Dishing the Dirt on Fashion Industry: Fact or Fiction?

By Lisa Keys

Published April 11, 2003, issue of April 11, 2003.
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This week, the critical, expertly lined eyes of the fashion elite will be trained on Lauren Weisberger.

It’s not because Weisberger is tall, blond and happens to look great in a pair of slim-fitting Seven jeans. She has found fame not with her model-good looks, but by taking a page from Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, authors of the best-selling “Nanny Diaries,” authoring a dishy, down-and-dirty tome of revenge.

As a former assistant to Vogue Magazine’s reigning fashion queen, Anna Wintour — a woman once dubbed by a disgruntled staffer as “Nuclear Wintour” — Weisberger’s highly anticipated roman à clef, “The Devil Wears Prada” (Doubleday), hits bookstores this week.

The novel is a highly readable account of the not quite workaday life of Andrea Sachs, a recent college graduate who lands a job “a million girls would die for” as an assistant to Miranda Priestly, the editor-in-chief of Runway magazine. Miranda is a powerful, cruel woman whose vague, incessant demands (“Get the car from the place!”) — which are never followed with “thank you,” only “that’s all” — take over her assistants’ lives.

“You don’t want her to die,” Weisberger writes. “Because if she does, you lose all hope of killing her yourself. And that would be a shame.”

Sound at all like wrath of an overworked assistant slaving away in the Condé Nast building for the famously icy Wintour? Perhaps. But it’s all fiction, Weisberger insists.

“I did not base the book or any of its characters on anyone,” Weisberger told the Forward, drinking a chai latte at a Starbucks near her Upper East Side home. “My experiences at Vogue definitely informed the writing. But it’s an amalgamation of stories from my friends, sitting around bitching at 4 a.m.”

Nonetheless, the media have had more than their share of fun trying to separate fact from fiction. With an obscenely early wake-up time, a penchant for Prada, a posh British accent and a signature fashion statement (a white Hermes scarf), Miranda has got to be the sunglasses-clad Wintour. Or is she? Is the fictitious Elias-Clark publisher Irv Ravitz really Condé Nast’s S.I. Newhouse? And just who is Andrea’s flamboyant pal Nigel supposed to represent?

As for Andrea, the book’s protagonist, she bears more than a little resemblance to Weisberger. Both are blond, slim Ivy League graduates from small-town Jewish homes who care little for fashion and harbor lifelong literary dreams.

After graduation from Cornell University in 1999, Weisberger moved to Manhattan with hopes of launching a writing career by working as an assistant. She sent her resumes to all the major publishing houses: Hearst, Meredith, Condé Nast. “I had the expectation to work at a trade publication,” she said, but was offered the opportunity to work for Wintour. “You just don’t say no to Vogue.”

Weisberger offers few details about her real-life experience at the magazine. “There were amazing days when I loved my job, there were other days I wanted to kill myself,” she said. After nearly a year, she left for an assistant position at Departures magazine.

She began writing pieces of “The Devil Wears Prada” for the Writer’s Voice, a popular writing workshop in Manhattan. Her teacher advised her to turn her vignettes into a book. Weisberger soon found herself an agent, Deborah Schneider.

One week later, Weisberger was a rumored $250,000 richer (not including a reported $600,000 she earned for the movie rights) and faced a mountain of work. She quit her job at Departures and dedicated herself to finishing “The Devil Wears Prada” full-time. Writing all night in her apartment, she said, “I ended up striking up much too personal relationships with the guy at the bodega, the food delivery guys. It was super-isolating. The pressure was enormous. It was my life; it was all I thought about.”

The book will be translated into nine languages, including Hebrew. (“I was floored,” said Weisberger about when she heard the news.) Wendy Finerman of Fox 2000 has signed on to produce the film and Peter Hedges, who was nominated for his big-screen adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy,” will write the screenplay.

Asked if she is living out her dream, Weisberger responded, “Completely. Completely, completely, completely, completely, completely.”

Still, her voice quivers when she admits to being overwhelmed, at times, by all the hype. “Now I’m getting used to it,” she said. “I have to remind myself the book’s not even out yet. I think the really exciting part is yet to come. The buzz is fun, in a fleeting way. I’m excited for people to get the book and read it.”

In her free time, Weisberger likes to hang out with friends and walk her Maltese, Mitzi, in Central Park. With an interest in politics and current affairs, she is also involved with the Anti-Defamation League’s Steinberg Leadership Institute for young professionals. “I love it,” she said. “If you’re going to volunteer, if you’re going to donate money, you’re going to do it for a Jewish organization. Period. Jews take care of their own.”

Looking back on her Vogue years, she noted, “So few people get an opportunity to view this world from the top down,” giving her “Pollyanna answer,” as she calls it. “Working for arguably the top editor at arguably the top magazine publisher was really amazing. It served me so well.”

Having “served her well,” as she put it, more than a few have raised eyebrows at Weisberger’s willingness to burn such a powerful bridge so early in her career. Is Weisberger at all worried she’ll never work in this town again? “No,” she said, emphatically. “It’s a fun book. It’s a novel.”

Still, near the conclusion of “Devil,” Weisberger suggests a liberal definition of what she considers “fiction.” Andrea has kissed Runway goodbye (we won’t divulge why — or how), and herself writes a “2,000-word ‘fiction’ piece,” as Weisberger describes it, about a girl, “Jennifer,” who gets so caught up in her work that she ignores her friends and family.

“Young girl gets super-caught-up in achieving something and ends up screwing over all the people who matter in her life. Jennifer’s story. Uh-huh, whatever,” writes Weisberger in the voice of Lily, Andrea’s best friend.

Pure fiction? Uh-huh, whatever.

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