is scandal based on a true story

Is Scandal Based on a True Story? | 5 Real-Life Scandals

In 2012, American television witnessed a groundbreaking moment with the release of Shonda Rhimes's Scandal, a political thriller featuring Kerry Washington in a commanding role. Taking from the life and work of crisis manager Judy Smith, the show made a remarkable impact by being the first show in 40 years to feature a black female protagonist and a black creator. The show follows Olivia Pope navigating a series of scandals in the political sphere, weaving together a complex narrative of political intrigue which paved the way for its Netflix successor, House of Cards.

Since its release, the show has prompted many fan questions, with viewers often wondering, "Is Scandal based on a true story?". Read on as we delve into the show's intriguing real-life parallels.

Who is Judy Smith?

Judy Smith, aged 65, made history as the first Black woman to deliver a White House press briefing during her tenure as deputy press secretary in President George H. W. Bush's administration. During her tenure, she played a key role in managing pivotal events that made headlines, including Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation as President of the USSR in 1991, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King.

Following her groundbreaking work, she founded the crisis management firm Smith & Company, which strategises and salvages influential persons' image and reputations. She has represented numerous notable clients, including Angelina Jolie, Monica Lewinsky, and Wesley Snipes.

Chicago native Shonda Rhimes, during an internship at a law firm in Washington D.C., became fascinated by the inner workings of Beltway firms. Years later, as a successful producer, she met crisis manager Judy Smith, and following the two-hour-long meeting, Rhimes expressed her desire to create a show based on Smith's life. Thus, out of Smith's remarkable career and experiences, the hit ABC series "Scandal" was born.

The show, starring Kerry Washington as the fictionalised version of Smith, Olivia Pope, brings Smith's life and work to the forefront of public attention despite her earlier relative anonymity in the political sphere.

Is Scandal Based on a True Story?: Real-Life Scandals

Scandal, the popular ABC television series airing between April 2012 and 2018, shows Olivia Pope & Associates navigating the intriguing and dangerous world of politics and power, protecting the secrets and reputations of prominent persons while concealing her own.

The show's fictional take on political intrigue and its dramatisation of real-life events have been highly praised. Each episode unfolds in intense drama, from concealing a president's affair to uncovering government surveillance, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats for the entirety of its one-hour runtime. Many of its events and characters are inspired by actual scandals and figures. Explore how these real-life events unfolded on the small screen.

Affair Between Amanda Tanner and President Fitzgerald Grant

Much of Scandal's first season is occupied with an alleged affair between President Fitzgerald Grant III, known as "Fitz." and former White House aide Amanda Tanner.

In the 1990s, a situation akin to the alleged affair between "Fitz" and Amanda Tanner unfolded when President Bill Clinton acknowledged a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, who served from 1995 to 1996.

This scandal garnered significant media attention, placing Lewinsky at the forefront, and resulted in President Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives. Judy Smith, the real-life counterpart of Scandal's Olivia Pope, also served as Lewinsky's attorney during this tumultuous period.

"D.C. Madam" Sharon Marquette's Client List

The second episode of season 1 deals with the character Sharon Marquette, a madam who runs a high-profile client list, which includes Patrick Keating, a Supreme Court nominee. Marquette's character is likely inspired by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, famously known as the "D.C. Madam." whose clientele reportedly included members of Congress.

Palfrey was convicted by a Washington D.C. jury on charges of money laundering, racketeering, and illicit use of the mail related to a prostitution ring she operated from 1993 to 2006. Following her conviction, Palfrey was found deceased in an apparent suicide.

The "Thorngate" Scandal

Episode 3 of Season 2 follows Artie Hornbacher, a National Security Agency analyst, who steals a program called "Thorngate" to expose government surveillance on American citizens. This plotline is loosely based on the real-life scandal involving Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, who leaked information about the NSA's surveillance programs to the press in June 2013.

While the character Artie Hornbacher in Scandal was eventually turned over to the NSA, Edward Snowden remains wanted by the United States for leaking thousands of secret files. Snowden has been living and working in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum.

Much like the fictional "Thorngate" scandal, the real-life Snowden incident has been a topic of much discussion and debate, highlighting both the tension between privacy and security and the potential consequences of whistleblowing.

Senator Schuman's Affair

In the 7th episode of Season 2, Olivia Pope convinces Senate Majority Leader Schumann to step down from his post after his affair with a young intern is revealed to the public. With Schumann resigning, Olivia helps her boyfriend, Senator Edison Davis, step up as the new Senator to fill the gap within the Republican Party.

This has parallels in the real-life scandal involving California congressman Gary Condit, who in July 2001 faced intense scrutiny for his confession to a sexual relationship with intern Chandra Levy, who had gone missing in May 2001 and was later found deceased.

Judy Smith, the inspiration behind Olivia Pope's character, provided legal representation to Levy's parents during the scandal. Looking back on the case, Smith recalled the challenging moment of informing Levy's mother, Sue, about the discovery of her daughter's remains.

Richard Meyers' Sexting Scandal

In Episode 4 of Season 3, Olivia takes on Senator Richard Meyers as a client, who is accused of murdering Desiree Oaks, a woman he was found exchanging explicit messages with. Though Meyers' storyline may seem too sensational to be real, echoes of it can be found in the sexting scandal of Anthony Weiner, a New York City mayoral candidate.

In 2011, Weiner, a former U.S. representative from New York, resigned from Congress after admitting to posting a sexually explicit photo on Twitter meant for a certain follower. He also acknowledged engaging in online relationships after his marriage.

In 2013, following his congressional resignation, another woman revealed that Weiner had sexted her under the alias "Carlos Danger." Weiner's political career suffered greatly, resulting in him losing the Democratic mayoral primary race.


"Is Scandal based on a true story?" viewers may ask as they witness the gripping portrayal of characters whose scandalous saga mirrors real-life events involving real people in power. Shonda Rhimes's Scandal offers a lens into the tumultuous yet captivating world of political intrigue through grey-shaded characters and storylines akin to real-world controversies. Yet, beyond the screen, these narratives serve as poignant reminders of the ethical dilemmas and moral responsibilities accompanying positions of power. As viewers watch Olivia Pope doggedly yet strategically handle crises for influential people of various moral shades, one cannot help but ponder the enduring tension between personal behaviour and public office or personal morality and political outcomes.


Is Scandal based on a real person?

American TV show Scandal is based on Judy Smith (1958), an American crisis manager, lawyer, author, and television producer. A former deputy press secretary in President George H. W. Bush's administration, she is primarily known as the founder, President, and CEO of the crisis management firm Smith & Company. She has worked with prominent clients like Angelina Jolie, Paula Deen, NBA player Kobe Bryant, NFL player Michael Vick, and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Who is the woman behind Scandal?

The woman behind the hit ABC TV series is Judy Smith, a distinguished crisis manager and the real-life inspiration for the show's protagonist, Olivia Pope. Formerly a deputy press secretary under President George H. W. Bush, she became the first Black woman to conduct a White House press briefing. Smith has worked with high-profile clients, including political figures and large corporations. Her influence on the show is evident, from the realistic portrayal of crisis management to including a trailblazing Black woman, played by Kerry Washington, as the lead character.

Who was Fitzgerald Grant based on?

The character of President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, the 44th President of the United States in Scandal, is speculated to be inspired by a composite of several American presidents. While his adulterous affair in the show has led some to relate him to Bill Clinton, some of his political policies and personal habits suggest parallels with President George W. Bush. Some have also taken hints from his nomenclature to relate him to John F. Kennedy.

Anuska Saha

Anuska Saha is an aspiring academician and musician pursuing her Master's in English. A passionate book enthusiast and a singer-musician, she navigates the realms of academia and creativity with equal enthusiasm.

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