Whether you just watched the first episode of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story or noticed a smattering of headlines about subject and producer Monica Lewinsky, you might have a few questions about who she really is, besides “that woman” former president Bill Clinton falsely swore he never had sexual relations with.
Like anyone, she’s a multidimensional person who has done quit a bit beyond what she’s most known for. This isn’t a run-down of the scandal, which is public knowledge that you can learn about by sticking with the FX show as it plays out. Rather, this is a look at who else she is—and how the investigation and impeachment shaped that.
Lewinsky attended Santa Monica College, a two-year community college, then headed to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon where she earned a psychology degree in 1995. That same year, she landed an unpaid internship at the White House under then-Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. By the end of the year, she was working in a paid position in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, and the year after that, she went to work at the Pentagon where she was an assistant to chief spokesman Kenneth Bacon. Not a bad string of fresh-out-of-college jobs for any young person.
Lewinsky didn’t stay in the political sphere, which isn’t surprising given how tumultuous her time there was. After she skyrocketed to infamy in her mid-20s for an affair that happened when she was just 22, she briefly went into the fashion industry.
In 1999, she started a handbag line, telling the New York Times at the time that she needed to get out of debt. Imagine that: She’d had a promising start to her career, had her reputation destroyed on the national stage, and wound up in debt while Clinton remained president and added to her humiliation by initially claiming he hadn’t been intimate with her.
The Real Monica Inc. bags were sold at Manhattan’s Henri Bendel and West Hollywood’s Fred Segal Melrose, but they never took off. She authorized—and got paid for—a biography called Monica’s Story, and acted as a spokesperson for diet company Jenny Craig around that time, too. She even hosted a short-lived 2003 Fox dating show, Mr. Personality.
Lewinsky didn’t ask for the spotlight she was put in, and while she made money from her biography, helped ABC News set a ratings record with an exclusive Barbara Walters sit-down, and cameoed on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, she ultimately took some time away from the public eye.
She headed to the London School of Economics, got her Masters of Science, and laid low for a while. She had issues finding employment, which makes sense: She was notorious. Dozens of recording artists from Beyoncé to Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj mention her by name in their songs. That kind of association doesn’t bode well for low-key, professional jobs.
In 2015, Lewinsky hit the TED Talk stage and, by extension, the world stage once more. In a speech that referenced all the songs she’s mentioned in, she discussed “the price of shame,” explaining that she was “patient zero” for online shaming and bullying. Because the Clinton affair was revealed online and happened at a time when internet culture was taking off, she was one of the first-ever viral celebrities whose infamy was created and sustained on the web.
Prior to the TED Talk, she did write an essay for Vanity Fair in 2014 on how she survived the ordeal, but it was the video of her speech that cemented her as an anti-bullying advocate and kickstarted the career she has today. Remember, that TED Talk happened one month before former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton announced her 2016 presidential run. At a time when online harassment and relationship power dynamics were being given more scrutiny than they were in the 1990s, Lewinsky was correcting the narrative around what happened with Bill Clinton while the other key players were also in the spotlight.
Lewinsky, now a Vanity Fair contributing editor, has said she did vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Lewinsky produced Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story and has been open about what it was like to see the darkest part of her life dramatized for the small screen. In multiple interviews, she’s used the word “surreal.”
She’s also explained that she gave the show’s creators the go-ahead on depicting particularly controversial or shocking moments, like when she flashed her thong at the then-president. Writer Sarah Burgess left that moment—one featured in prosecutor Ken Starr’s investigative report on Clinton, which ultimately led to his impeachment—out of the script, but Lewinsky urged her to put it back in.
She told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this month she didn’t feel she should “get a pass” just because she was a producer on the program and “it was unfair to the team and to the project because it would leave everybody vulnerable” if she didn’t let them tell the real story.
An immunity agreement initially barred her from sharing too much about the affair or investigation, but by 2002 it had expired. There were a few starts and stops over the years, but Lewinsky—who uses her popular Twitter account to reframe the narrative and advocate for compassionate social media use—has finally found a way to be open about the whole thing.