Better the devil she knows
Lauren Weisberger’s poison pen turned her debut novel into a worldwide smash. Six books and 15 years later, can the author ever escape The Devil Wears Prada – and does she even want to?
She created a worldwide hit with The Devil Wears Prada. Now author Lauren Weisberger talks about her new novel… and answers the question we all want to know.
Ask it first, to get it out of the way? Or save it for last, in case presenting the same question to someone who has been asked some variation of it every day for 15 years puts a hard end to the conversation? Surely, one would presume, author Lauren Weisberger is ready for the query that has tailed her endlessly since she wrote The Devil Wears Prada all those years ago: “Have you spoken to Anna Wintour since the book came out?”
It was 2003 when Weisberger, 26 at the time and fresh out of a hellish internship at US Vogue, published her roman à clef. It became a runaway pop-culture phenomenon, and in the fever of public attention, she couldn’t – and didn’t – try to deny that Miranda Priestly, the ice-cold magazine editor at the centre of the book, was based on Wintour. Still, she stressed, it was an embellished, hugely exaggerated satire.
She was soon savaged in certain quarters of the media, for what one The New York Times critic called “a meanspirited ‘gotcha’ book” and another “vampiric second-order cruelty”. Readers didn’t care, and bought it in the millions. Now 41,Weisberger can only speculate on why it touched such a nerve, to the point it became a smash-hit movie starring Meryl Streep just a few years later. (Wintour never made direct reference to the book,but did wear Prada to an advance screening of the film in New York.)
“Part of it was just timing,” Weisberger tells Stellar. “But beyond that, I think it’s a very universal story, regardless of where you live and what industry you’re in. We have all worked for someone truly awful and while they may not be as awful as Miranda Priestly, there is something there most people can relate to.”
Weisberger was interested in neither fashion nor magazines when she stumbled into the Vogue gig, but recalls it as “an extraordinary time and place. I didn’t feel that way when I was working there, and acted like I was so put upon and repressed and I complained a lot, but I’m so grateful I got to see that world from the top down, and because of it, got to make a career as a writer.”
In the years following Prada’s success, Weisberger found it difficult to sit down and start a new novel, saying it was “definitely intimidating – but knowing that the chances of a second book being as big of a hit were infinitesimal took the pressure off”. The Wintour question has been left hanging, at least for now.
The writing mojo eventually resurfaced, because Weisberger is now promoting her seventh book, When Life Gives You Lululemons, its title a reference to the pricey yogawear brand that has become standard issue for the kind of bored and wealthy housewives her satirical sights are set on this time around.
The impetus for this book: after she had children, Weisberger decamped to the affluent Connecticut town of Greenwich, ground zero for… bored and wealthy housewives. But none of these characters, she insists, are based on women she’s met in real life. “It’s always the people who think you’re writing about them that you’re not writing about,” she says. “But it seems to work itself out. We live in a town where we have lots of friends and we’re really happy; the last thing I want to do is invade anyone’s privacy.”
The book is vintage Weisberger – sharp characters, smart dialogue – but in the cultural wake of #Metoo,
“Call it chick lit or whatever you want – what I am trying to do is make other people laugh”
#Timesup, body-positivity advocacy and fourth-wave feminism, its focus on weight and diet strikes a strange note. The heroines are either thin or trying to be; its anti-heroines are too thin; lesser characters and those lower down the social ladder are dumpy or fat. Weisberger defends her narrative, pointing out that for better or worse, “it’s an ongoing topic of conversation for women from all different facets of life, and at the forefront of their minds. It’s something that doesn’t go away.
“Weight plays an enormous role in the social set I write about, so I would be remiss by not addressing it. In very affluent towns, you tend to have a larger than normal focus on appearance, because you have a tremendous amount of time and money, and the time to focus on it. It was for sure a deliberate decision to make it a theme, and it felt important to the realistic nature of the milieu.”
In any event, Weisberger says, she’s not trying to change the world, just write what she sees. And as for her books being too light or fluffy, “I don’t care so much… call it chick lit or whatever you want. Truthfully, I feel like what I’m trying to do is satirise a specific scene in a way I hope makes other people laugh. I appreciate these books are a kind of escapism to be read on a beach and airplane. I don’t have an agenda beyond making people smile and hopefully giving them a character they can relate to.”
And she is excited about the fact a new generation of readers is now discovering Prada, who she points out weren’t even born when it came out: “It’s wild to be at a signing and have a 13-year-old girl come up to me and say she loved it. That’s incredibly cool and incredibly fulfilling.”
These new readers may also not be as keen to learn the answer to that Anna Wintour question, but should it follow her for another 15 years, Weisberger is sanguine. “There are undoubtedly times when I get asked questions about working at the magazine, or whatever it is. I’m trying to talk about something new and people want to go back to it, and I should be irritated or bored or annoyed, but I honestly feel so lucky what that first book afforded me – to make a living as a writer. I’m so indebted in that way, so if it means being asked questions about Anna Wintour for the foreseeable future, I will do that.”
So? Has she had contact with her old boss since the book came out, or not? “Directly?” Weisberger asks. “No. And not indirectly either, actually. It sounds like I’m being coy about it! It’s just plain no.” When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger (Harpercollins, $29.99) is out now.