Feminist icon Erica Jong admits she’s among the cynics and doubters—including, as it happens, this reporter—who were wrong about Monica Lewinsky.
“If I ever said anything critical about her, I’m sorry,” the Fear of Flying novelist told me on Wednesday, “because women have a tough time when they get famous for anything sexual. People are cruel, and I’m glad she survived it. It’s a terrible thing to have to survive—and I have far more empathy now.”
Jong, who is 73, added that she applauds Lewinsky’s recent efforts to step out of the shadows and position herself as a high-profile opponent of cyber-bullying in a splashy New York Times profile, her first print interview in more than a decade, and a widely celebrated TED talk, titled “The Price of Shame,” that prompted a prolonged standing ovation, along with an explosion of positive commentary on the Web.
During that speech in Vancouver, Lewinsky facetiously referred to herself as a horror movie monster, “The Creature from the Media Lagoon.” If Lewinsky’s odyssey from embarrassment to esteem is ultimately successful, the Times piece and the TED talk will likely be seen as pivotal moments in the evolution of her public image.
“I’m glad she’s reemerging and seeing herself as a victim of bullying—which she certainly was,” Jong continued. “She seems to have made her peace with the press, and I’m always happy when somebody does that. In the 24-hour news cycle, people can be very mean, just to get eyeballs.”
Jong herself was one of the mean girls who arguably bullied Lewinsky from afar. It was during an infamous January 1998 panel discussion of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal in which prominent New York career women mocked and trashed her. At the time, Lewinsky was all of 24 and a key figure—“that woman”—in what became only the second impeachment trial of a president of the United States in American history.
In a private room at the posh Le Bernardin restaurant, Jong quipped: “My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease.” Piling on, erotic writer Nancy Friday, a specialist in female sex fantasies, suggested a money-making scheme for Monica: “She can rent out her mouth.” And feminist author Katie Roiphe noted: “[T]he thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.”
No wonder Lewinsky—after a few years of false starts trying to monetize her notoriety (designing handbags, hosting a cheesy dating show, and pocketing millions of dollars to cooperate with a Fleet Street biography, fronting a weight-loss business and sitting down with Barbara Walters)—fled the country and spent a decade in enforced anonymity.
And then, early last summer, in a widely read essay about her ordeal for Vanity Fair, titled “Shame and Survival,” Lewinsky popped out of her cocoon and began her media metamorphosis.
I was among the skeptics. Back in July, under the headline “Monica Lewinsky Is Doomed,” I predicted it would be all but impossible for her to shake the hard-wired pop-culture caricature of a White House intern who serviced the married Clinton and nearly brought down his presidency.
The piece quoted a lecture agent who’d met with Lewinsky and declined to rep her: “Unfortunately this girl was so young when this happened that she didn’t really have any gravitas to begin with. She will always be, in the public mind, a White House intern. I feel bad for her.”
Well, it turns out that Lewinsky—who is now 41—has shattered conventional wisdom, and gone a long way toward accomplishing her goal of, as she put it in her Vanity Fair essay, “stick[ing] my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.”
On Wednesday, the same naysaying lecture agent told me that maybe he, too, had been wrong about Lewinsky. “Once a star, always a threat, and anybody can be repackaged,” he said. “I think she’s a bright woman, and you guys in the press could make or break her. All of a sudden, with the demand for her, with Vanity Fair, with the TED talk, and as more and more newspapers come out and say that this is a valuable story, the public will take to it.”
The lecture agent predicted: “If she continues to take this path, she will reinvent herself. I really do think that her maturity and time will heal all wounds, especially when she really has something to say.”
In the design and construction of Monica 2.0, Lewinsky has relied on a kitchen cabinet of friends and informal advisers, including socially-connected publicist Dini von Mueffling, actor Alan Cumming, and one of her editors, David Friend, among a coterie of close colleagues at Vanity Fair, where last July she joined the masthead as a contributing editor.
Navigating the potential minefields of her public reemergence, Lewinsky also consults with Anthony Gordon Lennox, a well-known British communications adviser and speech coach who has worked with Prime Minister David Cameron and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon among other prominent figures in politics, media and business.
Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Graydon Carter emailed The Daily Beast: “I suggested she speak to [Gordon Lennox], a remarkable consultant in Britain who has helped industry leaders and prime ministers craft both their messages and the way in which they deliver them. They hit it off and here she is.”
If Lewinsky owes her media rehabilitation to anyone, it’s Carter. The Canadian-born journalism impresario has acted as something of a mentor since he persuaded her to pose for a flattering portfolio, with photos by Herb Ritts and accompanying text by Christopher Hitchens, in the magazine’s July 1998 issue as the impeachment drama was unfolding. Lewinsky was featured five months later in Vanity Fair’s “Hall of Fame,” and was a dinner guest the following year at Carter’s vaunted Oscar party at Morton’s in Beverly Hills, where I briefly—very briefly—chatted her up before she vanished into the teeming mob of A-list celebrities.
“I always saw something good and worthwhile in Monica,” Carter emailed. “We stayed loosely in touch and when she was ready, she, David Friend and I sat down a little over a year ago and mapped out something approaching a plan.”
They quickly came up with the idea that she should write about her personal ordeal in the context of being publicly vilified by strangers—a phenomenon that is more virulent today than it was in the late 1990s. “The issue of Internet shaming and the emergence of Monica as a public figure are two elements of the culture that merged and just seemed right,” Carter emailed. “She was game pretty much from the start.”
Since her attention-getting essay, Lewinsky has written three more pieces for the magazine’s website, VF.com—two of them addressing the perils of the Internet, and the third her friendship with the late Norman Mailer—and this week she posted a video interview with Jon Ronson, whose new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, chronicles the infliction of anonymous cruelties made possible by social media.
“She’s like Dominick Dunne in a way,” Carter said, citing VF’s late literary criminologist in response to my question concerning what he likes about Lewinsky’s voice as a writer. “Because of what he had lived through (the murder of his daughter), he brought a special sort of empathy to his crime stories. Monica is, as she says, patient zero when it comes to Internet public shaming and she therefore brings that experience and understanding to her journalism.”
While Lewinsky’s presence in Vanity Fair has been a vital ingredient in her media resurrection, the Times profile pegged to her TED talk—which was splashed on the Sunday “Style” section front on March 22—seems to have sealed the deal. It announced to the world that Lewinsky is a serious person, worthy of respectful attention in the nation’s most influential media outlet.
Freelance writer Jessica Bennett, the author of the piece, said it took months of off-the-record conversation via email, lunch, and dinner before Lewinsky would agree to submit herself to a journalistic process over which she’d have no control.
“The conversations went back and forth,” Bennett told me, adding that her calling card was a sympathetic essay about Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair debut on Time magazine’s website, where she’s a regular contributor. Lewinsky had liked it so much that she’d tried to email Bennett, whom she hadn’t yet met, to thank her.
“Monica was so nervous—understandably nervous, because she’d been so burned in the past by everyone in her life and by everyone in the media, and, for what it’s worth, by The New York Times,” Bennett said. “She’d spent the last 10 years out of the public eye in order to reclaim her story and her sense of self. Handing it over to someone else was scary for her.”
In the end, Lewinsky let Bennett shadow her to a theatrical performance of a play titled Slut, and practice sessions for the TED talk—which was a variation on Lewinsky’s emotional speech last October to Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” summit for young business leaders. Lewinsky tried to set limits on what she could be asked. Under no circumstances, she told Bennett, would she discuss Hillary Clinton.
“I said, ‘This is The New York Times,’” Bennett recounted. “‘We have to ask you, and you can decline to comment.’ Which she did.” Bennett said Lewinsky spoke with her both on and off the record, but she wasn’t given an opportunity to review her quotes.
Lewinsky’s gamble paid off, and Bennett’s piece described her as “likable, funny and self-deprecating” as well as “acutely intelligent.”
“I think nobody’s ever totally happy with a profile, but she was happy,” Bennett said. “I’m sure there were aspects she wished were different but I think she felt it did convey the message she wanted to convey—that she was trying to reclaim this narrative and maybe we should give her a chance.”
Lewinsky, her publicist von Mueffling told The Daily Beast, was unavailable for comment.