For fans of the Bravo franchise, a breaking TMZ alert screaming the name of the shows’ stars can seem like Christmas morning. As journalist Kelley Carter says in a new documentary, “What is so interesting is every time one of these women is caught up in some type of legal situation, the first thing all of us think is, my God, I hope the cameras are rolling.”
But, for Bravo viewers with a conscience, this time it’s different. Well, different-ish. Especially after they watch the new ABC News documentary The Housewife and the Hustler—truly, a sensational title—that premieres on Hulu Monday.
On this week’s episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the cast learns for the first time that Erika Girardi, who goes by the stage name Erika Jayne, filed for divorce from powerhouse lawyer Tom Girardi.
On the morning of Election Day 2020, the jaws of Lisa Rinna, Kyle Richards, and Dorit Kemsley plummet through the floor after receiving a warning text from Jayne about the news. Just days before, they all had been together on vacation in Lake Tahoe, and Jayne hadn’t mentioned a thing, casually talking about catching up with Girardi on the phone when asked how he’s doing.
The divorce bombshell set off a series of events over the last seven months that, depending on how much they escalate and what happens in litigation, could see Girardi heading to jail and Jayne in financial ruin. Bravo fans might begin to wonder what costs are justified when it comes to the entertainment value of watching unscrupulous characters flaunt their wealth on television.
In a series of lawsuits and investigations, Girardi, once considered the “crusader of justice” famous for negotiating the record settlement for victims in the case dramatized in the film Erin Brockovich, is accused of embezzling millions of dollars from other victims he’s represented—clients that include burn victims and the widows and orphans of those who died in a 2018 plane crash.
Girardi has been forced into an involuntary bankruptcy. His assets, including the Pasadena mansion showcased so ostentatiously on episodes of Real Housewives, are being liquidated. The California State Bar filed charges, and cases against him have been referred to a federal prosecutor, which could mean jail time. Meanwhile, Jayne has been named in several lawsuits, and trustees have asked for special counsel to recover her assets.
This is a couple that, for the last six years, have bragged about their lavish lifestyle on television, listing their multiple private jets, parading their luxury cars, and modeling an outrageous wardrobe. Jayne infamously spends $40,000 a month alone on glam. To show off such apparent wealth while Girardi allegedly pilfered from victims who are still awaiting their settlements is a level of crassness that approaches Shakespearean proportions.
The question is how much Jayne herself knew about this. And, more, how much did she—and does she—care?
Teasers for upcoming Real Housewives episodes show her being grilled by her appalled cast mates, to whom she pleads ignorance. Fans of the show are salivating waiting for these episodes. But as each day brings new, horrifying developments about Girardi and, possibly, Jayne’s behavior in pursuit of maintaining their cushy lifestyle, the fun of the drama becomes an increasingly ugly experience.
Reading the investigations is one thing. Seeing and hearing from the victims themselves is another. That’s where The Housewife and the Hustler is so powerful.
A handy and concise recap of complicated and at times indecipherable legal proceedings, the 70-minute documentary is effective in catching anyone up to speed. The overwhelming vibe of it all: Anger.
The Housewife and the Hustler features emotional on-camera interviews with the victims and families who have been grifted—robbed, abused, exploited…you choose the adjective—by Girardi and his firm, Girardi Keese. These are the subjects whose testimonies in several Los Angeles Times investigative pieces helped explode awareness of the alleged misdeeds and kickstarted the dominoes toward justice.
And while Jayne’s shameless celebration of her wealth—singing “it’s expensive to be me” in one of her singles, for example—is put into context as the victims await the money they’re owed but never received, it’s Girardi’s own words that seem to damn the couple.
Voicemails are played in which he lies to clients about why they haven’t received their money and tries to charm them into sympathy for his hard work. Most significant, however, is exclusive video of a September 2020 deposition in which Girardi admits that he is broke—in other words, whether or not he intended to, he was unable to pay the clients the money he owed them: “At one point I had about $80 million, or $50 million, in cash. But that’s all gone. I also had a stock portfolio of about $50 million, and that’s all gone.”
“Girardi is accused of embezzling millions of dollars from other victims he’s represented—clients that include burn victims and the widows and orphans of those who died in a 2018 plane crash.”
The simplest explanation of what happened is that Girardi, whose firm Girardi Keese attracted clients because of his track record of negotiating massive, multi-million dollar judgments and settlements from corporate titans, broke the cardinal rule of being a lawyer. The money from these cases is supposed to go into a trust account before going to a client. The lawyer or firm is not allowed to touch those funds. Accessing those funds at all, let alone for personal use, is an absolute violation.
Such a transgression is grounds for immediate disbarring. While there have been complaints about Girardi and his handling of funds over the years, his cozy relationship with the California State Bar has largely shielded him. When the scandal blew up this past year, the Bar admitted to 40 years of mistakes in handling complaints against him.
As Sunny Hostin, The View host and ABC News legal analyst says, “I can’t imagine being a victim and watching any episode of the Real Housewives, and watching Erika Jayne go through her extensive shoe collection, her closet, her home, her private plane, going on trips, and flaunting all of this wealth without wondering where it came from.”
In the documentary, we hear what that’s like from Joe Ruigomez and his mother, Kathy. Joe and his girlfriend were at home when a faulty gas line erupted into a massive fireball that engulfed the house, burning Joe over 90 percent of his body and killing his girlfriend.
“We were confident he would win it for us,” his sister says. “We just didn’t know how much of a snake he would be along the way.” When Girardi won them a large settlement, he consistently missed payments, armed with excuses.
“Whenever I would complain to him about, ‘Hey Tom, you said you were going to pay me on this day and it’s been three weeks, what’s going on?’: Ruigomez says. “He would call me back and be like, ‘Are you mad at me?’ He would butter me up and say, ‘You know what, Joe? You’re a bitchin’ guy.’ That’s something he would say a lot. ‘You’re a bitchin’ guy, baby.”
“The question is how much Jayne herself knew about this. And, more, how much did she—and does she—care?”
He kept blaming delays on one Justice Edward Panelli. Representatives for Panelli said he was unaware of these excuses and had no involvement in how Girardi could distribute Ruigomez’s funds.
The last time Ruigomez received a payment was January 2017. The family then sued him, and Girardi agreed to a $12 million settlement. After a single $1 million payment, he never sent them money again.
There’s also an interview with Josie Hernandez, a former client who sued the manufacturer of a surgical implant meant to help with incontinence. Over the course of nine years, her case kept changing hands at the firm. The case was eventually settled for $135,000. She has yet to see a penny.
Hernandez plays a voicemail from Girardi. “I don’t want you mad at me. I’m working like a dog to try and get this thing resolved,” he says. “I know it’s very frustrating to wait so long for the settlement and then be delayed further. But I’m in your corner. Believe me, we’d like our money as much as you want yours. I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me. I’m a good guy, by the way.”
The money had been transferred to Girardi’s firm in May. That voicemail was from August. He was blatantly lying.
No one’s case or injustice is more important than any others’, but the story that’s gained the most traction is the one of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia. Girardi Keese represented several orphans and widows of the deceased victims, winning multimillion dollar settlements. One of those clients, Bias Ramadhan, whose mother died in the crash, says that he wasn’t getting the money and Girardi dodged his messages asking for status updates.
In December 2020, one month after Jayne filed for divorce, a Chicago lawyer filed a suit against Girardi because he and several clients hadn’t been paid; he accused Girardi of hoarding and possibly misusing the funds.
What happens next is a saga we can now actually watch unfold. It’s truth that’s stranger than fiction, the kind of reality TV that even the most zealous producer couldn’t concoct themselves.
On the one hand, we get to watch Jayne navigate tough questions about her involvement on camera, statements that will be entered into public record and for which she will have to be held accountable. It’s questionable whether that’s wise on her part. But it is certainly gratifying, especially after spending time learning the details of the victims’ cases, to hear her answers.
Yet there’s also a cruelty in her continued spotlight. There’s an unease in conflating the actual reality of the victims’ circumstances with the entertaining drama of a reality show.
Understandably, Bravo is leaning into the controversy’s story potential. The most mundane comments or asides that Jayne makes about Girardi make it into episode edits. Any mention of her wealth, her wardrobe, or her mansion are built out into full scenes; the season premiere, for example, finds Jayne organizing her overflow fashion closet.
It’s the classic television conundrum when it comes to nonfiction storytelling, whether it’s reality TV, docuseries, or a news special like The Housewife and the Hustler: To what extent are you telling a story, and when are you sensationalizing trauma and pain?
There’s no clear answer here, though the increasing moral ambiguity may soon provide a verdict.