Badass Woman spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender.
Social activist, speaker, and writer Monica Lewinsky has lived a thousand lives since she unwittingly entered the public spotlight two decades ago. We all know why, and we all know what happened after. But as Lewinsky reminded us in her viral TED Talk in 2015, thanks to the nascent Internet (the news of the then-24-year-old’s affair with President Bill Clinton broke in January 1998), she was “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”
Now 45, Lewinsky has spent the intervening years rebuilding herself and using her public evisceration to help others. What is poignant about her is that she can credibly say, “I feel like I’m still just coming into who I am as a woman, having been delayed in many ways.” What is badass about her is, well, everything else. When Lewinsky wakes up in the morning, wherever she is in the world, she can unsuspectingly be hit yet again by the news cycle, as she was with Clinton’s awkward #MeToo era interview on the Today show in June.
But what’s different these days is how she has equipped herself to weather the storm. A philanthropy-summit-invitation snub is greeted on Twitter with a deft mention of Emily Post and a peace sign, while Clinton’s answering a question about her resulted in a re-post of a Vanity Fair piece she wrote, “Emerging from the House of Gaslight in the Age of #MeToo.”
So, while the news will feed itself over and over, I found it more interesting to talk to Lewinsky about confidence: what she has learned—and what we can learn too.
Laura Brown: Your ability to metabolize difficult situations and take the high ground is extraordinary. How do you do it?
Monica Lewinsky: I don’t always succeed. I think if people found my draft folders in email and the tweets I didn’t tweet, those might tell a very different story [laughs]. But these are more challenging situations where public response is required. Ultimately, it’s about a deep knowing. Does this feel true to me? Whether it’s in response to a situation or a piece that I write or a talk, I’m guided by the idea of moving the conversation forward even if it’s in a direction I may not like. Sometimes that’s with humor, and sometimes it’s about whatever feels like pure truth.
LB: What happens when you’re slapped unexpectedly again by the news ?
ML: It can be a range of emotions or experiences. Despite the amount of trauma work I’ve done for the past 20 years, there’s still a pattern that gets tapped into or triggered. I’m really lucky that I have tools I can use. When that doesn’t work, I’ll resort to calling someone or using one of the healing modalities called EFT, or Emotional Freedom Technique. It’s like a tapping thing. And worst-case scenario: There’s always Xanax [laughs]. As long as you’re not somebody who has issues around those types of things, I think that can be a really effective tool too.
LB: How long did it take you to get to this point?
ML: A very long time. It was a very slow process and a result of all the different healing modalities I’ve used over the years. Now I know to check in with myself to make sure that I feel in alignment with whatever choice I’m making.
LB: What has been your relationship with confidence throughout your life?
ML: Confidence is not something that has come easily to me, and I’m not even sure I have it now. I’ve had a lot of confidence in some areas and maybe even too much at times, but then simultaneously I’ve also had a lack of confidence in other areas. It’s proved complicated for me not only in my own personal experiences but also when I unwillingly became a public person. And then of course any confidence I had was certainly shredded at that point.
LB: I’m sure. How has your confidence evolved over the years?
ML: I pivoted. The morning I was graduating from the London School of Economics with a master’s [in social psychology in 2007], I found myself not excited about the day, and I couldn’t really understand why. All of a sudden this idea slid into my head. If I ran into someone else and I said, “Oh, what are you doing?” and they said, “Oh, I’m actually going to graduate with my master’s from the London School of Economics,” I would’ve walked away thinking, “I could never do that!” Reframing my thinking allowed me to move into what was happening that day. That is connected to confidence. Confidence doesn’t live on an island by itself. It lives next door to courage. It’s got to be present in certain experiences. It’s having pride in yourself, in your accomplishments, which is not something that women in particular have been socialized to do. But I think that’s changing.
LB: When you were younger, who did you think you were going to be?
ML: That’s a really hard question. When I was younger and thinking about the future, I really wanted to get married and have four children by the time I was 30. But I was also interested in having a career. My undergraduate degree was in psychology, and I had been interested in forensic psychology and the intersection of law and psychology. That was how I was going to earn a living and where my path was.
LB: You ended up getting the greatest possible education in law and psychology.
ML: [drily] I have a perspective.
LB: [laughs] That is a very elegant way to say it. And now who do you think you’ve become?
ML: I don’t know how to answer that. I am very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had over the past few years. I now identify as a writer, a social activist, and someone who has a voice on various topics. But in many ways I feel like I’m still just coming into who I am as a woman, having been delayed in many ways.
LB: What gives you a feeling of fullness, of certainty?
ML: One hundred percent my nephew. He is the depth of my heart. And I feel most full after spending meaningful time with a friend. I would say that hearing from people who have connected with something I’ve said or written really fills my tank. It’s kind of corny, but I have this personal belief that when people say something kind to me now, it erases something negative that was said about me in the past.
LB: There has been a groundswell of support for you due to the rise of the #MeToo movement. Does that give you reassurance?
ML: It does. I’m very grateful for it. I overuse that word, but it’s true. The contrast of feeling alone or not being seen as your true self or being misunderstood can be so detrimental.
LB: Have you learned any confidence-booster tips or tricks?
ML: Yes. They’re across the spectrum from normal to wacky. My newest thing is that I mutter mantras to myself. Sometimes I mutter them aloud. They’re things like, “I got this” and “This matters.” In the movie We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon’s character says something like, “It just takes 20 seconds of courage to push through a moment.” I find it helpful. I also believe in the effectiveness of crystals and color energy. I have a really beautiful deep fuchsia velvet ribbon that I carry in my wallet. When I need a boost of confidence, I’ll tuck it in a pocket or my bra and that color brings me an energy, which will give me confidence. And I have crystals in front of me right now.
LB: Are you juggling them?
ML: [laughs] No, but they were selected to be part of this conversation. Then the only other thought is just preparation. I am most confident when I know that I’m the expert on a topic, so I do my homework.
LB: I call that “owning your shit.” In keeping with the confidence theme, what do you think about the power of social media?
ML: I struggle a lot with the chasm between what my life looks like on the inside and what I see other people’s lives looking like on social media. We can often project ourselves as prettier, happier, more exciting, funnier, all this stuff. This effort to create a better, curated version of our lives ultimately creates a pool of other versions of selves, and that’s a big concern to me. Anderson Cooper did this great documentary a few years ago called #BeingThirteen, and there was this statistic that floored me: Thirteen-year-olds were taking 150 selfies to post one picture. Think about the negative self-talk in the other 149! That concerns me a lot. But I also think there is a wonderful power to social media. It’s a way for people to feel less alone, to find their tribe, to find their voice, to find their power to speak their truth. We also experience so many other cultures. That’s something we weren’t able to do unless we had the privilege of money and time to travel.
LB: Yes, and you have control over what you communicate.
ML: Right, and it’s not mediated through another person’s lens, which is very important. There’s a lot of work we need to do around what’s driving people—in the face of anonymity—to be cruel instead of kind. I imagine that in maybe five, 10, or 15 years we’re going to have platforms that have evolved. Hopefully, we have learned from these first iterations.
LB: It’ll even out. OK, what are the most badass things you’ve done, Lewinsky?
ML: I have three: One is bungee jumping off a bridge in Washington state the day after my college graduation. Two is when I stepped onto the TED stage in 2015 [to deliver her speech “The Price of Shame”]—that was the moment for me. And three, refusing to wear a wire and trap people when I was 24 years old and terrified in a hotel room after being threatened with jail by FBI agents and lawyers from independent counsel.
LB: That’s a pretty good three, my girl. And finally, what women in this day and age do you think are badasses?
ML: Every woman has a degree of badass in them. Nilofer Merchant wrote a book called Onlyness, and its thesis is that we all have something that is unique to us, that only we bring to the world.
LB: What do you want to bring to the world now?
ML: If people can find some modicum of relief or healing from my having shared my experiences, that’s the greatest privilege. To be a part of helping someone else.
Photographer: David Schulze. Fashion editor: Ryan Young. Hair: Roberto Di Cuia. Makeup: Linda Gradin. Manicure: Geraldine Holford.
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, on newsstands and for digital download July 6.