Judy Smith, the inspiration for Olivia Pope, talks about life amid ‘Scandal’

December 9, 2013

Judy Smith at the “The Rock Newman Show” at WHUT. (Avisjay Savisti)

Judy Smith walked into a New York bank last week wearing a black suit and her signature white overcoat. A woman standing next to her gave an approving once-over and said, “Oooohhhh, that looks like an Olivia Pope coat.” Then she paused and took a second look at Smith: “Oh my God. It’s you!”

The intensely private crisis manager has gone from the real-life inspiration for the hit show “Scandal” to a star in her own right – and is now almost as recognizable as her on-screen doppelgänger Kerry Washington. Devoted fans crowded into Howard University’s television studio Thursday night for a live, hour-long interview with Smith and host Rock Newman and signing of her self-help book, “Good Self, Bad Self.”

“I feel very grateful,” she told us. “If I can, for whatever reason, inspire and motivate people, that’s a good thing.”

It’s quite a turnaround for Smith, 55, who became America’s best-known corporate fixer by staying out of the spotlight while helping Clarence Thomas, Monica Lewinsky, Michael Vick and Paula Deen (although she never, ever talks about her clients.) “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes was so taken by Smith that she built a hit show around her life.

Judy Smith signs copies of her book. (Avisjay Savisti) Judy Smith signs copies of her book. (Avisjay Savisti)

Now the glamorous Washington native is celebrity herself, although she dismissed any diva tendencies. In her interview with Newman, she emphasized – over and over – that her success was a result of the “consistent hard work and focus” she learned growing up in Northeast D.C. After Catholic school (“I remember thinking that when I got older, I would never wear plaid.”), she went on to Boston University and then law school at American University. Blending law and communication, she founded Smith & Company, which eventually led to “Scandal.”

But unlike Olivia Pope, the married mother of two said she never slept with the president – not George H. W. Bush when she worked for him, or any other president: “No. Across the board, no.” (But yes, she admitted, one of her grown sons uses the success of the show to pick up girls. And yes, it works.)

Smith wouldn’t share if she’s ever needed a fixer – but said the only difference between her celebrity clients and the rest of us is that our scandals don’t make headlines. What makes Olivia Pope so popular, said Smith, is that the character is strong, fearless, passionate – and not judgmental.

“The truth of the matter is, when you think about it, we all make mistakes,” she said. “And, quite frankly, we all screw up. . .But I am truly a big believer in forgiveness and second chances.”

And, judging by her new-found fame, second acts.

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