INTERVIEW

"You couldn’t buy your way in": Anna Wintour biographer on her power, from the Met Gala to Wimbledon

A new biography lifts the veil on Wintour, including what she thought of "The Devil Wears Prada"

By Alison Stine

Published May 10, 2022 7:00PM (EDT)

Anna Wintour attends the the 2022 Met Gala celebrating "In America: An Anthology of Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Noam Galai/GC Images/Getty Images)
Anna Wintour attends the the 2022 Met Gala celebrating "In America: An Anthology of Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Noam Galai/GC Images/Getty Images)

Upstaging the recent Met Gala, even more so than Kim Kardashian apparently wearing a priceless Marilyn Monroe gown some thought should be preserved, was the news that broke during the opulent event: the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion that could mean the reversal of Roe V. Wade, ending safe and legal abortion. The evening of the ball, social media became an upsetting checkerboard of flippant posts about expensive outfits and emotional posts calling for justice. 

Who knows what Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue since 1988 and honorary co-chair of the Met's Costume Institute Gala, thought of the upstaging, breaking news, though Wintour has worn a button in support of Planned Parenthood to New York Fashion Week in the past. But the complex portrait of the fashion icon that emerges from Amy Odell's new book "Anna: The Biography" is one of a person more concerned with service than seasonal trends, someone who hopes to be remembered for her work for various charities more than her discerning eye and potent pen. 

"It's one thing to get to the top and it's some other thing to stay there." 

Wintour has a reputation for being coolly powerful, a reputation no doubt cemented by the novel "The Devil Wears Prada," adapted into a popular movie starring Meryl Streep as a Wintour-like fashion boss who is cold as ice. But is that reputation deserved, or even accurate?

Odell, who started her book when she said she believed Wintour might be losing power, traces the rise of Wintour from swinging London to her magazine empire. Though the book is not officially authorized by Wintour (and the writer does not know if she has read it), hundreds of Wintour collaborators and friends from Tom Ford to Serena Williams, talked to Odell for the book, which is hefty enough to weigh down your blanket for a beach read.

RELATED: Anna Wintour and Tina Brown: Inside their Condé Nast rivalry

Salon talked to Odell about her new biography "Anna."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

What surprised you most about writing this book? We see a more vulnerable side of Anna here — there are scenes of her crying in the book, for example — which surprised me.

When I started the project and I started reaching out to people requesting interviews, I got a lot of no's, so many no's that I had doubts about whether or not I was going to be able to even do it. What does that say? That says that this person has a lot of loyalty out there in the world. It was people who felt like they just didn't want to talk unless she felt OK with it.

I thought [Anna's] power had just really weakened a good deal because you don't really need Vogue anymore to keep up with fashion. You can follow fashion on Instagram, on TikTok, on any number of websites. You can look at runway slideshows all over the internet. You don't have to have Vogue anymore.

"The Hilton sisters would call and try to get in and they never could go. Anna would just sort of make a decision based on who she thought was worthy."

It used to be that you did need Vogue. In the '80s and '90s, when Anna started at Vogue, you had to either look at Vogue or a magazine like it if you wanted to keep up with that world. What I learned is that there was kind of a disconnect between some of the negative press that she was getting around diversity and how people behind the scenes felt about her, powerful people in the fashion industry and in the entertainment industry, and even in politics as well.

Why Anna? Why were you drawn to her personally as a subject matter and why did you decide to do a book on her now?

The idea actually originated at my publisher, and they brought it to me . . . I thought that it was just a great idea. I've always found Anna to be fascinating and I'm personally interested in women and positions of power. It sort of gave me chills, just hearing that this idea was being discussed . . . You know, the interesting thing about Anna is that she's had such success, not only in fashion, but she transcends fashion. She is influential in entertainment. She's influential in politics, even sports. She has this immense influence and she's had this public position; she's been the Editor in Chief of Vogue for 34 years, which is such a long time for any business leader. Jeff Bezos, for instance, ran Amazon for 27. She's had this extraordinary success and this maybe even more remarkable longevity.

It's one thing to get to the top and it's some other thing to stay there. 

Although you were not granted access to Anna herself, you interviewed an enormous amount of people for the book. It was something like 250 people. How did you approach that?

It was more than 250. I stopped counting after that point. One of the first things I did was make a list of sources and I tracked . . . It was just using a spreadsheet and being very careful and making notes also about where they might fit into the story. I did realize actually when I was writing it up, I had just an overwhelming amount of materials. You might imagine, just so many transcripts, just so, so much stuff. It was a challenge to go through all of it and whittle it down. The good thing about having that volume of research is that you can really pull the most essential and most interesting stuff.

We just had the Met Gala, and you talk about that in the book, the secrecy around it and the enormous work to put it together. What are some of the things that would go into Anna's planning of the Met Gala?

I spoke to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff who planned the gala for more than 10 years . . . It became something at that time that celebrities were clamoring to get into. Kim Kardashian, who was, I think probably the biggest star of the red carpet [at the last gala], was one of those people. 

The Hilton sisters would call and try to get in and they never could go. Anna would just sort of make a decision based on who she thought was worthy of being in that room. You couldn't buy your way in to that room. Anna would decide based on, "What was your connection to fashion? What was your personal style like?" She also liked people who were involved in some way with charity.

I was fascinated to learn this: she herself wants to be remembered as the great philanthropist versus any of her magazine editing work. I thought that was so surprising. She really grew [the Met Gala] from this sleepy society event. She started planning in 1995, but she grew it from this more like New York Manhattan society event into the Super Bowl of red carpet. I think that the Met now surpasses the Oscars in terms of cultural significance, in terms of a fashion and a red carpet event. She did that through this excruciating attention to detail that she has in all aspects of her work.

"What Anna told her enabled her to win Wimbledon."

As I say in the book, she was so consumed with things like what was in the food. She banned garlic, chives, parsley and onions because she thought that they made your breath smell and get stuck in your teeth. Tom Ford, when he co-chaired in 2003 for the goddess theme, he was concerned about how the food on the plate looked. He wanted it to be the right colors.

This attention to detail, I think, really enabled her to grow [the gala] into this massive important cultural event that we saw the other night. The people who go, they go because Anna has decided that they should be there. They walk up those steps. They get to the top; they shake her hand. Many of them, I was told by numerous people, are nervous. 

These celebrities are nervous because it's so nerve-wracking to have the spotlight on you going up the carpet – and many of them are wearing cumbersome, over-the-top gowns that are hard to walk in. They have to go up the stairs and then they have to shake Anna Wintour's hand. If they take too long greeting her, she has a habit of giving a look to someone on her staff like, "Move this person along."

Anna WintourAnna Wintour attends The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating "In America: An Anthology of Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty Images)You also write about Anna's reaction to the movie version of "The Devil Wears Prada" where Meryl Streep played a character allegedly based on her. What did Anna think of the film and did perceptions of her change after its release?

When she found out about the book that Lauren Weisberger was going to publish, she said she couldn't remember who Lauren Weisberger was. She read the book when it came out . . . I've seen things written that she was so bothered by it. People who were close to her at the time that it came out, told me that she was not bothered by the book. When the film came out, I spoke to the director, and he told me that the fashion industry was really afraid to help him. He wanted to talk to people. The production wanted to talk to people in the fashion industry about how it worked to gain an understanding and be able to do a good film.

Isaac Mizrahi is one designer who they approached and he asked Anna if it was OK. He had said that she told him that it was. Then she went to a screening of the film in New York. He invited her, and she showed up wearing Prada. The director overheard her daughter lean over at the end of the film and say to her, "Mom, they really got you." 

I think that may be an instance where there is a disconnect between what was said in the press about her reactions to the film and the book and what it really was. I found that often to be the case with her, that there was a disconnect between what was reported and what people told me what's really going on behind the scenes.

Do you know if Anna has seen your book yet?

I'm not sure. You would have to ask her. I do know, and as I say in the book, she's a voracious reader. Many of her friends were impressed with the volume of things that she reads and how quickly she reads them so it's quite possible. I don't know. I'm generally just as curious as anyone else as to what she thinks about it.

If we're not in fashion or the beauty industry, can we take lessons from her? What can we all learn from Anna?

She is known obviously as the most powerful person in the fashion world, but she transcends the industry. She is someone who advises people in the film business on their movies. Two examples I give in the book are Bradley Cooper, sending over his script for "A Star Is Born" before he had cast Lady Gaga to get Anna's opinion. Another one was Hugh Jackman working on "The Greatest Showman," how he had a meeting with Anna and Vogue editors at the Soho house just to get their awesome ideas. I didn't realize that was going on behind the scenes. I thought that was just surprising. She's a major fundraiser for Democratic candidates. I discussed that in the book as well and the work that she did for the Obama Campaign and all of the ambassador stuff that ended up stemming from that.

She's an advisor also to Serena Williams. I don't know that advisor is exactly the right word, but they're friends, and Serena Williams seeks her advice. She told me when she was struggling at one point, she talked to Anna. What Anna told her enabled her to win Wimbledon. I thought that was so surprising. Anna's of course a tennis player herself, but I never would've guessed before that Serena Williams would be calling her.

"She can't edit Vogue forever. She is a human being."

I think the book is something that people in any industry can enjoy if they're curious about success, what it takes to become as successful as Anna and what it takes to stay there. My takeaway in doing all this research on her and thinking about her success and her power is that she's very good at corporate politics. Conde Nast is of course a corporation. It has the burden of bureaucracy and she navigates that all very well. 


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That said, it was really fun in researching the book to learn about her early years of a fashion editor beginning in the late '60s in London . . .  She can also work with creatives. I think that's really the challenge that an Editor in Chief of a magazine like Vogue faces. How do you bridge the creative editorial side of the business with the publishing ad sales side of the business? I think that she does that very well.

Is there a next Anna or can there ever be another Anna Wintour?

That's such a good question. I think about this myself all the time, and I thought about it so much as I was working on the book. In some ways I would say, no. She's so unique and she's been so mysterious for all of these years, so enigmatic, that it seems like it would be hard for someone else to replicate that sort of image and iconography. 

However, she can't edit Vogue forever. She is a human being, and editors of Vogue in the past like Grace Mirabella who preceded Anna or Diana Vreeland who preceded Grace Mirabella, they were also kind of the de facto leaders of the fashion industry.

The editor of Vogue has historically occupied that space. Anna, I think, has expanded the power of that position enormously. It's hard to say if another person will be able to exactly replicate her power, but the industry has in the past been willing to accept a new leader in that role. It happened when Grace Mirabella took over from Diana Vreeland. It happened when Anna Wintour took over from Grace Mirabella, and I believe that it will happen again when someone takes over from Anna Wintour.

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Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Amy Odell Anna Wintour Biography Books Fashion Interview Met Gala