Monica Samille Lewinsky (born July 23, 1973) is a former White House intern with whom United States President Bill Clinton admitted to having had an “inappropriate relationship” while she worked at the White House in 1995 and 1996. The affair and its repercussions, which included the Clinton impeachment, became known as the Lewinsky scandal.
As a result of the scandal, Lewinsky gained worldwide celebrity status; she subsequently engaged in a variety of ventures including designing a line of handbags under her name, being an advertising spokesperson for a diet plan, working as a television personality, and finally moving to London to pursue a master’s degree in psychology.
Early life and education
Monica Samille Lewinsky was born in San Francisco, California, and grew up in an affluent family in Southern California in the Westside Brentwood area of Los Angeles and in Beverly Hills. Her father is Bernard Lewinsky, an oncologist, who is the son of German Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and emigrated to El Salvador and later the United States. Her mother, born Marcia Kay Vilensky, is an author who uses the name Marcia Lewis. Monica’s maternal grandfather, Samuel M. Vilensky, was a Lithuanian Jew, and Monica’s maternal grandmother, Bronia Poleshuk, was born in the British Concession of Tianjin, China, to a Russian Jewish family. Monica’s parents’ acrimonious separation and divorce during 1987 and 1988 had a significant effect on her. Her father later married his current wife, Barbara; her mother later married R. Peter Straus, a media executive and former director of the Voice of America under President Jimmy Carter.
The family attended Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Monica attended Sinai Akiba Academy, its religious school. For her primary education she attended the John Thomas Dye School in Bel-Air. She then attended Beverly Hills High School, but for her senior year transferred to, and graduated from, Bel Air Prep (later known as Pacific Hills School) in 1991.
Following high school graduation, Lewinsky attended Santa Monica College, a two-year community college, and worked for the drama department at Beverly Hills High School and at a tie shop. In 1992, she began a five-year affair with Andy Bleiler, her married former high school drama instructor. In 1993, she enrolled at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, graduating with a psychology degree in 1995.
With the assistance of a family connection, Lewinsky got an unpaid summer White House internship in the office of White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Lewinsky moved to Washington, D.C. and took up the position in July 1995. She moved to a paid position in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs in December 1995.
Lewinsky alleged that between November 1995 and March 1997, she had nine sexual encounters with then-President Bill Clinton that, according to her testimony, involved fellatio and other sexual acts in the Oval Office, but not sexual intercourse.
Clinton previously had been confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct during his time as Governor of Arkansas, including a civil lawsuit filed against him by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, alleging that he had sexually harassed her. Lewinsky’s name surfaced during the discovery phase of Jones’ case, when Jones’ lawyers sought to show a pattern of behavior by Clinton that involved sexual relationships with other government employees.
In April 1996, Lewinsky’s superiors transferred her from the White House to The Pentagon because they felt she was spending too much time around Clinton. There she worked as an assistant to chief Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth Bacon. Lewinsky told co-worker Linda Tripp about her relationship with the President. Beginning in September 1997, Tripp began secretly recording their telephone conversations regarding the affair with Clinton. In December 1997, Lewinsky left the Pentagon position. In January 1998, after Lewinsky had submitted an affidavit in the Paula Jones case denying any physical relationship with Clinton, and had attempted to persuade Tripp to lie under oath in that case, Tripp gave the tapes to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, adding to his ongoing investigation into the Whitewater controversy. Starr then broadened his investigation beyond the Arkansas land use deal to include Lewinsky, Clinton, and others for possible perjury and subornation of perjury in the Jones case. Tripp reported the taped conversations to literary agent Lucianne Goldberg. She also convinced Lewinsky to save the gifts that Clinton had given her during their relationship, and not to dry clean what would later become known as “the blue dress”. Under oath, Clinton denied having had “a sexual affair”, “sexual relations”, or “a sexual relationship” with Lewinsky.
News of the Clinton–Lewinsky relationship broke in January 1998. On January 26, 1998, Clinton stated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” in a nationally televised White House news conference. The matter instantly occupied the news media, and Lewinsky spent the next weeks hiding from public attention in her mother’s residence at the Watergate complex. News of Lewinsky’s affair with Bleiler also came to light, and he turned over to Starr various souvenirs, photographs, and documents that Lewinsky had sent him and his wife during the time she was in the White House.
Clinton had also said, “there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship” which he defended as truthful on August 17, 1998, hearing because of the use of the present tense, famously arguing “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” (i.e., he was not, at the time he made that statement, still in a sexual relationship with Lewinsky). Under pressure from Starr, who had obtained from Lewinsky a blue dress with Clinton’s semen stain, as well as testimony from Lewinsky that the President had inserted a cigar tube into her vagina, Clinton stated, “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” Clinton denied having committed perjury because, according to Clinton, the legal definition of oral sex was not encompassed by “sex” per se. In addition, relying upon the definition of “sexual relations” as proposed by the prosecution and agreed by the defense and by Judge Susan Webber Wright, who was hearing the Paula Jones case, Clinton claimed that because certain acts were performed on him, not by him, he did not engage in sexual relations. Lewinsky’s testimony to the Starr Commission, however, contradicted Clinton’s claim of being totally passive in their encounters.
Both Clinton and Lewinsky were called before a grand jury; Clinton testified via closed-circuit television, Lewinsky in person. She was granted transactional immunity by the United States Office of the Independent Counsel, in exchange for her testimony.
Life after the scandal
The affair led to pop culture celebrity for Lewinsky as she had become the focus of a political storm. Her immunity agreement restricted what she could talk about publicly, but she was able to cooperate with Andrew Morton in his writing of Monica’s Story, a biography of her life including her side of the Clinton affair. The book was published in March 1999 and also was excerpted as a cover story in Time magazine. On March 3, 1999, Lewinsky was interviewed by Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20. The program was watched by 70 million Americans, which ABC said was a record for a news show. Lewinsky made about $500,000 from her participation in the book and another $1 million from international rights to the Walters interview, but was still beset by high legal bills and living costs.
In June 1999, Ms. Magazine published a series of articles by writer Susan Jane Gilman, sexologist Susie Bright, and author-host Abiola Abrams arguing from three generations of women whether Lewinsky’s behavior had any meaning for feminism. Also in 1999, Lewinsky declined to sign an autograph in an airport, saying, “I’m kind of known for something that’s not so great to be known for.” She made a cameo appearance as herself in two sketches during the May 8, 1999, episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, a program that had lampooned her relationship with Clinton over the prior 16 months.
By her own account Lewinsky had survived the intense media attention during the scandal period by knitting. In September 1999, Lewinsky took this interest further by beginning to sell a line of handbags bearing her name under the company name The Real Monica, Inc. They were sold online as well as at Henri Bendel in New York, Fred Segal in California, and The Cross in London. Lewinsky designed the bags—described by New York magazine as “hippie-ish, reversible totes”—and traveled frequently to supervise their manufacturing in Louisiana.
At the start of 2000, Lewinsky began appearing in television commercials for diet company Jenny Craig, Inc. The $1 million endorsement deal, which required Lewinsky to lose 40 or more pounds in six months, gained considerable publicity at the time. Lewinsky said that despite her desire to return to a more private life, she needed the money to pay off legal fees and that she believed in the product. A Jenny Craig spokesperson said of Lewinsky, “She represents a busy active woman of today with a hectic lifestyle. And she has had weight issues and weight struggles for a long time. That represents a lot of women in America.” The choice of Lewinsky as a role model proved controversial for Jenny Craig, and some of its private franchises switched to an older advertising campaign. The company stopped running the Lewinsky ads in February 2000, concluded her campaign entirely in April 2000, and paid her only $300,000 of the $1 million contracted for her involvement.
Also at the start of 2000, Lewinsky moved to New York City, living in the West Village and becoming an A-list guest in the Manhattan social scene. In February 2000, she appeared on MTV’s The Tom Green Show in an episode in which the host took her to his parents’ home in Ottawa in search of fabric for her new handbag business. Later in 2000, Lewinsky worked as a correspondent for British Channel 5 on the show Monica’s Postcards, reporting on U.S. culture and trends from a variety of locations.
In March 2002, Lewinsky, no longer bound by the terms of her immunity agreement, appeared in the HBO special, “Monica in Black and White”, part of the America Undercover series. In it she answered a studio audience’s questions about her life and the Clinton affair.
Lewinsky was the host of the reality television dating program, Mr. Personality, on Fox Television Network in 2003, where she advised young women contestants who were picking men hidden by masks. Some Americans tried to organize a boycott of advertisers on the show, in protest of Lewinsky capitalizing on her notoriety. Nevertheless, the show debuted to very high ratings, and Alessandra Stanley wrote in The New York Times that “after years of trying to cash in on her fame by designing handbags and other self-marketing schemes, Ms. Lewinsky has finally found a fitting niche on television.” The ratings, however, slid downward each successive week, and after the show completed its initial limited run, it did not reappear. The same year she appeared as a guest on the programs V Graham Norton in the UK, High Chaparall in Sweden, and The View and Jimmy Kimmel Live! in the U.S.
After Clinton’s autobiography My Life appeared in 2004, Lewinsky said in an interview with the British tabloid Daily Mail:
He could have made it right with the book, but he hasn’t. He is a revisionist of history. He has lied. […] I really didn’t expect him to go into detail about our relationship. […] But if he had and he’d done it honestly, I wouldn’t have minded. […] I did, though, at least expect him to correct the false statements he made when he was trying to protect the Presidency. Instead, 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. […] I don’t accept that he had to completely desecrate my character.
By 2005, Lewinsky found that she could not escape the spotlight in the U.S., which made both her professional and personal life difficult. She stopped selling her handbag line and moved to London to study social psychology at the London School of Economics. In December 2006, Lewinsky graduated with a Master of Science degree. Her thesis was titled “In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of the Third-Person Effect and Pre-Trial Publicity.” For the next decade she tried to avoid publicity.
Lewinsky did correspond in 2009 with scholar Ken Gormley, who was writing an in-depth study of the Clinton scandals, maintaining that Clinton had lied under oath when asked detailed and specific questions about his relationship with her. In 2013, the items associated with Lewinsky that Bleiler had turned over to Starr were put up for auction by Bleiler’s ex-wife, who had come into possession of them.
During her decade out of the public eye, Lewinsky lived in London, Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, but due to her notoriety had trouble finding employment in the communications and marketing jobs for nonprofit organizations that she interviewed at. By 2014, she had still not held a full-time job since leaving the Pentagon in 1997. A stable relationship leading to marriage, which she reportedly desired, had also not happened.
In May 2014, Lewinsky wrote an essay for Vanity Fair magazine titled “Shame and Survival” where she discusses her life and the scandal. She continues to maintain that the relationship was mutual and wrote that while Clinton took advantage of her, it was a consensual relationship. She added: “I, myself, deeply regret what happened between me and President Clinton. Let me say it again: I. Myself. Deeply. Regret. What. Happened.” However, she said it was now time to “stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.”
In 2014, Lewinsky was interviewed on a three-part TV special airing on The National Geographic Channel titled, The 90s: The Last Great Decade. The series looked at various events of the 1990s, including the scandal that brought Lewinsky into the national spotlight. This was Lewinsky’s first TV interview in more than 10 years.