Olivia Daniels ’16 is a friend of a friend, and I’d heard vague murmurs of some of her crazy stories but realized that all I really knew about her was her unaffected personality, ability to propagate conversations on the quirkiest topics and of course, her eternal penchant for sloths. We met in Paresky on a Friday afternoon so I could dig deeper into her influences and aspirations.
So to start off, where are you from?
I’m from Chicago. My mom’s from New York, though, and like all New Yorkers, she has that tendency to hate everywhere that’s not New York. So I’ve always been a Chicagoan, but a little bit of an outsider, too, especially ’cause my stepfather’s British and he thinks London is the best place in the world. [Laughs.] So I grew up in a household that wanted to be elsewhere but was kind of stuck in the Midwest because that’s where my father lived. But I miss it; I miss a lot of things about Chicago that I didn’t realize I appreciated until I came out here.
Rumor has it you have some interesting neighbors in Chicago?
[Laughs.] I feel like the most interesting thing about me is whom I’ve gotten to meet. I live in Hyde Park, which is this bizarre neighborhood. It’s the University of Chicago campus, and so you have one of the densest populations of Nobel Prize winners in the world, and then you also have the park across from where I lived where we would constantly find crack bags. We had to put up a sign on our house that said, “Please do not urinate on our house.” There’s this weird dichotomy. But [President Barack] Obama raised his kids in Hyde Park, and my friend lived in the same apartment as him for a while, and he goes to our gym. I was in an acting class with his daughter, and I remember right after the South Carolina primary, which had been really brutal, [Barack] Obama and Michelle [Obama] were back in town, and we had our big performance, and I was like, “Is he gonna come?” And sure enough, sitting in the second row, there he was, and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I’m not gonna remember a single line!” And when I met Malia [Obama], she was telling everyone, “Yeah, my dad’s running for president…” and kind of rolling her eyes. I’m sure she was sick of it, and I just sat there and was like, “Which one is your dad?” And she was like, “The black one?” [Laughs.] It’s really cool to think of the man I see and how he’s portrayed. He’s kind of portrayed as this very cold, intellectual guy, and this guy I saw growing up was this dude in jeans in the park. Sorry, I could talk about Obama –
No, it’s fine!
The Obama election campaign headquarters are in Chicago, so I ended up interning there for the summer. It’s really cool because it’s the center of the campaign, so people like David Axelrod and Jim Messina, who were chief advisors to Obama in the White House and his campaign managers are just brushing shoulders with you in the hallway. Axelrod is one of my heroes, and I was telling my friend how I thought he was a giant teddy bear, and then I looked to my right and there he was! [Laughs.] One of my favorite days was when the Supreme Court decision came out on healthcare, and walking into the office, the tension was palpable. In the morning that they called it there was all this confusion, and this big cheer erupted, and David Axelrod broke into tears, ’cause his daughter had really severe health issues that they almost went completely bankrupt trying to pay for. It was amazing to just be there and see that. I was a very small part of that, just stuffing envelopes and trying to figure out copy machines and getting yelled at by voters.
So you’re interested in politics, then.
You think? [Laughs.]
What are your interests outside of politics? What would you say are your… areas?
Oh my god, you’re gonna make me talk about sloths –
I was going to make you talk about sloths.
It’s funny, I told my mom that you asked me to [be interviewed for “One in 2000”], and she was like, “Okay Olivia, just don’t talk about sloths,” [and I] was like, “But Mom, this is the best opportunity for me to expand my empire.” I fell in love with sloths the summer after the junior year of high school, and there were only, like, four people who were into sloths. And now –
Four people out of…?
Out of 6 billion. In the world. This is my guesstimate. And of course, at the time, I was trying to get everybody to love sloths. I bombarded people with YouTube links. But now, everyone’s sort of jumping on the sloth train, and part of me’s like, “Yes, it’s a great train, welcome,” but the other part of me is like, “Okay … this is my thing.”
Hopefully they aren’t a trend.
Yeah, you have to really dedicate yourself. I truly embody the sloth lifestyle, trust me, like I think I’ve stayed in bed for 36 hours at one point. I am committed. I feel like sloths release some sort of happy chemical. [Laughs.] They’re very evolutionarily advanced. Okay, everyone likes pandas, but pandas are too lazy to even have sex. There are a few days a year they can have sex, and if there’s no other panda nearby, they’re just like, whatever. Then you look at sloths, which have these advanced mechanisms that allow them to survive. For example, a sloth only has to excrete once a week. And when they do, they climb down their little trees – this is an all-day process – walk to another tree, do their stuff there, then come back to their tree and climb up it. So that predators don’t know how to follow their scent. And I just think they’re adorable. There’s a sloth orphanage in Costa Rica, and my dream is to one day go and hold and cuddle with all the sloths there. I was actually gonna try and design a [Winter Study] 99 that just involved me going to Costa Rica to study, a.k.a. cuddle, sloths, but I didn’t end up doing that.
I heard that your family has a unique history?
The interesting tidbit from my dad is that his great-grandfather, Draper Daniels, is sort of the inspiration for Don Draper in Mad Men. He was a big ad exec in Chicago: He actually came up with the Marlboro Man. He’s not as handsome as Jon Hamm is, I’ll give you that. And on my mom’s side, it’s funny because I’m so separate from any “blue blood,” but we have this sort of blue blood history. My great grandma was best friends with the Rockefellers, and Alexander Hamilton married into my family. President Garfield – I’m not related to him by blood, but he also married into my family. He’s actually one of the coolest presidents, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this speech he gave. It’s after slavery, but it’s just slamming racism when no one else was saying that. I would fact check everything I say, by the way, because I will think things are so true in my head, and I will debate them until my dying day, and then someone will be like, “Olivia, look, my smartphone tells you the opposite…”
Except for the sloth things, maybe.
The sloth things I am pretty down on. It’s funny ’cause we could be so rich right now. And that sounds horrible to say, but my great grandma was given the chance, in like, 1920, to buy into this new company called Coca-Cola or this Argentinian cigar [company] that turned out to be one of the first recorded Ponzi schemes. Guess which one she picked! So there’s this sort of whole blue blood legacy in my family, but I grew up disconnected in the Midwest – I didn’t know, what, you know, what’s that thing where they have nets and they catch balls? Lacrosse. I didn’t know what lacrosse was before I came here. My friend had to explain to me what “prep” was. I remember I came to [the College and] there were the cool guys jamming to country music. And I was like, “What?!” Nobody in my school would be caught dead listening to country music.
Yeah, I know, it’s just such a different experience to be here, but it’s awesome!