Hollywood loves a comeback story.
From Martha Stewart to Mel Gibson, the entertainment industry is known for welcoming back their own with open arms. After enduring public scandals, many stars have taken a break from the limelight, eventually bouncing back onto the A-list.
More than a year and a half after the college cheating scandal first made headlines, actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin may be facing two very different realities.
Huffman, who spent 11 days in prison after being released early from her two-week sentence for cheating on her daughter’s SAT test, is eying her return to television, having just signed on to headline a single-camera comedy that landed a pilot production commitment at ABC.
Huffman and her representatives declined to comment for this story. But those close to the Oscar-nominated actress say there was no shortage of interest from business partners, despite the admissions scandal. According to multiple insiders, after completing her short sentence, Huffman was courted by other Hollywood parties who were eager to work with her and displayed no signs of skepticism, before signing onto the ABC project.
“From day one, she just wanted to do the right thing and that’s what she’s done and that’s what she’s doing,” a source close to Huffman says. “She is grateful there is work available for her.”
Meanwhile, Loughlin — typically the TV queen of Christmas — is currently serving a two-month jail sentence at federal prison in Dublin, Calif., while Hallmark, the network that cut ties with the “Full House” alum, is airing its annual slat of holiday programming of which Loughlin used to be a key star.
While the notion of any-press-is-good-press is a longstanding mantra in showbiz, Huffman’s swift turnaround with a major network deal illuminates the issue of who gets a comeback during the era of “cancel culture.”
As famous actors, Huffman and Loughlin became the primary faces of the nationwide scheme, though more than 50 people were charged as part of the conspiracy with 33 parents of college applicants accused of paying more than $25 million, collectively, to William “Rick” Singer, the organizer who collected money from wealthy parents to fraudulently cheat their children’s way into elite universities, becoming the center of the FBI investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.”
Two months after federal prosecutors exposed the scam, Huffman pleaded guilty in May 2019, and became the first parent sentenced in the case. (Her husband, actor William H. Macy, who stars on Showtime’s “Shameless,” was not charged.) When speaking to the judge, Huffman, who accepted responsibility from the get-go, apologized to all students and parents “who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”
“There is a perception that she handled a very bad situation very well, and that she’s done her time,” longtime Hollywood crisis manager, Howard Bragman, says of Huffman. “She handled it with great humility, great class and great sincerity towards the severity of the situation,” he adds. “It couldn’t have been done any differently.”
Loughlin and her husband, multi-millionaire fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, submitted not guilty pleas, maintaining their innocence for more than a year. They pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in May 2020 — one full year after Huffman – admitting to paying $500,000 to get their two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California as crew recruits, although they never participated in the sport.
Giannulli recently began his five-month sentence in a federal prison near Santa Barbara, Calif., overlapping with his wife’s two-month sentence, which is expected to end before the new year.
While Huffman’s handling of the situation was widely deemed more appropriate than Loughlin (who signed autographs for fans on courthouse steps when arriving to a federal court appearance, after being indicted in 2019), Huffman’s return to the biz after her major faux pas is also due to her level of work and longstanding positive reputation across the industry. The Oscar-nominee and Golden Globe winner, who has a star on the Walk of Fame, is known to be adored by those with whom she works.
“People don’t get reputations, people earn reputations,” Bragman says. “People in this town know who you are. She has proven herself and made one mistake on top of decades of professionalism.”
For three decades in the entertainment business, Huffman and Macy have largely stayed out of the tabloid fray, and for the first time ever, real-life behavior served as a distraction on-screen. In the height of the scandal, Huffman missed out on a likely Emmy nod for her critically acclaimed portrayal of Linda Fairstein in Netflix’s Ava DuVernay series “When They See Us.”
“Felicity is not a celebrity and she never has been,” a person close to the actress says. “Obviously, it was going to take time before she could work again. And she needed time. But it didn’t change her status.”
Loughlin’s fallout, immediately, was more severe. After Hallmark was made aware of her involvement in the bribery scam, the network cut ties with the actress, stopping all production and development with Loughlin, who had starred in a handful of their made-for-TV Christmas movies, along with producing and starring in two series, Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart” and “Garage Sale Mystery” on Hallmark Movies & Mystery channel. While she was embroiled with legal issues, Loughlin also departed the final season of Netflix’s “Fuller House,” the sequel series to Full House,” which made her a household name in the 90’s and gave her endless nostalgic fandom as Aunt Becky.
When asked about Loughlin’s current relationship with the network, a spokesperson for Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media, said, “We are not making comments at this time.”
According to those close to her, Loughlin is said to be focused on serving her time, before even considering any return to Hollywood. While she doesn’t have any projects on the horizon post-prison, Loughlin would like to get back to acting.
“She very much loves acting and would like to work again,” a source from Loughlin’s inner circle says. “Her greatest passion has always been acting. She’s been doing it since she was a teenager. That’s what she would love to do.”
Loughlin’s rep declined to comment for this piece, but a person close to the actress says no plans are being made, in regards to future work or a publicity plan to stage her comeback, as Loughlin’s focus remains on the legalities that the case has presented to her and her husband.
“There is no discussing work when you know you have to go to prison. Until the legal case is put behind her, there is no discussing anything with anybody,” a person familiar with Loughlin’s situation says. “Nothing is being dealt with until she serves her time, does her duty and put this behind her.”
Though Huffman has already been cast in a major broadcast project, for both actresses, how they move forward will be crucial as they work to make their way back into America’s living rooms. With any new show or film comes a press tour, and even after sitting down with an esteemed journalist for the most perfectly-conducted mea culpa, in the age of Twitter and Google, this story will follow participants of the college scandal for years to come.
The differences in how Huffman and Loughlin handled the situation are certainly noteworthy in the court of public opinion, more significant are the severity of the charges. Loughlin committed more egregious crimes than Huffman, who admitted to paying $15,000 towards her daughter’s faulty college admission, in comparison to the half a million dollars paid by Loughlin and her husband, who played a more active role in the scandal.
“Lori won’t have as easy of a time coming back for a couple of reasons,” Bragman predicts. “Lori hasn’t been cast in the range of parts that Felicity has been. And I don’t think she handled the situation quite as deftly as it could have been handled – and that’s an understatement.”
Whether any network or studio will gamble on Loughlin remains to be seen. But by casting either Loughlin or Huffman, there is a risk of audience alienation, especially in the midst of a pandemic that has resulted in soaring unemployment numbers for millions of Americans, who very well may perceive the college scandal as a case of upper-crust entitlement; not a case of making an honest mistake.
ABC – which has a long history with Huffman, who starred on “Desperate Housewives,” and was nominated for the lead actress Emmy all three seasons of “American Crime” – declined to comment for this story or make a network executive available for an interview, at this time. But insiders familiar with Huffman’s new project say those involved with series are thrilled to be working with her.
“Both of these women need to do a catharsis interview,” Bragman, who is a contributor at ABC News and founder of La Brea Media, advises of Huffman and Loughlin.
However, the Hollywood fixer points to one issue with the media coverage and public consumption of the entire college admissions scam.
“It was never a Hollywood scandal. It was a wealth and power scandal,” he says. “Felicity and Lori became the poster children, only because they were the most well-known, but that’s the price they have to pay being public figures, seen by millions of people who feel like they’ve known them for decades. No one said it was fair.”