biggest-jen-shah-revelations/claims-about-her-money/

https://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/pictures/the-housewife-the-shah-shocker-biggest-jen-shah-revelations/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/why-are-so-many-most-influential-moms-internet-mormon

https://religionnews.com/2017/06/20/10-reasons-mormons-dominate-multi-level-marketing-companies/

https://people.com/style/erika-jayne-launching-hair-extension-line-pretty-mess-hair/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/09/30/our-criminal-justice-system-is-making-it-really-hard-for-the-poor-to-find-jobs/

https://people.com/tv/rhoslc-heather-gay-knew-jen-shah-business-was-unsavory-before-arrest/



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Hey, guys.

Well, we're talking about Jen Shah. We're talking about Mormons.

We're talking about pyramid schemes. We're talking about scams targeting the elderly. There's a lot of T.

So we have talked on this channel before about the phenomenon that is women's media as it pertains to personal finance. What lessons are we, as women, being taught in the media about what we should aspire to, about what our relationship to money should be, about to what extent it defines us, and how that definition should look? And we've talked on this show before about things like Sex in the City , The Real Housewives phenomenon generally, the Erica Jayne scandal.

And a lot of you have asked me to explore a similar scandal also based on The Real Housewives involving Jen Shah of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. And I was, quite frankly, interested. I've been recently bingeing that entire franchise.

And I have, quite honestly, many thoughts about it. But I also knew that, in exploring this particular dynamic, there was a bit of a different angle at play than just your standard issue housewife did something bad financially. And that is the entire culture of prosperity gospel and how it impacts our relationship to these already very complicated and nuanced financial dynamics.

At the risk of possibly hitting a hornet's nest with a wiffle ball bat, I do believe that the nexus of the Mormon church, Utah as a state, The Real Housewives franchise, the prosperity gospel as a concept, and so many other factors combined to create a uniquely dark situation in the Jen Shah scandal but also says a lot about America in general and how we perceive all of the above. So without further ado, let's meet our entry point into this particular story. Who the hell is Jen Shah?

Jen Shah, who is currently starring on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, grew up in Utah and is of Mormon descent, coming from a Hawaiian and Tongan background. She went to the University of Utah, where she met her Sharif Shah, who she helped put through law school and who is currently an assistant football coach at the University of Utah. She eventually converted to Islam when marrying him, finding it to be more accepting of people of color than her original Mormon faith, and making her the first Muslim housewife since the show's inception.

After college, she began working in the call center and telemarketing sector, where she climbed the ranks as a corporate exec. She was a corporate executive at a company named Prosper Inc that worked as a call-center operation and later worked at a telemarketing company called Thrive. And as a total aside, Prosper Inc was later involved with a scandal that involved a waterboarding incident, which was done as a motivational exercise because Prosper, quote, "wanted their employees to work as hard at selling as the waterboarded employee did at breathing." I'm sorry.

Now, to be clear, Jen has no apparent connection to that waterboarding incident. But it does really say a lot about the kind of extreme environment that she was working in as an executive. And she also, in working for these more legitimate, if not deeply problematic companies, really valuable techniques in telemarketing and selling products to people on cold calls.

But after not being invited to one Thrive event in which other executives were included, Jen realized that her talents were simply going to waste in this environment and that she was better off breaking out on her own. Cut to today when Jen boasts they lifestyle where she spends $50,000 a month or about $600,000 a year to sustain her glamorous lifestyle, one that has all the trappings of upper-class lifestyles that the audience have become accustomed to seeing on TV, like flying on private jets, bringing nearly 20 bags of luggage on trips, and other incredibly expensive endeavors. But, as is common in the particular world of reality-show glamour, a lot of maintaining that aspirational lifestyle comes down to a bit of smoke and mirrors and a lot of renting.

It's important to remember, as we've noted in previous shows, that, despite the focus on the aspirational and glamorous lifestyle, according to previous stars of the show like Alex McCord in New York City, housewives are largely given no budget to fund the hair, makeup, and appearance that's generally expected of them on the show. Having the glam squads for everyday events and fresh wardrobe changes for every photo you post is, quite frankly, not a realistic expectation, even of the very wealthy. But this is very much an unspoken expectation of the women on the show, including when filming for long periods of time over multiple seasons.

However, from early on, Jen Shah was particularly notable for claiming these various luxuries as her own and owned outright when it appears very clear that most of this lifestyle, even alleged criminal activity aside, was being maintained through mostly renting and borrowing. While viewers are never given a straight answer on what she actually does to earn all of this money and how she funds such a glamorous lifestyle and led to believe that this is entirely of her own doing. Koa Johnson, one of Jen's former employees alleged that her fur coats, jewelry, and Porsche are all either borrowed or loaned.

So cut to why we're doing this video. What is she being accused of? Jen and her first assistant, Stuart Smith, are now being charged with being involved in an alleged telemarketing scheme.

Shah and Smith have basically been accused of selling lead lists and presenting allegedly fake business opportunities to vulnerable individuals. And selling these lead lists can become an issue because companies that purchase these lists can then use them to telemarket and sell services to people even if the services themselves don't actually exist. These leads are often used to market products and services to vulnerable communities, who may have no use for them, even if they do exist.

For example, marketing computer services to elderly customers who don't, in some cases, even own a computer. These fake packages and services and investments never return any value to their customers. And by the time these vulnerable people realize they have been duped, they are often deeply in debt, both to the company itself and to their various credit card providers.

There is also the speculated possibility that, in addition to just selling these lead lists, Shah and her trusted assistant Smith may have actually been involved with a nefarious and illegal part of the operation, which is telemarketing these fake social media packages in order to try and defraud vulnerable communities. Now, it should be clear that, from every apparent detail about this alleged scheme, it does not appear to be an MLM or a pyramid scheme. It appears to be more of just an organized operation of fraud.

In which, various actors participate at various levels and various awareness of the level of scam. But what makes the Salt Lake City aspect of this whole scandal so particularly compelling is that the presence of things like MLMs and pyramid schemes and otherwise fraudulent financial activity are unusually present amongst this cast. Another cast member of the show's husband is actually incredibly high up at another notable MLM.

And several of the other various business endeavors on the show basically entail reps marketing products for commission in a way that is, at minimum, very similar to the structure of an MLM. And for those of you who may have watched the LulaRoe documentary or listened to the many deep dive podcasts on the connection between the Mormon church and various level marketing companies or the world of influencer marketing, you may be aware of the extent to which those things are deeply intertwined. Now, it should be said that, although Jen Shah was herself raised Mormon, she does now live and has lived for quite some time as a Muslim.

But the formative impacts of this particularly unique connection, especially as it thrives in a state like Utah, is still worth exploring. Many former Mormons testify to the extraordinary pressure within the community to appear as outwardly prosperous in a way which often dovetails very closely with strict financial senses of success. Mormons will report different qualities of temples, treatment, and general acceptance by the community based on financial status.

And in comparison to most other Protestant denominations, Mormonism has an established tradition of entrepreneurship and less outward ambivalence about the pursuit of wealth. A Harper's Magazine report on the relationship between the finances of the LDS church and those of the Republican Party compared LDS beliefs and practices to the prosperity gospel. And for those who may not know, prosperity theology, which is sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, the gospel of success, or seed faith, is a religious belief among some Protestant Christians that financial blessings and physical wellbeing are always the will of God for them and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth.

Now, it should be clear that prosperity gospel is deeply anchored in American culture. And it is not something that's unique to the LDS church. I mean, hello, Joel Osteen refusing to let refugees sleep in his church.

While, meanwhile, he's got like literal bags of money in the drywall. What the hell is going on there? But, in many ways, the LDS Church is, arguably, even more effective at implementing these things in practice and lends itself very uniquely well to MLMs and other dubious financial schemes, which have a tendency to prosper in Utah, which has relatively lax regulation around these various enterprises.

As one Mormon explained it in a Religion News article about her unique experience of the crossover between the LDS church and various financial schemes, there are a few key factors that make it such a powerful crossover. Insularity, Mormons tend to be trusting, especially of other Mormons. Viewing money as a blessing, an unusually high number of stay-at-home moms, which is encouraged by the church but often leaves families struggling for extra income, and easy mobilization because of a built-in network complete with phone numbers, physical addresses, and emails of members.

And as it pertains to the outward appearance of success specifically as it's defined for a woman, the LDS church has also found an incredibly large presence in influencer culture, particularly mommy influencer culture, which, lest we forget, is a huge angle of The Real Housewives franchises, them as mothers. About four years ago, people started noticing a trend. A lot of the most influential moms on the internet were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

And some of these women had amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on social media by sharing their tried-and-true motherhood tips, sometimes in posts sponsored by companies like Hershey's, Unilever, and Lowe's. Genuinely asking, queried one Reddit user in October 2017, why are there so many Mormon bloggers? And it would be easy to assume that Mormon mothers are prevalent on the internet because they tend to have large families, almost twice as large as the average family in the US, according to Pew.

And they are encouraged not to work outside of the home, if they can help it. And yet, other religious groups hold similar values about family size and motherhood. And the mothers in those other groups have not become the darlings of the internet, at least not at the same rate as Mormon women.

Why? There is no one definitive answer. But it seems that, over the last decade, there has been a symbiosis of internet culture in general with aspects of Mormon culture and theology in particular.

One could say Mormon mothers are simply having their Esther moment. Their church has helped form them for such a time as this. And the focus on an outward appearance of perfection and success, a drive to amass financial wealth as evidence of spiritual righteousness and the relatively lax regulation in Utah combine to form a pretty powerful atmosphere.

Now, catapult any person in this context onto a stage like The Real Housewives, and you've got a bit of a recipe for disaster, which brings us back to Jen Shah. While, for years, she was able to get away with her various scams because her relatively superficial social interaction with the people around her and relative anonymity allowed her to skate by with fairly vague explanations like the one viewers got on the first season of the show. But as housewife after housewife has learned, eventually, that level of exposure, which many of them cannot help but chase, will mean exposure to aspects of your life you may not want blasted on national television.

However, as has been demonstrated over and over, going through a heavy level of scandal on a platform like The Housewives does not necessarily mean negative outcomes. And when we look at the ways in which financial scams in the religious world don't always mean certain death for the people who perpetuate them and can even lead to a sort of renaissance after a little bit of punishment has been meted out-- shout out to everyone who went to go see The Eyes of Tammy Faye this year-- we see that the idolization we have with cultural figures like the housewives and religious figures like Jim Baker have a lot more in common than we tend to think. If America loves anything, it's a redemption arc.

There's a basic blueprint that we've seen from former criminal wives. You can outline your whole life on the show, get arrested, get in trouble, secure super high ratings for your entire franchise and your personal storyline within it, demand more money from Bravo because you're securing storylines for upcoming seasons, write a tell-all book when it's done in order to tell your side of the story and have that become a bestseller, then launch your own legitimate business. And people will still think you're a criminal.

But, after a few years, you can prove that you've risen above this. And people will eventually forget about the crimes you've committed. This can be seen in examples like Teresa Giudice, who spent time in prison and then negotiated a higher salary on the show, or Erika Girardi, alias Erica Jayne, who is still very much in the throes of a legal battle and is constantly getting her ass handed to her in the quote retweets on social media but is also in the process of launching her own hair extension line.

So this can be a problematic cycle, which glorifies white-collar crimes, no matter who they might affect. And while the Erica Jayne scandal that we discussed on a previous episode was similarly targeting incredibly vulnerable individuals, like plane crash victims and burn victims, there was a small layer of plausible deniability that she may not necessarily have known what was happening and that the crimes were perpetrated by her husband. Jen Shah's accusations put her squarely in the driver's seat of enacting these scams on incredibly vulnerable communities herself.

But yet, over and over again, we have demonstrated, as a culture, that forgiveness is available to these people if they show a high enough level of contrition. And in a context like Salt Lake City, where dubious financial schemes abound and the pressure to appear a certain way is all but ubiquitous, speeding down a one-way path toward a redemption arc feels pretty much inevitable. But lower-class criminals in our society are not treated with nearly the same level of grace.

Often, these people find themselves trapped in the cycle of the justice system. Where Jen Shah's arrest got to play out as a juicy television moment on The Real Housewives this season and she did it while wearing an ostentatious coat and was pretty much immediately released again, innocent people can find themselves, for years, trapped in jails before they're even tried for what they might have been accused of doing. And even if they should be convicted-- and let's be clear that many people caught in this system are essentially forced to plead guilty to things they may not have done or even understand simply to avoid waiting for years in a jail-- they're rendered essentially all but unemployable, as opposed to getting substantial raises for their next season because of all the attention their crimes are drawing.

Exoffenders are also likely to suffer from the informal biases that accompany the stigma of a criminal conviction, making the job hunt nearly impossible. If an employer has a large stack of applications for a low-skilled job, requiring the disclosure of a past conviction can effectively preclude an interview. But this will essentially never be a problem for Jen Shah or with any people who have a substantial platform and commit a white-collar crime.

She has many other ways to make money that simply rely on notoriety, like being, quote, "booked to host a party at Larry Flynt strip joint Hustler Club NYC." And this saga also shines a light on many of the ways in which people in our country do become wealthy in the first place and the extent to which doing it in sometimes unsavory or even illegal ways can be totally normalized. Now, obviously, the prosperity gospel and the context that it puts a place like Salt Lake City in, of which, Jen once referred to herself as the queen bee, is a distillation of a broader American relationship to the appearance of success and its implication that financial success, to some extent, implies good character, even when it may actually imply the opposite. For example, Real Housewives of Salt Lake City costar Heather Gay, who was also herself raised Mormon and used to be married to what she refers to as Mormon royalty, admitting to being aware of the fact that Jen Shah's business practices were, quote, "unsavory" but never knew enough to think that it would be outright illegal.

It's irrelevant, she continued. I knew her business was unsavory when I was her friend. So why would I change now that it's public?

A lot to unpack there, Heather, a lot to unpack. And when we look at the extent to which people who push the boundaries of legality in order to get ahead, things like Jordan Belfort of Wolf of Wall Street fame, or basically everyone responsible for the 2008 housing crash, who never saw a day of jail, we see that, in an attempt to pursue wealth at all costs and that outward appearance of success, we're willing to forgive quite a lot and, to some extent, take an approach of the ends justifying the means. And while something like being on a reality show is likely to expose your wrongdoings a little bit more quickly than would otherwise happen, the idea that the only people who meet repercussions are people dumb enough to go on reality shows while in the midst of committing actual crimes is ludicrous.

The American dream, in many ways, functions as a version of the prosperity gospel. And the extent to which we're forgiving of the rich, even when they might commit crimes, and damning of the poor, even when they might be innocent, is a demonstration of our conflation with good character or moral righteousness and an outward vision of success. Ultimately, The Real Housewives functions as a bit of a distillation of a lot of other elements in our culture, particularly as they're told to women.

We may not all be living in a spiritual context that puts enormous pressure on us to be stay-at-home mothers and appear perfect and earn lots of money and defer to our husbands at every turn. But we live in a broader culture that does subtly reinforce those norms all the time. And when so much of our cultural image, as women, is defined by these ultimately very outdated notions of what a woman is supposed to be and what success should look like for her, it shouldn't be forgotten that Jen Shah, as part of her ascent into a certain social class also underwent extensive plastic surgery to change her appearance.

It's worth asking just how much of this really toxic prosperity gospelesque narrative we may have internalized without realizing it. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City are a particularly compelling microcosm that exists at a few different intersections. And Jen Shah's telemarketing scam as means to get rich and then go to jail for it is kind of a speed run of the American dream.

But it doesn't mean that we're not all still living with a few of those cultural ripples, even all the way here in New York City. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to open up my Instagram Explore page and be greeted with tons of LDS mommy bloggers And don't forget to hit the Subscribe button and to come back every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for new and awesome videos. Goodbye.