This week, Dahlia and Amy get into all things scammy. The recent news of what the FBI called “Operation Varsity Blues” has revealed a multi-million dollar college admissions scheme run by an organization to aid wealthy parents in bribing university administrators and college prep tutors to pay their way into elite schools. Another day, another story about the wealthy taking advantage of systems built to maintain their status! And Amy vs. Dahlia wants to know who’s the worse scammer: baritone Silicon Valley liar, Elizabeth Holmes, or Fyre Fest disaster bro, Billy McFarland! What’s your choice? Text “Scam” to 503-855-6485 to let us know what you think!
Jordan Peele’s second film, Us, is finally here! Dahlia and Amy can’t wait. Are you going to see it?
Paul Beatty’s debut novel The White Boy Shuffle is irreverent, biting, and sparkles with outlandish sentences against a heavy backdrop.
The only way to explain our obsession with scammers? Fascination. Listen to the song by Alphabeat.
Subscribe to Bitch’s podcasts on iTunes, Soundcloud, or the Stitcher mobile app.
Subscribe to Bitch’s podcasts through our audio RSS feed.
DAHLIA: Our shows are produced by Bitch Media, a nonprofit independent feminist media organization that is entirely funded by our community. If you love waking up to new episodes of Backtalk and Popaganda, join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of The Rage. As a member, your monthly donation includes a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a special rage-inspired mug you’ll never want to put down, exclusive access to a members’ only texting group, and loads of other snazzy benefits. So don’t wait. Become a member today at BitchMedia.org/rage.
AMY: Hi. Welcome to Backtalk, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Amy Lam, Contributing Editor at Bitch Media.
DAHLIA: I’m Dahlia Balcazar, Senior Editor at Bitch Media.
AMY: And we start each episode by talking about our fave pop culture moment. What’s yours, Dahlia?
DAHLIA: Okay. This is like many pop culture moments all tied together. It all starts with Project Runway, which is maybe one of my first reality show obsessions, back on Bravo, it just started again for its 17th season. The new cast of Project Runway is a little bit different. We don’t have Tim Gunn anymore. We have Christian Siriano, who is maybe the most famous winner of Project Runway. We don’t have Heidi Klum anymore, so we don’t get the wonderful tagline of “Auf Wiedersehen” when she sends people away. Instead, we have the model Karlie Kloss. She’s the host of this new season of Project Runway, which brings me to really what my pop culture moment is. Karlie Kloss, she’s a supermodel. She is married to Joshua Kushner, who you might know as Jared Kushner’s brother!
DAHLIA: Okay, but here’s what’s funny as hell. So, you know that Ivanka, like if you think of like what would Ivanka’s best dreams be, I really think its hosting Project Runway. I don’t know that she saw herself getting any bigger than Heidi Klum. And I think back like 10 years ago when she was like, “Oh, I guess I’ll be on The Celebrity Apprentice, she was like, but maybe I could be on Project Runway!” So, what this means is that Karlie Kloss, who is an actual supermodel, and Ivanka Trump, who wishes she was a supermodel, are sisters-in-law. And [laughs] Ivanka Instagramed herself watching the premiere episode of Project Runway. And I just wanna play the audio of it so that— Oh my god, it’s so annoying!
[recorded clip plays]
IVANKA TRUMP: Gosh, girlie, it’s happening! [voices from show in the background] Amazing. Project Runway. Karlie is host. [Cackles.] Epic.
DAHLIA: She really says “epic” at the end, and you can just, she’s so jealous! Like I’ve never seen someone so composed in their jealousy, and it’s so fucking funny to me the way she has to be like, you know, there’s like a million agendas at once. She’s like, I’m friends with Karlie. I know what’s hip and cool. I could be on Project Runway. I wish I didn’t have to go to jail for all of my crimes. Please let me be on Project Runway. I’m hip and cool.
Anyway. I just I don’t feel bad for Ivanka, but I watch this video of her saying, “Karlie, epic,” and then she has this like horrible fake laugh. Oh. I just like, not that I feel, if I feel any kind—I guess this whole episode is really a lot about schadenfreude, and I feel a lot of schadenfreude toward Ivanka and how jealous I know she is of Karlie Kloss and Project Runway.
AMY: [Laughs.] You know, I also love Project Runway. It’s one of my favorite reality-competition shows. And this new season does feel kind of strange and weird because of the absence of Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum who are totally beloved. But I did hear about Ivanka doing this, and for a moment, I was in my feelings about the show because of Karlie Kloss’s connection to the Trumps.
AMY: To the point where I looked it up, and I was like, Okay, how does she feel about it? And in fact, there are reports that she hardly ever talks about her in-laws or their connection to the White House. But I am always of the mind that white people are always somehow implicit [laughing] in white supremacy. So, I don’t think she gets off scot free just because she never mentions how she’s connected to the Trumps. But the new season, I’m gonna give it a chance ‘cause there are some actually really interesting designers on the show. But I did see that clip of Ivanka, and it is so cringeworthy.
DAHLIA: I know!
AMY: Yeah. And I think that Karlie didn’t respond to that ‘cause she’s like, get my name out of your mouth! [Laughs.]
AMY: My pop culture moment is super hilarious to me. Recently, I read about a woman in China—she had posted on Weibo, which is like the Chinese version of Twitter—how she was stopped at a subway station in Guangzhou, which is like a state or a city in southern China. She was stopped because the workers there said that she wasn’t allowed to board the subway because she had horrifying makeup on. [Laughing.] And essentially, she had like goth-ish makeup, which isn’t even that bad. Like she has a bold like a silver eyeshadow going and a really dark lip and a lot of heavy mascara and eyeliner. But apparently, they said that she looked too scary to use their subway [laughing] and they wouldn’t let her on. So, she posted about this on Weibo, and a bunch of other women in solidarity posted their goth-inspired makeup looks to be like, “Hey, I also do goth looks,” like some creepy kind of makeups with you know, just very pale face or black lips and even Halloween-esque things where they’re drawing on dark panda-like really sort of brushed out eyeshadow or where they draw on weird skeleton faces and stuff.
But it’s just, I just really am appreciating how other Chinese women are showing solidarity by posting their own goth selfies, and then they’re doing it with the hashtag #SendGuangzhouMetroAPhoto. So, they’re not only taking these selfies, but they’re making sure that their hashtagging it so that the Guangzhou Metro sees it and knows that hey, there’s an entire population of Chinese women who do their makeup like this, and they should [laughing] also be allowed to ride the subway.
But I guess the Guangzhou Metro did apologize. But I just, I’m just loving that now there’s this community of women who found each other because one woman was discriminated against. But now she’s found a whole slew of other women who look just like her [laughs] with pink amazing makeup. And they should all be allowed to ride the Metro without being bothered. So that’s my favorite pop culture moment.
[cutesy bells ring]
And you can show your support for Backtalk by leaving a review and rating us on iTunes. I know I do this every episode, but please rate and review us on iTunes. It really helps boost visibility for Backtalk. And I was so disheartened when I checked since last episode to see if we had any new reviews, and there were none!!! Ooh, my heart broke into a few pieces.
AMY: So please take the time to just write a couple [laughing] nice words. Only review us if you have nice things to say! But do review us and write something sweet ‘cause I really, really love reading those messages! But please. Yes, take a few minutes or a few seconds to check out iTunes and rate and review us. We really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
[cutesy bells ring]
DAHLIA: In our last episode, Amy and I argued about which is worse: mansplaining or man spreading. And the results are in. I lost in a landslide, which means that you, the Backtalk audience, in your infinite wisdom decided that mansplaining is worse than manspreading by almost a two to one margin. So Amy, congratulations on your victory defending mansplaining as the worst man behavior.
AMY: I was almost like, are you gonna say, “Defended mansplaining?” [Chuckles.]
DAHLIA: [Laughs.] No, no! I mean I set it up that way as is a joke a little bit. We got so many, and I guess they’re not amazing, replies because they’re actually terrible, but so many funny replies. I wanna read a few. So, we asked like, what is a really outrageous example of mansplaining or manspreading that you’ve encountered. And here’s a terrible mansplainer. We got a listener who wrote, “I used to work in a ritzy watch store and was demonstrating how to quickly get an automatic watch started before putting it on your wrist. The man I was demonstrating this to took the watch from my hands, informed me that he knew an easier way, and proceeded to pull the stem and break a $3,700 watch.”
AMY: [Still laughing.] Why is that so funny?
DAHLIA: Can you imagine? The guy’s like, “I know how to do that! Oh, it’s broken.” Oh she, the person adds, “I was so dumbfounded I genuinely didn’t even know what to do. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t even apologize.”
AMY: Of course not! That’s like their ultimate superpower. [Laughs.] Like the mansplaining is a thing that they do, but then the not apologizing is like, I think it takes heroic effort to not apologize for being such an asshole. [Chuckles.]
DAHLIA: Well, yeah. And speaking of that, here’s another. Another person wrote, “I watched, horrified, as a friend on Facebook mansplained mansplaining to a third friend. When called out on it, he doubled down and still does not understand how he could’ve been mansplaining when he, and I quote, ‘Was totally right and just explaining why’.” [Laughs.]
AMY: Uuuuggghhhh. [Laughs.]
DAHLIA: So now we know: Mansplaining is the worst.
We have a new argument. We wanna argue about scam artists. Because we talked about this a little bit on Backtalk, but in the past, I guess, year or so, there have been so many huge stories about essentially scam artists ripping off basically different sort of wealthy sectors, whether it’s college admissions or tech or music festivals. We wanted to argue about scammers. So here, the question before us today is who is the best/worst scammer. I’m gonna start with one Elizabeth Holmes. Elizabeth Holmes is, I guess you could call her an entrepreneur. She is about soon to go on trial for fraud. She is the subject of a documentary on HBO called The Inventor. Elizabeth Holmes was the CEO of a company called Theranos, and their objective was to be able to do hundreds of blood tests with just a drop of blood. And the sales pitch was essentially like, you’ll be able to learn everything that’s wrong with you. You just go to a Walgreens, and they take one drop of blood. And then you’ll get results back immediately!
Okay. If you haven’t heard already, Elizabeth Holmes is a huge scammer not only— Theranos was not able to do even one of these hundreds of tests that she promised her company would be able to do with a drop of blood. And here’s why I think Elizabeth Holmes is the fucking best scammer. I am not a science person, but I’ve been bringing up Elizabeth Holmes and The Inventor to every science-related person I know. And all of them are just like, “Yeah, it’s totally not possible to do what she said she could do. Anyone would know that. Everyone knows that.” And I think it’s so fucking funny that Elizabeth Holmes was able to scam so many tech entrepreneurs, health entrepreneurs. Betsy DeVos’s family was an investor in her company. Other secretaries of state were investors in Theranos. So many people just bought this idea, like, oh yeah! It would be great if you could do hundreds of blood tests with one drop of blood. Without considering like, oh, we can’t do that because the reason that hasn’t been invented is because it’s actually not at all possible. And just the audacity of the scam. Right at the height of Theranos’ acclaim, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, all on a technology that an intro, like a freshman in college Bio could be like, “Oh yeah. That’s not possible.” I cannot wait to watch the documentary The Inventor. She’s just like the queen of the scam.
And here’s another tip, two more tips about why I think Elizabeth Holmes really mastered the scam. She took after her role model Steve Jobs, and so to present as a serious business person, she dressed just like Steve Jobs. So, she did like the all-black turtleneck look. And also she faked her voice!
DAHLIA: She speaks in a really low tone, and a whole bunch of people who went to high school with her are like, “Oh yeah. That’s not her voice.” She’s faking her voice! So, that’s the lesson: if you wanna scam $9 billion out of secretaries of state and Betsey DeVoses, just project confidence through your voice. And anytime someone says like, “Elizabeth, that’s not possible,” you just say, “It’s not possible. Yet!”
DAHLIA: That’s how she did it. I think that’s how she did it.
AMY: Yeah. No, I greatly admire the scam, and I think that Elizabeth Holmes will go down as one of history’s greatest scammers. But! The thing about like, I think the joy, the schadenfreude of watching scammers being take down is knowing that perhaps the scam that they’re doing is somewhat innocuous. The issue with, I think, Elizabeth Holmes is that her scam could have and did potentially harm a lot of people. Because she was actually doing blood tests on folks who needed accurate results, and her company was not providing accurate results. And she could have endangered a lot of people’s lives. And that’s why I don’t think that she is the best scammer because it was too dangerous of a scam!
And so, my vote for the best worst scammer is…Billy McFarland of the Fyre Festival fame. I mean his scam was so amazing because it really sort of, it just showed how delusional he was, and he was frauding people who are obsessed with creating fomo. He really exploited social media virality, I guess, viralness, the ability for social media to be so viral. And I just think that the harm that he did was not anywhere near as great as the harm that I think Elizabeth Holmes did. Yet! The spectacle of his fraud was just so much more engrossing, so engrossing that there were two documentaries that were released about it: one on Hulu and one on Netflix. And even the releases of the documentaries was amazing and fun to watch because they were released within a week of each other. Netflix had a release date, and Hulu didn’t. And Hulu purposefully dropped their release a week before the Netflix one knowing full well Netflix was going to release theirs. And the documentaries are so fun to watch because essentially, you’re watching a thing where this very delusional man, like Billy McFarland is so fucking delusional.
And I actually think that oftentimes, entrepreneurs in this sense, “entrepreneurs,” they’re just borrowing against time. They just get more money—it’s kind of like a weird pyramid scheme—they just get more money to pay back the people that they just lent money to. Or they use that money to say hey, this person’s investing this much. This means that you should also invest just as much. I think that a lot of Silicon Valley startups are able to grow in this way. Like that’s how I think Uber and the scooter companies are growing in this way. They’re not actually making any money. They’re actually operating a huge loss, but they are they are being funded because the investors don’t wanna miss out. And they’re being funded essentially on like VC FOMO.
But the festival itself was run on FOMO because nobody wanted to miss this incredible music festival that was supposed to be happening in the Bahamas. And it’s just incredible to see all these people be like, whoa! We’re gonna be at the hottest music festival ever!
AMY: And paying enormous amounts of money to live in these, I think, FEMA tents, you know, these tents that were given out to people who survive natural disasters. That was like this festival that was half-set up, that nobody was gonna show up to play at, and to see the havoc it wreaked. I do think that the real victims of this were not the investors who gave Billy McFarland money but the residents of Great Exuma who were working for and did not end up getting paid. But there was a silver lining because after the documentaries were released, there was a crowdfunding to pay back some of the folks who spent their life savings trying to operate and feed festival goers. So in a way, I think that some of the local residents were able to recoup some of their money and to gain support. And but yet Billy McFarland has seen jail time. He’s still, I think, he’s waiting trial for even more more charges against him that include wire fraud or just even greater scamming.
But I just think that Billy McFarland is such a good bad scammer because his delusions are so, or have been documented so clearly. And he’s even seen onscreen in one of the documentaries talking about how like, “No, I don’t think I did anything wrong.” You can clearly see his [laughing] delusions escaping his mouth and the disconnect between reality and him. And the way in which his scam is so particular to our time I think is just so perfect and also harmless in a way that I can enjoy without feeling too guilty about it. And that’s why I think that he’s such a fun scammer to watch without feeling too bad about it. So, my vote is him.
DAHLIA: Every time you go second in Amy vs. Dahlia, I’m like listening to your argument, and I’m like, oh yeah. I see that point. That makes sense to me.
DAHLIA: That makes sense to me. [laughs] So, I’m not even gonna say anything! I’m not gonna say anything about what you just said! [Laughs.]
AMY: I will say that the Elizabeth Holmes shit is so good too. The thing about her voice kills me. I listened to the podcast about her scam, and I’m watching the documentary. It’s incredible. It is so incredible. But I think the other scam was just too harmful to enjoy fully.
AMY: So, that’s why I think that Billy McFarland is just like a good frivolous scammer that I’m into.
DAHLIA: Okay Backtalk listeners, let us know what you think. If you text the word “scam” to 503-855-6485, we will be collecting your tallies. And also if you have suggestions of other classic scammers, we’d love to hear. So, please text us, “scam” at 503-855-6485 to let us know what you think.
[cutesy bells ring]
Speaking of scams, this week Amy and I are gonna talk about the college admissions scandal scam that’s been all over the news for the past few weeks. A little bit of a recap: celebrities, executives were charged with a variety of crimes like money laundering and bribery and fraud. Some celebrities got caught up in this college admissions scandal. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are actresses, William H. Macy as well, but also a lot of wealthy executives got caught up in this scam. Here’s what happened. William “Rick” Singer was the leader of this scam called The Key. That was the name of his college consulting firm.
DAHLIA: And here’s the thing: If you’re ever gonna run a scam business, maybe you should call it The Key. Doesn’t that sound…that just sounds like the right thing. So, through The Key, William Rick Singer was essentially laundering money and bribing college officials. Basically, he had a variety of very fascinating ways that he helped kids get into college illegally. So, one of the things that he would do was he would pay adults to take the SAT or the ACT instead of a teenager, and they would get perfect scores. He would do things like bribe coaches. He would say like, “Okay, this is little Freddy, and he’s gonna be the star of your track team.” Even though little Freddy maybe had never run track before and didn’t know anything about track. A lot of students got admitted to college as sports admits, like as if they were going to go on the volleyball team or going to go on the golf team. But actually they had never played that sport before in many cases. The scam even went so far as one of his tactics was to Photoshop real kids’ faces onto the bodies of athletes playing sports to be like, “Oh yeah.”
AMY: That’s so good.
DAHLIA: “That’s her. That’s her playing water polo right there!” [Laughs.]
DAHLIA: [Laughs.] And this scam was just so large. You know, it went all the way up to Yale, Stanford, but also smaller colleges. I think part of the reason why this story is so engrossing is because what it really laid bare, I think, is I think lots of people already felt like college admissions was kind of a scam. And now to see that it’s actually in, was being investigated by the FBI and the Department of Justice has filed charges against lots of people saying like, oh, you were running a decades-long college admissions scam. I think it gets at that schadenfreude that we were talking about earlier about Billy McFarland and Elizabeth Holmes. I think there’s some pleasure in seeing people get something like their comeuppance, which is like maybe wealthy people not being able to wield their wealth as readily as before or getting caught doing it. But I really think that that’s why people are just really fascinated, that college admissions has always been such a murky, confusing process for so many people, to just see this huge scam revealed, I think it’s just like a fascinating schadenfreude-ish moment for so many of us.
AMY: And I think a lot of people who are talking about the scam are reiterating that it’s not surprising that this is happening or that the wealthy are able to manipulate things in their favor so that they can get what they want even though they haven’t worked for it. Because a lot of this is about parents doing this for their kids. And there’s questions about whether or not their kids knew and whether or not they went to college knowing that they didn’t deserve to be admitted. There are some, I guess according to the depositions or the secret phone calls between the scammer and the parent who are also trying to scam, some of the parents were like, “I do not want my kid to know.” Like I had heard that sometimes a parent would direct their kid to go take a test at this facility, but in actuality, they had paid somebody else to take the real test somewhere else.
AMY: And so, that kid thinks that like they got in, yeah—
DAHLIA: Oh man!
AMY: —that they scored, the ACT score that they got on their own, but it was actually somebody taking the test on their behalf. But then there are also students who were very aware that they were scamming admissions. Like for example, with Lori Loughlin who paid $500,000 to make sure both of her daughters got into USC. And also I think Lori Loughlin shouldn’t just be the only parent who’s indicted here. She’s also married to, forgetting her husband’s name, but he is the founder of Mossimo, which was a huge brand and actually became the in-house brand at Target. So, now I feel implicated because I’ve bought a couple Mossimo shirts before!
AMY: But her and her husband, they paid $500,000 to get both of their daughters admitted to USC. And in that case, they were both admitted as crew recruits. You know, crew like the people who row things?
AMY: [Laughing.] Which is such a funny sport. But I had heard that one of their daughters actually, they went out and bought gear.
AMY: And she posed in the gear—you know what I mean—and took pictures of her in the gear. And I had read another story about another parent whose son was supposed to be admitted as a water polo recruit. And they got his son in the water to take pictures of him looking like he was playing water polo, and then they needed to be art directed in the photos. ‘Cause like the first batch of photos didn’t work because he was too high up out of the water [laughs] and he’d have to be father in. So there are students who are also, you know, their kids who are very aware of what they were doing, that they were going to cheat the admissions, cheat ways into get admitted into colleges that they wanted to go to. And I think that so, it’s not just that we were surprised that this happened, but I think some of us were surprised to the lengths by which it is happening. Because we’re all well aware of legacy admissions into colleges or how Jared, very famously, Jared Kushner’s family paid, I think, $25 million to fund a new building so that he could go to Harvard.
DAHLIA: Right, right.
AMY: And so, we’ve understood that these things happen: You make gigantic donations. And so that there are even questions of well, why didn’t these parents just pay the school, like make donations to the school? And I had read about how people who are very familiar with how you can pay donations to schools to get admissions. And in fact, these parents are elite but not an elite enough because the minimum to pay or to donate for legacy admissions is about $10 million. [Laughs.] So these are wealthy parents, but they aren’t wealthy enough to scam the “legal way,” you know, to donate a building in order to get your kid admitted. So, they had to do it in this other way where it was like money laundering scheme because essentially, it was you donated to The Key, which was a nonprofit. And then the man who ran it, the Singer guy would then pay coaches, like you’re saying, who would say like, oh yeah. I’m recruiting this tennis player. Who had never played tennis! Never held a racket in their life! And then they would make up awards that that student won on their tennis teams and stuff. And so, that was one way that they were scamming, and they were investing a lot of money into doing this.
But I think for some of us who are well aware of how the wealthy can manipulate systems in their favor, I think we weren’t surprised by this. But I think we were surprised that they got caught. And then we were also surprised ‘cause they were familiar faces being linked to this. Because like Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy, they didn’t pay that much money. They paid, I think, $15,000. Comparatively, it wasn’t that much money. They paid $15,000 so that their daughter’s, I think, SAT scores would go up. And but if you compare it to the more legal ways of scamming and the millions of dollars that go into it, it’s just a drop in the bucket. But because we know who Felicity Huffman is, because we know who William H. Macy, is because we know who Aunt Becky from Full House is, then they put like very real faces to us, you know? There were about 40 people who were indicted who have been accused of paying this man to do this scam, but I don’t know the names of anybody else in this scam! But because we know these people, because we are familiar with them, then I think it blew the scam up even more.
DAHLIA: A little known fact about me is that I used to be a college-admissions counselor. And so, I think that that’s given me even wider schadenfreude-y eyes to be watching all of this unfold.
DAHLIA: And I think just like you’re saying, Amy, is that it’s unsurprising that these kinds of things go on, but it is sort of pleasurable and interesting to see it out in the open. But as you’re talking about the amounts of money that this cost, you’re saying like, oh well, they didn’t have Kushner money. They only had William H. Macy money, so they didn’t get to do a bribe. You know, I can’t help but think, as a college-admissions counselor, something that I did a lot, part of my work was to travel within the U.S.—although college admission counselors also travel across the globe—visiting high schools and doing little info sessions, but meeting with students and also meeting with their college admissions counselors. And I went to a huge public high school in Southern California. If I had a guidance counselor, I didn’t meet him or her. And I didn’t get, I didn’t receive any college counseling.
And just to see though the vast difference in the amount of college preparation and guidance that you get just by going to a private school, just by going to a good high school, is so, so different. And so, we’re talking about very, very wealthy people who have already spent we can guess thousands of dollars on their kids’ education, not just education but let’s say also SAT prep courses, maybe essay writing tutoring. They have so much at their disposal to help them get into the best college that they can. If you go to a private high school, there are college counselors at that high school whose job it is to help you get into the best college. And they meet with you, and they talk with you, and they work with you on your list. And that doesn’t happen if you go to a public school or a school that doesn’t have a budget for a college-admissions staff like that. And so, to think that already, these students had so many resources, so many advantages just because they were wealthy enough to afford already a world class education. And then to think that these kids still couldn’t—I mean maybe it’s not that they couldn’t get it together to get into these colleges; it’s that their parents decided like, oh, you know, a UC or a Cal State isn’t for you. You’re going to USC, or you’re going to Stanford.
AMY: So then you think that it isn’t really about the education that they’re receiving at that school. It’s really more about this perceived prestige about attending the school. And so, then they’re just paying for this prestige. So, then it just, what does it even mean to have a degree from that institution then? And I think that a great example of that is one of Lori Loughlin’s daughters—
AMY: —Olivia Jade. And I don’t feel a way about talking about her because she’s like a social-media influencer. I fucking hate people who proudly call themselves “influencers” ‘cause I don’t know what they actually do besides just be on social media. But you know she was like, she was doing well on there. I think she has almost a million and a half followers on Instagram. She had more than a million subscribers on YouTube, and she was somebody who had brand deals with like Sephora even. They put out a highlighter palette with her. And she did videos about being a college student, and she did posts on Instagram about being a college student. And they were often tied to advertisements. Like there’s this ad that she did on her Instagram where she showed off her dorm room at USC being like, “Hey, I bought all of these accoutrements to decorate my room from Amazon Prime!”
AMY: So she used it as a way to market herself. But she also made videos where she said—‘Cause she just started her first year this fall. Her older sister has been there, I think, for a couple years already, but she just started this fall. And she did this video where—I’ve only seen a clip of it because I don’t actually wanna watch the actual video ‘cause I don’t want to give her the clicks—but where she says like, “You know what? I missed the first week of school because I was in Bali.” [Laughs.] And I actually don’t even care that much about school. I’m just here so that I can experience frat parties or to go to football games.
DAHLIA: Oh no.
AMY: She legitimately says that. She legitimately says, “I don’t care that much about school.” And so, it’s just one of those things where you realize that it’s her parents wanting her to go to this school, and her parents wanting to be able to say like, “My daughter’s at USC.” But what does it even mean then for her to have this degree? And I think that for a lot of us who did not come from families as wealthy as hers or did not receive the type of help that she has access to—Because she had access to the help, but she didn’t want it because she doesn’t wanna be in school. I think for us, it was just, I think we were heartbroken in a very specific way because we work so hard just to go to our public commuter universities like I did, you know. Not only did I not have a parent willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure I was admitted to Cal State Northridge—Big ups to the Matadors.
AMY: Shout out to them—but they were not even able to help me fill out the college-admissions form. ‘Cause my parents, my mother has like a high-school education. My dad has like an eighth-grade education. Not even like, I don’t even think they’re like equivalent to U.S. high school and eighth-grade educations because they were like pre-war Vietnamese educations. And so, they weren’t even able to help me fill out. They weren’t even able to help me fill out the FAFSA. Like I did all these things on my own. It was a lot just to even get the money to pay for my application fees. I’m pretty sure I paid for them on my own with money that I’d saved up. So, I think that for a lot of us who did didn’t even have access to, like you’re saying, to people who could help us do these things—‘Cause I also went to a public high school in California, and I had a guidance counselor. But I think that they’re not equipped to help us do these things because they see so many students. And at our school we had the gamut of like very working-class, like working-poor families, some solidly middle-class families who were able to send their kids to college-prep courses. But there’s a wide economic span at my high school, but even then, I didn’t think I understood the processes to how to get into a good school. And I just wasn’t that invested in it, and I didn’t score that well on the SATs, ‘cause frankly I didn’t care about them.
But the other thing is that I didn’t have somebody who was willing to pay that much money to help me get into school. And I think that’s where a lot of people who are watching this with some type of glee is feeling because we’re thinking we didn’t have the access. We didn’t have the money that you guys had, but we still got into school the hard way. And then we worked in school to succeed in school so that we can graduate with a degree. Because somehow, a degree’s supposed to help us land jobs, which is I don’t think as true anymore. And I think that’s what a lot of us are thinking like, wow, you had all these resources, and you still had to pay to scam your way in. So, what does that even mean after school? What does that mean when you guys are trying to get jobs when I’m competing against you for a position? You have these resources that I haven’t even like, I wasn’t even aware existed. So, how am I supposed to compete with you when your parent is able to do this for you, and my parent couldn’t even help me fill out a FAFSA form? And I think that’s what was so disheartening about it.
And then I’m also thinking about how the people are arguing about what affirmative action means in college admissions, you know, how they’re “taking up spots” from white students or from Asian students. ‘Cause I am also very much calling out Asian American students who are fighting against affirmative action because more very overrepresented in some universities, from very competitive universities. But it’s like no, let’s not target policies that can help underserved students be admitted into prestige universities, whatever prestige universities means. But the fact that there are students paying to get their way in. It isn’t underserved students or students coming from underserved communities that are taking your seats. It’s these rich students who don’t even have the aptitude to be admitted. They don’t even have the GPA to be admitted into these schools that are getting in because their parents are paying for it.
DAHLIA: And I think to that end also, there’s the question of what does this money accomplish other than of course, the bribery? You know, there’s an episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily about this college-admissions scandal, and they say that now we have data starting from the 1950s on about what college does to a person’s—what a horrible phrase—earning potential and their ability to access social mobility. And basically, what this data finds is that there is, like college still is a road to the middle class for people who are lower middle class or our working class. For many people, college still affords that pathway to the middle class. But for people who enter college already, let’s say, upper-middle class or let’s say the 1 percent, the wealthiest of the wealthy, it doesn’t seem yet, or at least there isn’t data to suggest that going to college really does anything for that person’s earning potential or their class mobility, which of course, makes sense. If you’re coming in already as a millionaire, how would going to college make you a millionaire? Those of us with student loans, we understand.
DAHLIA: But I think it’s also like sort of what you were saying earlier, is like not only are these students not potentially prepared for the rigor of the colleges that they’re going to, but what is it that they’ve purchased? Like do they care about their degree? Do they care about what they’re learning? What do their parents want out of it other than just the diploma? Because there’s not exactly reason to suggest that these really wealthy kids need college in order to get a job the way many other people do.
AMY: And I think that the other thing for this college admissions scandal that I’m fascinated by is that it isn’t just about the scam of paying William Singer this money so that he can pay these other people off so that they can get their kids admitted. But there’s another layer to that in that when the parents paid him, they were paying into his nonprofit. So, they were making nonprofit donations, so they were essentially getting tax write offs on their wealth.
DAHLIA: Ugh. Ugh! [Laughs.]
AMY: You know what I mean? Like if you think about it that deeply— I haven’t read that much about this, but I was thinking about it. I’m like, so they were making donations to his foundation or whatever, and then he made it so that he’s able to funnel those donations to these coaches or whatever that he was bribing so that they would recruit these athletes to their schools. But this is another way in which the wealthy are scamming the system to get things their way. Not only were they paying Singer this money so that he could pay off people like the crew coach at USC, let’s say, but when they were writing money to him, they were, in effect, making donations to his foundation. So then, they were not paying taxes. You know what I mean?
AMY: They’re siphoning off their taxes so that they could pay him to get their kids admitted to the school. So like, it’s really, I think that the scam is speaking to so much about what it means to be wealthy in this country and how you can pay your way out of things to benefit you. This is like you know one of those examples of how the rich stay rich and to the detriment of people who need public assistance. I mean that’s where taxes go, essentially, right? And to think that if you had $500,000 to pay so that your kids can go to school, then why don’t you just give them that money so they can invest in their influencing business or whatever?
AMY: You know?! Instead of funding them to go to school and essentially taking up a spot that another student could’ve used, a student who actually kind of relies on that education, so you’re saying that they can graduate with a degree and increase their earning power. I think that this scam really goes to show the disparity between wealthy folks and working-class folks and what a college degree can do for them. And it’s just disheartening because I think about the students who go to USC ‘cause USC is not a fucking cheap school. And that they’re gonna graduate from there four years from now or after four years, and that the student-loan debt that they’ll have incurred because of going there. And to think that they worked so hard to earn that degree, and to think that there are also students who are in the same classes of them who are not working even a fraction that hard who will also have the same degree because their parent paid for it. And that they will both enter the job market, this theoretical job market with the same degree. Yet one person will still always have a leg up on them because of the inherited wealth that they had supporting them this entire time.
DAHLIA: Partly our fascination with scams, especially ones that involve money, our fascination with the college-admissions scam, and I think also a quote that really accurately, I think, describes our political problems in terms of our ideas of social mobility, here’s the quote: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And so, I think so many American people are just steeped in this ethos of like, you’re not poor. You’re on your way to being a millionaire. You’re almost there. You just need to take this class or buy this thing or do this or do that, and you’re on your way to being a millionaire. And I think that’s what you’re saying, Amy, is like who among us doesn’t understand the desire to make life easy for your children? And so, of course you would want to be able to help your kid have the best life possible. But so many people…. And I guess who can blame them? Who wants to see themselves as poor rather than as a person on their way to becoming a millionaire? Like that sounds much more inspirational and pleasant to just think of yourself as on your way to being rich rather than stuck in the social class where you are.
And I think that that key is—ha. Like speaking of “the key”—I think that’s why these stories resonate so much with us. Because so many of us either see ourselves in that way or at least recognize that mindset of this fascination with the desire to accumulate wealth when you didn’t start out with wealth or even if you did. And I think that that’s what’s behind our fascination with these money scams, is both I kind of wish I could do it, but also isn’t it so great that they got caught?
[cutesy bells ring]
At the end of every episode, we share something we’re reading, watching, and listening. This is like a little bit of a preview. Amy and I are going to see the movie Us, which comes out tomorrow.
DAHLIA: I’m so excited. It’s the new horror film by Jordan Peele. It stars Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke. I actually saw it. I didn’t know that this was the premiere, but I was actually at the premiere of Us at South by Southwest.
DAHLIA: And I loved it! I, of course, I wanna spoil it intensely, but no one will let—actually, one person did let me spoil it for them. But I haven’t spoiled it. I won’t spoil it. I’ll just say the music is so good, the acting is so good, and after the screening, Jordan Peele spoke a little bit. And he said that seeing it for the first time with an audience was one of his favorite experiences. And so, I can’t wait to see it again. You know, it’s like the best to see a horror movie on opening night because everybody’s a little bit rowdy. And so, I’m really looking forward to that experience with you, Amy. But without too many spoilers, the plot of Us is what if there was an evil doppelgänger version of you, and it wanted to kill you? [Chuckles.]
AMY: Oh my God. I think I am the evil doppelgänger version of myself.
AMY: So I’m looking for the non-evil version of me so I can go harm them. [Laughs.] Yeah. I am so excited to watch this. I can’t wait to see it. I think that ever since I met you, Dahlia, I’ve just become super into horror films.
DAHLIA: I know. I got you.
AMY: Yeah. No, it’s good. And I’m just very excited to see this. And I heard that Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in this is superb. So, I’m just, I just cannot wait to see this.
DAHLIA: It’s gonna be so good.
AMY: Yes. And I have the read peek. The read peek?
I have the read pick, and my read pick is Paul Beatty, who won a Man Booker Prize for his book The Sellout. It is actually his debut novel, The White Boy Shuffle. I actually haven’t read Sellout, but I heard that it’s amazing. But I am about three quarters of the way finished with White Boy Shuffle, and I love it so much. The writing is so good. On a sentence level, it’s like amazing. It is a coming-of-age story about this young Black boy who grew up around the Santa Monica area but then has to move to more of, I guess, the inner-city area of Los Angeles with his mom and about him sort of having to adjust who he is. But the language that’s being used in this—because Paul Beatty, I think he was first a poet, and then he started to write prose—the language is so great and so hyperbolic and so irreverent. It’s kind of has like satire-y feel. And I think the language just kind of jumps out at you while it’s telling this really irreverent story of the history of the main character, Gunnar, and his life. And everything’s just so stylized in a way that’s like, I don’t know. It’s just so energetic. And I think I also love this novel because it takes place in Los Angeles. Even though I grew up in the suburbs of L.A., I really recognize a lot of what’s the feelings and the motifs in this novel. I do think that the novel may take a sad turn toward the end. Like I said, I haven’t gotten there yet. But I just love the language, and I love the way that the story’s being told in this. So, my read pick is White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty.
And also this episode of Backtalk is sponsored by BitchReads in partnership with Powell’s books. So pick up your next BitchRead at Powells.com.
DAHLIA: I have the listen pick. This isn’t a new song, but it’s been stuck in my head all of this week because I’ve been thinking, in preparing for talking about this episode, I’ve been thinking about the word “schadenfreude.” And then I’ve been thinking about the word “fascinating” a lot. So this song is gonna be stuck in your head too. It’s called “Fascination” by Alphabeat. They’re a Danish band, and they haven’t a new single out. So instead of hyping their new single, I’m gonna instead talk about song “Fascination,” which is just the catchiest and the most fun. And it’s what I think about when I think about why do I like horror films? Why do I like scammers? It’s ‘cause they’re fascinating! So, this is “Fascination” by Alphabeat.
It’s just the way we feel…./ ♪
AMY: Thanks for listening.
DAHLIA: Thanks for listening.
DAHLIA: Thanks for listening to Backtalk. This show is produced by Cher Vincent. Bitch media is a reader- and listener-supported feminist nonprofit. If you wanna support the show and our work, please head over to bitchmedia.org and donate.