It may be unjust, but nobody will ever consider you classy after Bill Clinton penetrates you with a cigar and has “oral-anal contact” with you. Don’t tell that to Monica Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton’s least favorite “narcissistic loony tune” who is talking about the sex scandal that defined her life in a personal essay in Vanity Fair, the magazine for respectable wealthy people who like their celebrity sleaze swaddled in $8,000 dresses. (It’s not online, but you can read bits of it here.)
Lewinsky writes she decided to share her story with the world after she talked to her mom about Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge because his roommate secretly filmed his gay hook-up. During their conversation, Lewinsky’s mother burst into tears because Clementi’s suicide reminded her of the times her daughter considered suicide after Matt Drudge broke the news of Lewinsky’s affair with Bill Clinton. “Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned,” Lewinsky writes, “I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation.”
Clementi committed suicide in 2010 and the trial of his roommate Dharun Ravi ended in 2012, so the timing of the essay is a little weird, but otherwise Lewinsky has a point: She was the first person to be at the center of a public scandal that unfolded in the age of the internet, the spiritual ancestor of women like Sydney Leathers, the sexter who brought down Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign.
One lesson to draw from Lewinsky’s life since she became the woman with whom the president did not have sexual intercourse is that it’s almost impossibly difficult to return to normal life after you get famous for something like that. After attending grad school in London, she writes, she struggled to make ends meet and had to occasionally take loans from family and friends. Respectable employers rejected her because of her history and the publicity that would presumably follow her, while others just want to profit from her image and story—she claims she’s been offered deals that would have made her upwards of $10 million.
If Lewinsky had embraced her identity as the world’s most famous other woman, she no doubt could have made a comfortable living, say, appearing in ads for cigars, breath mints, and phallic foods she could insert into her mouth on camera. She could have been Paris Hilton four years before The Simple Life aired. Instead of everyone talking about her reentry into public discourse with the Vanity Fair essay, we’d be wishing she’d shut up.
Instead Lewinsky tried to straddle exploiting her scandal-driven fame and respectability. She hosted a (short-lived) dating show, started a (failed) handbag line, and accepted a $500,000 deal to tell her story to a journalist instead of a rumored $5 million deal from Judith Regan, the controversial publishing mastermind behind OJ Simpson’s If I Did It and other insanely profitable celebrity books.
Lewinsky could afford to turn down offers like Regan’s because she had a well-off family she could rely on in times of financial crisis. Other stigmatized mistresses have had to take any deal they can get. In a personal Facebook status this week, Sydney Leathers, who made a porno and tried to auction off bits of her labia after her 15 minutes of fame as Weiner’s sexting partner, asked her followers to imagine if Lewinsky had come from her working-class background. Depending on your point of view, Leathers told me in a text, Lewinsky would have made smarter or lousier business decisions—but she definitely would have tried to cash in a lot more, rather than trying to simultaneously profit off her infamy and separate herself from her scandal and get back the trajectory her life was on pre-Clinton.
As the Vanity Fair essay shows, Lewinsky is still clinging to decorum. While discussing howHillary Clinton called her a “narcissistic loony tune,” Lewinsky refers to Clinton as “Mrs. Clinton,” a move that virtually screams HIGH ROAD, as do lines like, “In 2008, when Hillary was running for president, I remained virtually reclusive, despite being inundated with press requests,” and, “recently I’ve found myself gun-shy yet again, fearful of ‘becoming an issue’ should she decide to ramp up her campaign.”
I was a bullied gay teen four years ago, and I can tell you that the vast majority of the young homos and other ostracized outsiders—the people Lewinsky is ostensibly writing to help—don’t empathize much with this longread-for-Vanity–Fair stuff. Thanks to the internet, there are dozens of places to find personal narratives where the stigmatized and abused share their stories. Tumblr has helped proliferate a culture of outrage, but it’s also changed the national conversation about women by allowing anyone to publish a personal essay. These blog posts, along with reality TV, are slowly making Americans less prude. When Lewinsky’s sex acts were in the news thanks to the Starr Report, the details seemed salacious, but now all of that stuff will be on a single episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It’s so-called “low culture” like reality TV, internet confessionals, and cheesy pop music that speaks the language of the bullied.
If Lewinsky truly wants to help outsiders, she shouldn’t remain silent or write high-minded essays—she should team up with Leathers, V Stiviano, and other alleged mistresses for a reality show, or a public outing coincidentally filmed by TMZ, that would celebrate their notoriety and actually help American outcasts.