Lewinsky touts new business role

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

NEW YORK -- Enough with the talk about the president, Monica Lewinsky has embarked on her next calling in life: Businesswoman.

Lewinsky has put an ''Inc.'' after her name and is selling a line of high-end handbags on the Internet and at one of New York's toniest designer shops.

But she still faces skeptics who wonder if she can build her name into a respected brand or will quickly fall from notoriety like other celebrities-by-scandal.

''Does Monica represent a bad girl, a heroine, a victim?'' said John Grace, executive director of the marketing consulting firm Interbrand Group. ''She has to figure out what she wants to be, and run with it ... of course, there are no guarantees how long she will last.''

The world's image of Lewinsky is mostly of a camera-shy young woman who tried to avoid publicity once her trysts with Clinton made headlines. Now, she's seeking the spotlight -- to a point.

Lewinsky agreed to an interview Wednesday, but only if no questions about Clinton were posed. Her bags have been on the market since September, but she wouldn't disclose any sales figures.

''I think people relate to me,'' she said. ''While some of their situations might have been different and my experiences might have been different, the feelings that I had as a result of them were very similar to the feelings that a lot of people have.''

Lewinsky attracted a curious crowd Wednesday during a personal appearance at Henri Bendel, a Fifth Avenue department store known for offering edgy fashions to New York's ultra rich.

Hundreds of people -- from giddy tourists to cynical locals -- jammed into the store to catch a glimpse of the woman who almost brought down a president.

Many were willing to pay nearly $200 for one of her square-shaped, fabric bags, which Lewinsky says she designs herself.

They are sold only at Bendel's and on her Web site.

''I think it is neat that Monica could take all of the bad things that happened to her and turn it around. I really respect her for everything,'' said Jill Kesler, a 20-year-old from Clovis, N.M., who was one of the first waiting on line and bought a bag.

Lewinsky first started stitching the bags the while being cooped up at home during the Clinton mess.

The bags, made of silk, velvet and other fabrics, have a label that says ''Made especially for you by Monica.''

Ed Burstell, Bendel's general manager, said early indications are that her line will be a hot seller. During the holiday season, the store stocked 100 bags and sold all of them quickly without a word of advertising, he said.

Besides her new business, Lewinsky also continues to act as a commercial spokeswoman for the weight loss center Jenny Craig. She reported receiving a lot of positive feedback from people who laud her for being open about her weight problems.

But Lewinsky's apparent early success doesn't guarantee anything for the future.

There is a long list of people -- from Gary Hart's mistress Donna Rice to Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss -- who used their scandalous fame to gain more notoriety, and ended up fading from the public eye.

''People can become brands, look at Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. Everyone knows what they stand for and their brands will last longer because of that,'' said Michael Halloran, president of Optimum Group, a marketing firm in Cincinnati. ''But I'm not sure that Monica can be as effective in selling and promoting herself as a brand. Her past is tough to forget.''

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