Fake water polo players, fake SAT scores, and some very real allegations of bribery: These are only some of the wild stories that have surfaced this week from a massive college admissions fraud case, in which wealthy parents were discovered to have been committing fraud to get their kids into elite universities.
The FBI investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” has resulted in the indictment of 50 people, including Lori Loughlin, the actress best known for her role as Aunt Becky on Full House.
Loughlin is married to Mossimo Giannulli, the founder of a multi-billion fashion company called Mossimo that was a popular streetwear brand in the ’90s and used to be sold at Target. They have been accused of paying $500,000 to ensure that their two daughters were admitted to the University of Southern California. Loughlin was taken into custody, but has since been freed on a $1 million bond.
One of the figures to emerge at the center of this scandal is the couple’s younger daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli. The 19-year-old has been a student at USC since fall 2018 and was already well known in some online circles as a social media influencer.
Over on her YouTube channel, she vlogs beauty tutorials and shopping hauls for her 1.9 million subscribers. On Instagram, she posts daily outfits and wanderlust pics from her vacations to places like Fiji, and on Twitter, she answers her followers’ questions about her life. Like most every other social media star, Giannulli also does plenty of sponsored content.
But now, Giannulli is facing a backlash, particularly on platforms that she once used to reign over. Her Instagram is filled with angry comments. Sephora, which used to pay her to post social media ads and collaborated with her on a makeup palette with her, just confirmed to Vox that it will be pulling the product.
Giannulli’s criticism is largely due to the light the scandal shines on income inequality, and the unfair advantages wealthy families in the US have when it comes to college admissions. As Libby Nelson wrote for Vox earlier this week, colleges might say they care about grades, references, and extracurricular activities, but the children of alumni and major donors get preferential treatment, as do athletes. Even without illegal intervention, wealthy kids like Giannulli routinely get spots to top colleges because they come from families who can afford to pay for music lessons, sports tournaments, and tutors.
There’s also the fact that Giannulli is an influencer (I messaged her on Instagram for this story, but didn’t get a response). An influencer today has the power to drive tons of money, to prop up medicines and energy drinks, and even to make their babies famous. Millions of kids look up to influencers like Giannulli, devouring their beauty tips and shopping hauls, so the fact that someone who commands such power is also involved in a college scandal only makes Giannulli’s situation look worse.
The Insta-famous life of Olivia Jade Giannulli
As far as social media influencers go, Giannulli almost seems to be algorithmically generated. She’s thin, white, beautiful, and comes from a wealthy, famous family.
On her YouTube channel, she amassed nearly 2 million subscribers by sharing her makeup tips, revealing her Christmas presents, and showing off her favorite jewelry pieces. Like many Gen Z social media stars, Giannulli’s internet personality is casual and approachable. She’ll post her morning routine, for example, and will bring the camera into her bed before her makeup application. And even though she comes from a privileged lifestyle, she maintains somewhat of a humble tone, frequently telling her audiences how much she loves them and is grateful for their views.
On Instagram, she posts glamorous outfits and party shots, but she also shows how she’s just a teen, having fun with friends.
Giannulli has been a social media celebrity since she was 14 — or at least, that’s when her YouTube footprint starts. Over more recent years, she’s amassed a huge following, and become a paid partner of Calvin Klein, Lulus, the Smile Direct Club, Tresemmé, Marc Jacobs Beauty, GlassesUSA, and Boohoo, among others. She’s been a guest of Chanel at the French luxury house’s fashion shows and has posted directly on the Instagram account of People magazine.
Giannulli has also landed a few collaborations of her own. In December 2018, she released a fashion line with Australian e-commerce site Polly Princess. (The collaboration appears to have been recently taken down. I reached out to Polly Princess for comment and did not immediately hear back.) Giannulli also had an ongoing partnership with Sephora; she’s previously posted sponsored photos to Instagram, and she debuted her own makeup palette late last year.
She’s been pretty open with her followers that school isn’t all that important to her; she’s tweeted that YouTube is her main passion, rather than sitting in class. When Teen Vogue asked her what about her freshman year excited her most, she responded, “I’m most excited to meet new people and change up my content on YouTube to do more college-themed videos!”
In another YouTube video from August 2018, she tells viewers: “I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend. But I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying. … I don’t really care about school.” When followers criticized her in the comments at the time, she posted an apology video, telling her followers she was sorry for saying “something super ignorant and stupid, basically, and it totally came across that I’m not grateful for college. I’m going to a really nice school. … I know it’s a privilege, and it’s a blessing, and I’m really grateful.”
Just last week, on March 8, however, she went on a radio show and said that she was mostly at USC because of her parents’ wishes.
“Mostly my parents really wanted me to go because both of them didn’t go to college,” she said. “I’m so happy they made me go — that sounds so terrible. They didn’t make me! … I do like it. It’s also cool to create content from a whole different side of things, like in school.”
Some of the current criticism has been about how Giannulli wasn’t even taking advantage of her spot at USC, instead focusing on her influencer career. One Instagram commenter lamented about “poor kids that bust their asses to get into schools like USC to change their futures only to lose it to someone who paid their way in only to experience the parties.” Another wrote, “The $500k your folks paid to get you and your sister into USC could have provided 15 full scholarships for low-income students at a state school. Your shallowness and vapidity are an insult to kids who work hard and play by the rules. Getting a degree in Kardashian studies?”
It’s worth noting that being a social media star is a real job. It might seem like easy, mindless work, but it takes time, effort, and some level of authenticity to become a successful influencer. And to her credit, Giannulli seems to be dedicated to the craft. She’s clearly put plenty of time into her YouTube channel, and she does all the requisite posts on Instagram to hold up her obligations with partners while maintaining her audience’s engagement. As Giannulli has said in her videos, the angry responses she frequently faces from the internet undoubtedly get amplified because she’s a celebrity.
Still, her cavalier attitude about school doesn’t really help her in the eyes of critics. According to the Justice Department, her parents paid bribes so that “their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team — even though they did not participate in crew — thereby facilitating their admission to USC.”
Her father, according to court papers, took an “action photo” of Giannulli on an indoor rowing machine, which he then used as a profile picture for membership at the L.A. Marina Club. This was submitted to William Rick Singer, the alleged mastermind of the scheme who runs the college counseling business at its center, Edge College & Career Network. The photo and L.A. Marina Club membership were compiled by Singer, who made the case for Olivia Jade to apply to USC as an athlete in November 2017, despite the fact that she did not row crew.
Giannulli now faces backlash from angry fans
It’s not clear if Giannulli knew she had been accepted into USC under allegedly fraudulent circumstances.
But some of her popularity on social media is — or was — connected to her perceived relatability. As one fan commented on her video about her college style at the time, “I think it’s so cool how she’s in college like a normal teen living with a roommate and not acting like she’s too good. Olivia has always been so humble that’s why I love her so much.” (The comments section for Giannulli’s YouTube account has since been closed). In a radio interview, she said that “It is the coolest thing getting DMs from girls, like, ‘I’m applying to college right now, what did you do?’”
All the attention to Giannulli’s YouTube videos is likely earning her money from ads. But fans are now lashing out against Giannulli, angry that she benefited from her parents’ crimes. The comments section of the page selling the Olivia Jade x Sephora Collection Bronze & Illuminate Palette, for example, is brimming with comments, some mocking the young social media star.
“I love to use this product on days when I want to use my privilege to suppress and steal from more deserving individuals. Totally sweat proof, lasts all through my crew practice that I don’t actually attend,” one wrote. “I thought this would give me the “just-came-from-crew-practice,” “spent-hours-rowing-on-the-lake” glow. Turns out it was all a sham!”
Others are being less humorous about it.
“Olivia, your family is a glowing example of what is broken in this country. I hope they throw the book at all of you. Shame,” one comment reads. “Palette makes you look like a fake cheater whose family disses honest kids at other schools. Olivia should not be an influencer of anything! Her mother should not be a paid actress on Hallmark!,” another person wrote.
Many Sephora shoppers were vowing to boycott the beauty brand until it dropped its collab with Giannulli.
“I pity any person who purchased or will purchase this item and further line the pockets of that spoiled entitled little girl. Sephora, if you had half a mind you would cut all ties with this family and throw these palettes in the discount bin. What an embarrassment,” one commenter wrote.
“I will not be purchasing anything from Sephora until this product is removed from the website/shelves. Maybe this girl didn’t know what happened, but she seems as entitled as they come. Please don’t support someone how doesn’t understand or care about the value of hard work and an education,” reads another.
On Thursday, March 14, Sephora told me in an email that “after careful review of recent developments, we have made the decision to end the Sephora Collection partnership with Olivia Jade, effective immediately.” The page on their website has since been taken down.
Giannulli’s Instagram comments section is flooded with angry comments too, but some fans are pushing back, saying that even though her parents committed a crime, Giannulli is just a teen, and plenty of the comments are unnecessarily cruel.
“Everyone needs to sllllooowww down,” one Instagrammer wrote. “This girl is only 19 years old and while she is legally an adult, she is still just a kid. Think back to you being 19 and how you might not have wanted to go to college because you just got out of school. Plus, how does everyone just know that this girl knew what her parents did for her.”
“Duuuudeeee every picture people are going innnn on her. I feel so bad like this is actually bullying,” another sympathizer wrote. “I hope she’s strong enough to handle it.”
As for USC, the college said in a statement that it’s reviewing the applications of the students whose parents were involved in the scandal and “will make informed, appropriate decisions once those reviews have been completed.”
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