Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Monica Effect

By Blake de Pastino

MARCH 16, 1998:  I see her everywhere. She looks out at me, ghost-like, from the covers of newsmagazines. I see her on TV, in the same snippets of footage spooled together without end, always the same little snippets--Monica bouncing down the front steps of her mother's home; Monica ducking from a restaurant canopy into a limousine; Monica de-planing in some big-city airport, scuffling down the jetway with her head tucked down. Since she first came on the scene a couple of months ago--among allegations that she'd had an affair with Bill Clinton in the White House--not one tabloid has gone Monica-less for a single issue, not one television news broadcast has finished without telling us where she was that day. Within two months, Monica Lewinsky has become the most lavishly attended figure in American culture, more than Hillary, more than Madonna, even more than Oprah. No one has admitted it yet--the newspapers will still only describe her as a "former intern" or, at best, a "witness"--but the fact is, Monica has become an icon.

I say "icon" to the exclusion of other, perhaps more desirable, titles. Monica is not, for example, a "star." Stars are people who (we like to think) have earned our respect because of what they do on stage and screen. And by and large, what they mean to us remains static. Frank Sinatra is just as much a star today as he was 40 years ago; Madonna will continue to be a star, whether we like it or not, into the 21st century. But icons are radically different in how they operate. By their very nature, they mean different things to different people, and their only job is to shape-shift to fit our needs. For Democratic strategists, for instance, Monica Lewinsky is a "fatal attraction," a love-starved young woman who, for whatever reason, is so obsessed with Bill Clinton that she would lie to her friends about sleeping with him, just to give life to her fantasies. For Kenneth Starr, though, she is "the smoking gun," living proof of Clinton's loose morals and shameless abuse of power. For Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione, she is the centerfold of the century. And for me--let's just say I haven't felt this way since Alyssa Milano.

I am in the small minority of people (according to an informal poll of friends and colleagues) who finds something very endearing and--yes--downright attractive about Monica Lewinsky. Her radioactive grin and Rubenesque figure are definitely parts of it, I'll admit. But there's more to it than that. There's the smirk that she gets when she knows the camera is on her and the glint of terror that comes across her eyes when she actually looks in the lens. There's the nonchalant look that she uses in times of stress. And there's that unuttered scream that she makes every time she appears in public: Look away! She hates being famous, I think, as much as she used to hate being anonymous. She is terrorized by the idea that we will either remember her forever or we will forget her for good. And she can't decide which she would like less as a legacy to her name: to be just a temporary fascination of the scandal-starved media or to be seen indefinitely as an object of prurient interest, a mistress, a nation-wrecker. So she just wants us all to go away. Let her go back to California, to paralegal work, to selling ties, anything.

It may well happen that the facts of Monica's case will never come out in full. That seems to happen a lot in our country. But for now at least, Monica is feeling the horrifying effect of what it means to be a pop-culture icon. Until we either agree upon what she means to us or we forget her altogether, she is simply Monica, young woman of a thousand faces. And I, for one, feel sorry for her. Unfortunately, that's my privilege. I can make of her what I want.


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