In the past few weeks, a movie called The Other Woman went to no. 1 at the box office, a corrupt rich man saw his empire taken down by his mistress, and a woman from the nation’s collective memory reappeared to set the record straight about her affair with an American president. It’s the Summer of the Sidepiece, following a spring that saw Dwyane Wade knocking up a woman who was not Gabrielle Union, his official girlfriend at the time (and now fiancée). But what happens in situations like V. Stiviano’s and Monica Lewinsky’s, when the disgraced woman tries to use her voice for good?
Lewinsky has written an essay for Vanity Fair reflecting on her experience during the scandal that bore her name, which the magazine released an excerpt of online (the full story is available now in the digital edition and will hit newsstands on May 13). In it, she says the suicide of college student Tyler Clementi, who was secretly livestreamed kissing another man, spurred her to end a decadelong self-imposed absence from public life. In the excerpt, Monica talks about how she was suicidal in 1998, afraid she “would be literally humiliated to death.” She was unprepared for the consequences of the affair going public, and even more unprepared to be crucified by the press, pointing out that, “thanks to the Drudge Report, [she] was also possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” She wants to promote the rights of victims of online harassment by speaking publicly about her experience.
While the relationship between Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton may have been consensual, in the ensuing years, she has had a lot of time to consider whether it was exploitative, and in hindsight it’s easier for her to see the relationship more clearly. “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” She says “the media were able to brand me”; and clearly, they chose to brand her as promiscuous and unintelligent. Her “history,” she says, still haunts her today as she looks for employment. She has been defined by an experience she basically regretted, while Bill Clinton more or less eventually brushed it off.
Now 40 years old, Lewinsky has spent the subsequent years dealing with the fallout from her early twenties. She tried both capitalizing on her notoriety and running from it, but she could never just ignore it. She authorized a tell-all biography (Monica’s Story), started a line of vanity handbags, and did a cameo on SNL. She became a Jenny Craig spokesperson, but the endorsement provoked a vocal negative response and the ads were quickly pulled. She did an HBO special called Monica in Black and White and hosted a reality dating show called Mr. Personality on which the male contestants wore masks.
In 2004, Bill Clinton published his autobiography, My Life, and Lewinsky said he had missed the chance to come clean. She told the Daily Mail “he talked about it as though I had laid it all out there for the taking. I was the buffet and he just couldn’t resist the dessert. … This was a mutual relationship, mutual on all levels, right from the way it started and all the way through.” She moved to London and went to grad school, getting a Master of Science degree in social psychology and writing a thesis called “In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of the Third-Person Effect and Pre-Trial Publicity.” Since she had been the unwitting guinea pig for a huge national experiment in social psychology, it seems fitting.
I was 15 when the Lewinsky scandal broke, and it blew my mind, so to speak, on every possible level. It was the exact age at which I never wanted to talk to my parents about anything remotely sexual, and yet there we were, watching news anchors debate whether oral sex should be judged differently from vaginal penetration. Everything about the scandal seemed gray-shaded: whether it was a prosecutable offense, how and why Hillary Clinton would stay with Bill afterward, what it must have been like for the teenage Chelsea to be so embarrassed by her dad in front of the whole world. I was a ’90s child with an idealist feminist concept of gender roles, but the president was enacting a scenario I somehow believed had gone out with JFK. The detail about Clinton penetrating Monica with a cigar was particularly discomfiting, not only because it seemed like it might feel unpleasant (dry leaves?), but also because cigars are such an obvious symbol of male power and wealth.
But I also didn’t want Clinton to get impeached over a blow job, which certainly seemed lightweight compared with something like Watergate. It was complicated. Issues of sexual relations between men and women were interwoven with questions about privacy. Do public figures deserve privacy? Or do they effectively give that up when they become public figures? Should we judge people for what they do behind closed doors, while taking notice that those doors are often closed specifically so those people can do things they would not cop to in public? Why are mistresses called sluts, when the married men who sleep with them aren’t? Bill was ribbed for the incident, but Monica got destroyed. That Beyoncé sings “Lewinsky’d” and not “Clinton’d” in “Partition” says everything: Only one of the two is considered a punch line. Meanwhile, inconveniently, Monica Lewinsky was still a human being who had to exist in the world.
I have been thinking about Lewinsky recently with regard to V. Stiviano, the woman at the epicenter of the Donald Sterling scandal. Stiviano’s backstory has spilled out into the open in the past week, and while Lewinsky kicked off the age of the Internet mob attack, Stiviano is its latest victim, dragged for having sex with married 80-year-old racist Donald Sterling instead of celebrated for bringing down his evil enterprise. Stiviano comes from a rough background, and has a history of serious poverty and petty crimes committed out of desperation. That, combined with her obvious identity issues, put some of her life choices into perspective.
The “V.” stands for Vanessa. Born Maria Vanessa Perez in either San Antonio or Los Angeles, she used aliases including Vanessa Maria Perez, Monica Gallegos, and Mariamonica Perez Gallegos before legally changing her name to V. Stiviano in 2010, saying she was “born from a rape case” and “hadn’t yet been fully accepted because of my race.” She grew up in poverty; her mother, Martha Perez, was convicted in 2002 for stealing groceries. Stiviano listed her race alternately as Hispanic or black the four times she’s been arrested since 2002 for petty theft, DUI, and possession of a controlled substance. The petty theft charges were for shoplifting — not from fancy department stores, but from an Old Navy and a Ross Dress for Less when Stiviano was 19 and 20.
Stiviano is now supposedly under investigation for trying to extort money from Sterling by threatening to leak more tapes; there are apparently hours of them. She claims she was taping Sterling at his own request, since his cancer diagnosis has made him more prone to forgetting things and she was acting as his personal assistant. She also claims she didn’t leak the tapes herself; her attorney says she gave the leaked recording to friends, one of whom must have sold it to TMZ. But whether that’s true or not, Stiviano obviously knew what she was doing recording Sterling in the first place.
Although she stayed home initially after the scandal broke, V. Stiviano became bolder each day, as it became clear that Sterling was going down. By May 1, she was baiting paparazzi with long walks around Los Angeles, followed by Cinco de Mayo rides on the mechanical bull at Sunset Strip tourist institution the Saddle Ranch, all while wearing her now-iconic solar visor. The visor has quickly become Stiviano’s trademark accessory, as affiliated with its owner as Lewinsky became with that beret and blue dress from the Gap. Stiviano has created something of a trend: Visor sales have gone up by something like a billion percent during the scandal. She had been selling “V. Stiviano”–brand hats and shirts since before the scandal, but is pushing them even harder now, capitalizing on the scandal via streetwear in the model of Heidi Fleiss, who hawked her Heidiwear in Pasadena in 1994 while she waited to face trial. Stiviano told the press, “One day, I will become president of the United States of America. And I will change the legislation and laws. Modern-day history. Civil-rights movement.”
I don’t remember people particularly scrambling to copy Lewinsky’s look at the time of her scandal. If anything, Monica was trashed and called tacky, indicted for the class crime of daring to mix above her rank. The beret and particularly the blue Gap dress became part of a narrative that painted Monica as basic, homely, and lowly, as lacking an exceptional beauty that would make her more sympathetic, and also lacking the common sense not to get involved with the president. Monica was compared negatively, on the basis of appearance, to glamorous presidential mistresses like Marilyn Monroe, and in negative tandem with the first lady, Hillary. Hillary Clinton’s age, tailored designer pantsuits, and taste for power were invoked as proof of sexlessness, as if to suggest that somehow made it OK for the president to cheat on her. It was constantly remarked upon, on television and in real life, that Bill Clinton was slumming it somehow by not exploiting his power to have sex with hotter women.
On 20/20 last week, Stiviano told Barbara Walters why she had taken to wearing the solar visor face mask: “I’m hurting. I am in pain. It hurts. It’s easier to mask the pain.” But Stiviano’s pain has been called into question, with people suggesting she is probably thrilled to receive so much publicity, even if it’s negative. Stiviano’s sexy Instagram selfies are used to indict her character and imply that she is purely seeking attention or slutty, and that these are inherently negative qualities. She’s been called a gold digger, a con artist, an attention whore, and a regular whore. Even if nobody outright says Stiviano and Lewinsky were asking for it — “it” being a public trial by fire and near-total loss of privacy — there’s a pretty heavy implication. The press in 1998 didn’t have a Facebook profile or Twitter account with which to attack Lewinsky, but the scandal anticipated the current age in which the private is much more easily made public.
Stiviano told Walters she didn’t believe Sterling was a racist, and used that old excuse that he is “from a different generation.” She said she believes that “through his actions he’s shown that’s not a racist.” (She is presumably referring to his sexual relationship with and financial support of her, mind you, not the whole thing where he told her not to associate with black people.) She also said she loved Sterling “like a father,” which you never want to hear someone say about a sex partner. Donald Sterling’s wife, Rochelle, sued Stiviano last month over three luxury cars, a duplex apartment, and a few hundred thousand dollars Donald had given to V. during their relationship, which began at the 2010 Super Bowl. In the lawsuit, Stiviano is portrayed as a gold digger who targets rich old men. Stiviano counterfiled, mocking the idea that her “feminine wiles” could have possibly “overpowered the iron will of Donald T. Sterling who is well known as one of the most shrewd businessmen in the world.”
Mess around with a rich, powerful man and reap what you sow, the conventional wisdom goes. Monica Lewinsky was 22 when she had her affair with the president — technically an adult, but still naive. Most 22-year-olds have sexual encounters or relationships they later regret, but not everyone sees his or her life defined by the experience. Bill Clinton’s political legacy survived the Lewinsky scandal (he was impeached but stayed in office), and his reputation as a lothario continues to be mythologized as just another aspect of his intense charisma.
It’s true that personal matters don’t necessarily affect job capability, but that’s another matter that is gray. There is the old saw of separating the art from the artist, invoked in the sexual abuse scandals of directors like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Bryan Singer. There’s an implication that if someone is a good enough artist, he or she should be allowed to slip out of social conventions into whatever mode feels most comfortable — expansive artistic license gone berserk. What makes some people likely to abuse power while others can control their impulses? Does a person’s behavior in his or her private life innately reflect an ability to perform in public, or is there no connection whatsoever?
That the Monica story resurfaces as the Hillary campaign gears up for 2016 puts both in perspective. Monica’s life story is inextricably intertwined with the Clintons’ careers in politics. Had Bill not lied about his sexual relationship with Lewinsky in the first place during the Paula Jones trial, he would never have been charged with perjury. Monica wasn’t a jealous woman trying to bring down the Clinton empire. She was a young woman having a workplace affair with her boss who happened to get in way, way over her head. (Her fatal mistake was trusting Linda Tripp, who recorded their phone conversations and gave them to prosecutor Kenneth Starr. One strategy Tripp used to encourage Monica not to clean the dress with Bill Clinton’s semen stain on it was telling Lewinsky that she looked fat in it. Lewinsky’s last words to the grand jury in the trial, crying, were “I hate Linda Tripp.”) Lewinsky doesn’t expect any kind of street justice to be served; she just reserves the right to tell her own story as many times as she wants.
Likewise, Stiviano told Walters she wanted to set the record straight that she’s not a “mistress, or a whore.” That she is still so affectionate when speaking about Sterling seems desperate, like she knows the ride is about to end and is still trying to somehow save it. But if Stiviano chooses to milk her notoriety with club appearances, merch, and a guest appearance on Law & Order: SVU, more power to her. V. Stiviano is not a pariah. She’s a folk hero in a visor.