Monica, REVISITED
Marie Claire Australia|November 2021
She was the 22-year-old intern who nearly bought down a president. Now, decades on, Monica Lewinsky is reframing her own story as a producer on the new series Impeachment. But reclaiming the narrative – an exercise she has spent half her life on – has been anything but easy, writes Jessica Bennett
Jessica Bennett

This is surreal,” Monica Lewinsky kept saying. She was trying to make her way to her seat in a crowded room where everyone wanted her attention. It was a hot summer night in New York, and the city’s vaccinated elite were practically vibrating with energy.

The occasion was a July screening and reception to promote Impeachment, the latest instalment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series, which revisits the events leading up to the impeachment of then-president Bill Clinton through the perspectives of the women involved. Lewinsky is a big part of that story, of course. So are Linda Tripp, the friend who exposed Lewinsky’s affair with the president; Paula Jones, who had accused him of sexual harassment; and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton. But Lewinsky is the only one who is a producer on the show.

Lewinsky, 48, had skipped the screening portion of the evening – no need to rewatch the most humiliating period of her life with a roomful of strangers, she joked – and had a video session with her therapist. But she agreed to attend the reception afterwards. It took place in the old Four Seasons restaurant – once a nexus of Manhattan’s famous and powerful, some of whom had returned to their old haunt for the event.

There was Tina Brown, the celebrated editor who in 1999 published the first interview with Hillary Clinton about the affair, in Talk magazine, and would later remark how gracious Lewinsky had been when they spoke that evening. Calvin Trillin, another stalwart of New York’s media elite, rose as the room offered Lewinsky a roaring standing ovation.

The new faces included Beanie Feldstein, seated next to Lewinsky, who plays her in the 10-part series, and who for months had carried around a copy of Lewinsky’s biography in her backpack. Nearby was Sarah Paulson, who so convincingly embodies Tripp in the show – her hulking posture, the cadence of her voice – that certain scenes gave Lewinsky flashbacks.

Lewinsky was 22 when her relationship with the president began – an affair that played out over 18 months, mostly within the Oval Office, even as she moved into a full-time job in the Pentagon.

Impeachment begins on the day it all came crumbling down: January 16, 1998, when the FBI ambushed her in the Pentagon City mall. “That was the most terrifying day of my life, which competes for worst day with the release of the Starr Report,” Lewinsky said.

In the show’s opening scene, we see a young Lewinsky in workout gear and tube socks, naively waiting for Tripp, who had by then turned over some 20 hours of secretly recorded phone conversations between them. The next 11 hours, in which Lewinsky was interrogated in a nearby hotel room and threatened with 27 years in jail, would change the course of her life – and, of course, become one of America’s enduring political scandals.

Many things followed. A steamy 160-page report to Congress. Oral sex jokes on late-night television, and an uptick in cigar sales. The impeachment hearings. A tarnished political legacy. And a young intern who once dreamed of becoming a forensic psychologist, whose identity was now seemingly carved in stone: That woman.

Since then, Lewinsky has tried reinventing herself repeatedly, for a long time without much success. There was a failed handbag line. A brief stint in reality TV. Moving overseas. Nearly a decade of self-imposed silence.

But that began to change in 2014, with an essay in Vanity Fair – in which she declared it was time to “burn the beret and bury the blue dress” and “bring a purpose to my past”– and then a TED talk the following year, about the public humiliation she endured. Together they told a new version of her story at a time when society seemed ready to hear it – amid greater awareness about bullying and trauma and a more sophisticated understanding of sexual power dynamics. “The world was now understanding her side of things,” said David Friend, her editor at Vanity Fair, where she is a contributor.

She has since found paid work campaigning against bullying and speaking on the subject. She has slowly made her way into producing, including an upcoming documentary about public shame and a newly-formed production company, aptly titled “Alt Ending”. But Impeachment is the most personal – and arguably the most prominent – chapter in her rehabilitation.

The good news for Lewinsky is that this time she’s shaping the story herself. The bad, perhaps, is that it means reliving the darkest period of her life – and introducing it to at least one generation that wasn’t around to see it. She still isn’t exactly sure how she feels about the whole thing.

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