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Photoshop played an outsize role in the odious college admissions scandal that broke earlier this year. Rick Singer, the concierge to the stars who pleaded guilty in March to money laundering and racketeering in a scheme to get rich children into luxury-brand colleges, used the software to graft the heads of teens onto the muscled bodies of elite athletes. With the Photoshopped water polo image in particular, the one that helped an undistinguished high schooler get recruited by USC, Singer seems to have created a mythological creature—a Ceto for the digital age. Call them the Collegiae: They’ve got the heads of princesses and the bodies of serpents. To mark the moment, a Twitter friend, Peter Mohan, ginned up an image of me as a Collegiae. At first it didn’t compute. But then there she was: my own partial profile awkwardly under a deadly serious swimming cap, atop a muscular neck, broad shoulders, thick biceps and triceps, a performance one-piece—my splendid physique waist-deep in sky-blue pool water, at keen presence to a polo ball.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED and the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.
Water polo is widely praised as the most horrifying Olympic sport—vicious handball, but with the exciting lung sensations of waterboarding. Amusement mounted. What a gem! Why spend hundreds of hours drowning in a muggy pool when a few minutes of Photoshop can supply you with a winner’s glory and trapezius? And the primitive magic of illusion: It looks like I’m playing water polo, but I have never played water polo! Evidently I’d been reunited with a loving, playful alter ego willing to brook nosebleed-inducing body checks so I could stay in bed, taking selfies in a USC T-shirt. She—me, in the picture—was like one of the aboveground real people in Jordan Peele’s Us; I was her deformed and indolent Tethered, and our reunion made me whole.
Sure, maybe Singer, plied with millions of dollars, would have more artfully deepened my complexion (several shades lighter than the caramel-gold of my new body), but that would stifle the humor. Deepfakes, where artificial neural networks are set in motion to generate photo-realistic human images and video, often for revenge porn, are sinister. Mine was a shallowfake. Irony, and not tragedy, because anyone could see through it.
When I posted the confection on Instagram, friends rolled in to laugh, and then asked for shallowfakes of themselves. One wanted to be the Sexiest Woman Alive on the cover of People; why not? Another, who is 82, wanted a photo of her pole-vaulting, at least 5 meters, like Olympic gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva. It occurred to me that a post-Singer entrepreneur could dispense with the racketeering and just cook ordinary people’s books for kicks: create a bunch of brass Emmy-Oscar-Grammy statuettes, voluminous fashion spreads of us slimmed and stretched, and HDR photos of all of us summiting Everest without supplemental oxygen. We could plaster a room with all the shallowfakes, give up forever on the massive exertion required to hike the Himalayas, and savor our fugazi wins.
But this is the fun we’ve long been afforded by shallowfakes—from set piece photos of kids holding up the Tower of Pisa to rosy Instagram filters. If the polo-champ image of me were more deeply fake, an artifact in one of Singer’s pricey campaigns of opportunistic deception, the fun would drain out. An image like the ones Singer used would gnaw at me, even if I enjoyed the fruits of my deceit, telling me I am such an abject nothing that I need to be jollied along with forgeries of counterfeit achievements, like Donald Trump with his fake Time magazine cover.
The parents who paid for Singer’s services inadvertently punched their kids in the guts. The message to their children, as Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a clinical psychologist, told MarketWatch, was “I don’t have faith that you are capable of succeeding based on your own skills and hard work, and I don’t believe you’re strong enough to cope with disappointment.” An ego-stroking deepfake, to the extent that it’s supposed to look real, sends the same demoralizing message.
“The Key partners with your son or daughter to identify their strengths, unlock their potential, choose the right college, position themselves for admission, and outline a course of study and extracurricular experiences to lead a life of success.”
This grammatically turbulent sentence comes from Singer’s now-cached website, where his business, Key Worldwide Foundation, promoted overprivileged and underachieving kids—from “the world’s most renown [sic] families”—while purporting to serve underprivileged ones. “Unlocking your potential” seems wholesome enough. The copy manages to make the work of primping for college gatekeepers sound less like payola and more like letting your heart light glow. Singer published a book in 2014 called Getting In Personal Brands: A Personal Brand Is Essential to Gain Admission to the College of Your Choice. He’s a believer, like so many of us, in “branding,” a kind of secular sanctification of the self, a process whose supreme oddness is often lost in a culture where brands are styled as the secret to, well, “a life of success.”
The closest thing to a personal brand in pre-internet days was a “good name.” Your family was advised to build its patronymic, a day at a time, over generations, with demonstrable, difficult, and intrinsically estimable acts of service in the real world. A lapse into even a minor scandal like adultery (forget about money laundering and racketeering) could besmirch a name and cut off anyone bearing it from society or bank loans. It’s tedious to build and cultivate a good name; no one can do it for you. And, according to just about any 19th-century novel, it can be lost in a single devastating instance of bad judgment.
Not so with personal brands. Unlike actual education and sweaty sports, brands live in two dimensions, now almost always on screens. They can be conjured and rebuilt in short order by Singer types adept in damage control—scrubbing Google references, working the media, and creating an illuuusion of trustworthiness.
“The creativity was perversely impressive,” said Allen Koh in a video interview with The Wall Street Journal. Koh, another opulently compensated college consultant, once considered Singer a competitor. “I’ve heard of résumé exaggeration; I’ve never heard of wholesale fabrication.”
But the real Key to the story of the admissions cheats is that they left the fabrication—the dirty work—to someone else. Fabrication comes from the Latin for forge; Singer did the forgery so his clients didn’t have to. Thorstein Veblen’s masterpiece, The Theory of the Leisure Class, argues that the rich leave “production” of any kind to the middle and working classes, and then flaunt gloriously unproductive antiwork, largely to mark their distance from their subordinates. This wanton squandering of resources is what Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.”
The twist of our time is that the rich are no longer content to fritter away millions on pieds-à-terre in Paris and kennels of Tibetan mastiffs. Oh, no: What’s insidious about the college admissions scandal is the suggestion that at least some of the leisure class got tired of coming across as jackasses in garish watches and decided to spare no expense to seem like striving bourgeois warriors.
But the new pose of the rich as hard workers is indeed another version of consuming conspicuously. What more spiteful thing for the entitled to do than rob others of even their most earned, try-hard moments … without lifting a finger? Everyone in the scam is set up to protect the leisure, languor, ignorance, and ego of the cosseted student—the coaches, the parents, the bribed officials, the friends who know she doesn’t play sports. Even as they say they only half-knew what was going on, the flagrancy of their deceptions suggest they didn’t mind if it was an open secret. Like the bronzed glamour girls of Biarritz in the 1920s, the admission-scandal families cherish their laziness, as well as the sight of money being vaporized. How else to demonstrate to the less fortunate how big their surplus is?
If the parents had really wanted their kids to be handsomely educated, they would have gone the traditional route. True, it kinda sucks and doesn’t guarantee USC, but maybe perseverance—for one or two of these kids—could have been an actual plan of action, and not just a brand made in a lab. Here’s how it goes, and it doesn’t require Photoshop: You practice horrid, abdomen-splitting butterfly strokes, study polynomials deep into the night, and go early to goddamn class, sit in the front, read all the Kant, and earn actual As.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is a regular contributor to WIRED.
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.