Jill Kelley: The Tampa Socialite in the Center of the David Petraeus Scandal


 Something about the sunshine state leaves the rest of the country feeling like, "well it could be worse. I could be from Florida." 

For starters, it always seems to lag behind during national elections, taking extra days, weeks, and sometimes months to count all of its voters’ ballots. This year was no exception. With the presidential race too close to call, Florida didn't report until four days after the national election. 

To add to the confusion, there’s the mix of age groups from elderly to youth. There are ethnicities from recent immigrants to long standing residents, and there’s also the stark contrast between rural and city life in Florida. This diverse makeup has recently been chronicled by Tom Wolfe in Back to Blood, his latest book about the mélange of classes residing in Miami.

Somehow Florida just can’t avoid critique from the cultural satirists. Now it features prominently in the news because of a certain Tampa socialite. Jill Kelley, one of the women in the center of the David Petraeus extramarital affair scandal, could fit right into Real Housewives of Tampa cast, as the Kardashian-esque femme fatale who blew the lid off the Petraeus infidelity scandal. Kelley exposed threatening e-mails from her antagonist, Paula Broadwell (Petraeus' biographer and the woman he had the affair with), to the FBI.


Image c/o BuzzFeed

Upon closer inspection, Tampa is more than just a peninsula for strip clubs and Republican Conventions. It’s also a bastion of military bases with nouveau riche strivers seeking access to the bases' powerful inhabitants. Not as steeped in gentrified wealth as Palm Beach or as flashy as Miami, Tampa is caught in limbo between the have-nots and the want-mores. 

While some locals may scoff at the idea that the upwardly mobile would be able to carve out a niche in a largely military town, Jill Kelley did just that with panache. Serving up Cuban cigars and lamb chops at Pirate-themed parties, Kelley and her husband became notorious for their lavish parties. The pair entertained top military brass, including Petraeus, and General John Allen, the head NATO leader in Afghanistan with whom Kelley is also purported to have had an affair.

By throwing their support behind powerful military officials, the Kelleys were able to get perks like favorable judgments in child custody cases, in the case of Jill's’ twin sister. Furthermore, the cancer charity that the Kelleys ran continued to operate despite accusations of mismanaged funds and accumulating debt. It could be speculated that the family’s close proximity to shiny military personnel allowed this to go on.  

Unlike moving to Hollywood to be close to fame, or New York to be close to fortune, the Kelleys attached themselves to the military. According to the New York Times, military contractors and defense related contracts bring $5.7 billion to the Tampa area. The military is a thriving institution for anyone with the time, money, and resources to woo favors from. 

With her penchant for designer labels and desire for fame, Jill Kelley once appeared on a Food Network cooking show with her twin sister. She was the perfect hostess to loosen up, and hypothetically shake down, the starchy star-covered military uniforms that surrounded her. Her exotic Lebanese features likely made her intriguing to American military men seeking a break from the regime of base and family life. Enter General Allen, the Southern gentleman reportedly known to address Jill Kelley as "sweetheart" via e-mail.

It seems inevitable that such a socially ambitious woman as Kelley would clash with another powerful woman. Even if she didn’t intend to stir up questions about her own relationships with top generals, she now has.

While this may seem like a script for an upcoming version of Army Wives, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. As the story unfolds, one has to wonder who is directing this show. Is it the military that chooses to be aligned with power seeking aggressors? Is it the FBI who responded first very slowly and then ineptly to these tipsters? Is it the media for promoting such sordid propaganda? 

The simplest argument is that it’s a combination of all three. With a story this convoluted it’s hard not to imagine it as a made-for-TV movie. Although this primetime news lead seems about as lowbrow as a Lifetime drama, ratings have never been higher.