The remaking of Monica

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 February, 1999, 12:00am

Arecent cover illustration of the New Yorker magazine may well say as much about Monica Lewinsky as the billions of words that have been committed to paper in the past 12 months. The idea - superimposing Monica and her trademark, fulsome-lipped smile on the body of the Mona Lisa - borders on the cliched; but in this case, the cliche says it all.

Pouting sensually, as if she had been sitting for Da Vinci himself, Lewinsky reminds us that she has become a modern icon every bit as potent as the Renaissance's most famous painted lady.

Leave a copy of the magazine in full view on the coffee table, and watch as those big Lewinsky eyes follow you round the room. Given that much recent speculation revolves around whether Monica was a White House stalker, it's almost eerie.

If the Mona Lisa caricature tells us anything, it's one simple truth: that Monica Lewinsky is the face of the new millennium, as recognisable and as symbolic as Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali or Elvis Presley; and certainly as famous as the man whose presidency will forever be associated with her image.

She is Mata Hari meets Beverly Hills 90210 ; a femme fatale with a Valley Girl accent who, while struggling with her weight, managed to provoke the biggest constitutional crisis since Watergate. It's this strange mix of the made-for-TV with the portentous that makes the Lewinsky affair the perfect fin-de-siecle scandal.

From London to Moscow to Beijing, political leaders are scratching their heads in awe at how this thoroughly unremarkable 25-year-old woman nearly brought down the most powerful man in the world.

Meanwhile, Americans go about their daily routines pretending to be sick and tired of the whole saga, yet secretly wondering just what it must be like to be as famous - and as infamous - as Monica Lewinsky.

With the impeachment process having run its course, the next few days and weeks are supposed to mark the time when Lewinsky finally comes to life as a human being. We have seen the cardboard-cutout female lead of a steamy romance novel, as portrayed in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's XXX-rated report; watched the paparazzi-plagued celebrity rushing between limos, courtrooms and restaurants on the streets of Washington and New York; heard the lovestruck wailings of a spoiled ingenue on the Linda Tripp tapes; and, most recently, caught some brief glimpses of a businesslike, grownup on the tapes of her Senate deposition.

But if, as we are led to believe, we have never seen the real Monica Lewinsky - the woman who was convinced she had made the president fall in love with her - then the important pieces in the jigsaw puzzle are due to fall in place anytime soon. Upon the say-so of Starr, who banned her from talking publicly until the Congressional action was complete, she will be able to publish her tell-all book, written by Princess Diana biographer Andrew Morton, plug it to a captive nationwide TV audience in an interview with Barbara Walters, and earn extra cash by selling her story over in London.

This is the payoff for a year of suffering, redemption-by-profit in the truest American tradition. Even when she was unaware that Linda Tripp was taping their calls, and that she was about to be ensnared in the cold clutches of Starr's investigators and the FBI, Lewinsky was able to moan over the phone: 'My life is ruined.' At that time, all she had to worry about was a tarnished romance (albeit with the president of the United States) and the career purgatory of a dead-end job at the Pentagon. Within a few weeks of that call, Internet gossip monger Matt Drudge would introduce her to the world, and her life truly would be in chaos; she became a virtual prisoner in her mother's Watergate apartment, as she waited nervously for an escape route from a Kafkaesque legal maze, and saw all the tawdry details of her life aired in the media without being able to utter one word in her defence.

The choices of Morton and Walters as conduits for her story are telling: in Morton's case, it suggests that Lewinsky is keen to redress the balance by portraying herself, just like Diana, as a woman more sinned against than sinning, as the victim of the amorous opportunism of a heartless scoundrel; and Walters, whose ego-massaging interviews rarely yield much in the way of emotional truth, is hardly likely to dispel this image.

Yet even though some of the stories published about Lewinsky's life have been tabloid tattle, it is indisputable that, far from being an innocent victim, she has made some terrible choices in her short life.

Already designated by her Beverly Hills High School classmates as the girl most likely to see her name in lights, she followed a married man to Oregon so she could continue the affair under his wife's nose. And even as she prepared to move to Washington for the White House internship arranged by her well-connected parents, she was joking to friends that she would end up seducing President Clinton - an ambitious feat she achieved, in remarkably little time.

And if loose lips sink ships, Monica made her presidential affair into a virtual Pearl Harbour; within weeks of beginning the Oval Office trysts, she was blabbing about the affair to numerous relatives, colleagues and friends - one of whom, Linda Tripp, would ironically prove to be perhaps Monica's worst choice of all. This darker, deeply flawed side of Monica Lewinsky is as relevant to her future as any soft-focus story she hopes her forthcoming book will tell. This is because once the furore of the book and interviews has died down, and Lewinsky has earned back a little of the money to help pay her hefty legal fees - which run into several million dollars - she will have to decide what to do next. In other words, she will need a career, and this time she won't have Vernon Jordan around to help her out.

Despite the impeachment managers' concerted attempts to blacken the president's image by repeatedly referring to Lewinsky as a grownup, mature woman, she may well find that this is not the story the public really wants to hear. In the near-term, her future looks far brighter if she ditches the dark business suits and wraps herself, metaphorically, in the shocking pink feather boa which featured in the photographic shoot she did for Vanity Fair last year. In other words, the mantle of the femme fatale.

That magazine shoot, for all its tongue-in-cheek gaudiness, was presenting to the public the side of Monica Lewinsky it most wanted to see - the naughty, unpredictable, even dangerous side; not the Monica who weeps that the president doesn't love her back, but the Monica who saves the semen-stained dress in case it might prove useful later on. It was a concept built upon earlier this week by Lucianne Goldberg, the publisher who helped spark the scandal by encouraging Tripp to make the secret phone tapes. 'If I were her, I would trademark the lips, sell them, put them on lingerie,' said Goldberg. 'There's a fortune sitting there - there's no lips like them in the world.' Earning a fortune is not exactly Lewinsky's major problem. Her father remains a prominent LA surgeon, while her mother, Marcia Lewis, has just remarried, to a multi-millionaire businessman. But money is certainly there for the taking, and her marketability, even if it proves fickle, could depend upon a judicious hyping of her image.

What kind of work awaits her? Offers to do nude centrefolds will doubtless pour in, although they have to be viewed as a last-ditch option. Perhaps the most likely career path will be television, with Monica fronting an MTV programme or a Jerry Springer-style trash talk show.

Movie roles are another inevitability, although the novelty of cameo appearances will soon wear off unless she displays genuine on-screen charisma.

Although the name Monica Lewinsky will not forever be at or near the top of the evening newscasts, it will certainly remain etched in America's modern history book. Her celebrity may be fleeting, but her fame is likely to follow her to the grave. This, as ever, will be a double-edged sword - she will always be in demand, while always craving privacy; never without a party to attend, while never being able to shop for groceries without being recognised as the girl who loved the president.

And is there another chapter in the Bill and Monica romance? Lewinsky admitted in her deposition that she has 'mixed feelings' for the president - hardly the words of a woman who has been fatally scarred.

If, as some observers believe, she still harbours a desire to be reunited with the retired leader, the ending of the story might yet be written. For some, the fairytale would end with the Clintons getting a divorce and Bill and Monica walking off into the sunset together.