Here it is: the moment you’ve been waiting for. No, not the first injection of the vaccine. No, not the stimulus check that you and your family have been waiting for. Lord, no, not the White House eviction. The moment has come for Olivia Jade Giannulli to speak. She has spoken, that is. She has spoken on Facebook Watch’s Red Table Talk, the show where Jada Pinkett Smith, her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, and her daughter, Willow, bring people and problems “to the table.”
The 30 minutes of programming played well for Giannulli. You learned right off the bat that she was the one who reached out to RTT for her first interview. She was contrite and firm and conciliatory while wearing her oversized pink silk suit (more on that later).
You also learned right off the bat that Banfield-Norris was not interested in having the daughter of two people who paid $500,000 to get their kids into college through the “backdoor method”—that is, illegally through the athletic department—on the program.
“I just found it really ironic that she chose three Black women to reach out to for her redemption story,” Banfield-Norris said. “Her being here is the epitome of white privilege to me.” She will be fine, whereas there are a lot of other people who wouldn’t be so fine. (Not to spoil it all, but Giannulli won Banfield-Norris over by the end.)
“I never want to be the thing that was done to me by white women,” Pinkett Smith said in response. Willow went Goldilocks and aimed to find where those two truths would “blend.”
Giannulli, for her part, wanted to give her first interview in a place where she wouldn’t feel attacked, one that felt “safe” and also “honest.”
When they sat down to the table, Giannulli was asked if she was able to talk to her parents in prison. She said she hadn’t done so, likely due to the quarantine period, and had never gone so long without speaking to them, especially her mother. “It’s been hard. I think for anybody, no matter what the situation is, you don’t want to see your parents to go to prison. But I also think it’s necessary for us to move on and move forward.”
They of course asked for her take on her parents’ motive behind the school choice. Her thought? “I really believe my dad has attachment issues and didn’t want us to leave California, for starters. He was so tunnel vision on ‘I just want my kids to have a good college experience, and I just want them to have an amazing education, and I know I can give that to them.’ Neither of them went to college, so I think it was important for them, like, ‘we didn’t get to have that. I want to give it to you.��� But they wanted to give it to us a little too much.”
At the time she said she wasn’t angry, just confused. When she confronted them, “they didn’t really have much to say except, like, ‘I’m so sorry. I, like, really messed up in trying to give the best to you and your sister.’”
Giannulli also spoke about her process over the last couple of years in contending with a lot of information that was new to her—both that she was privileged and the extent of the fraud. When she first heard the news (she got “a call” but didn’t say from whom), she was on spring break. She searched her mom’s name and found out that way. She felt so ashamed that she went home and “hid myself for probably, like, three or four months.”
“I never went back [to USC]. I was too embarrassed,” she said. “And you know what? I shouldn’t have been there in the first place clearly, so there was no point in me trying to go back.”
Some of the big questions, like how much Giannulli knew and when she knew it, went mostly unanswered; she just alluded to the fact that she didn’t know everything that was going on. But she admitted she didn’t really get what was so wrong initially. To her it seemed like what everyone in her world had done: hired a college-admissions counselor (in her case, Rick Singer, the ringleader of the college-admissions fraud) and paid a lot of money to gain school admittance (in her case, by posing as an athlete instead of the shady but legal method of making a large donation to the school of one’s choice). “In that community it was not out of the ordinary,” she said.
“A huge part of having privilege is not knowing you have privilege,” she added, so she thought that she was being misunderstood. “The picture that has been painted of me I feel like is not who I am. I’m not this bratty girl that doesn’t want to change anything.”
But after reading the stories, and sitting with it over time, she got the frustration. “I understand why people are angry…. I think I had to go through the backlash and the stuff because when you read it, you realize that there’s, like, some truth in it. I understood that people were upset and angry, and maybe it took me a little bit longer to understand what for, but man, am I glad I did realize what for. Better later than never.”
In the end, she said, she wanted an opportunity, now that the legal process was over, to say that she got it and was working on it. “I don’t want pity; I don’t deserve pity. We messed up. I just want a second chance to be like, ‘I recognize I messed up.’”
With regard to that unfairness, that of families giving money to schools to help their children gain admission, Giannulli said, “Although it took a crazy experience for me and my family to realize that [it was wrong], I’m happy that we do,” in a gesture toward the whole break-the-cycle of it all. “When I have kids that’ll never happen.”
Banfield-Norris was able to voice her own frustration with the whole proceeding as well. “It’s like, child, please. I’m exhausted,” she told Giannulli. “I’m exhausted with everything that we have to deal with as a community, and I just don’t have the energy to put into the fact that you lost your endorsements. Or you’re not in school right now. Because at the end of the day, you’re gonna be okay.”
By the end of the episode they were all laughing. Giannulli said her heart rate was down, and they complemented Giannulli’s great outfit. Banfield-Norris said that when saw Giannulli’s outfit, she was like, “She don’t even want me to be mad at her.”
To which Giannulli replied, “I definitely don’t want you to be mad at me.”
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