Of course, she’s not going away.
That’s what so many people have wished for Monica Lewinsky this week — out of a mix of sympathy, distaste, or both — now that she’s thrown herself back into our consciousness with an essay in Vanity Fair.
Why now? Conspiracy theories abound. But the stated reason is that Lewinsky needs a job, and sees a cause: to be the poster child for the perils of online fame. She compares her ’90s shaming in the Drudge Report to the torment kids endure today on Facebook. She calls herself “possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.”
But she’s wrong. She wasn’t the first victim of the Internet age. She was the first reality star.
That concept didn’t exist when Monica met Bill in the corridors outside the Oval Office. There was no “Survivor,” no “Real Housewives’’ or “Dance Moms’’ or “Jersey Shore,’’ no camera crews trailing various Kardashians, helping them spin long careers out of sex tapes and marital squabbles.
Back then, there was a nascent Internet dirt machine — not to mention a powerful political machine — that gladly chewed Lewinsky up alive. Her recounting of those days has attracted sympathy, much of it deserved. She writes that her relationship with Clinton was consensual, that the damage came in the aftermath. She was a neophyte to Washington and adulthood, manipulated by people far more savvy about both.
But Lewinsky is 40 now, too old to claim that she’s still being bullied by the grown-ups. At a certain point, she made a conscious decision to let a scandal define her.
This is what reality stars do. Today, we’re beyond the point of “they edited me to look bad.” Today, the lines are blurred between infamy, fame, and opportunity. People enter TV contracts understanding precisely what’s expected of them when the cameras roll: a willingness to overturn a table in faux-anger, to “privately” gripe about people who will eventually hear you say everything, to pick a scab from your distant or recent past and talk about it, again and again.
The tradeoffs are clear: money, yes, and something more intoxicating. Even if the implicit dream doesn’t pan out — a spinoff show, a second career in fashion, a line of jewelry to sell on QVC — you still get validation. You’re on TV and on the covers of magazines. You’re somebody.
And not everyone can cope when the attention goes away. Bill Clinton survived, the Bush era began, and Lewinsky took conscious steps to stay in public view. She talked to Barbara Walters, went to Vanity Fair parties, launched a handbag line, traveled in New York’s social scene. She hosted a dating reality show on Fox. She shilled for Jenny Craig. She answered questions, before a live audience, for an HBO documentary.
She flirted with obscurity for a few years, decamping to London to get a degree. In 2009, through a spokeswoman, she declined an interview with Time. (This is how you project your importance: Have a spokesperson to declare that you don’t want publicity.) Then, she writes, she started looking for jobs that would require her to have a public presence.
You could imagine an alternate universe, in which she moved to Wisconsin or Texas or anywhere outside of Manhattan, maybe changed her name or maybe not, found something interesting and meaningful to do, stopped talking about the past. Maybe she’d be a minor curiosity in town, another local with an interesting back story. Maybe in 40 years, some reporter would discover her again, cajole her into talking, draw out some self-reflection. Surely, the sympathy would come.
But Lewinsky didn’t want to wait that long. Instead, she got what she asked for: a gorgeous photo spread in a glossy magazine, a smattering of new praise, a rehashing of the old condescension. And relevance — that’s the biggest thing. We’re all repeating her name again. Yes, I’m doing it, too.
So this will be her legacy, and reality junkies know why. To fall in foolish love, at 23, and became a national joke? That’s bad.
Monica Lewinsky wasn’t the first victim of the Internet age. She was the first reality star.
But to become a historical footnote, forgiven and mostly forgotten? Apparently, that’s worse. Expect her on “Celebrity Apprentice” before long.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.