Monica Lewinsky is sitting in a Manhattan auditorium watching teenage girls perform a play called Slut. Dressed in blue jeans and a blazer, her hair pulled away from her face and held with a small clip, she is wiping away tears.
On stage a young woman is seated in an interrogation room. She has been asked to describe, repeatedly, what happened on the night in question – when a group of guys from school on their way to a party pinned her down in a taxi and sexually assaulted her. She has reported them. Now everyone at school knows; everyone has chosen a side.
“My life has just completely fallen apart,” the girl says, her voice shaking. Her parents are in the next room. “Now I’m that girl.”
The play over, Lewinsky rummages through her bag for a tissue and a woman comes to whisk her to the stage.
“Hi, I’m Monica Lewinsky,” she says, visibly nervous. “Some of you younger people might only know me from some rap lyrics.”
The crowd, made up largely of female high school pupils and university students, laugh. Monica Lewinsky is the title of a song by rapper G-Eazy; her name is a reference in dozens of others: by Kanye West, Beyoncé, Eminem, Jeezy. The list goes on.
“Thank you for coming,” Lewinsky continues, “and in doing so, standing up against the sexual scapegoating of women and girls.”
A line of girls soon approach. “Thank you for being here,” says a teenager in a striped shirt and gold hoop earrings. She asks if she can take a photo, and Lewinsky winces a little, then politely tells her no. “I totally understand,” the girl says.
When she is asked later about her reaction to the play, Lewinsky says: “It’s really inspiring to hear people bring awareness to this issue. That scene in the interrogation room was hard to watch. One of the things I’ve learned about trauma is that when you find yourself re-triggered, it’s helpful to recognise when things are different.”
A lot is different for Lewinsky these days, starting with the fact that, until last year, she had hardly appeared publicly for a decade. Now 41, the former White House intern, once famously dismissed by the president as “that woman”, holds a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics.
She splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, where she grew up, and London, and says it’s been hard to find work.
Mostly she has embraced a quiet existence, doing meditation and therapy, volunteering and spending time with friends.
But that quiet ended last May, when she wrote an essay for Vanity Fair about the aftermath of her affair with President Bill Clinton.
In the essay, which was a finalist for a 2015 US National Magazine Award, she declared that the time had come to “burn the beret and bury the blue dress” and “give a purpose to my past”.
That new purpose, she wrote, was twofold: it was about reclaiming her own story – one that had seemed to metastasise – but also to help others who had been similarly humiliated. “What this will cost me,” she wrote, “I will soon find out.”
It hasn’t appeared to cost her, at least not yet. The opposite has occurred. Over the past six months, she has made appearances at a benefit hosted by the Norman Mailer Center (she and Mailer had been friends), at a New York Fashion Week dinner presentation for designer Rachel Comey, at the Vanity Fair Oscar party and as her friend Alan Cumming’s date at an after-party for the Golden Globes (Cumming has known her since the 1990s).
Recently, she took part in an anti-bullying workshop at the Horace Mann School in New York and joined a feminist networking group. (“I consider myself a feminist with a lowercase ‘f’,” she tells me. “I believe in equality. But I think I’m drawn to the issues more than the movement.”)
In October, on stage at a Forbes conference, she spoke out for the first time about cyberbullying: “I lost my reputation. I was publicly identified as someone I didn’t recognise. And I lost my sense of self,” she told the crowd.
At the TED conference in Vancouver last month, she issued a biting cultural critique about humiliation as commodity. The title of her 18-minute talk, which received a standing ovation: “The price of shame”.
This is not the Lewinsky of more than a decade ago – the one who created a handbag line and tried her hand at reality TV. This iteration is a bundle of contradictions: warm yet cautious; open yet guarded; strong but fragile.
She is likable, funny and self-deprecating. She is also acutely intelligent, something for which she doesn’t get much credit. But she is also stuck in a kind of time warp over which she has little control.
At 41, she doesn’t have many of the things that a person her age may want: a permanent residence, an obvious source of income (she won’t comment on her finances), a clear career path.
She is also very nervous. She is worried about being taken advantage of, worried her words will be misconstrued, worried reporters will misquote her or rehash the past.
“She was burned… in myriad ways,” says her editor at Vanity Fair, David Friend.
Lewinsky wouldn’t call this a reinvention. This, she says, is simply the Monica who “was seen by many but truly known by few,” as she puts it on the TED stage.
“This is me,” she tells me. “This is a kind of evolution of me.”
I must admit to a twinge of guilt here. I distinctly remember my younger self, wide-eyed, poring with friends over the salacious Starr Report into Clinton’s conduct.
None of us had the maturity to understand the complexities, or power dynamics, of the president’s affair with a young intern. When I was 16, one dominating image of Lewinsky seemed to overshadow all others: slut. At the time, that 22-year-old intern was only a few years older than me.
And so recently I emailed her, suggesting I write an article. I told her I was interested in her effort to re-emerge and had been particularly fascinated by the reaction to it. Feminists who had stayed silent on the first go-round were suddenly defending her, using terms like “slut-shaming” and “media gender bias” to do it.
Late-night host David Letterman was on the air expressing remorse over how he had mocked her, asking, in a recent interview with Barbara Walters, “With some perspective, do you realise this is a sad human situation?” Bill Maher said of reading Lewinsky’s piece in Vanity Fair, “I gotta tell you, I literally felt guilty.”
And young women were embracing her, rushing up to her after public events, messaging her on social media, asking if they could take selfies.
This time, Lewinsky appears determined to tell her story on her terms. She has a PR agent screening requests and approaches media as one might expect, with the caution of a woman who has been dragged over the coals.
When I meet Lewinsky at her apartment – before the TED speech – she is rehearsing in front of a small metal music stand. Her speech coach, Pippa Bateman, is on Skype from the UK.
She hands me a script. “It’s changed a bit, so you can follow along,” she says. (By the time she appears, she is on version 24 of her speech.) On the back, she has scribbled a reminder: “Push in arm muscles, engage back and neck.”
She is working through the middle of the speech, where she will describe her questioning by investigators in a room not unlike the one portrayed in Slut. It was 1998, and she had been required to authenticate the phone calls recorded by her former friend, Linda Tripp. They would later be released to Congress.
She glances at the script, then looks forward.“Scared and mortified, I listen,” she says. “Listen as I prattle on…
“Listen to my sometimes catty, sometimes churlish, sometimes silly self, being cruel, unforgiving, uncouth…
“Listen, deeply, deeply ashamed to the worst version of myself.” She pauses. “A self I don’t even recognise.”
“How did that feel?” Bateman asks. “You’ve got to own it.”
Lewinsky doesn’t have a speechwriter; she writes the speech herself. But she has plenty of advisers; journalists, editors, new friends, old friends, her lawyer, her publicist, her family. Which is great, if everyone is in agreement. Except that no one is ever in agreement.
The major disagreement is over the opening, a joke about a man 14 years her junior, who hit on Lewinsky after she spoke at Forbes.
“What was his unsuccessful pickup line?” she asks rhetorically. “He could make me feel 22 again. Later that night, I realised: I’m probably the only person over 40 who would not like to be 22 again.”
It’s funny, yes (even hysterical, judging by the reaction at TED). But does the joke sexualise her off the bat? For a woman ingrained in the public psyche as a “tart, slut, whore, bimbo,” as Lewinsky puts it on stage, should she try to avoid the innuendo?
Ultimately, she sticks with the joke.
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She performs that opening later that day in a practice session downtown, then again a few days later in front of a large gathering of friends, over wine and cheese. She will practise the speech walking down the street, running errands, on a flight from Amsterdam to Oslo. As she jokes on Twitter: “If you see me walking down the streets of nyc muttering to myself, don’t worry ... just practising my TED Talk.”
Explaining why TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) approached Lewinsky to speak, content director Kelly Stoetzel says, “Part of what I think makes this story interesting is that people will get to see all the dimensions of Monica, not just the person who was reported on 17 years ago.”
The idea for the address has been marinating for years. Lewinsky has often thought about the toll that shame has taken on her life; in graduate school, she studied the impact of trauma on identity.
Then Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman, killed himself after being recorded by his college roommate being intimate with a man. It was 2010, and Lewinsky’s mother was beside herself, “gutted with pain”, as Lewinsky says on stage, “in a way I couldn’t quite understand”.
Eventually, she realised that to her mother, Clementi represented her. “She was reliving 1998,” she says, looking out over the crowd. “Reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night. Reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open.”
She pauses, becoming emotional. “And reliving a time both my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death.
“It was easy to forget,‘That Woman’ was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.”
She doesn’t like to talk much about the past, but she will talk about residuals of her trauma: having to leave the cinema every time a cop on a screen flashes a badge (a flashback to being ambushed by federal agents in the food court of the Pentagon shopping mall); the studying and reading about it, as a way to ease it.
“I had to do a lot of healing work and rehabilitation to get to what transpired over the course of the past year,” she says. “Anybody who has gone through any kind of trauma knows it doesn’t just go away with a snap of the fingers. It lives as an echo in your life. But over time the echo becomes softer and softer.”
And yet this isn’t simply about her story, she says. This is about using it to help others. As she puts it, shame and humiliation have become a kind of “commodity” in our culture – with websites that thrive on it, industries created out of it, and people who get paid to clean up the mess.
“What happened to compassion?” she asks up on stage. “What we need,” she says, “is a cultural revolution.”
The way Lewinsky tells it, she was “Patient Zero” for the type of internet shaming we now see regularly. Hers wasn’t the first case, but it was the first of its magnitude. Which meant that, virtually overnight, she went from being a private citizen to “a publicly humiliated one”.
Had the Lewinsky story unfolded today, certainly the digital reality of it would have been worse.
“They would have dug up her private photos,” says Danielle Citron, a law professor and the author of Hate Crimes In Cyberspace. But there would have also been avenues to push back, more outlets, more varied voices, probably even an #IStandWith Monica hashtag.
In that respect, Lewinsky may finally be in a unique position to tell her story. “I don’t know… exactly how you combat cyberbullying,” says Walters. “But at least she’s fighting back… I do think it’s about time we gave her a chance.”
The night before TED, Lewinsky begins a ritual. She lights candles. She sets up a table of crystals. She debates which necklace to wear, then orders dinner and tea.
She will be in bed by 9.30pm and up at 5am. Amy Cuddy, the Harvard researcher whose TED talk on body language clocked nearly 25 million views, is meeting her in the morning. They will power-pose together.
Lewinsky has a friend from Los Angeles there with her. “If you had told me a year ago I was going to be delivering a TED talk, I would have laughed in your face,” Lewinsky says, seated on the carpet.
She looks at her friend.
“A year ago…” she chokes up. “Well, you were there. It was so, so hard. There were times I thought I wouldn’t make it.
“I’m just so grateful,” she says. “I’m at once grateful and surprised.”
Earlier, I had asked Lewinsky what she hoped to accomplish with a platform like TED. She asked if I had read the David Foster Wallace book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. In it, there is a chapter about suffering and the story of a girl who has survived abuse.
What the young woman endures is horrific, says Lewinsky, but by going through it, she learns something about herself: that she can survive.
“That’s part of what I thought I could contribute,” she says. “That in someone else’s darkest moment, lodged in their subconscious might be the knowledge that there was someone else who was, at one point in time, the most humiliated person in the world. And that she survived it.”
• See Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk at www.ted.com
© NYT 2015