This was the ad. A quarter-page in the New York Times Sunday Styles section, illustrated (somewhat incongruously) by a sketch of a rail-thin woman with a dark-haired flip cut, reading: "Meet Monica Lewinsky as she personally presents her spring collection of handbags and totes available exclusively at Henri Bendel. Wednesday, March 22, 12 - 2 p.m."
Of course, I go.
11:15 a.m.: The "trunk show," as the signs describe it, is being held in the fourth floor atrium. The bags department is small, overheated, luxurious and directly overlooks the four-story chasm in the middle of the Bendel store. At this point, the media outnumbers actual customers by a margin of about 3-to-1. I try to appear inconspicuous, but am wearing a casual wool car coat, jeans and am carrying a messenger bag. The woman from Newsday has a Prada purse. Decide to pretend to shop.
11:25 a.m.: More journalists arrive. The six people standing in line are so picked over I am embarrassed to ask any questions.
11:27 a.m: The Monica bags are actually pretty cute. Square, shaped like the cloth bags the Strand gives out, but made of thick, expensive fabric. Brocades. A kicky lime green and black zebra stripe. Very now. Very Spring 2000. Would go well with Capri pants and a sleeveless blouse.
11:30 a.m.: I glance over the balcony and notice that more reporters have arrived; I mention this to the people in line (all women, none wearing black), estimating that the press-to-line ratio is now more like 10-to-3. Several of them run to the railing to see for themselves. They seem to be just as excited about the press as about Monica. I'm sure Henri Bendel feels the same way.
11:32 a.m.: By now, my scribbling is noticed and Jill -- visiting New York from New Mexico -- asks me who I'm working for. She tells me that
she's been here since 9 a.m. and that she's already
seen her twice this morning. "We know more than the reporters," she grins. I smile back wanly. I ask her how she got to be here, and she says that they heard about it while watching TV in their hotel room.
But why would you come? "Well," she says, "We're from Clovis, New Mexico," as if this would explain it. Then she continues, "I don't really know why we're here. We think she's neat. She went through a really terrible thing and turned it into something good." I ask Jill if she "identifies" with Monica, and she is slow to reply. "Well," she starts, "I'm not sure how to answer that." It's OK, I tell her. She holds up her black-and-white Bendel's bag. "I already got one." She laughs. "I spent $192 on a bag," she says not quite believing it. "I just thought I'd tell you that."
11:40 a.m.: I overhear the woman from People confirming an exclusive. I feel a vague pang of jealously initially, but then I think, "What is
there left to ask?"
11:42 a.m.: Do an actual head count of the press. Thirty-six people -- maybe more, since I only counted people holding TV cameras or notebooks. One more person has gotten in line. Still all women; one is wearing a fluffy sweater embroidered with hearts. I find out that she's visiting from North Carolina. Another reporter asks me if anyone in the line is from New York.
11:43 a.m.: A male person gets in line! I pounce.
He's originally from Virginia, but he lives here now. He's an aspiring actor, been here seven months. His name is Dallas. I tell him that with a name like that it's only a matter of time before he's a soap opera star. "I know," he replies.
He's getting a bag for his mother for Mother's Day. Is his mom a Monica fan? "No, she just saw them on the Internet and thought they were cute." Is he a Monica fan? "I like her," he says, "She was on the cover of Jane and I just think it's really cool the way she's handled it." "It." So vague. During the time I'm here, only one person I talk to mentions exactly why she's famous, and then only to scold
her. Others talk about "it," or "the scandal."
Dallas asks me where I'm from. I tell him, he nods but shows no recognition. Then he brightens. "I can't believe 'Access Hollywood' is here!"
11:50 a.m.: Four more people get in line. As I finish scribbling the last of Dallas' words, another reporter slides up and whispers, "Are you done with him?" "He's all yours." I feel like we are women waiting in line for bathrooms at the Super Bowl. The normal rules of etiquette are suspended in cases of extreme demand.
11:55 a.m.: A dozen photographers are ushered into a roped-off press box about 3 feet by 9 feet. It is about 4 feet from where Monica will be playing salesgirl (showing individual customers their choices before they are shepherded off to the register). I sneak in behind them just in time to hear snippets of a statement that the VP and general manager of Bendel's is giving to the press. "What Bendel's looks for is people who have good design sense ... hip, young, fresh looks. And Monica's bags are very in keeping with what's hot right now." Would she be here if she weren't famous? "We did test the bags over Christmas we did it blind. No press about it, no signs. Nothing to identify the bags as hers except the tag that says, 'Made especially for you by Monica.' They did very well."
There are another 30-plus reporters standing behind a glass door directly across from the official press box, behind and to the left of Monica's perch. They are squeezed into the door; it looks like that "Star Trek" episode about the overpopulated planet that needs to introduce new diseases to kill off some of their own.
Quick conversations with the few other print reporters here ("You know she's not making a statement, right?" we are reminded regularly by various Bendel and Monica reps) prove that there are no political reporters here. One of the cameramen, though, is wearing a souvenir badge from the Straight Talk Express.
Noon: I go to size up the line. It reaches around the purse department, and all the way down the four flights of stairs to the first floor. And there are clearly natives scattered among the slightly louder, slightly more excited tourists. There's a murmur through the crowd and I make it back to my post just in time.
She looks great. Like the lost Spice Girl -- "Zaftig Spice" -- or maybe her more mature and more conservative cousin. A sparkly pink top, a beautiful, close-cut black velvet coat embroidered with a few flowers. An explosion of flashbulbs greets her, followed by a series of attention-getting catcalls from the photographers. "Over here, Monica!" "Smile for Time, please!" "Paper magazine right here, Monica!"
Her smile seems genuine and slightly shy, but she clearly has done this before. She stands in the middle of the photographers' semicircle and says, "OK, I'm going left to right," and then turns her body and smile slowly, giving each camera a chance to catch her in a direct gaze.
12:05 p.m.: The first customers are stage directed by Monica's handlers. They smile broadly at the cameras, cooperatively standing slightly to the side so that the press can get a clear view. "You look great!" they tell her. "Well, it's the Jenny Craig program," she says. What a pro.
12:15 p.m.: The first crew of photographers leaves and the second is shuttled in like a barely restrained herd of cats. I am nearly beaned in the head with a TV camera as its operator jostles for a clear view. Again, Monica announces her rotation, and again she is besieged with shouted questions that she responds to only with a smile, and flash bulbs pop like a breaking string of Christmas lights. It hits me that I am a member of the paparazzi! Mixed feelings of guilt and satisfaction.
12:25 p.m.: The woman from North Carolina, Mrs. Fluffy Hearts, appears with her husband and toddler in tow. Monica asks to hold the little girl and Mrs. Fluffy Hearts hands her over. The press goes nuts, and Monica and child do the slow rotation pose. I hear rolls of film click and spin as they run out. The girl (who is adorable) picks up one of Monica's bags and puts it over her own shoulder; the press brays with delight.
12:35 p.m.: The North Carolina family has fallen into the clutches of CNN. Mrs. Fluffy Hearts tells the reporter that she "really likes the bag. You can put a lot of stuff in it." What does she think of Monica? "I just think she's a really interesting person."
12:55 p.m.: The frenzy has settled down a bit, at least in the room itself, and the Bendel's marketing genius begins to dawn on me. By placing Monica behind a counter, acting as a saleswoman to a crowd funneled in one at a time, they've capitalized on the customers' mixture of admiration, fascination and Schadenfreude to the point where guilt takes over. They've made it hard to not buy a bag.
1:00 p.m.: Fifth herd of paparazzi. I'm guessing the end ratio of press to people is 1 to 1.
1:05 p.m.: A single guy in overcoat and thick glasses gets to see Monica. He breathes heavily as he asks to have someone take his picture with her. The camera crew buttonholes him for an interview, which I think is brave -- I'm sure he's on his way home to masturbate. He tells the cameras, breathily, "This is just very, very exciting." I'm sure.
1:10 p.m.: Boredom sets in. Am paying increasingly more attention to the bags than to the crowds. They are nice bags. I don't have any spring bags. I convince myself that it is my journalistic duty to get in line and buy a bag. Besides, this is the only way I'm going to get to ask Monica any questions.
1:12 p.m.: Squeeze somewhat unobtrusively into the line about 20 people back from the entrance to the department. Scribble. A woman asks me in broken English if I am a writer. "I am too," she smiles, "from Hong Kong." I am impressed. Is Monica a big story in Hong Kong? She laughs. Oh, no, she says, "I am reporter, but today I am tourist." Aren't we all?
1:15 p.m.: Two well-kept women from Darien, Conn., strike up a conversation with me. They are in town shopping, and just happened to stop into Bendel's. They've now waited in line long enough to be a little excited, though. They speculate on what Monica looks like these days. The reporter from Hong Kong says that she saw her. "I don't recognize her, she lose so much weight," she says. The Darien women are not planning on buying bags, but they are looking forward to telling people about their adventure. They ask me several times how, exactly, to read the story I'm writing.
1:20 p.m.: A middle-aged blond woman in a screaming red coat jumps in. She asks me if anyone from the press has asked Monica "anything controversial." I explain the customers-only policy. The woman in red sighs. "I can't believe it. It's some kind of national psychosis."
This is the first anti-Monica remark I've heard (At this point, I'm not
sure even Ken Starr would wait in line this long.), so I ask her why she's here. Her name is Betsy Gibson, and she's a journalist too, she says, a radio talk show host with the Liberty Works Radio Network. But she's at Bendel's completely by accident. "Just happened to be walking by. But I'll be talking about it tonight, I assure you."
She has a tough question for Monica, she says. She informs me that Lucianne Goldberg is a regular on her show, and that she's also associated with Goldberg's Web site, Lucianne.com. She calls Goldberg and Linda Tripp "incredible women. They're the ones who we should be lining up for, not a pathetic fat girl with no self-esteem. They are so brave. Can you imagine what it took for them to stand up to what the public would think? For them to risk everything?"
I ask her what her controversial question is. She tells me it slowly, making sure I get it down. "And you should be behind me when I ask it, get down what she says!"
The question is this, she says: "Why do you hate Linda Tripp? Don't the American people have a right to know what the president is doing in an office paid for by the taxpayers? How can you get your life straight until you figure out who the real villains are?"
That is really three questions, I observe, wondering if she might not also query Monica on where she was the night Vince Foster died. "Maybe it's a little too much," Gibson agrees. "I should draw her in. Maybe I'll ask it more like this: Do you really think Linda Tripp betrayed you?"
I have my doubts about this approach, too.
1:30 p.m.: We are now at the head of the line. Gibson goes in first, and I angle to get in line behind her. Gibson goes up for her one-on-one interview. I can't hear what she's saying, but she starts by touching the bags, seemingly interested. Then she looks at Monica and asks her something.
Monica's voice is clear, slightly alarmed. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking." Gibson leans over the counter and starts to ask again, but the handler to Monica's side is already on the case. "We have a problem," the handler says to two guards. They surround Gibson and literally drag her away. Gibson digs in her heels, the guards pull her backward away from counter, and Gibson yells. "I'm being escorted away! Just because I asked if the public had a right to know what the president is doing!"
She passes me and pushes her face towards mine: "You see! You see! Write about this!" I try to convey that I am still undercover here, but really all I manage is a weak, embarrassed smile.
As she is "escorted" out of the room, Gibson gets a final word in: "Bitch!"
1:33 p.m.: My turn with the portly pepperpot. I am serious about buying a bag, a little dumbstruck about what to ask, so I grab two and ask her which she would choose. "A tourist today," I think to myself.
Later, a woman next to the elevator -- just shopping, she says -- accosts a reporter to give her take on the affair. "I just want to say that I think this is terrible," she says, "the only reason she's having this draw is because of the scandal." Simultaneously, a guy next to me tells his companion, "This is phenomenal. Good for her." Then the women from Darien come by to make sure they've got the web address right. They get on the elevator going down. "What a trip to New York!"
It occurs to me that everyone here -- from Besty Gibson to Dallas -- is here for the same reason. Monica is famous, and that fame is enough. Call it history or politics if you want, but our interest isn't even so dignified as to be puerile. We don't want something as human as titillation; we just want to have a moment of fame for ourselves.
Before she can tell me which bag to buy, I find my voice and ask her a real question: "What do you think of all this?"
She shrugs slightly. "I'm just trying to move on."
I ask if she feels like the crowd is supportive, if she feels forgiven. "I don't know. The people here have been great." She smiles warmly, and I feel like I've lied to her.
Then she suggests that I buy the peachy-pink brocade. "It goes with your coloring," she says. Her blond handler agrees ("And I'm not even a saleswoman!") I am inexplicably flattered. And convinced.
One hundred and sixty dollars later I walk away with my new bag, a signed note from Monica (in round, bubbly script: "Thanks! Monica."), and just a sliver of self-respect.