At 47, Monica Lewinsky is still just as famous as when she was a disgraced 24-year-old White House intern.
The woman whose affair with President Bill Clinton launched thousands of memes and has been mentioned in hundreds of rap songs celebrates her birthday today.
In the two decades since the scandal that rocked the world, Lewinsky has gone from a pariah to a joke to a recluse — but now she’s taken back control of the narrative.
She was just 22 when she began working as an unpaid intern in the White House (later taking a paid position) and began what she maintains to this day was a “consensual relationship” with the President.
The two had nine sexual encounters in the Oval Office between November 1995 and March 1997, some of which are believed to have occurred while First Lady Hillary Clinton was in the White House at the same time.
The steamy encounters included oral sex and other acts, but the two did not have penetrative intercourse, Lewinsky would later testify. At one point the President inserted a cigar into her vagina, according to her testimony.
Lewinsky’s superiors became suspicious she was spending a lot of time with the President and shifted her to the Pentagon in 1996, but she didn’t tell anyone about the affair until the following year when she confided in co-worker Linda Tripp.
Unbeknownst to her, Tripp was secretly recording their conversations as evidence of the President’s pattern of inappropriate behaviour in a separate sexual harassment case.
Tripp convinced Lewinsky to keep evidence of the affair, most notoriously encouraging her not to wash a blue dress that had the President’s semen on it.
Lewinsky left the Pentagon job in December 1997 and was called upon to submit an affidavit in which she denied any sexual relationship with the President.
The President later lied under oath about the relationship, and said in a televised White House address that he had “never had sexual relations with that woman” — a line that became instantly iconic. He was later impeached but acquitted of all charges.
Lewinsky became the subject of enormous media scrutiny and details from her testimony, including the stained dress and the cigar, were widely-joked about thanks to the emergence of the internet which was new at the time.
Her appearance and intellect were widely mocked, and an affair she’d had with her former high school drama instructor at age 19 was also brought to light which damaged her reputation further.
Memos from the time revealed Hillary Clinton referring to Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon” and absolving her husband of much responsibility for the affair.
Lewinsky, who had been granted legal immunity in exchange for her testimony, went on to design a line of handbags, become a spokesperson for Jenny Craig and even host a dating show. She later said she desperately wanted to return to anonymity but had to take on these jobs to pay for her legal bills.
In 2005 she fled the US and moved to London, realising she would never be able to escape her notoriety in the US. She earned a degree from the London School of Economics and largely stayed out of the spotlight for the next decade, struggling to get a job because of her famous name.
In 2014, Lewinsky penned a first-person account of her experience for Vanity Fair in which she said she “deeply regrets” the affair and its aftermath, which saw her diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
She opened up about feeling betrayed by feminists, who joined in the mockery rather than defending her as a young person who was taken advantage of by her very powerful boss.
She was particularly aggrieved by a group of high-profile female writers who traded jokes about her in a group discussion of “Interngate”, referring to Lewinsky as “not brilliant”, “not that pretty” and even suggesting she “rent out her mouth”.
She admitted experiencing suicidal thoughts at the height of the scandal in 1998, and to feeling deeply embarrassed when asked about being “the blowjob queen” in interviews.
“Every day I am recognised,” she wrote in 2014.
“Every day someone mentions me in a tweet or a blog post, and not altogether kindly.
“Miley Cyrus references me in her twerking stage act, Eminem raps about me, and Beyoncé’s latest hit gives me a shout-out. Thanks, Beyoncé, but if we’re verbing, I think you meant “Bill Clinton’d all on my gown,” not “Monica Lewinsky’d.”
There are more than 125 rap songs that make reference to Lewinsky, usually in the context of oral sex.
Since writing the Vanity Fair article, she has become an ambassador against cyberbullying and harassment, giving TED Talks and interviews about how her experience can help others.