2:30pm PT by Chris Gardner
Author of New Operation Varsity Blues Book Says "Public Still Wants More of an Explanation" From Lori Loughlin
In the hours after federal investigators revealed to the public that a 1999 film called Varsity Blues had taken on new meaning as the code name of a bombshell investigation of widespread college admissions fraud, most people were still scooping their jaws off the ground while trying to understand how Hollywood stars like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were involved. Meanwhile, Fast Company senior writer Nicole LaPorte was closing a book deal on the subject.
LaPorte, a veteran L.A.-based entertainment reporter, wasted no time in mobilizing a project even though she knew it would be months before she could wrap her head around the case which stretched from coast to coast and implicated parents, private schools, university officials and Rick Singer, a man far from a household name at that point. But if anyone was up to the task it was LaPorte who previously investigated the inner workings of DreamWorks while penning The Men Who Would Be King: Movies, Moguls, and a Company Called Dreamworks.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, LaPorte opens up on why she decided to make Operation Varsity Blues the subject of her second tome, the shocking politics of L.A.'s private schools, Huffman and Loughlin's comeback chances, and what she wants to write about next.
I wanted to start in March 2019, when federal prosecutors announced the indictments. That was March 12, and then two days later, it was announced that you got a book deal to write Guilty Admission. How did that happen so quickly?
That was a crazy and slightly surreal turn of events. At the time, I was contemplating writing a new book and had been having conversations with my agent about other ideas that happened to be centered in Los Angeles. One had to do with the wealth culture, so that is partly why it happened so quickly. Also, I had covered entertainment for a long time, and at that moment, I had this desire to try something different. Not to change careers or change my reporting life but to maybe play with a project that had little to do with what I write about on a day-to-day basis, which is entertainment. So, it was a combination of things that came together in a fortuitous way.
Then, I felt a real connection to the story on a lot of different levels. I went to Georgetown, which is, of course, a university that was involved in the scandal. I was also a rower at Georgetown, and rowing is a sport that Rick Singer exploited to get kids into college. I remember the drama of applying to college and being obsessed with going to certain schools. I didn't get into Georgetown out of high school — I transferred in — but I remember the heartbreak of that situation. Over the years, I've had conversations with people who are independent college counselors and we've talked about how much of it had changed. So, there was just a lot of stuff in the ether that I connected with.
To me, it came down to such a simple and obvious question: How did we get here? How did we get to this place in this country where even the wealthiest people who have amazing resources and connections, how is it that they even feel that they have to basically swindle their way into college? I saw that question so clearly and so simply and I think because of that, it was maybe an easier sell.
I remember indictment day clearly because it caught so many people off guard. Knowing what you did about admissions, were you as shocked as the rest of the world about how widespread it was?
Yeah, I was. Again, at that point, I didn't know anything and I hadn't done any reporting so it was a huge mystery. As I went along in my reporting, it was almost like peeling an onion. For example, I researched the culture of private schools in Los Angeles and found out how terrified parents were of college admissions. These were parents of children at top private schools and their kids were getting 3.5s, doing everything the so-called "right way," and even they were terrified. Then it all started to make more sense to me how this could happen.
What surprised you the most about how preschools and private schools operate in Los Angeles?
First, my book focuses on Los Angeles but this phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to Los Angeles. It exists in just about any super privileged pocket of the world, whether it's Manhattan, Northern California, or abroad. I do think it is pronounced here in a different way, partly as a result of the entertainment industry and the culture at large in Los Angeles where pay-to-play is a term people in deal-making. Because of that, pay-to-play infiltrates the culture with less subtlety than it does in New York. I was talking to someone who pointed this out to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw it. I think people here are a little more shameless about it.
In certain wealthy pockets in Los Angeles, everything can be a transaction. I remember talking to someone who said this to me directly, "Look, it's like everyone is trying to get the better deal. You don't just go to the concert; you want to get the VIP pass to the concert. You're not just going to fly to Cancun or Cabo, you want to get the private jet." It's very much in the culture of the entertainment industry and as a result, is in the culture at large. I think that seeps down into the education system at these schools where people are literally paying to send their kids.
As far as most surprising, it was probably the preschool side of it and how early it starts. I was just shocked at how much it mirrored what parents go through to get their kids into the right high school, and ultimately the right college. People felt pressured to make donations or give money at preschools, and to have a good relationship with the preschool director because the director was the one who was going to go tout their child to the admissions director at the private elementary school. Then they were hiring tutors for their kids to pass elementary assessment tests. They were paying $350 an hour for tutors.
That is shocking — $350 an hour at that age. How widespread is that and how busy was that tutor, do you know?
I wouldn't say it's the majority of families, but I don't think it's uncommon. To be fair, in some cases, it's not solely about passing the test. Maybe the child went to a more play-based preschool where they didn't focus on academics but now the family is applying to a very academic elementary school like Carlthorp or Curtis, and their child actually never learned how to write their name. To be fair also, in some cases, they wanted the child to be ready. They don't want the kid to go from a place where it was all about playing and social-emotional interaction to a place where they're going to sit down on the first day and have to do writing, and they want that kid to thrive.
On page 87, you write about how one Westside preschool admissions director was known to take notes on what kind of handbag mothers brought in, and would look up their houses on Zillow. Were people offended by that?
I don't think people knew. The way I found that out was not through parents, it was through someone who had worked at a preschool. I don't think the parents were aware of that, but to me it just spoke to the other element going on here in some of these preschools is the directors and the people running these schools want to create almost like a clubby atmosphere where it's almost more about the parents. These preschools, in their defense, they're private and their funding comes from parents and from tuition, and so, of course, it's in their interest — and sometimes they need extra funds just as high schools and colleges are interested in families who they think can donate to help repair the roof or add a new playground. All of that factors in at the preschool level, too — at these schools, anyway.
I wanted to ask about Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin because, obviously, they became the faces of this scandal, for better or worse. You got so many great details just about how they came into this situation, but how fair do you think it is that they are the faces of this?
I don't know if it's a question of fairness, it's just how the media works. For better or worse, the media clings to the biggest names, and from the very beginning, those were the faces you saw attached to these articles. No one knows who the Georgetown tennis coach is or the banker in Northern California. But they know these names and that's what is going to sell, right? The way the two women played it was such a study in contrasts. Felicity, from the very first glimpse of her walking into the courthouse, she looked genuinely distraught and humiliated. She wasn't wearing makeup and she didn't make eye contact with the cameras. She seemed authentically remorseful.
When Lori showed up, her hair and makeup was done, she looked at the cameras. In her defense, I think she just didn't know. She treated it like a PR appearance. Those narratives continued because Felicity immediately pled guilty and, in the end, she only served 11 days. Meanwhile, Lori and Mossimo Giannulli fought the charges and denied them for several months before they finally pled guilty. There was no way for them to avoid the spotlight, but the way each narrative played itself out contributed to these stories.
I remember hearing rumors that there were going to be additional people indicted — as in, other executives and celebrities — but that didn't happen. Do you think it was more widespread than we know?
Even since March, there have been more parents, and I don't know the exact number, but there have been a couple more parents that have been indicted over the past six months. Yes, I do think there are more. I don't know if there are [more] big-name celebrities, but I do think there are more parents that the government simply doesn't have enough evidence on.
I was so struck by your reporting on Felicity. It seemed like she worked so hard at being a great mother and was so transparent about her efforts, her failures and doing the best she could. What is your take on her and how she found herself caught up in this?
I went through old interviews she had done, and she brought up motherhood quite a bit. She talked about how difficult it was and shared not only sad but also very real anecdotes. For example, she went to a Desperate Housewives audition at 5 p.m., and both her kids were young. They were in the tub when she had to leave, and she didn't want to. There's no mother that can hear that and not relate to it. She was so honest and always had been very honest about how difficult it was for her to be a mother, and how much guilt she had. She turned it into this business, What's the Flicka? When I went to her sentencing hearing, I mean, you could hear a pin drop in that courtroom. It was that silent. She had her head down the entire time and when she stood up to read her letter, it was so emotional, because she said she was driving her daughter to this test site and she asked, "Mom, can we get ice cream later?" Felicity is saying to herself in her head, "Turn the car around, just turn the car around."
On the other hand, Felicity was trying to get “extra time” for her daughter, Sophia, to take the SAT, so Sophia could take it over two days. That way Sophia could take it at one of the testing centers that Rick Singer ran and thus have someone correct her answers. Felicity gets an email from Sophia's high school guidance counselor saying that Sophia did in fact receive extra time. Felicity sends an email to Singer saying “Hurray! She got it.” But then the guidance counselor writes back and says that Sophia can take it at her high school, [Los Angeles County High School for the Arts], and that the guidance counselor will proctor it, i.e., there will be no way to cheat. So, Felicity writes Singer and says “Ruh Ro! Looks like LACHSA wants to provide own proctor.” That’s when you start feeling less sympathy toward Felicity Huffman.
What do you think their chances are for Felicity or Lori to have a "comeback" that Hollywood loves so much?
When I read that Felicity got cast in a new show, I was surprised for about a second, and then I wasn't at all. Hollywood absolutely loves a comeback story, and I think the culture at large also loves a comeback story. Going back to Felicity's narrative and the way all this played out, people feel like she paid her dues. She said she was sorry, she went to jail, she didn't complain, she didn't fight it the way Lori did. She admitted she was wrong from the get-go. If you can tick all those boxes — and I'm not saying she did it with ill intent or to further her career because I believe she was genuine — I think you are allowed to come back to Hollywood.
And what about Lori?
That remains to be seen because she didn't have the same narrative. She did come around and apologize and she has now served her time. She ticked most of the boxes but, I mean, who really knows? I think the public still wants more of an explanation from her. I wouldn't be surprised if she did some version of Oprah where she sat for an hour of television and is honest and remorseful, talking about how she's changed and what she's learned. Then, she would be good to go, but [for now] I think there's still something missing.
What lasting impact will this have on the college admissions process or even preschool or elite private schools? Do you think that those admission processes will change at all in the wake of this?
They really need to. One thing I think that I came away from all of this believing is that the parents are reacting to a system. The parents don't wake up one morning and say, "Oh my God, I'm going to have to really pull some strings here to get my kid into college." They're reacting to a situation where college acceptance rates are so low. Stanford now accepts only 4 percent. Colleges also have changed what they're looking for in applicants. It's no longer enough to just be a well-rounded student who maybe plays a sport and does extracurricular activities and is class president. It's almost like something you'd yawn at.
Colleges now want specialists who take their interests or their passions and supercharge them. They're not just interested in robotics, they start a robotics program at their school, and then they take it to the inner city, and then they maybe take it nationally. It's become so intensely competitive to get into these schools that the parents are really reacting to that. Also, the culture needs to change so that there's not such an emphasis on Ivy League or brand-name schools. People can educate themselves about how many wonderful colleges are out there and get away from the thinking that if you don't go to an Ivy League school you won't have a future or a job or be successful. It all has to change.
As somebody who has reported on Hollywood for so long, it must've been surreal to get your book deal and find out that there were then competing projects out there, a common Hollywood situation. What did you make of all of the swirl around the competition?
It kept me on my toes. I felt like I couldn't skip a day of work, and like any journalist, a good sense of competition makes you want to work harder. More importantly, it made me want to carve out my own angle. I thought, if a lot of people are going to tell this story, what is going to make my story different? That's when I really thought about Los Angeles and how the context led to the scandal. Once I carved out L.A., literally geographically and culturally, it made my life a lot easier because I had something specific to focus on. That made me much less aware of the competition. In all of these situations, you're trying to drown out noise and just trying to do your best work. I've heard movie executives say "a rising tide raises all ships." I do think that's true.
After having done your DreamWorks book and now Guilty Admissions, what are you interested in doing next?
I want to do a project where everyone wants to talk to me because I have now done two where really no one wanted to. I'm ready for full, on-the-record participation!
Nicole LaPorte's book, Guilty Admissions: The Bribes, Favors, and Phonies Behind the College Cheating Scandal, is currently available.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.