Ask Monica Lewinsky what she’d tell her 20-something self — a young woman who was in the middle of one of America’s most famous political scandals — and she says:
“Hang in there. You won’t believe it now, but the pain you are going through one day will help others feel less in alone in their experience.”
On Tuesday morning, with the launch of The Epidemic, a powerful PSA for National Bullying Prevention Month, Lewinsky is doing just that.
The video, the third such clip she’s co-produced, along with ad agency BBDO and Dini Von Mueffling Communications, opens with a young girl on a hospital gurney. But that’s only the beginning.
“After you’ve seen the video of this young teen girl — who, like most teens is often on her cell phone — becoming mysteriously ill, you’ll be prompted to insert your phone number,” Lewinsky, 46, tells PEOPLE. “Then you’re prompted to watch the video again, but this time you receive the same texts on your phone that the girl in the video is reading. You see and feel firsthand how awful and devastating these messages can be.”
She cites a recent Pew Research Center survey that 59 percent of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. The message, she says, “is not to suffer in silence.”
The PSA is launching at a time when the news is dominated by #MeToo stories about survivors of pervasive sexual misconduct, the abuse of power and victim-shaming — subjects on which Lewinsky has a unique perspective.
“Shaming women is a weapon of the patriarchy,” Lewinsky tells PEOPLE now. “When we shame victims, we are perpetrating the violating behavior they experienced. We are exacerbating their trauma.”
It was more than 20 years ago that Lewinsky’s name first made headlines when, in a story that would be examined and dissected for years to come, it was made public she had a sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton while she was a White House intern.
She became entangled in the mounting impeachment investigation against Clinton led by prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the target of a federal investigation — as well as the subject of relentless public shaming. As she described in a 2015 TED Talk, she was “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”
Now, once again, the country is bracing for a presidential impeachment after Donald Trump lobbied Ukraine’s government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his leading rival for re-election.
“Yes, this is hard for me but I don’t want to give anyone the impression that in the scheme of things I think that matters,” Lewinsky says of the impeachment parallels in the news — between Clinton’s two decades ago and the investigation of Trump now.
“This is a constitutional crisis,” Lewinsky says. “Far bigger and greater than me.”
“Am I affected personally? Sure,” she adds. “People are making comparisons to when Bill Clinton was impeached, so I’ve been a little more on edge. But if impeachment is being seriously discussed, that means we are in a constitutional crisis and that is bigger than any one person.”
The anti-bullying activist, who has written eloquently about the pain of isolation and the need for compassion, is concerned how our fractured times will effect a younger generation.
“I worry that because of the behavior we are seeing come out of D.C. these days, that hate speech, cyberbullying and online harassment are not only being modeled for our young people but that the frequency and level of vitriol becoming the norm,” Lewinsky says. “It’s not okay.”
Since coming forward in 2014 in a Vanity Fair essay after years out of the spotlight, Lewinsky has been heartened by the rise of the #MeToo movement, which she calls “the most profound shift I’ve seen in my lifetime.” (“Same sex marriage is a close second,” she adds.)
She lauds “leaders of the movement” such as Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo hashtag, along with journalists like The New York Times‘ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and The New Yorker‘s Ronan Farrow and actresses including Ashley Judd, Gwenyth Paltrow and Rose McGowan.
“There are many brave voices that have helped to bring the disinfectant light to this pervasive probe of men abusing power and the circles of people around them serving as enablers,” Lewinsky says.
Last year, she revealed that “there has been at least one significant reference in the press to [the Clinton affair scandal] every day for the past 20 years. Every. Single. Day.”
And there are still triggers that can bring the pain back.
“While my triggers may be a little more unique than some people, many face being unexpectedly triggered by things outside of our control, right?” she notes. “These days I’m certain I’m not the only person emotionally affected by what’s in the news.”
But, as she puts it, she’s learned to “course correct.”
“I’ve had this experience recently from the news and I have to recognize I’ve been more sensitive and anxious. The people in my world might use the word ‘testy’! It’s meant I’ve needed more self-care — trying to be gentler with myself. More therapy. More body work. More reading mindless fiction instead of being online. More binge-watching. I’m still behind in seasons of Fleabag and Succession.”
(And, she adds wryly, “More exercise should be on the list, but…”)
Next up, Lewinsky will be working with mega-producer Ryan Murphy on the third installment of his American Crime Story which will focus on Clinton’s impeachment, to air in September 2020.
“I imagine there will be emotionally challenging times ahead,” she says. “I recognize that comes with the territory.”
But this time, the story is hers to tell.
“I’m interested in producing stories that are thought-provoking while also being entertaining,” she says. “But above all else, I want to be a part of visual storytelling that helps people and histories reclaim narratives. Things which move collective conversations forward — or help collective healing.”
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