Judy Smith, Real Life Inspiration Behind 'Scandal'

Apr 12, 2012
Originally published on April 12, 2012 10:37 am
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Next, we'll hear from a woman whose ability to manage even the most headline-grabbing scandal has earned her the respect of CEOs, celebrities and heads of states. And now it's made her famous.

Crisis management guru Judy Smith is the woman who inspired the new ABC drama "Scandal." The show revolves around the character inspired by Smith. Olivia Pope is played by actor Kerry Washington, a self-proclaimed gladiator in a form-fitting Tahari suit. She devotes her career - those near her would say her life - to helping people get out of a bind.

Here's a clip of Olivia Pope wrapping up a tough negotiation.


KERRY WASHINGTON: (as Olivia Pope) Since we have a deal, I am going to take what we paid for. Pleasure doing business with you. I thank you. My client thanks you, and I hope to never see you again.

HURTADO: Judy Smith is the co-creator of the program and an executive producer, but in real life, she's always preferred to stay out of the spotlight. She's advised everyone, from President George H.W. Bush to former White House intern Monica Lewinski and NFL quarterback Michael Vick during their times of crisis.

And now she's the author of a new book. It's titled, "Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets."

And Judy Smith joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JUDY SMITH: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here.

HURTADO: As we are having you here. You know, Judy, I saw the first couple of episodes, and it's a fast moving, nail-biting drama. She's hopping planes, defying the district attorney by looking to not, say, seizing evidence before he does. She even steals a kiss with a fictional president, President Grant of the United States. And so I think what a lot of people want to know: Is this your life?

SMITH: Well, let me just say that I think Shonda Rhimes has done a terrific job at really dramatizing the sort of fast-paced, crisis-driven life that we lead every day. And, of course, it's television, so it is much more sexier and exciting than my everyday life.

HURTADO: Take us through the steps from meeting "Grey's Anatomy" creator, Shonda Rhimes, to seeing "Scandal" air on ABC. I guess there's a lot of potential for crises to derail this project.

SMITH: Yes. I mean, that is actually true. We started on this, believe it or not, about a year and a half - almost two years - before we got it on the air. And, when I met her, it's probably like your typical interview in the sense that, you know, someone says pull me out in 10 minutes. You know, call me so I can get out of the meeting. So it was originally supposed to be a 15-minute chat, and we ended up just talking for two-and-a-half hours, just about crisis.

And by the time I left, Betsy Beers, who's co-producer - I'm sorry, the executive producer - Shonda looked at her and said, I've got to have it. We've got to do this show. And it's the first show that she has written herself since "Private Practice."

HURTADO: That must have been music to your ears.

SMITH: Yes. I mean, it's...

HURTADO: I've got to do this show.

SMITH: Yes. It was a very exciting moment.

HURTADO: Actor Kerry Washington, Judy, plays Olivia Pope, the character you inspired. She's also the lead. You've mentioned that many African-American actresses auditioned for one role, and yet, as I watched, I thought, Olivia Pope is a strong, smart, tough-as-nails, successful businesswoman who happens to be African-American. Is there a reflection on barriers the series is breaking down?

SMITH: Here, it is exciting in the sense that you have Kerry Washington - who's African-American - myself and Shonda Rhimes. So it's one of those unique situations that I think hasn't happened since the '60s.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. And we're talking with the woman who inspired the new television series, "Scandal." Our guest is professional crisis manager Judy Smith.

In the first episode of "Scandal," Judy, Olivia says that she needs to look someone in the eyes to see if they're telling the truth. So how much of your crisis management job is getting your clients to that place of truth?

SMITH: That involves a lot. Usually, when you think about it, if you're involved in the crisis, it's sort of the worst part, in some ways, of your life, and it's very difficult to tell a complete stranger that I've made a big mistake and let me share all of that with you right away. So the client - you have to gain the trust of the client, and it takes time.

I will say this about the truth, that it's one of those crisis rules, whether you are a client or someone who's living their life just every day, is that the truth has a funny way of not going away, and telling the truth is extremely important in dealing with any problem or crisis.

HURTADO: Surviving a crisis, Judy, means overcoming failure. When did you fail, and how has this failure made you a better crisis manager?

SMITH: Ooh, that's a good question. I would probably say - I actually had to take the Bar twice. I think twice. I had to take it twice. And it was very difficult for me because it was the first time that I had tried something and I did not succeed at it immediately. So it was one of those lessons that, if you want something bad enough, that you have to be very focused and you have to stick to it in order to overcome it.

HURTADO: In our 24-hour, Twitter-verse media culture, I've got to ask you, Judy: Do you think that a problem or a crisis can ever really be solved, or only contained and mitigated?

SMITH: Yeah. I think it depends on the type of crisis. I will say, though, that I think with the 24-hour cycle that we're in, it has made it really difficult to handle crisis, because someone can blog and put out something that may not be factual. And, all of a sudden, that is around the world in seconds and, as you well know, sometimes the fact of it actually becomes fact, and it's not. And then it becomes true, and then the truth is the perception of it, and it just sort of goes from there. So it becomes very difficult, a lot of times.

HURTADO: How has that made your job more difficult?

SMITH: Well, I think that, you know, you want to get out there and, as they say, you want to correct anything very quickly that's wrong. But at the same time, I think that you have to balance it and you want to make sure that you have the facts. It's one of those things, you can't put the genie back in a bottle once it's out. So you just have to try to mitigate it and try to get your side of the facts out quickly.

HURTADO: Most of us, hopefully, will never need the kind of assistance you've provided to presidents and celebrities. But what's the most important piece of advice you could offer to everyone who has to manage a personal crisis?

SMITH: I think the most important advice I would offer is to have people own it. It's one of the things I talk about in my book. Whatever the issue is or problem is, you have to own it and you have to face into it. If not, it will just really get worse, and it will get compounded.

You know, I think sometimes when we face problems and issues in our life, we have a tendency to really deny that a problem exists. Or sometimes we say, oh, it'll go away, or we can handle it. It's - you know, don't worry. I've got it covered. And a lot of times, that's not the case.

HURTADO: Judy Smith is the author of "Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets." She's also the co-creator and the inspiration for the ABC show, "Scandal."

Thank you for joining us.

SMITH: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.