When your entire adult life has been defined by an ill-advised affair you had when you were 22, you are in a unique position to talk about what it’s like to have a reputation trashed by strangers.
only best known for her affair with former US President Bill Clinton, yesterday stood to address 1000 entrepreneurs at a Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia.
Since the scandal engulfed her, Lewinsky, now 41, has struggled to find work or love, her notoriety working against her in the pursuit of a ‘real’ job. She has moved between Los Angeles, London and small-town US, with short-lived spots in diet ads and ill-fated reality shows, and has remained unmarried.
Lewinsky spoke yesterday to share her fears for the safety of others who, like her, have had ‘suicidal temptations’ after being bullied and humiliated online. Here are some of most interesting things she said:
1. On regret.
“Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, a 22-year-old intern in the White House — and more than averagely romantic – I fell in love with my boss in a 22-year-old sort of a way. It happens. But my boss was the President of the United States. That probably happens less often.
“Now, I deeply regret it for many reasons. Not the least of which is that people were hurt. And that’s never okay.”
2. On becoming a household name overnight:
“Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly-humiliated one. I was Patient Zero.
“The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet. There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then. But there were gossip, news and entertainment websites replete with comment sections and emails could be forwarded.
“Of course, it was all done on the excruciatingly slow dial-up. Yet around the world this story went. A viral phenomenon that, you could argue, was the first moment of truly ‘social media.'”
Monica Lewinsky with President Bill Clinton.
Watch some of Monica’s speech:
3. On seeing your name trashed online:
“It feels like a punch in the gut. As if a stranger walked up to you on the street and punched you hard and sharp in the gut.
“For me, that was every day in 1998. There was a rotation of worsening name-calling and descriptions of me. I would go online, read in a paper or see on TV people referring to me as: tramp, slut, whore, tart, bimbo, floozy, even spy.
“The experience of shame and humiliation online is different than offline. There is no way to wrap your mind around where the humiliation ends — there are no borders.
“It honestly feels like the whole world is laughing at you. I know. I lived it.”
4. On the importance of your reputation:
“A reputation isn’t like a fashion accessory or a status symbol: an Apple watch, a Tesla or even an engagement ring from Tiffany’s (though I wouldn’t mind one of those). Lose it, as you so easily can, and you lose an integral part of yourself.
“That’s what happened to me in 1998 when public Monica – that Monica, that woman – was born. The creature from the media lagoon.
“I lost my reputation. I was publicly identified as someone I didn’t recognise. And I lost my sense of self. Lost it, or had it stolen; because in a way, it was a form of identity theft.”
5. On refusing to ‘shut up’:
“But there are those who say, Monica, why don’t you just shut up? Why don’t you just go away? They said it in June, after a piece I wrote in Vanity Fair, my first public words in over 10years. And they will say it today after this one, my first major public talk, ever, and they will say it tomorrow and the day after that.
“They” never shut up.
“The problem is that I believe in the power of story. In the power of stories to inspire, comfort, educate and change things for the better: fictional stories, stories from history, news stories and yes, personal stories. I believe my story can help.”Monica Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair spread.
6. On why she’s speaking up now:
“Among young Facebook users, close to 54% say they’ve been cyber-bullied… No one is immune.
“Having survived myself, what I want to do now is help other victims of the shame-game survive too. I want to put my suffering to good use and give purpose to my past.
“What we need is a radical change in attitudes — on the internet, mobile platforms and in the society of which they are a part.
“Actually, what we really need is a cultural revolution. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit – an Empathy Crisis — and something tells me that matters a lot more to most of us.”