Monica Lewinsky on Turning Her Trauma into Must-See TV
There's ownership, and then there's Monica Lewinsky ownership. Impeachment: American Crime Story, the new series from director and executive producer Ryan Murphy, details Lewinsky's mid-'90s affair with President Bill Clinton, her betrayal by confidante Linda Tripp, and the events leading up to Clinton's 1998 impeachment. Beanie Feldstein plays Lewinsky, Sarah Paulson is Tripp, and a near unrecognizable Clive Owen plays Clinton. For Lewinsky, it took strength to even authorize an onscreen portrayal, but in keeping with Murphy's promise that the show would be told from the perspective of the women involved, she also served as producer. In many ways she is the author, translator, and audience of her own experience. Her aim: to reduce her greatest trauma to a footnote in a much bigger story.
Laura Brown: At the first screening of Impeachment, it struck everyone that you've come full circle. You were posing for pictures with the cast of a series about the greatest violation of your life.
Monica Lewinsky: I'm incredibly grateful, [because] I've had opportunities over the years when people have come to me with something that is seemingly big for me, but really it's big for them. Then the next morning…what am I left with? I've now got a first-look [producing] deal with 20th Television. I'm working on projects, and I'm learning from the best. I'm trying to forge a career at 48. One of the bigger steps I've taken is recognizing that I couldn't run away from everything that happened to me. The most valuable gift we can give ourselves is to integrate those experiences that we feel shame over [into our lives].
LB: You looked great that night. When you said you wore a Moschino dress you'd had for years [which we photographed Lewinsky in for this story], I thought, "Ah, that makes sense."
ML: Thank you. Doing public things like that is hard for me, so if I know whatever is in my closet is going to fit, it helps. I hung out with Sarah and Beanie recently, and it's funny because Beanie, being from a younger generation, is all about body positivity. She was really schooling me and Sarah whenever we were making comments [about our bodies]. I hadn't noticed how much our thinking can be changed and how much of it is generational.
LB: How did you feel the morning of the première knowing that this show was finally going to be out there?
ML: I was in denial most of the day. As a producer, I was excited, but from a personal perspective, it's very surreal.
LB: Ten years ago, if someone had said the Clinton impeachment was going to be made into a series for entertainment, what would have been your reaction?
ML: In a weird way, when it happened in '98, it was already the beginning of the inflection point between politics and entertainment, right? It started with O.J. [Simpson in 1994]. We were careening toward that, and then with the Internet, all of those things started to come together.
LB: What was Ryan Murphy's pitch to you?
ML: We met for dinner. I was nervous, like I was going on a date. We had met briefly before, but this was the first substantive conversation we'd had. He talked about what the intentions were with the series and that they were very interested in coming at this from the perspectives of the women. That was not how history had been told before, and that was very compelling to me. It was also the same [executive] producers, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, who did O.J. [The People V. O.J. Simpson, 2016] and Versace [The Assassination of Gianni Versace, 2018].
LB: Really hitting off those '90s dramas.
ML: Exactly. And the fact that Sarah Burgess, who is an incredible playwright, was going to be helming the script was compelling to me too. Ryan made it easy to say yes quickly, but I don't make these kinds of decisions lightly. It's not just about my past and what it brings up for me or my family: It also impacts everybody who is involved.
LB: I'm curious about the level of exposure you wanted to have, even as a producer. Did you want to be on set?
ML: In some ways, it's a little bit like an arranged marriage. Here I come with a lived experience and the emotional truth, and we needed to figure out a way to work together. I don't think anybody involved, including me, wanted me to be onset while they were filming scenes that had to do with me. That would have been hard for me and too much pressure on Beanie. She's an incredible actor, but I'm so detail-oriented in probably the most annoying way that I'd be like, "Oh, I had three buttons there, not two buttons."
LB: Tell me about the first meeting with Beanie. Was she the only actress you discussed playing the part?
ML: Yes, and what was amazing was that it was shortly after I had seen Booksmart. And there were just these moments in the film where I remember thinking, "God, she reminds me of me at that age." It's the energy that she brings to the moment.
LB: What was your and Beanie's first date?
ML: When I was still living in New York, Beanie came over to my apartment, and we hung out for a few hours. It was a very strange meeting to prepare for, but we started out on common ground. We were both raised in L.A.; we both love musical theater; we both come from Jewish families. The worst-case scenario was like, "Well, we'll just start singing show tunes," but it was great.
LB: When I saw Beanie at the première, she looked over at you and said, "I just want to make her proud."
ML: I am. I'm very proud of the show. I mean, it's all so complicated for me. There are things in it that I don't like, but if I liked everything, then somebody didn't do their job. For instance, initially the team didn't feel like they had to include the thong scene. But the flashing of the thong was part of the flirtatious buildup that had been going on for months. [The moment became a touchstone in the popular narrative once the affair was made public.] It's not the most humiliating aspect of [the story], but it's kind of up there. I said, "As much as I hate the idea, I think we have to have this in. I cannot get a pass just because I'm a producer." That was a tough decision for me.
LB: Were there other things that upset you?
ML: It is an incredibly bizarre experience to watch yourself, quote, unquote, step into mistakes you made, step into traps set by other people. We're not looking at ourselves in our memories. It's not like watching a movie. And so to watch that was really challenging at times.
LB: On that note of exposure, let's talk about Britney Spears and your situation of being a late-night joke in the '90s. So many people are now on their apology tours, like, "She was my punch line, and I'm sorry."
ML: I think it's long overdue and wonderful to see it happening for different women in different arenas and scenarios. I made a mistake. Britney didn't. There were other young women this happened to, and there's an enormous amount of collateral damage. So I think it's not just an apology to a person; it's an apology to how you've affected a culture. What is sexual agency? What does it mean? It's not surprising that this de-objectifying of women is happening alongside the #MeToo movement. They braid together in a way that makes sense.
LB: You must have come across people socially who had made jokes at your expense, right?
LB: Do they slink away, or do you smile benignly?
ML: Someone who I work with said to me, "I'm such a staunch Democrat, and I just saw this through the prism of politics back then. I never thought about you or your mom or your family, or I thought about you in all the negative ways that other people did." And I really appreciated that. It would be great for people to not have laughed at me back then or to have seen me as a human being. But this is the way we move forward.
LB: Have you ever met Britney?
ML: I have. It was in the early 2000s. She was with Justin Timberlake, and she was going into [former N.Y.C. department store] Henri Bendel just as I was leaving. I had my handbag company at the time, and she said she thought the bags were cute. I was beside myself, so I got her some. But at that time I wasn't able to have the perspective to recognize, "Oh, this is happening to other women." When the fat-shaming happened to Jessica Simpson [in 2009], I thought, "Oh, OK. This didn't just happen to me. This is happening now to other people too." Not that that's a good thing.
LB: Now you can issue a wry laugh and go,"Well, I was the first one who was canceled. "There are so many young women getting built up, torn down, canceled. What would you tell people who feel like it's all ended?
ML: You can survive it. There were many times I almost didn't, but I'm grateful that I was able to. You may feel like you're drowning, like you don't want to wake up tomorrow, that you wish you were someone else. But we all have wonderful qualities, even people who I disagree with vehemently politically. We're all loved by someone, so that's what would be the most important thing to me. The second thing is not suffering in silence. Not everybody has a smooth family life, but for me it has been. That's the reflection of who you really are. My brother, Michael, is so sweet. When I was finally allowed to talk to him again [after the impeachment trial], he said, "Well, to the rest of the world you might be Monica Lewinsky, but to me you're still just Monka."
LB: Also, on social media, everybody keeps inserting themselves into things. I don't understand it.
ML: I have a documentary I've executive-produced coming out this fall, called 15 Minutes of Shame. Why do people pile on in that way? The Internet has really come to serve as a mirror to our inner beliefs that we try to mask otherwise. You come to understand there's a lot of suffering in the world. People are angry, and they're lashing out.
LB: They're throwing in on every meme, every hashtag, every raised fist.
ML: Or looking for attention. I think there is a validation. I can't remember who said it, but there's a great quote: "Everybody deserves a voice, but not everybody deserves a megaphone."
LB: And you were the target of so many megaphones. Tell me how you built resiliency.
ML: There were seeds of resiliency that were planted when I was younger, and they grew alongside trauma and coping mechanisms that helped me survive, particularly in '98. I had almost been preparing in a way that I never really realized. And it was only getting through '98 and to a place where I was starting to deeply heal that I could actually come to understand where those roots began. My grandparents both had fled Germany. My grandmother's side had left Russia and gone to China. So I think there is that in my DNA. And then for the past 14 years I have been doing deep consciousness work, energy work, and therapy. I have a whole team of people—I call them my helpers. For example, working on notes for this show was so difficult for me. I had a therapist I paid to sit on Zoom just so I was not alone while I was working on it.
LB: Psychological insurance, in a way.
ML: I just started to get more comfortable with,"OK, it's not that this ever goes away. It's about getting better at managing it and rebounding faster." The good thing about resiliency is that it's a muscle, so you can build it. That is something we can all work on.
LB: I've told you this a million times, but your control of your narrative on social media is so impressive. I ask people this on my podcast a lot, but when did you first own your shit?
ML: For so many years everybody thought I was a dumb bimbo, so if I put a sentence together and maybe used a six-letter word, woo-hoo! They're very impressed. But now I feel like, "Oh, I did this TED Talk [in 2015], and some of my sassier tweets get traction." Or sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes I see the disappointment on someone's face when they're like, "You're so funny on Twitter," and the underlying thought is, "How come you're not being funny right now?"
One of the bigger steps I’ve taken is recognizing that I couldn’t run away from everything that happened to me.
LB: Tell me what is beautiful about resiliency.
ML: I think that it defies the odds. I have a friend I've known for 15 years, and every time I see her, she says, "I can't believe you're still alive." Just having survived those past traumas. I've had a lot of growth in the last year in ways that I never would have expected. Not sure that answered your beauty question.
LB: No, I think you did.
ML: Let me say the opposite. There was a period in my late teens when I was really angry about a lot of different things, and my mom said to me,"You know, your bitterness is going to start to show on your face." The corollary is also true. People saying to you, "Oh, you look great." That comes from the inside. It's about how you're showing up in the world.
LB: And the corollary of that is…Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp: How was that to see?
ML: Sarah is an incredible actor. Both she and Beanie poured their entire souls into these roles, and it's been creepy at times to see the similarities. But because I have this connection with Sarah offscreen, in someways it helped to conjure up my original feelings for Linda. [With Paulson in this role] it somehow has shifted in a weird way. I used to have flashes of anger for certain interviews Linda gave or things she would do over the years, but that bile wouldn't come up [during filming]. I was able to open the screen door and just let more air in.
LB: How close to empathy could you ever get for Linda?
ML: I've had moments where I've come close to the e word, when I've tried hard to see things from her perspective. One of the things that was important to all of us involved in this show was finding the humanity in people, particularly the women. That is something missing when we have these large national stories.
LB: Were you ever on set with Clive [Owen] as Bill Clinton?
ML: No, I wasn't. Part of what was challenging was COVID. But I think that would have been weird. From what I've seen so far, he has brought some aspects of Bill to the screen that we haven't seen before.
LB: Do you wonder if the Clintons will watch it?
ML: I don't know that they will. It's very complicated — a really big history with other public people and everybody talking about it in different ways. There is a documentary [Hillary] that came out last year on Hillary [Clinton's] life, and a chunk of it was about this time. It's difficult to be part of someone else's story. In the same way that it's difficult for me, it's difficult for others as well.
LB: Will you send Ken Starr [who released the report on Clinton's wrongdoing stemming from his relationship with Lewinsky, which led to Clinton's impeachment] some popcorn?
ML: It is extraordinary to me. I was emailing back and forth with Brad and Nina a couple of weeks ago when the story about Ken Starr and how he was connected to [alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey] Epstein was revealed.
ML: There is a whole doctoral dissertation to be done — what does it mean that these two powerful men from 1998 would then intersect? Bill's name has been linked to Epstein, right? It would be really a fascinating treatise on understanding power, male power, and it would say…I don't know what, but something very important about our society.
LB: It does, especially through your lens — living both inside and outside of yourself, now onscreen.
ML: I think having a master's in social psychology helped a little. There's that perspective of understanding collective human behavior a bit better. I've also had interesting experiences of being treated differently when power changes. And I'm sure I do this to other people too — I'm not immune to society or social narratives. But you just watch things like, "Oh, you wouldn't have let me in that room a year ago." I don't hold it against people. When I was job hunting after graduate school, nobody would hire me. Even close friends who had opportunities for me, it was just too complicated.
LB: Now there's a beautiful karmic bow that comes from the greatest trauma of your life potentially resulting in your greatest professional success.
ML: Fingers crossed. It would be great if at the end of my life there are all these other descriptors of me and also, "When she was a young woman, this happened."
Photography by Amy Harrity/Apostrophe. Styling by Katie Mossman/The Wall Group. Hair by Michael Sparks. Makeup by Fiona Stiles/A-Frame Agency.
For more stories like this, pick up the October 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 17th.
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