Until yesterday, 19-year-old Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of Full House and Fuller House star Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, was best known only to an audience of nearly two million subscribers on YouTube who watch her try on designer clothes, work out and do her make-up.
However, she’s been thrown into the spotlight thanks to an utterly bizarre court case that alleges nationwide fraud of the United States university entrance exam system. What’s worse is that, despite exhibiting zero interest in studying, the teenager is actually profiting from her ill-gotten status as a “student vlogger”.
It’s a story that has it all: impossibly perfect bright young things living life high on the hog as social media influencers, the trappings of wealth and the leg-up that gives you in what’s supposed to be a meritocratic system, and allegations of organised crime in what one prosecuting attorney called “the largest-ever college admissions scam” the US Justice Department has prosecuted.
Loughlin is alleged by the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office to have paid half a million dollars for falsified documentation claiming that Olivia Jade and her sister were elite rowers, when neither had any interest in the sport. She’s one of 50 people charged as part of Operation Varsity Blues.
The sporting prowess was meant to ease the application process for the girls, who likely would not otherwise have made it into such a prestigious university through their academic nous alone.
Olivia Jade studies at the University of Southern California (USC) – though she admitted in a YouTube video in October 2018 on fellow YouTuber Brandon Calvillo’s channel that she actually didn’t want to go to university because her YouTube channel, which she set up in 2014 as a teenager doing back-to-school make-up tutorials, was succeeding so much.
“I remember being a senior [at high school] and telling my mom I want to drop out,” she told Calvillo at the time. “YouTube was doing well. I just want to focus on that.”
However, once she got to university, she took full advantage of her role as an influencer. Within weeks of arriving at USC Olivia Jade sent out Instagram posts (because no self-respecting influencer has a single-platform policy when it comes to beaming out their content) saying that she was loving life at college – especially because Prime Student, an Amazon programme targeted specifically at students, had helped her. It was a paid promotion with the company: an advert.
At the same time, she also made sure to mention Prime Student in a YouTube video. They “hooked me up with like, everything in my dorm,” she said. The six-minute video happens to show and mention products such as Dyson fans, Bed, Bath and Beyond storage units, and IKEA drawers by name. Though she said the video wasn’t sponsored, she mentioned Amazon would visit her dorm room later that day to shoot promotional videos.
Though she seems to have spent more time arranging the furniture in her dorm room to be aesthetically pleasing on camera than actually reading the books on her course, Olivia Jade’s place at university has given her what all influencers in search of profit crave: brand diversification. The YouTuber has managed to straddle two successful niches on the platform, making her a more bankable star. Beauty and fashion are massive areas of interest for YouTube viewers, while student vlogging – where university students share their experiences on campus – is becoming a major marketing opportunity for universities looking to connect with school-age students looking to make decisions about where to study. The Times Higher Education recently reported on the rise of student influencers, with one experienced YouTuber, Simon Clark, calling them “the perfect weapon to target university applicants.”
Certainly, Olivia Jade is a successful YouTuber in the grand scheme of things: her videos are seen tens of thousands of times per day, and she could earn up to £120,000 per year from advertising alone on her YouTube channel, according to estimates from SocialBlade, a YouTube analytics firm. She is within the top 5,000 most subscribed channels on the site. She has collaborated on camera with David Dobrik, a major name on the site, and by dint of her mother’s standing in Hollywood, she can get names such as John Stamos to appear on her vlogs.
What’s more, controversy creates cash. On March 12, when charges were laid against her mother and Olivia Jade was mentioned in the documents the FBI filed in court, the 19-year-old’s YouTube channel saw a spike in views. Her videos were watched nearly 800,000 times yesterday, and nearly 600,000 times by 10am today.
It’s almost certainly a given that Olivia Jade will address the allegations against her mother in a video – after all, YouTube lives on “drama”, an often-confected set of disagreements and controversies that help drive views to all the participants’ videos, and this drama doesn’t even need to be artificially drummed up.
But the scandal could come back to bite her in the long run. YouTubers trade on authenticity, or the impression of it. Their fans have little time for artifice, and feel betrayed when their favourites sell out to big brands. Young women – who appear to make up the majority of Olivia Jade’s audience – striving to make it through school and into higher education may not take lightly that she paid her way to her place at university. That she doesn’t even really want to be there is another slap in the face. Tweeting she’d “rather be filming 24/7 than sitting in 6 hours of classes straight”, as she did in February, is fine when people think you’ve earned your way to university. When they find out you’ve paid your way there, it becomes insulting.
Her fans were already up in arms when she admitted in a YouTube video posted in August 2018 that she planned to use her time at university to party, rather than study. Two days later she posted a follow-up video entitled "im sorry" suggesting she knew that she was in a privileged position. And that was before people learned her place had been paid for.
Perversely, her mother’s alleged wrongdoing in attempting to secure a university place for her daughter instead of allowing her to focus on her YouTube channel may have been a benefit.
Smart YouTubers nowadays don’t put all their eggs into one YouTube-shaped basket, with many trying to make a living off the site – or at least keeping control of their income out of the whims of the Google-owned video sharing website, which has lurched from controversy to controversy over the last two years.
They set up merchandise lines and broker brand deals, and ask their most committed fans to support their lifestyle through stipends via a website, Patreon, that allows regular payments direct to their bank accounts.
Olivia Jade appears to be doing all of that, but her mother, who knows better than most the precarity of a life lived in the fickle world of entertainment, has – potentially illegally – given her the best life advice of all: get an education, in case the influencer lifestyle fizzles out.