It’s hard to think back to March 2019, but try anyway: Paul Manafort was sentenced to prison (oh yeah, him), Stormy Daniels was all over the news (who???), and a major college admissions scandal went public. Code-named “Operation Varsity Blues,” the FBI investigation revealed that between 2011 and 2018, 33 wealthy parents paid around $25 million in bribes to coaches and administrators at colleges around the country, to ensure that their also-rich children got into the colleges of their choosing. This feels so long ago, but we’re back to ruminating on it thanks to today’s latest Red Table Talk episode. A nice reprieve from worrying about vaccine availability, I think.
Two of the parents charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud (among other charges) made headlines because of their fame: Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman and Full House’s Lori Loughlin. One of Loughlin’s influencer daughters, Olivia Jade Giannulli, was a 19-year-old first-year student at the University of Southern California with a YouTube following of nearly 2 million and a few sponsorships to her name when the story broke. Loughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly spent $500,000 to ensure Giannulli and her sister’s entry to USC. If this sounds like a lot of effort to get into a school to, as Giannulli effectively said in a YouTube video before the scandal went public, party your goddamn face off, that’s because it is. Loughlin has since been sentenced to two months in prison, while her husband was sentenced to five after they both pleaded guilty in August.
Giannulli’s nascent influencer career made her a poster girl for a certain kind of privilege. She wasn’t that concerned about going to school, didn’t need higher education to better herself or grant her more opportunity, and was lucky enough to have wealthy parents who could not only bribe her admission into a fun school but could fully finance four years there (though she hasn’t returned to school since her parents were sentenced and neither has her sister). In the aftermath of the scandal, she continued to post carefree selfies in poor taste, along with a few YouTube videos, namely one where she said she just wanted to “move on'' with her life back in December 2019. That didn’t work, of course, and even this past summer when she posted in support of Black Lives Matter, people on Twitter were quick to point out her own unexamined privilege, and the incredible luck that even after a massive bribery case like this, her parents will only have to serve a few short months in prison.
But 2020 is a good year to try to change your narrative and Giannulli’s appearance on Red Table Talk does just that. The show, which streams on Facebook Watch, has typically been the domain for Black celebrities to talk about their scandals and, sometimes, to apologize.
At the beginning of the episode, Jada Pinkett Smith, her mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris, and her daughter, Willow, talk about whether it’s even responsible or necessary to give Giannulli space for a redemption arc. Norris, in particular, is not having it: “I fought it tooth and nail. I just found it really ironic that she chose three Black women to reach out to for her redemption story,” she said. “I feel like here we are, a white woman coming to Black women for support when we don’t get the same from them. Her being here is the epitome of white privilege to me.” (Later, Norris scolds Giannulli to her face, and she sits there like a lost fawn. If you’re still mad at her and her family for the bribery, it’s satisfying to watch.)
In the interview, which is barely 30 minutes long, Giannulli sits very still in a stunning pink suit and patiently, dutifully, calmly eats shit. She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t whine, she doesn’t try to downplay the severity of her parents’ crimes. And while she wasn’t formally charged with any wrongdoing short of pretending to be a skilled rower (who among us, you know?), she does admit that she didn’t think what her parents did was a big deal because everyone around her was doing the same thing. “I remember thinking, How are people mad about this? A lot of kids in that bubble, their parents were donating to schools and doing stuff that, like, so many advantages. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it was happening,” she said. “This was normal. But I didn’t realize at the time that was privilege.” (Giannulli could frankly start a side hustle where she teaches other YouTubers how to appropriately apologize from their own mini scandals.)
Ultimately, Giannulli’s excuses sound pretty reasonable: She trusted her parents, she’s young and wanted to go to a fun school with her sister, she trusted her college counselor (who has also pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing), and she’s so upsettingly privileged that she didn’t even register that the ways her parents were using their privilege were grossly out of hand. “I don’t want pity. I don’t deserve pity. I just want a second chance to be like, I recognize I messed up.”
It’s actually impressive — in her attempt to not curry pity, she’s more effective at generating sympathy than some of her peers with regards to their own scandals. While makeup influencer Laura Lee took to YouTube to dry-cry after she was called a racist online in 2018, Giannulli talked about her own privilege and her attempts to recognize it. Giannulli could have uploaded a video of herself trying to muscle through her scandal — and indeed she did at the end of 2019, a two-minute video that says nothing, apologizes to no one, recognizes nothing, and merely meekly begs a hostile audience to give her a pass.
But Giannulli figured something out about the public apology tour that a lot of other famous, privileged, white young women fail to grasp. You’ll likely never escape a public narrative already written about you. The best way forward is through, and in this regard, Norris was right — it’s an incredibly shrewd decision to use the platform of three Black women to muscle your way through accountability.
Giannulli is a privileged young woman, but the Pinkett/Smith family benefits from the same kind of celebrity privilege, making it a great place to start a compelling apology tour. Red Table Talk has everything Giannulli needs to not make the audience forget, but rather, to understand her side. “What’s so important to me is to learn from the mistake,” Giannulli says in the episode. “I’m 21. I feel like I deserve a second chance to redeem myself.” It’s a chance she might not get from anyone else, but for 30 minutes today, she got more than she’s had in two years: a rapt audience keen to listen to her, and by the end, likely ready to forgive. ●