It was jaw-dropping, something we’d not seen since the Bernie Madoff scheme: wealthy white people (mostly) being taken advantage of by another smooth-talking white man. This time, the man was Rick Singer, the founder of the Key Worldwide Foundation — a fake foundation aimed at helping “underprivileged students” gain access to education which would normally be unattainable, according to GuideStar, an organization which connects donors with nonprofit organizations.
But the Foundation was a ruse, a scam to reel in wealthy parents desperate enough to lie; a fabricated scheme to have parents make donations to athletic programs to help said underprivileged students get into college.
It was all a lie, but a desperate housewife, actress Felicity Huffman — and an Aunt Becky, actress Lori Loughlin, among others — all got stung. Singer was a smooth-talking, assertive, competitive man seeking status; a kind of acceptance, like one gets when they are accepted into a prestigious college, that says “I am capable of achievement and I am as good as everyone else.” This was something that celebrities or wealthy parents could identify with, a sentiment they wanted to buy into, literally, for their kids.
What Singer was able to prey on was the vulnerability and desperation these particular parents carried for their kids: the desire to give them opportunities, sparing no expense to give them what they felt they needed. And most parents, in varying degrees, can identify with this. But how these parents differ from most of us is the depth of their pockets, and their willingness to lie for their kids, allowing white privilege to lead them to commit a white-collar crime.
A new series on ABC which explores the different and complicated situations seemingly unsuspecting people find themselves in, The Con: Varsity Blues is the real crime show we need in our lives right now. With the rampant lies spewing out of the mouths of our elected officials, like our president, this series offers us a peek into the psyche of people, like Rick and others, who can fabricate, lie, cheat, and steal their way into opportunities they have not earned.
In episode three, narrated by comedian and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg, The Con: Varsity Blues takes us deep inside a college admissions scandal that pulled back the curtain on how white privilege can mar the futures of the innocent — in this case, one’s child. Between 2011 and 2018, Rick Singer built a thriving foundation: one with a website, IRS tax forms, and a client list of over 700 parents, all wealthy, who wanted to help underprivileged kids … a noble endeavor. But some parents, like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, got greedy in the process and wanted a little piece of the pie for themselves – and their daughters were the ultimate victims of this scandal.
In a normal college admission process, a high school junior would begin looking into colleges and devising a plan of attack alongside their parents and their school guidance counselor. They’d create an exhaustive list, take the SATs and/or the ACTs, write an honest essay which revealed intimate details about their personal life, an effort to pull at the heartstrings of the college admissions team, and then wait to get the coveted letter in the mail; this is what the documentary calls the “front door” approach.
Then there is the “back door” approach, in which wealthy families make a large donation to the institution of their choice to secure a spot for their child into a particular school, twisting the arm of the admissions staff as they follow the money instead of ethics.
And then there was Rick Singer’s “side door” approach: bribing athletic directors or coaches at elite schools like Stanford, Yale and the University of Southern California State to accept the students he’s worked with into their schools, a payday upwards of $100,000 for some athletic directors and coaches, paid for by Rick Singer’s scheme. And then, with the assistance of parents, Singer’s scheme would easily unfold with the commitment to lying from parents.
In the documentary’s recreated phone recording of Singer speaking with parents, he can be heard saying, “I can do anything and everything if you guys are amenable to doing it.” What he meant was that parents would need to be on board to do what he asked, even if it seemed outlandish — like taking a photo of their child on some piece of athletic equipment to “prove” they are, in fact, athletic. Once he had the photos, he would Photoshop their athletic resumes, beef up their academic resumes with fake test results that often yielded additional points on their SATs or ACTs, and submit a false college application for them.
Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, used Singer’s services for two of their daughters, coughing up $500,000 to the Key Worldwide Foundation. After successfully getting their first daughter into USC, they made a (now-failed) attempt to also get their second daughter access to a college education that neither ever wanted. It was a plan that would have succeeded if only the FBI hadn’t caught on in 2019, taking down wealthy people and celebrities along the way.
In recorded phone calls, recreated for this series, parents could be heard in conversation with Singer, weighing the options, meticulously reviewing the details with Singer, and asking about things that called into question their value system and the lengths they’d go to to get their kid into college. It also called into question everything we thought we knew about the Desperate Housewife and Aunt Becky. While they were good at their jobs — acting — they were inauthentic at their core.
When they were caught and realized they would face jail time, they tried at every turn to get out of spending time behind bars — but ultimately were jailed, fined, and given community service hours. What pisses me off about this entire scam, about their actions the most, is that white privilege won here and will continue to do so. Because society as a whole has yet to recognize that it even exists, let alone devise a viable plan to combat it.
Until we do, we will have more Aunt Beckys who feed their insecurities about the reality of their situations, and will commit a crime to feel accepted by others … even if it means making their own kids victims in the process.