Monica Lewinsky recently took to Twitter to talk about the most “terrifying day of her life”. The former White-House intern-turned-social-activist was referring to January 16, 1998 — the day she met an older colleague, Linda Tripp, for lunch in the food court of Washington’s Pentagon City mall.
n the months previously, Lewinsky had opened up to Tripp about her 18-month affair with President Bill Clinton. Several of these conversations, unbeknownst to Lewinsky, had been recorded by her colleague. There was no lunch date that day — the meeting was a carefully orchestrated sting operation.
Lewinsky, who was 24 at the time, was ambushed by FBI agents and taken to room 1012 of the nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel. For the next 11 hours, she was interrogated by prosecutors and federal agents and threatened with 27 years in jail if she didn’t cooperate.
It was the most terrifying day of Lewinsky’s life, but for investigative journalists and gossip columnists, it was manna from heaven. The events that unfolded that day were forensically detailed by the media and later lampooned on Saturday Night Live.
The sting operation, dubbed ‘Prom Night’ by federal agents, even got its own chapter in lawyer Ken Starr’s 2018 memoir Contempt. “For an hour, Monica screamed, she cried, she pouted and complained bitterly about her scheming, no-good, so-called friend,” he writes.
The Ritz-Carlton arc of this enduring political scandal has always been tinged with schadenfreude.
But now, 23 years after the story first broke, we’re revisiting that moment with a fresh perspective.
American Crime Story: Impeachment, which debuts on BBC Two on October 19, focuses on the women at the centre of the scandal. The real Monica Lewinsky serves as a producer.
The latest episode, watched by US audiences on Tuesday night, tackles ‘Prom Night’, only this time we see it through the eyes of a bewildered young woman. We see Lewinsky (played by Beanie Feldstein) sitting timorously in a room full of armed, mostly male, federal agents.
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We see her naivety and vulnerability, which never came across in the photos designed to depict her as an arch seductress. Crucially, we’re reminded of the most important yet ignored fact in this political saga: that ‘woman’ was only a girl.
Lewinsky spent weeks in hiding after the story broke. The 445-page Starr Report was published seven months later and as the press pored over the prurient details of her sexual activities, the then-25-year-old was trying to come to terms with the burden of public ridicule.
The following year, she re-emerged as a fashion designer with a handbag line called The Real Monica Inc. The bags were sold in high-end department stores such as Fred Segal, but the business venture was short-lived. A few months later, she tried to capitalise on the widespread fat-shaming she had experienced by becoming a spokesperson for diet company Jenny Craig.
It was another brief venture, but it provided plenty of comic fodder for late-night talk show hosts. Jay Leno once joked about her gaining back all the weight she had lost. “In fact, she told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah — she didn’t want to give up her sex life,” he sneered.
In 2003, Lewinsky tried her hand at TV presenting, but her role as host of Fox dating show Mr Personality was promptly torn apart by critics. “When she’s asked, ‘What’s the most humiliating thing you’ve ever done?’, she has a new answer,” joked comedian Tina Fey at the 2003 Matrix Awards.
Lewinsky moved to London two years later and began working on her master’s degree in social psychology at the London School of Economics. She kept a low profile and moved between Los Angeles, New York and Portland, Oregon, after she graduated.
She interviewed for jobs in communications with an emphasis on charity campaigns, but soon discovered she was never “quite right” for the role.
“In some cases, I was right for all the wrong reasons,” she later revealed. “As in, ‘Of course, your job would require you to attend our events’. And, of course, these would be events at which press would be in attendance…”
It’s worth noting that Linda Tripp also recorded her phone conversations with literary agent Lucianne Goldberg. During these chats, Tripp talked about Lewinsky’s privileged Beverly Hills upbringing — her father was an esteemed doctor — and suggested her background would somehow inure her to the political fallout and help her move on from the scandal.
But that’s not how things played out. As Clinton restored his public image and her friends started families and scaled the career ladder, Lewinsky couldn’t escape the burden of notoriety. Largely unemployable and borderline reclusive, she was left with a choice: she could continue allowing other people to tell her story or she could reclaim the narrative on her own terms.
The turning point of Lewinsky’s story occurred in May 2014 when she wrote a rousing essay entitled ‘The Culture of Humiliation’ for Vanity Fair magazine. “Me, America’s B.J. Queen. That Intern. That Vixen. Or, in the inescapable phrase of our 42nd president, ‘That Woman’,” she wrote. “It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person.”
The 4,000-word essay touched on cancel culture, slut-shaming, power dynamics and faux feminism. It explored ideas that were urgent, compelling and, at times, alarming prescient. They say there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. In this case, Lewinsky’s time had come. She was “burning the beret, burying the blue dress” and moving forward.
Marking her arrival as a fresh new voice, Lewinsky delivered a standing ovation-worthy Ted Talk on ‘The Price of Shame’ in 2015. “Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22?” she asked the audience. “Yep. That’s what I thought. So like me, at 22, a few of you may have also taken wrong turns and fallen in love with the wrong person, maybe even your boss. Unlike me, though, your boss probably wasn’t the president of the United States of America…”
She went on to discuss the publishing of the Starr Report and how the gratuitous and graphic descriptions of her sexual activities impacted her mental health. “That people can read the transcripts is horrific enough. But a few weeks later, the audiotapes are aired on TV, and significant portions made available online. The public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable.”
In 2018, in the wake of MeToo, Lewinsky wrote another powerful essay for Vanity Fair, this time exploring the possibility that her relationship with Bill Clinton, who is 27 years older than her, “constituted a gross abuse of power”.
“Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern,” she wrote. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance, the idea of consent might well be rendered moot, although power imbalances — and the ability to abuse them — do exist even when the sex has been consensual.”
This unequal power dynamic is portrayed in Impeachment, but Lewinsky also wanted the script to explore the paradox of her agency and her victimhood. Head writer Sarah Burgess originally left out the infamous moment where Lewinsky flashed a sliver of her thong to Clinton, but Lewinsky chose to keep the scene in.
“Ultimately, I felt two things,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “One was that I shouldn’t get a pass because I’m a producer; and two, that it was unfair to the team and to the project because it would leave everybody vulnerable.”
Unlike her earlier business ventures, Lewinsky seems to have found her groove as a producer. She says she had to hire a therapist to watch Impeachment with her over Zoom, but there’s the feeling her new production company, Alt Ending Productions, has a few tricks up its sleeves.
Meanwhile, the Vanity Fair contributing editor is carving out a name as a leading voice in the anti-cyberbullying movement. She delivers talks at business conferences calling for a more compassionate internet and has spearheaded several anti-bullying campaigns.
Her reinvention brings to mind a line from Starr’s memoir, which describes the moment during ‘Prom Night’ when federal agents realised 24-year-old Lewinsky was a force to be reckoned with: “In thinking she was a naive, starstruck young woman in love who would quickly cooperate, we underestimated her,” he writes.
Perhaps we all did.
The women of Impeachment
Impeachment centres on Lewinsky (played by Beanie Feldstein), who was a 21-year-old recent college graduate when she took an unpaid internship in the office of President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. The series follows her affair with Clinton and the ensuing impeachment trial, and examines the public shaming of women.
White House staffer and whistleblower Linda Tripp (played by Sarah Paulson) befriended and later betrayed Lewinsky when they worked alongside one another in the Pentagon. Lewinsky, who was 24 years younger than Tripp, told her colleague that she had been sexually involved with Clinton. Tripp then contacted literary agent Lucianne Goldberg in the hopes of selling a book on the subject.
New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg played a small yet crucial role in the political scandal. After advising Tripp to secretly record her conversations with Lewinsky, she urged her friend to bring the recordings to Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, who at the time was leading a broader investigation of Clinton’s alleged improprieties.
Lewinsky had a close-knit relationship with her glamorous mother Marcia Lewis (played by Mira Sorvino), who separated from Monica’s father, Bernard Lewinsky, in 1987. Lewinsky called her mother when she was being interrogated in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Lewis immediately travelled from New York City by train. Lewis later appeared before the grand jury investigating allegations that her daughter had an affair with Clinton.
Former First Lady Hillary Clinton was married to Bill Clinton for 21 years when news broke that he had engaged in an extra-marital affair with Monica Lewinsky. Hillary is played by Sopranos star Edie Falco in Impeachment and has so far only been seen a handful of times in the first aired episodes.
Former Arkansas state clerk Paula Jones sued Clinton in 1994, claiming he had exposed himself to her in a hotel room while he was governor. Jones recently criticised Annaleigh Ashford’s portrayal of her in Impeachment, saying: “The part that I saw about me, most of it was inaccurate. It was almost cartoonish-y.”