Feature writing


Lauren Weisberger: Revenge is sweet — and still dressed in Prada

The Times

June 18, 2013


Lauren Weisberger has a problem and it is entirely self-created. She really, really doesn’t want to speak about Anna Wintour but she has become rich and famous by invoking the fictionalised spectre of the Vogue editor-in-chief,first in The Devil Wears Prada, the debut novel that made her famous, and now its sequel, Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns.

A part-autobiographical account of Weisberger’s time as Wintour’s assistant, the best-selling first book became an even-more famous movie starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep, and took more than $325 million at the box office. Vogue became Runway magazine. Hathaway played Andrea “Andy” Sachs, the approximation of Weisberger, the harried assistant and victim of her editor Miranda Priestly’s capricious cruelty, impossible demands — bring me the unpublished Harry Potter book or be fired, mwahaha! — and totemic coat-tossing. The first book ends with Andy telling Miranda to “f*** off”while the film sees her leave the clutches of her persecutor more subtly, chucking her mobile phone — which would ring ceaselessly with Priestly’s demands — into a Parisian fountain.

In the final reel the two women share eye contact, Miranda smiling almost admiringly at Andy across a New York street. The sequel is a potboiler of business skullduggery, marital betrayal and simply fabulous parties. Andy has her own magazine which Miranda’s magazine group wants to purchase; Andy is also about to get married and is business partner and best friends with Emily, her one-time secretarial nemesis. Every time Miranda appears, Andy throws a volcanic tizzy.

Wintour (whom I have met and can say bears no resemblance to Weisberger’s Cruella caricature) has stayed schtum about the books. When I ask Weisberger why she has returned to needling her ex-boss ten years on, she affects to ignore the question and says brightly that she is “returning to Andy”. She was worried not about reviving her nightmare of working under Wintour “but about getting the characters right”. There may be a more prosaic reason: the three books she has published between the two Prada-themed books have not sold nearly as well as Devil although, to be fair, two — Everyone Worth Knowing (2005) and Chasing Harry Winston (2008) — were both New York Times bestsellers.

The 36-year-old author is a vision of groomed New York gloss: fitted blue summer dress by Club Monaco, blonde, slim, ballet flats. The dress immediately reminds me of one of the standout scenes in the movie, when Andy is snickering about Miranda and her team labouring over a look, only to be given a withering lecture by Miranda about the meaning of blue. “I should have considered my outfit more carefully,” laughs Weisberger. “One of the very clear ways the book diverges from the movie is Andy’s makeover. That absolutely never happened to me. At Vogue I was my plain hideous self all the way through.”

Is Wintour still on her mind? “She is now, because I’m writing this book and I’m talking about her a lot. But before last fall when I started writing I would probably say no, not at all.” Has Wintour been in touch? “No, never. I’ve been writing books, knee-deep in changing diapers.Our paths are just not crossing. I was not at the Met Ball.” If she did run into her what would she say? “I’m not sure about that. ‘Nice to see you again’?”

Weisberger has no curiosity about what Wintour thinks of her work. “If I let myself think about it, I would. It’s really not part of my every day [life]. My life is so different. I got married, had two kids, it’s so different from that universe it feels like two different countries. I don’t have a tremendous amount of feelings about her. We don’t travel in the same circles.” The coat-tossing “may have happened occasionally. It didn’t happen with the montage-regularity the movie portrayed.”

R. J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue about the workings of Vogue did not give Weisberger nightmares. Was she tempted to humanise Miranda in the new book? “No,” she says with certainty, “Miranda is the devil. We know her and we love to hate her.” Crikey, Wintour must have made her life really miserable. “Andy has a visceral reaction to Miranda. I would not say that was my reality at all. It feels very far removed. Am I dying to go back and work for Anna Wintour as her assistant? Definitively no. But who would want to go back to the job they had ten years ago? It’s not that she made me miserable. My personality struggled with the kind of job it was, the 24-hour aspect of it. I really wanted more of the magazine experience, not the hardcore fashion experience it was. It was an amazing opportunity but it wasn’t the right fit for me.”

How odd then that Weisberger should then vilify Wintour for what was — in her own words — simply not the right kind of job for her. Was the Vogue editor rude or unpleasant to her? “No, whatever it was, it was ten years ago,” she says. “I took a lot from my experience of working at Vogue and working with Anna Wintour and put it in the book and heightened and exaggerated a lot of other things. Much of the day to day wasn’t super sexy glamorous. The office needed to be run.”

She got Wintour’s Starbucks coffee every day, “but that doesn’t a novel make”, she says. Well yeah, so what were the truly dramatic moments? “I’m sure there were, it was such a long time ago. I don’t remember the specifics.”

It seems implausible: Weisberger does not recall any of the upsetting things Wintour said to her, even though they have inspired her to trash her now in two novels? “I don’t, no, but nothing is as outrageous as I made it in the book.” Like what? “They’re in the book.” Can she be specific? “I know what you’re trying to do,” she says beadily. Trying to disentangle fiction and reality, I say truthfully. Is Miranda Priestly a transposition of Anna Wintour? “The answer is definitely no.” Was she as much of a bitch to you as Miranda is to Andy? “I would not say that.”

Weisberger did not feel as “psychologically terrorised” as her heroine, though afterwards when she got a job at a travel magazine “there was a period of relief. It was calmer, more relaxed with people not talking about fashion all day.” When Andy hears Miranda,sheflinches;doesWeisberger flinch to hear Wintour’s name? “I don’t. That might have been true a year or two afterwards. But I’m ten years older. I’m not afraid of everything in that 22-year-old, wide-eyed way.” At Vogue, Weisberger claims to have been a “fashion disaster” but now likes “going into stores and walking out with something pretty. High fashion is not my scene at all.”

Growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, playing varsity tennis, Weisberger was “a pretty good girl, I was a pleaser. I wasn’t withdrawn or super-outgoing. I had a good group of friends and studied well. I played sports but wasn’t the cheerleader centre of attention.” Her mother was a teacher, her father owned a mortgage lending business; they divorced when she was 11 “but there was no fighting or screaming. It wasn’t difficult and they’ve both been remarried for a million years.”

Inspired by Christa McAuliffe (the teacher and astronaut who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986), Weisberger wanted to be an astronaut, even attending “space camp”, but couldn’t do maths and science “to save my life”. After studying English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, becoming Wintour’s assistant at Vogue was “overwhelming”, the working atmosphere “nuts”. She was Wintour’s assistant for ten months, before leaving to work at Departures, a magazine for American Express cardholders, and to write the first novel.

Back then she was like many young, single women in New York, pursuing a dream. “In my twenties I felt I’d dated every single guy in New York,” Weisberger recalls. “It’s a great city for dating. I dated every kind of guy in every profession from everywhere. There were a handful of longer relationships but no one I ever wanted to marry.

I definitely wanted to meet someone and have a family, but felt I had many more years.” Weisberger met her future husband Mike Cohen, a photographer, in 2006. They married two years later. It’s been three years since Weisberger published her last book after having two children, aged 2 and 1, “which has been absolutely overwhelming and exciting, despite very little sleep and all the vomit.” She’s “excited” to emerge from nursing her children to return to writing.

Andy’s marriage in Revenge Wears Prada is dysfunctional, “but absolutely not based on my own” says Weisberger. “Mike is pretty gorgeous, tall, dark and handsome. I really was lucky enough to meet my best friend. Is every day a dream? No of course not. It’s hard with two young children. But it’s made us a lot closer. We’re an incredible team and he’s the best father I could imagine.” She has a “great” group of girlfriends, but she doesn’t live the kind of Manhattan lifestyle her readers might expect. “Not at all. The book is coming out so I have to shower, talk, buy new clothes and pull it together. There’ll be a book party and the pictures will make it look like my life’s like that all the time. It’s one month every two years, then it’s back to sweatpants, writing and kids.”

If she seems discomfited talking about herself, Weisberger says, “that’s because the book is famous not me. Everyone wants a more interesting, glamorous story than there was.”

Well, she created the bind for herself: she keeps bringing Miranda back to life, so people will keep asking about Anna Wintour. “I have and that’s OK,” Weisberger says. “In order to see what happened to Andy, Miranda comes along too. Is Andy interesting without her counterpart, the Devil? Absolutely not.”

Will there be a third book? “I don’t have any plans, but in five or ten years maybe it will be time to check in with them again.” Miranda seems to respect, if not like, Andy in the sequel. “I don’t foresee Andy and Miranda ever becoming friends, but who knows?” Weisberger says. She “would love” a second movie to be made. She doesn’t write with Streep and Hathaway in mind when thinking of Miranda and Andy, “but I picture Emily Blunt when writing Emily, she was so all-consuming and wonderful in that role.”

Weisberger denies she is acting out an extended revenge against Wintour for all her coat-tossing. “Not in any way. These are fun, light books. I have no bitterness at all towards her. I really have no feeling either way. I do think she’s a very talented editor. The proof is in the pages.” So she reads the magazine? “I wouldn’t say I read it religiously, every month, but I certainly read Vogue. It’s the best-in-show.”