The rise and fall of the Chrisleys, the latest reality stars to go to prison


Reality TV star Todd Chrisley wanted to be clear: When his former business partner Mark Braddock testified in court last year that he and Chrisley once had an intimate relationship, Chrisley wasn’t taken aback because Braddock is a man. He has never cared about the (rampant, nonstop) rumors that he’s gay; he has said he finds the speculation flattering. No — he was offended because he thinks Braddock is ugly.

“I mean, a toad. I mean, someone that looks like a thumb,” Chrisley, 53, said on his podcast several weeks ago in conversation with his 26-year-old son, Chase. Chrisley was also insulted that Braddock, who is married to a woman, characterized the alleged relationship as “just something he wanted to try.” “I ain’t that small spoon you get at Baskin-Robbins,” Chrisley added. “I’m the whole scoop. You don’t just get to sample here.”

“You’re the whole damn scoop,” Chase echoed, laughing.

Viewers familiar with “Chrisley Knows Best,” USA Network’s extremely popular reality show centered on a chaotic Southern family, know that the comments were classic Chrisley: Outrageous, defiant, grandiose and tailor-made to go viral, which is exactly what happened. News outlets have been paying especially close attention to the Chrisleys since November, when Todd and his wife, Julie, 50, were sentenced to 12 and seven years in federal prison, respectively, for fraud and tax evasion. During a nearly three-week trial in Atlanta last spring, prosecutors said the couple conspired to defraud community banks out of more than $30 million in loans and evaded federal income taxes for years.

Their accountant, Peter Tarantino, was sentenced to three years. Braddock, who told the FBI that he falsified documents for the Chrisleys and committed financial crimes, cooperated with prosecutors and was granted immunity, according to reports from the trial.

On Tuesday morning, the couple reported to their federal prisons — news cameras were staked out around FPC Pensacola in Florida, where Todd will serve his time; Julie reported to FMC Lexington in Kentucky. Kelsey Coffey, a reporter for Pensacola’s ABC station, tweeted that her team saw a gray Range Rover with “a person in the passenger seat with a white pillow covering their face.”

The Chrisleys have steadfastly maintained their innocence on all charges, and their attorneys are working on an appeal. The two believe they have been unfairly targeted because they are celebrities, and put much of the blame on Tarantino and Braddock, the latter of whom Todd has lambasted as a liar and disgruntled former business partner out for revenge.

“The Chrisleys have been involved in a multiyear battle regarding these charges, and I think they will be vindicated on appeal,” Chris Anulewicz, the couple’s lawyer, told The Washington Post.

Even as the Chrisleys built an empire (spinoff shows, podcasts, brand deals and the flagship “Chrisley Knows Best,” which will air its 10th and final season early this year), it operated in that strange basic-cable space where millions watch their shows and track their every move, even while large swaths of the population have no idea they exist. And yet, everything about the Chrisley phenomenon — and downfall — perfectly encapsulates the current state of reality television after two decades of defining American culture. The Chrisleys story is one of ambition, absurdity, schadenfreude and (potential) redemption, with money at the center of it all.

And now you can throw in a dose of true crime, a topic that has captivated audiences in recent years and has increasingly been a presence in reality TV: Earlier this month, “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” star Jen Shah was sentenced to 6½ years in prison for wire fraud, bringing a new level of attention and infamy to the hit franchise.

“People like to watch the fall from grace … and this seems like a story that is almost rags-to-riches-to-rags,” said Kate Casey, who has covered the Chrisleys on her podcast, “Reality Life with Kate Casey,” and separately interviewed Todd. “I think for those of us obsessed with unscripted television — those of us who are fascinated by the human story — it has been a really interesting ride to watch their climb to success and how it’s all unraveling.”

Brian Graden vividly remembers when a preview trailer of the Chrisley show made the rounds in Hollywood in 2013. As the former entertainment president of MTV Networks Music Channels, he was consulting for NBCUniversal cable channels at the time, and the footage sparked a bidding war. Executives dreamed of the possibilities for this quirky and drama-filled family, who boasted about making millions in real estate (their company managed and helped flip foreclosed properties for banks) and lived in a 30,000-square-foot mansion in the same Atlanta neighborhood as Usher and Chipper Jones. They were quickly dubbed the Kardashians of the South.

The family’s five kids — two adult children from Todd’s first marriage, including his eldest daughter, Lindsie, who eloped without telling him, and Todd and Julie’s two teenagers and elementary-schooler — promised a ton of potential material. But in the end, one true star emerged.

“At the time, it all came down to Todd,” Graden said, recalling people were riveted by Todd’s blunt and sarcastic commentary on his busy household and snappy one-liners (“Ignorance I can fix; stupid is forever”), as well as his strict parenting style, such as tracking his children’s electronic devices and dictating the clothes they wore. With his fixation on fashion and his appearance, flying to Los Angeles to get his hair cut, speculation about his sexuality was treated as just something else for viewers to discuss.

Eventually, fans were drawn to the relationship dynamics within the whole family, even when more serious stories surfaced: Kyle, Todd’s formerly estranged son from his first marriage, was open about his drug addiction and struggle with mental illness; and Todd and Julie’s support when they adopted his young daughter, Chloe.

“It really became apparent, even in the [trailer], that there was an undercurrent of love in how directly they all talked to each other … a lot of families don’t allow that kind of candor,” Braden said.

NBCUniversal’s USA Network beat out other networks for the rights to the Chrisleys and started airing “Chrisley Knows Best” after “Modern Family” reruns in March 2014. The show drew more than 1 million viewers per episode, a hit for cable, and ratings only climbed from there. “We knew from the moment we met Todd there was no other character quite like him and whether or not you agree with his parenting style, he has certainly struck a chord with our viewers as their new guilty pleasure,” USA said in a news release announcing a second-season renewal. (USA declined to make anyone from the network available for an interview for this story.)

The series broke the mold as the rare reality hit about a family that wasn’t already famous (the Osbournes, the Kardashians) or didn’t have a signature business or catchy hook (the duck call manufacturers on “Duck Dynasty,” the polygamists on “Sister Wives”). The 30-minute episodes were largely based around low stakes, wacky situations, not unlike traditional sitcoms: Their daughter Savannah, an aspiring beauty queen, goes on a date, but Todd forces her to take his mother (“Nanny Faye,” a beloved series regular) as a chaperone. Chase, the troublemaker, tries and fails to bribe his little brother Grayson to keep a secret with $100. Todd tricks Julie into planning her own surprise birthday party. Viewers flocked to it.

“It’s a very middle-of-the-road, generic, anodyne show, which is maybe why it resonates so much with so many people,” said Danielle J. Lindemann, an associate professor and author of “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us.” At the same time, she added, through the glossy exterior, you could also get the sense that something was a little bit off. “There was always undercurrent to the show that things are not what they seem.”

Almost immediately, there were questions about the family’s gaudy wealth, which always lingered in the background: their mansions in Georgia and Tennessee (they eventually moved to Nashville), fancy vacations, expensive cars, trips to the plastic surgeon, or the first season’s plotline of Todd making plans to open his own luxury department store, which never materialized.

Though Todd spoke in the pilot of making millions and spending six figures on clothes, before the debut episode even aired People magazine revealed that “after several lawsuits and judgments against Chrisley in the past decade,” Todd had filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The magazine reported that documents showed “outrageous spending and spiraling debt,” with his debts totaling $49.4 million. His lawyer blamed a failed real estate development loan and waved off a court-appointed trustee’s concern that the Chrisleys were still living a lavish lifestyle: “He is not hiding assets.”

Braden, who consulted for NBCUniversal cable channels, recalled “hearing something about Todd’s business dealings” at one point early on, and his plans for actually opening a retail store were “kind of murky.” But nothing available in the vetting process seemed to raise any real red flags: “I don’t think you had networks overlooking anything to put the Chrisleys on the air,” he said.

And as it turned out, no one cared — after all, the show was entertaining. When ABC News ran a story about the bankruptcy, even the on-air hosts made fun of it. “Wait, all reality TV isn’t true? Oh, no. Stop it,” Dan Abrams deadpanned.

But a few years later, the Chrisleys ran into a problem that has long plagued reality stars and really hit its peak in recent years: Their new fame meant a lot more attention on them. In 2017, Atlanta’s ABC affiliate, WSB-TV, reported on questions about how much state income tax the Chrisleys had paid as Georgia residents, and bankruptcy officials were startled by seeing the family’s wealthy portrayal on TV when they claimed to have no money. “I thought it was like bizarro world,” one attorney told the station.

Though the Chrisleys have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, former reality TV producer Melody Murray said it’s common for people with potential legal issues to throw caution to the wind and try to land a reality show — they often believe that even if they do get in trouble, their fame will mean they won’t face consequences.

“The ante is upped big time with television,” Murray said. Aspiring stars often think, “I want people to watch me and follow me as much as possible, so I’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

The Chrisleys were ultimately cleared in a Georgia Department of Revenue investigation into whether the couple owed $2.1 million in state taxes from 2008 to 2016, and Todd and Julie promptly sued an agency official, Josh Waites, for “targeting” them. (Waites resigned in 2020 for falsifying his résumé.) While that mess made headlines, the real bombshell was in August 2019, when Todd and Julie were indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple counts of conspiracy, bank fraud and wire fraud and tax evasion.

Prosecutors claimed that in addition to defrauding banks of millions and not paying taxes, the Chrisleys allegedly used fake bank statements and at one point created “a fabricated credit report that had been physically cut and taped or glued together when applying for and obtaining a lease for a home in California,” among other things. “Celebrities face the same justice that everyone does,” the U.S. attorney said in a news release.

The trial that followed in spring 2022, though not televised, was a spectacle. “The whole trial was just such high drama,” said Angela Angotti, who co-hosts the podcast “The Bravo Docket” with fellow lawyer Cesie Alvarez, where they analyze the legal disputes of reality stars.

“Just the sheer volume … of what they were charged with is probably the biggest that we’ve seen on any reality show that we’ve covered,” Alvarez added.

The pair was bombarded by requests from listeners to discuss the case, Angotti and Alvarez said, which uncovered seemingly endless family drama. The Chrisleys’ defense team blamed the couple’s accountant, Tarantino, and Braddock, whom the Chrisley attorneys said pretended to be Todd in emails and phone calls. Prosecutors accused Nanny Faye of perjuring herself when she was asked about Todd and Julie putting a loan-out company in her name, and said that Lindsie — who had a strained relationship with her father — testified for him because of “unlawful influence.”

In a slew of character reference letters to the judge, the Chrisleys’ friends and show crew members wrote glowing notes, as did country singer George Jones’s widow Nancy, and even Julie’s plastic surgeon. They described the couple as kindhearted and humble, devoted to charity and helping neighbors and raising their granddaughter. (Savannah, 25, was granted custody of Chloe, now 10.) “They are genuinely kind, good hearted, God-fearing people, a rare commodity in this day and age,” wrote Jay DeMarcus of country trio Rascal Flatts, who befriended the Chrisleys when they moved to Nashville.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross was mostly unmoved at the sentencing, according to reports. “I’ve never heard any acceptance of any crime. I’ve never really heard any admission to any wrongdoing or any remorse,” she said, adding, “I have no reason to doubt that both Chrisleys have good hearts,” but “I cannot ignore the greed and flamboyance in this case.”

While the government framed its victory as a warning for others not to commit bank fraud no matter how famous they are, it remains to be seen whether that message will get across. Sheila Conlin, a reality TV producer and casting director who owns the Conlin Company, said she’s heard an increasing number of people say incredibly salacious things in casting interviews because they think it will improve their chances of getting cast on a show — or landing their own.

One man that she said had been convicted of something similar to the Chrisleys keeps reaching out. “He’s basically a straight-up criminal,” Conlin said, “And he wants a show done about him.”

The Chrisleys, whose reruns are still airing on USA even as their shows have been canceled, have continued to proclaim their innocence and talk about what a nightmare this is for the family. Fans have called into the “Chrisley Confessions” podcast to say they’re praying for them — #FreeTheChrisleys is also a popular hashtag among their devoted following. In one of Todd’s last podcast episodes of “Chrisley Confessions,” where he and Julie have been heavily leaning into their faith, he offered a message of inspiration.

“I believe our pain has been placed for the world to devour, and with so many people wanting to see us fall, wanting to see our destruction, but what they didn’t count on was the power of God,” Todd said, adding that his family’s pain has brought them closer together. “Those that try to destroy you … are going to be the same ones that have to witness your comeback.”

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