The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, February 17, 2003  

The Ice Maiden's P.R. Blizzard Begins

Within a matter of weeks Doubleday will publish The Devil Wears Prada, the eagerly awaited "real life novel" of Lauren Weisberger based on her tenure at Vogue, a book rumored to savagely undress the magazine's notoriously steely, cruel, and callous, almost inhuman, editor, Anna Wintour.

With that in mind, only a naïf would think it a coincidence that in today's New York Times there appears a 15-hundred-word piece that goes out of its way to assure readers -- of the newspaper and the upcoming book -- that Wintour isn't the notorious terror on heels of industry lore.

"Anna Wintour Steps Toward Fashion's New Democracy," by David Carr, is preemptive damage control of the finest type. Strategically placed in the business section, thereby garnering for its subject added, and unwarranted, gravitus, the article, witting or not, is the Times's contribution to what may be the start of a broad campaign to repair Wintour's unseemly image.

Make no mistake, she's still the prima prima donna of the fashion books, but she's not the bitch from hell she used to be, nor the bitter, cold witch of her detractors' catty gossip (it's not clear which version, if either, Carr accepts). The new Wintour -- the made over Wintour -- is warmer, friendlier, and more accepting. "Ms. Wintour has become a stealth populist," writes Carr, offering the worlds of publishing and fashion a source of much-needed mirth in the aftermath of the brutal snowstorm that struck the East Coast last night.

And yet the Wintour mystique remains intact. The editor "preserves a persona of aristocratic chic," Carr writes, all the while "keeping herself at a tantalizing remove [as] her magazine becomes more accessible with each issue." Carr suggests Wintour remains temperamental, but he observes that her "haughtiness comes in spurts," contradicting virtually every published report I've read and every personal anecdote I've heard in the last 10 years or so.

This is a kinder, gentler Wintour: "The magazine remains a temple to the wealthy, well-bred[,] and white, but its voice is friendlier, with less of the royal 'we' pronouncing this season's must-have," Carr writes. And Wintour is less distant now, he hints. Long known for wearing sunglasses almost constantly, indoors and out (And actually pulling it off, I might add, unlike everyone else who has tried, saving Jacqueline Kennedy Onnassis.), Wintour now wears them "less and less," Carr coos approvingly.

And Wintour has broadened her sights, extending Vogue's coverage to such previously verboten topics as politicians and relationships. The magazine even has a food columnist. (What the food critic writes about, and for a magazine whose editor forbids eating in the office, I have no idea, but they say he's good.) Gee whiz, before long, Vogue might even begin reporting about women who work, or about women who bear children, or -- Could you imagine! -- talking about poor people.

Hey, Wintour's so "democratic" these days she's begun slumming it! Okay, so she's slumming it in Hollywood: Carr reports celebrities won the coveted cover photo slot nine out of 12 times last year, and Vogue will have an expectant Brooke Shields on the April cover. A damn chic way of working with rough trade, I'd say.

Better yet, Wintour's cool! "For younger consumers, Ms. Wintour performed an arranged marriage of fashion and rock that resulted in the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards." Sub-text, in case you missed it: Anna likes black people!

The two photographs accompanying Carr's article -- carefully selected, no doubt -- lend themselves readily to the endeavor. The first, by Joyce Dopkeen, shows a brighter, softer, less intense, and almost relaxed Wintour, proving someone at Vogue knows the tricks of the trade.

The second photo, by Barbara Alper, shows off Wintour's frequently displayed bare arms, only this time they look, well, a bit meatier than I can ever recall. Is Wintour allowing her critics and her audience to whisper such crudities as, "Is Anna gaining weight?" How brave of Wintour to expose herself to the harsh scrutiny she has subjected so many others for so long.

Carr checks in with the house and gets predictably laudatory quotes about Wintour -- "She is not of the people, but she certainly understands them," said Patrick McCarthy, editorial director of Fairchild Publications -- and her recent accomplishments -- "Last year, the magazine suddenly took off. The magazine began to achieve a different level of interest," said S. I. Newhouse Jr. (Post-publication memo from Condé Nast P.R. department: "Way to stay on message, guys!")

Then, fine journalist that he is, Carr goes all even-handed and everything, relaying that the new Anna Wintour has her faults. She's not one of us, you know. She makes a lot of money, pulling down an annual salary of $1 million, along with a clothing budget of $50,000. (That's a figure similar to others I have seen elsewhere that all seem laughably small considering Wintour's vast wardrobe. Did Carr ask Wintour whether she accepts gifts from designers? He doesn't say.) And not all designers like her, some suggesting she plays favorites. Besides, Carr notes, watching Anna at work, she's a perfectionist, that insufferable flaw cited by every self-important college graduate interviewing for his first job.

Asked about Weisberger's upcoming book, Wintour responded, "I always enjoy a great piece of fiction. I haven't decided whether I am going to read it or not."

I know what I've decided: I'm buying Weinberger's book, but I'm not buying Wintour's message.

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