It almost seemed, for one brief and shining moment, that Monica Lewinsky had triumphed over her past. There she was Monday night, working the red carpet with all the other celebrities, wearing an elegant black cocktail dress at a posh dinner in London for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity.
Nobody dared molest her with even a mention of Bill Clinton.
“You may not know my dad is actually a radiation oncologist,” she told the video interviewer for the Daily Mail, referring to Beverly Hills doctor Bernard Lewinsky. “So Madame Curie,” she went on, using the French pronunciation for madame, “was really one of the first female role models for me growing up.”
She was smiling, relaxed, and appealingly sincere. She looked genuinely happy to be there. And yet, whoever plugged in the chyron I.D. just below her video image—entirely unnecessary for one of the planet’s most famous women—couldn’t resist typing out the words “Monica Lewinsky Former White House intern.”
She is sailing into middle-age now, turning 41 in three weeks, yet she is frozen in the public imagination as a 23-year-old White House intern. Now she's attempting once again, after a decade of enforced obscurity, to figure how to earn a respectable living and reinvent herself.
It’s a completely reasonable ambition, yet might be impossible to achieve.
Her attendance at the charity dinner, at which she mingled with movie stars and members of the British royal family, is only part of her brave effort to re-enter the fray. She is said to be shopping herself around to various U.S. talent and lecture agencies, hoping to launch herself afresh as a back-from-adversity role model—surely a somewhat different role model from Madame Curie.
On Sunday, the National Geographic Channel will premiere the first episode of a three-part miniseries, The ’90s: The Last Great Decade?, for which Lewinsky agreed to relive her trauma and humiliation of 16 years ago in an emotional and detailed interview. The Nutopia production company, which made the miniseries, took care of her expenses for a trip to London, where the on-camera interview was conducted in January, and “basically we covered her time,” said supervising producer Fred Hepburn, who declined to reveal how much she was paid.
“From what she told us, she had quite a few approaches from a number of media companies to tell her story, and this one took a couple of months of persuasion,” Hepburn said. “In part, it was down to the fact that obviously NatGeo is a very respected brand, and there was an assurance and confidence on her part that this was a serious channel and it wasn’t going to be a tabloid take-down piece.”
In other words, she was looking to cement her status as an important figure in American history rather than the punchline to an off-color joke.
Hepburn added that Lewinsky, whom he describes as “an anglophile,” felt comfortable that a British production team was meeting with her in London, “where people know who she is but she doesn't get quite the attention.” He said Lewinsky gave “a blow by blow” account of her ordeal—then laughed, realizing that the phrase was probably not the most congenial for someone trying to reframe her personal narrative.
“In the midst of all this scandal and the shocking revelations and the salacious stuff that everybody enjoyed reading about, you tend to forget that a 23-year-old girl suddenly finds herself in the midst of something where her best friend [Linda Tripp] has betrayed her and she’s being threatened with 27 years in prison, and the psychological impact of all of that stuff,” Hepburn said. “For 10 years she tried to keep out of the spotlight, but it’s something that wouldn’t go away,” he continued, guessing why Lewinsky agreed to participate. “Like she said, she wants to move on and get out there and burn the blue dress and bury the beret.”
Lewinsky famously announced in her much-discussed Vanity Fair essay last month, in which she delivered that memorable line about the blue dress and the beret, that it’s time “to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past”; she dearly wishes to be known as someone other than the “Portly Pepperpot” (the unwelcome moniker of the New York Post’s “Page Six” column) who administered oral sex to the Leader of the Free World and very nearly brought down a presidency.
She wants to shed the notoriety that is so deeply ingrained in the popular culture that Beyonce, in last year’s hit tune Partition, actually included the lyric: “Oh he so horny, yeah he want to fuck. He popped all my buttons, and he ripped my blouse/He Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown.” Lewinsky would like to put an end to such outrages.
“It’s hard,” says one of the lecture agents who met with Lewinsky and her handlers a decade ago before she decided to escape to London and stay out of the limelight to buckle down and earn her master’s of science degree in social psychology at the London School of Economics. (The subject of her egg-headed thesis: “In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of the Third-Person Effect and Pre-Trial Publicity.”)
“One of the things she would have to do is shift public sentiment back on her side, and that’s going to be a tough thing to do,” says this lecture agent. “One thing about the American public is they love to forgive. But you’ve got to give them something to forgive you about. You can get heavily involved in a charity, for instance, but not on the red carpet. “
This agent spoke on condition of anonymity due to discomfort with being publicly associated with comments about Lewinsky. Indeed, it’s revealing concerning her prospects for a freshly scrubbed image that several public relations experts contacted for this story—people who normally are more than happy to be quoted and have their insights memorialized—declined to participate; instead, they scampered away from the subject like scalded cats.
“I have nothing to say on the subject of Ms. Lewinsky,” said one of them, longtime PR guru Ken Sunshine, a Democratic Party loyalist who is friendly with the Clinton family.
The anonymous agent, who describes Lewinsky as intelligent and articulate, recalls: “When I met with her and her handlers, I said, ‘I’m going to be very blunt with you. I can’t think of any accomplishment of yours, other than being seduced by the most powerful man in the world. I don’t fault you. Anyone would have succumbed. But what have you been doing since then? What have you done to correct the situation? What have you done for someone else? Or is the story that that because you were so damaged by all of this, so inextricably linked to this scenario, that you couldn’t move on with your life?’ Which is a story in itself.”
The agent says that when Lewinsky and her team were asked, “‘Who’s going to buy this and why would they buy this?’, they couldn’t answer the question…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.”
In the aftermath of President Clinton’s impeachment, on charges of perjuring himself regarding his relationship with Lewinsky, she did have initial success in monetizing her ordeal. She received a million dollars for the international rights for her famous 1999 interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters; she got another $500,000 for cooperating with Monica’s Story, by British biographer Andrew Morton. There was a million-dollar endorsement deal with the weight-loss company Jenny Craig, a handbag brand, a reality television dating show on Fox that eventually tanked, and various other television gigs that ultimately amounted to very little.
“Here’s the sad part,” says the agent. “When people know your name, other people tell you you can turn it into some value, so somebody has probably advised her that the more she’s in the public eye, something will come up. That’s valid. She could definitely do a reality show if she wanted to go that route. But it’s a dead end.”
The Kardashians and Paris Hilton are outliers. “For every one of those stories that are successes, there are 500 that are failures,” says the agent.
There is, of course, a line of work in which Lewinsky has incomparable expertise and experience: that of a crisis PR strategist. She has hard-won knowledge about the workings of the media and the perverse processes of scandal. “But then,” says the agent, “she’d have to roll up her sleeves and stay out of the public eye—and make a name for herself in a new way.”