In the midst of the shit maelstrom that has been 2020, one would be forgiven for having forgotten about Operation Varsity Blues, the 2019 FBI investigation into well-heeled parents paying an estimated $25 million total in bribes to elite college coaches and admissions employees to get their progeny into college. One would also be forgiven for having forgotten about Olivia Jade Giannulli, the 21-year-old influencer daughter of Full House star Lori Loughlin. Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli are alleged to have spent $500,000 to get Olivia and her sister into the University of Southern California under the pretenses of a crew scholarship (neither Giannulli sister is a rower). Loughlin and her husband both pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and are serving two- and five-month prison sentences, respectively.
With her perfectly contoured cheekbones, upscale wardrobe, and extensive YouTube following, Giannulli, 21, became something of an object of public fascination during the fallout from the Varsity Blues scandal, serving as an emblem of white privilege and entitlement. The fact that she’d made various videos professing her boredom with college life and her extensive partying schedule at USC did not help matters in that regard.
Of course, according to the blueprint for celebrity absolution, even the most disgraced celebrities among us are entitled to their shot at a comeback, and Giannulli is no exception. On Tuesday, she granted her first interview to the Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk, hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter Willow, and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris.
From the very start, it is apparent that Giannulli’s appearance on the show is the first step in a carefully stage-managed return to public life: the women note that Giannulli asked them for the interview, rather than the other way around, and it leaves a bad taste in Banfield-Norris’s mouth. “I found it really ironic she chose three black women to reach out to for her redemption story,” Banfield-Norris says during the segment, adding that she fought “tooth and nail” against Giannulli’s appearance and saying that her asking for an appearance was “the epitome of white privilege.” Pinkett Smith and her daughter Willow argue against this, saying Giannulli shouldn’t be held responsible for the sins of the parents, and that it’s unfair to place all privileged young white women in a single category. Though, as Smith notes, she knew the interview might cause a stir. “We’re gonna get heat,” she says. (It’s probably fair to point out that, considering how much tabloid interest Giannulli’s case generated, “heat” may also serve as a synonym for “traffic”.)
Watching the segment, it’s hard to disagree with the concerns raised by Banfield-Norris. The interview bears the distinct marks of the celebrity self-rehabilitation process. There’s the imprecise, vaguely self-deprecating, PR-approved language (“This has been a really eye-opening experience for me and situation and even though there’s a lot of negative around it and a lot of experience and wrong doings, it has led me to have a completely different outlook on different situations,” Giannulli says calmly during the interview). There’s the sober yet age-appropriate apparel (a tasteful satin pink suit). There are the references to charity work (in Giannulli’s case, she volunteered at an after-school program in the Watts section of Los Angeles). And there’s a reluctance to directly address the questions that people involved with the case are interested in, such as what the level of Giannulli’s knowledge or participation in the fraudulent admissions process actually was. While she vaguely alludes to the fact that “when I was applying, I was not fully aware of what was going on,” the other women don’t really press her on this issue. They’re more interested in holding her accountable and forcing her to confront the privilege that enabled her to slip through the front door of an elite institution under false pretenses, and Giannulli calmly and quietly allows them to do so.
As Buzzfeed’s Scaachi Koul puts it, she “patiently, dutifully, calmly eats shit” as the women, particularly Banfield-Norris, hold her to account. “With the pandemic and everything brought to the table, just how there’s so much inequality and inequity, that when you come to the table with something like this, it’s like, child please,” Banfield-Norris says. “I’m exhausted with everything we have to deal with as a community.” In light of the whirlwind of chaos that has marked the past 18 months since Giannulli’s parents’ arrest, it’s hard to disagree with Banfield-Norris’s assessment of the situation: that the world has changed too much in such a short amount of time for Giannulli to merit the red carpet rollout for her own personal comeback tour.
Throughout the interview, Giannulli makes reference to her desire to get a second chance in the wake of her public humiliation. “What’s so important to me is to learn from the mistake,” she says. “I’m 21. I feel like I deserve a second chance to redeem myself.” But while she claims to be aware of her privilege and to understand the implications of what she did wrong, she doesn’t appear to realize that not everybody gets the opportunity to publicly atone for their sins in front of millions of Facebook Watch viewers; not everyone is entitled to a second chance to begin with. And Giannulli’s presence on Red Table Talk indicates that, at least in this regard, she really hasn’t learned much about the power of her privilege at all.