Meet Olivia Jade: How the College Bribery Scam Exposes the Privilege of the Influencer Economy
Olivia Jade Giannulli is a 19-year-old YouTuber with over two million subscribers as of the writing of this post as well as 1.4 million Instagram followers. She has the kind of polished social media presence that is exceedingly familiar to anyone who has ventured into the world of influencers. Her channel includes tutorials on make-up looks for days at college, tours of her revamped dorm room, and Q&As relating to her every-day student life at the University of Southern California. She’s had brand deals with Amazon Prime and recently launched her own palate with beauty brand Sephora.
But you probably know her name because of something she and her parents did. Her mother, Full House actress Lori Loughlin, and father, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were recently indicted for allegedly paying $500,000 in bribes to get Olivia and her older sister Bella Rose into USC as recruits for the crew team. The indictment alleges that they passed off this half a million dollars bribe as a donation to a charity for under-privileged youth, although what it was really funding was wide-scale fraud related to both girls’ college applications. Neither were rowers and, in the case of Olivia, the bribe involved having someone else complete their entire application. Loughlin posted a bail bond of $1 million and she is scheduled to appear in court at the end of the month.
As for Olivia, it was recently announced that Sephora would be dropping their partnership with her, effective immediately, and all traces of her palette have disappeared from their website. She has locked comments on some of her Instagram posts but not all of them, and the comments there, as well as her YouTube channel, have been merciless. This is not the first time, however, that Olivia’s privilege and seemingly cavalier attitude towards it have come under fire. She already faced backlash from her fans when she admitted that she had no real plans to attend any of her classes at USC since her priorities were college parties and her YouTube channel, something she then quickly apologized for. In a Teen Vogue interview regarding her redecorated dorm room, she plugged Amazon Prime’s services but did not disclose her sponsorship deal with them. It was also recently revealed that, as the college bribery scandal came to light, Olivia was at the time on the yacht of the USC Board of Trustees chairman for spring break. If this story didn’t exist, Sophia Coppola or Bravo would have had to make it up.
There’s so much to dig into in regards to how this story exposes the corruption of the higher education system and how colleges are beholden to money and privilege more than merit, but people far more qualified than me have talked about those issues at length and I shall leave that discussion to them. However, once I found out that one of the women involved with this scandal was an influencer, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer predictability of it. Of course one of these scammers was a YouTube star. Of course she was using her extensive wealth and access to do the same thing everyone else on Instagram does. Of course she was shilling Amazon Prime while bragging about not attending classes at an institution that costs around $50k a year to attend. How could she not be? Both of these systems - influencing and higher education - were set up almost entirely to benefit women like her.
Watching Olivia Jade’s YouTube videos is a near hypnotic descent into the mind-numbingly inane. Her popularity is both incredibly easy to understand and utterly incomprehensible. She isn’t especially charismatic or interesting, nor is her style (both in terms of fashion and content) unique. Indeed, you could find countless channels doing exactly what she does in a few seconds of googling. When she shares the exorbitantly priced clothes she has purchased, she has very little to say about them. They’re just nice, cute, look good for whatever. I’m no makeup expert, but the people I asked about her Sephora palette did not seem particularly enthused by what had been released under her name, saying it looked like something they could buy for a fraction of the price elsewhere. In the handful of moments where she does talk about her time at USC, she doesn’t have much to say. On that front, at least we know why now.
It’s not all that shocking that Olivia Jade did not want to go to college, nor that her involvement at USC seldom seemed to go beyond the social aspect. That was all she needed for her brand. She got money from Amazon Prime to show how regular students like her can make their pad look cool for a low price. She posed in USC apparel to complete the illusion. In one video, she even calls out people who ask her why she only films the party aspects of college, and adds a 10-second clip of a lecture to prove she does attend classes. The irony of her focusing more on turning her education into content (with half of said lecture clip focused on her posing for the camera) seems to have escaped her.
Everything she says, does, wears, advertises, feels horribly familiar. Indeed, she is merely one of countless influencers flogging the same aesthetic and promises: Polished and relatable and utterly indistinguishable from everyone else. This seems to have been a solid brand for her, at least before it was revealed that she didn’t even want to fill in her own college application. However, it is not merely the boredom of what she does that is worth discussing. It is in the privilege said influencer fuel is rooted in. Essentially, Olivia Jade is like every other influencer, because the only way you can become that sort of influencer is by already being rich.
The only thing that makes Olivia Jade’s brand stand out is that occasionally her mother and John Stamos will make appearances. These are the reminders as to why you’re on her page in the first place. It’s not that she’s unique or offering a service or philosophy of worth: It’s that she’s part of a lineage. This is nothing new, of course. Nepotism is the bloodline of Hollywood, but especially the beauty industry. The biggest models in the world right now - Kendall Jenner, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kaia Gerber, Hailey Baldwin-Bieber - entered these hallowed grounds of fame and influence through the easiest routes possible. They already had the money and clout for personal trainers, the most expensive make-up, the most exclusive clothes, the top level industry connections, and so on.
One of the biggest selling points of the influencer economy is its seemingly democratic foundations. Anyone, even you, can become an influencer just through being yourself. It’s open to all, as long as you have a social media account and do the hard graft. Of course, that’s seldom the case, just as the myth of Hollywood being a place where only the most talented thrive is one of smoke and mirrors. It’s true that there have been some influencers and internet celebrities who came from humble beginnings, but the particular aesthetic of the beauty influencer is one rooted in pre-existing wealth. That relatable image was never so. How could it be when the only way to attain it is to be born into it? No amount of Amazon Prime memberships or TreSemme hairspray can replicate something like that. Selling a fairy-tale is one thing (especially when it required nothing on your part), but shilling it as an attainable ideal is a whole other level of privilege.
In a way, Olivia Jade is no different to her mother. Loughlin, a Hallmark actress (the channel has since cut ties with her), built an image for herself as a figure of polished relatability, monied but still one of the gals. That’s nothing new for an actress, but it’s an interesting balance to try and uphold in a social media age, especially when you’re leveraging that platform for you and your children’s financial gain. Perhaps she did want a solid education for her kids, but given how many times Olivia has gone on the record to say she never cared or wanted such a thing in her life, you can’t help but wonder how Loughlin and her husband saw such an elite education as an opportunity for mutually advantageous corporate synergy.
The sad truth is that the shelf life of internet outrage is increasingly short, and even if these indictments lead to tangible justice, the central flaws in the system that created these scams in the first place will probably go unchecked. Even if those loopholes are closed, people will just go back to good old-fashioned bribery to get their kids into college. As for Olivia Jade, she will be fine. Even if all her brand deals drop her, even if her parents go to jail, even if she is expelled from USC, she will be fine. The same pre-existing structures that allowed her to build her influencer brand will cushion the blow of her brief downfall. The benefit of having a brand built on legacy is that there are always other options available to you, even if ultimately you have nothing to give or sell beyond that.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.
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