With her Vanity Fair essay Monica Lewinsky is firmly back in the spotlight, which she has alternately sought out and run from in the 16 years since her name became synonymous with scandal. Lewinsky’s essay laments the fact that while Bill and Hillary Clinton have enjoyed bright futures, she has not been able to find employment or a husband.
Countless women, and men, have endured scandals but many have bounced back. What is it about Monica Lewinsky that seems to have prevented her from enjoying the seemingly fulfilled life that other scandalized women have been able to carve out for themselves?
Donna Rice Hughes may have the answer.
Hughes, when she was known as Donna Rice, was involved in a steamy scandal involving presidential politics. In 1988, Rice was photographed leaving the home of (married) senator and White House candidate Gary Hart. Two days later, a photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap aboard the Monkey Business yacht surfaced.
“My heart really goes out to Monica Lewinsky or anyone who gets caught in an international scandal,” Hughes said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast.
Hughes said part of Lewinsky’s challenge is the lingering double standard in how women in sex scandals are viewed.
“A lot of men have gone through these things, but the women, they just get crushed, and it feels like you’re being raped in front of the world. I can tell you that’s exactly how I felt when you’re exploited and humiliated like that.”
As one of the few people on the planet who has been through what Lewinsky has, Hughes said she hopes to get in touch with her.
“I would be more than happy to talk to her and help bring people around her to encourage her and help her walk through this and get to a good place in her life if she isn’t already and she may be.”
Hughes noted that there are some key differences between her scandal and Lewinsky’s that hampered Lewinsky’s early ability to reclaim her life: namely, Lewinsky didn’t have the choice to disappear from the public eye thanks to the legal investigation surrounding her affair with Bill Clinton. Hughes, however, was able to drop out of the spotlight. Hughes credits “going underground” for seven years with allowing her to get to a good place emotionally and spiritually.
While Hart practically disappeared then, the Clintons, on the other hand, have done the opposite. So while some people may ask why Lewinsky won’t just go away, she has to contend with two extremely powerful people who won’t go away either, forever keeping her name in the public consciousness.
Nick Ragone, a partner in global PR firm Ketchum Inc,. cited Hughes’s story as demonstrative of one effective strategy of two for bouncing back from a major scandal.
“When you see people bounce back from scandal it’s usually one of two ways,” he said via email. “Either they embrace the public persona that’s been created for them—think Ollie North, Gordon Liddy, even Jose Canseco and the steroid scandal—and run with it. The scandal becomes part of their brand and they extend it from there.”
“The other route is to run in the opposite direction and create an entirely new public identity—think Donna…and work diligently at rebranding themselves.” This second tack, the one that has worked for Hughes, is probably the most viable for Lewinsky, he thinks. “Perhaps this is the first step for Monica Lewinsky in figuring out what her post-scandal identity is going to be.”
Psychologist Jeff Gardere explained that a person’s emotional coping skills and support network are both incredibly important in determining if and how they find a happy life after scandal.
“The resiliency ultimately makes the difference but it’s also the support you get from family and friends. Monica Lewinsky had a lot of support from her mother but she became very, very isolated so she didn’t have the full support she really needed from others.” Hughes, on the other hand, credited her family, church, and a tight-knit circle of friends for protecting her in the aftermath of her scandal. She also credits her faith.
Dr. Gardere said he has seen first-hand the role faith has played in helping people recover from seemingly unfathomable setbacks.
“Forgiving yourself is extremely important, taking responsibility for your behaviors and having a belief in a higher power may make a difference. I don’t know Monica Lewinky’s spirituality but I know it has made the difference for many people.”
Hughes is one of them.
“For me faith has been the key,” she said. Following the eruption of Hughes’ scandal, as she contemplated what career and media moves to make, her mother and grandmother told her: “Donna, don’t make any decisions until you get your life straight with God.”
That in turn led Hughes to decide not to pursue any opportunities that may help her in the short term, but hurt others in the long run, such as an embarrassing tell-all. Instead, she stepped away from the public glare and re-emerged years later as an anti-pornography and anti-cyber-bullying activist. Her image makeover was so effective that she regularly worked with members of Congress and the Senate who never realized she was that Donna Rice. Hughes celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary this week and recalled that when she got married her mother was excited she’d be able to change her scandal-linked name, something plenty have said Lewinsky should do. But Hughes says she wants others—like Lewinsky—to see someone like her scandal-scarred name and all, and know there is hope.
“I would encourage her not to read the negative information if anyone is blasting her—avoid reading it. Protect and guard her heart. And have a really wise circle around you. I had an advisory circle of friends —none of whom were going to make a commission if I did or did not do something.” Most important, Hughes says: “Turn to God.”
Hughes also notes it is important to try to find a way to turn the negative situation you are in into a positive. In her Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky says her experience as one of the Internet’s first major media targets, and the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, have fueled her interest in becoming an anti-cyberbullying activist, which is what Hughes does now.
“I knew I had a platform because I’d had a public platform ever since the scandal but I wanted it to be used for good not for evil and not for Donna but to help other people so my own pain and suffering and that of my family would be for good,” Hughes says of her current work with InternetSafety101.org. “Otherwise it’s for nothing. If you go through all that and if you can’t grow through it and also give back and make a difference, then what’s the point?”