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25 May 2022

The joyless rise of Anna Wintour

Amy Odell’s new account of the iron-fisted Vogue editor’s ascent struggles to find the human being behind the shades.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

When Anna Wintour was 18, she arranged to meet a date at a big anti-Vietnam War protest in London. Her father, Charles Wintour, then editor of the Evening Standard, recalled how she spent two hours choosing her outfit before leaving the family home in Kensington, only to patter up the steps again. “I opened the door and she said: ‘Daddy, am I for or against Cambodia?’”

A slightly ungallant thing for a father to share, perhaps? In the same interview, given in 1986, two years before Anna had ascended to the editorship of British Vogue, Charles was careful to add that he was “almost sure” his favourite child was now aware that there were two political parties in the US. But the story, recounted in Amy Odell’s new biography of Anna Wintour, does highlight the crucial factors that have allowed her to become the most famous editor in the world: an instinct for being where the action is; an exacting eye for outfits; a background of immense privilege; and a certain flexibility when it comes to politics. The morning after Donald Trump’s election, Wintour gave a tearful speech to staff in defence of the rights of women, immigrants and LGBTQ+ people. Weeks later, she was hosting Trump at the offices of Condé Nast, “grinning at her guest of honour” and floating the idea of photographing his wife again for the magazine.

Wintour is “endowed with the rare ability to turn attachments – to both outcomes and people – on and off like a switch”, Odell notes. In 2010 she stubbornly insisted on featuring Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, in the magazine just as he was ordering the murder of thousands of his people; only later to sack the journalist and long-time friend, Joan Juliet Buck, who had interviewed Asma (Buck insists she never wanted to write the piece). Wintour also, according to one source, maintained that “black people don’t sell”. Until, that is, diversity became fashionable, whereupon, Vogue ran a specially commissioned painted portrait of a little-known black designer on the cover.

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Odell’s not-quite-authorised biography is an attempt to peer behind Wintour’s sunglasses and tell the story of how the 72-year-old has managed to maintain her 34-year reign at American Vogue, becoming a meme, a useful ally to presidents, the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada and one of the fashion world’s leading tastemakers. A fashion journalist, Odell is in the rare position as biographer of having been interviewed by her subject (for Vogue jobs) but not having interviewed her – which might help explain her overreliance on sightings of Wintour’s tears as confirmation that there is something human going on inside her. But though Wintour declined to speak, she did grant Odell access to a few key colleagues and friends; the book draws on 250 interviews as well as some delicious titbits retrieved from the archives. I had no idea that Andy Warhol declared Wintour a “terrible dresser” or that she found Bill Gates “attractive” (it’s a power thing, apparently) or that Serena Williams asks her advice on how to win tennis matches. She also hates all vegetables except green beans.

“There is a person there,” one loyalist claims. “She laughs and everything,” says another. Her allies strain to paint her as, in private, a disco-dancing, parlour-game-playing, nappy-changing granny. But there are dissenting voices. Odell quotes the late André Leon Talley, once her most beloved lieutenant, who called Wintour “a colonial broad”, adding: “I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.” A childhood friend, Vivienne Lasky, recalls that Wintour maintained a costly beauty regime at school (including visits to a dermatologist and regular haircuts at Vidal Sassoon) and rarely spoke to her classmates. “She wanted to be in her own rarefied air.”

As I was reading about Wintour’s rise, I found the opening refrain from Hamilton playing in my mind: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore… grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” For Wintour, the question would be more like: “How does an independently wealthy, extremely well-connected daughter of a successful newspaper editor grow up to run a fashion magazine?” Wintour was determined to prove herself to her intellectual family (“They’ve always thought I am deeply unserious,” she once said). But her ascent feels monarchical, all failures cushioned, all doors left ajar.

Her father’s career ensured she grew up surrounded by eminent political and cultural figures. Her mother Nonie was an American journalist turned social worker who possessed a “sharp eye for the weakness of others” and a large inheritance. At the age of 15, Wintour was given the basement apartment of her family home, with its own entrance. By the time she was in her early twenties, she was receiving lump sums from her grandmother’s trust fund which, as Odell writes, “made it possible for her not only to enter the poorly paying publishing field but also take the risks that would lead to her advancement”.

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It helped too that her father called in favours: first fixing her a job at the Biba fashion store (she was later sacked, Odell reports, for suspected shoplifting) and then at Harpers & Queen. While his interventions occasionally backfired, family wealth came in handy when she moved to New York to work in women’s magazines, seemingly paying her assistants out of her own pocket. At New York Magazine, she dismissed other colleagues’ sections as “rubbish”. By the time she got her first role at US Vogue, she was “moving through the world like the star of her own never-ending photoshoot”.

Since 1988, Wintour has run the magazine with “unprecedented, iron-fisted discipline”. She is a hellish person to work for, ritualistically hazing and humiliating junior colleagues – though she is no different from her senior male Condé Nast colleagues in this respect. Odell paints her as equal parts creative genius and calculating apparatchik. While Wintour’s Vogue has followed trends (“I want to do something about Asians. They’re everywhere,” she told colleagues in 1994), the magazine has remained loyal to her rather conservative aesthetic: “English garden party” with plenty of “happiness, smiles, sunlight”. She favours thin, white “girls of privilege”, preferably socialites or princesses, with Ivy League degrees. But even if you’ve won Wintour’s favour, it can be lost. When it was suggested that the magazine run a piece about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop skincare line, Wintour said: “If you do it, just make sure we’re retouching her because she’s looking quite rough these days.” She once told a picture editor to retouch the fat around a baby’s neck – and even asked if the Metropolitan Museum of Art could board up the ancient Temple of Dendur at the Met Gala because she found it ugly.

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Nevertheless, Wintour’s single-minded focus on “beauty” has proved to be a weakness, as the Asma al-Assad incident proved. “We tried and tried to talk her out of that,” claims former managing editor Laurie Jones: “The human rights, all the indignities… Anna just wanted that picture.” Odell wonders whether Wintour’s editorial instincts are faltering. She has been rewarded for upholding “whiteness and elitism [that] have historically resulted in praise and magazine sales”. (“Could somebody tell André that not every month is Black History Month?” she responded when Talley suggested that she feature more black women.) Now, that imperiousness seems more like a liability, “perhaps as it should have been perceived all along”.

Odell claims Wintour has a difficult working relationship with her former contributing editor, Edward Enninful, who became the first black editor-in-chief of British Vogue and is tipped as her successor on the flagship US edition. Enninful is gay and from a working-class background, his family having immigrated from Ghana. He grew up in Ladbroke Grove in west London, down the road from Wintour’s childhood home, but their trajectories couldn’t have been more different. He didn’t have a trust fund for designer clothes so he learned to be resourceful. Handy, now that ad revenue is down, production costs have been slashed and fashion is faster, tougher and less rarefied.

Does this book tell us much about Wintour we couldn’t have guessed? Odell admits that the many people she interviewed “had a hard time explaining why she is so powerful and what her power amounts to”. So does Odell, who never quite locates the substance behind the style. It’s a shame, therefore, that she didn’t feel she could have more fun with the ludicrous antics at Planet Vogue. I had to amuse myself with the names of the fashion posh, such as Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Gloria von Thurn und Taxis and – my favourite – Min Hogg.

But ultimately, I found something rather depressing about the story of Wintour’s success and what it tells us about how a woman gains and sustains power. First, that she needs the backing of a rich and influential father. Second, that she has to develop such a Machiavellian approach to relationships. Third, that her reign of power requires an austere and unswerving routine. And fourth – perhaps most disheartening of all – that to maintain this image of steely control, she must wield silence as her ultimate weapon, rarely explaining her decisions, just barking orders.

It’s so joyless, so samey, so uptight, so lifeless. Wintour has insisted she will never write her memoirs, telling her friends: “I’m so bored by me”. By the end of this book, so was I.

Anna: the Biography
Amy Odell
Allen & Unwin, 464pp, £20

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control