Olivia Jade’s Dancing With The Stars debut was a spectacular misstep

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Olivia Jade Giannulli made her Dancing With The Starsdebut last night. This would be the same Olivia Jade whose parents, Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded guilty in the college admissions scandal last year. Both parents were accused of paying half a million dollars in bribes to get their daughters, Olivia Jade and her sister Isabella, into the University of Southern California as rowing recruits.

Loughlin and her husband served two and five months in prison respectively and have both been released. Olivia Jade made herself scarce for a while, before re-emerging on YouTube and on Instagram (she was a well-known beauty vlogger and influencer prior to the scandal). In December last year, she broke her silence on Red Table Talk, the talk show co-hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter Willow Smith, and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris. “I’m 21,” Olivia Jade said at the time. “I feel like I deserve a second chance to redeem myself, to show I’ve grown.” Norris, meanwhile, described Olivia Jade (as she is known publicly) as “the epitome of white privilege”.

Dancing With The Stars (the US equivalent to the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing) is the next step in Olivia Jade’s return to public life. It’s an odd move, and – judging by the reception to last night’s episode – one that will serve neither Dancing With The Stars nor Olivia Jade.

“I’m probably best known for being an influencer,” she said in her introduction video. “But the last few years, I’ve been – I guess you could say wrapped up in a scandal.” There was some on-screen acknowledgment of what the scandal in question was, by way of archive news reports, but it’s fair to say that Dancing With The Stars didn’t exactly dwell on the whole “criminal conspiracy that ran so deep it warranted its own code name once the feds starting looking into it” thing.

“After everything happened, I did step back from social media and just soaked in what everybody was saying,” Olivia Jade added in her pre-performance segment. “I’m not trying to pull a pity card, but I’m just trying to move forward and do better.” She was then shown training with her professional dance partner Val Chmerkovskiy, explaining: “I just really want to show people that I have a different side to me. I have a strong work ethic.”

There is a problem we haven’t collectively solved yet when people go from famous to infamous – and when their livelihood was tied to their previous fame. Olivia Jade will turn 22 in a few days. She does need to figure out a way to live her life post college admissions scandal. But is Dancing With The Stars the best way to demonstrate a “strong work ethic”? I realise there’s a good amount of rehearsing involved (which the show frequently highlights), but come on.

This isn’t Dancing With The Stars’ first unpopular casting decision. In 2019, the programme recruited Sean Spicer – yes, Donald Trump’s former White House Press Secretary. The same Sean Spicer who lied about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, among many other things. And in 2010, they cast Bristol Palin (Sarah Palin’s daughter), who somehow reached the finals despite being possibly – per NPR’s assessment at the time – “one of the three worst dancers of the season”.

Maybe these casting moves make for good ratings, but honestly? They also make for bad television. This is a ballroom dance competition! I’m here to have fun! I’m here for glitzy costumes, fun moves, and the underlying threat of a mishap. I want to watch it without feeling gross. And I want to watch it without feeling like I’m making excuses for anyone, or whitewashing their past.

Dancing With The Stars is over the top by nature. Ballroom dancing itself is pretty over the top by nature too, if you ask me! The aesthetics of the show are so intense that it’s easy to be jarred out of them. That’s why the programme needs to be able to grab viewers by the hand and lead them into a smooth televised tango. Throw a Sean Spicer, a Bristol Palin, or an Olivia Jade Gianulli into the mix, and you’ve just broken the fourth wall. I’m no longer watching the dancing. I’m staring into the abyss and trying to untangle America’s unbelievably messy relationship to showbiz and fame.

There were many enjoyable moments in last night’s episodes of Dancing With The Stars. Mel C of the Spice Girls dancing the Cha Cha to “Wannabe”? Yes! Peloton star instructor Cody Rigsby opening his tango on an exercise bike? Also yes. Ditto Olympian Suni Lee’s Jive and JoJo Siwa’s Quickstep. Those are the moments I’m here for. But glossing over Olivia Jade’s (or Sean Spicer’s) past? That’s a record scratch I want no part in.

You can’t shoehorn palatability. Dancing With The Stars needs to learn that.

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