August 19, 2013 12:00 PM

Barefoot on a rainy Thursday, Teresa Giudice walked the beach in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with her daughters and picked seashells to paint with the youngest girl’s godmother, her former Real Housewives of New Jersey costar Dina Manzo. Teresa didn’t say a word about the 39 felony fraud and tax-evasion charges that had been filed against her and her husband, Joe, three days earlier on July 29. “She has got to stay strong for her kids,” Manzo says. “When they are around, it’s all happy faces.” As Teresa herself said, while she posed smiling at a small beauty- industry event in Manhattan July 31: “You can’t stop living.”

But a question hangs menacingly over those happy faces: Will Teresa, 41, and Joe, 43, whose gaudy lifestyle and table-flipping tempers made them reality stars, have to do their living behind bars? Each fraud charge alone (see p. 68) carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine – making this latest Real Housewives episode a dark fable about the artifice of instant fame and “reality” TV. In fact, the word “artifice” appears 11 times in a 33-page indictment that prosecutors say chronicles the illegal lengths to which the Giudices scrambled in order to keep up the lavish life they led on-camera. “The Giudices lied,” says U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. “That’s reality.”

Released on $1 million bond secured by Joe’s parents, the couple – parents of four girls ages 3 to 12 – are allowed to stay in their mansion in Towaco, N.J., while their separate lawyers Henry Klingeman and Miles Feinstein try to negotiate a plea. A source close to Teresa says she wants a deal that avoids prison for her, if not her husband. But she also desperately wants to dodge deportation for Joe – who was born in Italy and never became a U.S. citizen, instead maintaining legal resident-alien status. According to this source, Teresa’s defense is simple cluelessness, in sync with her bubbleheaded image on TV. (What cookbook author never heard of cumin and calls ingredients “ingrediences”?) Teresa either didn’t sign the allegedly fraudulent documents herself or didn’t understand when she did, says the source. “She just signed her name where she was told, whether by a loan officer, attorney or member of her family. Joe is the one who will have to walk the plank.”

Those sympathetic to the couple say that Teresa and Joe are hardly the only reality stars to feel the pressure to fake their fabulous lives. Some of the Housewives lavish parties and trips are handed to them gratis (either by Bravo or vendors seeking publicity), but they often have to shell out to maintain their over-the-top image and even to get cast in the first place. “I have heard of all kinds of crazy things, like people renting homes for the season,” says Dina Manzo. The Giudices’ former bankruptcy attorney Jim Kridel explained the smoke and mirrors: “You don’t want to show them as ordinary people, so there’s some leeway to make the show interesting.”

Now, of course, it’s getting very interesting. Though the season airing now was taped before the indictment, there has been an outpouring of schadenfreude over the duo many Housewives fans love to hate. On Teresa’s Instagram page, comments like “Shouldn’t you be in jail?” punctuated messages of support from fans. Castmate Caroline Manzo, no fan herself, used a live appearance on Bravo on Aug. 4 to call for a cease-fire: “This is nothing to joke about.”

Meanwhile, friends of the couple worry about the strain on them and their 14-year marriage, which has endured rumors of his cheating. “They love each other, and they are standing solidly behind each other,” says Joe’s lawyer. “Teresa and Joe are getting along very well,” says friend Kim DePaola. Still, she adds, “I’m sure this is taking a toll on him. Even though she is the mother, he—and this is Italian—is the head of the family. He’s got to worry about them even more than she does.” Meanwhile, the source close to Teresa wondered how the couple will fare as they move closer to trial. “As of now they will remain united in a defense,” the source said. “But that could change down the line.”

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