Was America too hard on Monica Lewinsky? It seems like a crazy question. She did, after all, almost derail a presidency after near-schtupping a married man. She paraded her literal dirty laundry in front of the nation, setting the navy work dress back decades. She became a stand-in for the moral degredation of post-empire America. She became such a pop-culture joke point that Anthony Weiner, unable to remember the names of his young female interns, supposedly called them "Monica," a punch-line detail reporters have seized upon with glee. And yet! Fifteen years later, with all the history that has come since, Monica Lewinsky looks more and more like something it would have been unimaginable to dub her in the late 1990s: a class act.
The Monica Lewinsky figure of 2013 is, of course, Sydney Leathers, Anthony Weiner’s latest sexting “gal pal,” as the New York Post likes to call such women. Leathers leaked the details of her conversations to TheDirty.com at exactly the right moment to acheieve maximum publicity. Lewinsky’s affair, you’ll remember, only came out because she chose the wrong confidant. Lewinsky didn’t really talk to the press until a sitdown interview with Barbara Walters—for which she received no money, and on which she wore a forgettable black pantsuit. Leathers is currently being represented by the same talent agency as “Tan Mom,” another tabloid sensation, and has made it known that she requires compensation in order to sit for interviews. Or, presumably, photoshoots, like the bikini-clad, wave-frolicking one the Post published of her.
In Lewinsky’s Walters interview, she was demure, soft of voice and face. She said “gosh” and looked down almost anytime the questions become sexually explicit. When Walters asked her at the outset if there was anything she wanted to say, Lewinsky replied “I waited a long time to be able to express to the country how very sorry I am for my part in this past year's ordeal. Of course, I’ve apologized in private to my family and to my friends but I would like to publicly acknowledge that I recognize the pain and the suffering that they’ve gone through because of this.” She adds, “ I wouldn't dream of asking Chelsea and Mrs. Clinton to forgive me but I want them to know that I am very sorry for what happened and for what they’ve been through.” She might have been media-trained within an inch of her life to smooth out the dignified coquettery she deployed on 20/20—but at least she wanted to appear as ladylike as possible under such circumstances.
Today, on the Howard Stern show, Leathers had some post-scandal thoughts, too. "[Weiner] could have 12 girls talking to him, beating off 15 times a day and that wouldn't be enough. You would think his dick would hurt by the end of it.” She offered political analysis. "How are you going to be mayor of New York City if you're coming five times a day?" And she, too, thought of the wife: “Sure, she needs it," she told Stern when he asked Leathers if she’d consider sleeping with Abedin. She also obligingly flashed Stern.
After her scandal, Lewinsky took the LSAT, started a handbag line, and tried to disappear into the normal life of being a twentysomething in New York City as much as possible. She wasn’t entirely unwilling to capitalize on her notoriety: There was a lucrative Jenny Craig deal, an SNL appearance, and some reality show judging. It wasn’t received kindly. “Nor did that public disgrace shame her into silent penance: after years of trying to cash in on her fame by designing handbags and other self-marketing schemes, Ms. Lewinsky has finally found a fitting niche on television,” Alessandra Stanley wrote in the Times. Perhaps chastened, Lewinsky moved to London for a master’s degree in psychology in 2005. Since then, she has mostly avoided the limelight. She once refused to sign an autograph by saying “I'm kind of known for something that's not so great to be known for.” Maybe Leathers will feel that way someday, but for now, she told Stern, she is very interested in filming a porn, but not until she has breast enhancement surgery. She appears to be having a great time.
Lewinsky is now 40. In 1998, Leathers was a child, eight years old. She grew up entirely in a post-Monica world. And not just post-Monica. There have been a parade of “gal pals” who have seized the publicity with the kind of enthusiastic abandon Anthony Weiner displays before a smart-phone. Rielle Hunter wrote a tell-all book and posed for GQ. Ashley Dupre posed in Playboy. Scandal means business opportunity now. In the nineties, Lewinsky was an easy target for moralists, who, in their fascinated, obsessive outrage, ended up making her far more notorious than she ever wanted to be. If only they’d known the Scarlet A they pinned to her would look pretty fashionable to a few of the little girls watching at home—if you bedazzled it, maybe, and wore it as a cutout minidress with some six-inch-heels in your Post photoshoot.
Noreen Malone is staff writer at the New Republic. Follow her on Twitter.