The Saturday Profile; Anna Wintour, Editor of American 'Vogue' - The lion in Wintour

IMAGINE THIS scene. You work for American Vogue. You are not important, but you want to be at some point. One day you return to the Conde Nast building on Madison Avenue. You've been out and about, interviewing, and are lugging loads of papers. You enter the lift and press floor 13. It is your unlucky day.

Someone very slim and beautiful gets into the lift. She is Anna Wintour. She is your editor - or editor-in-chief to be precise, which, in fact, she prides herself in being. Nor is she just any old editor-in-chief but the most powerful woman in the entire world of fashion. She is also friends - yes, friends - with the likes of Hillary Clinton. Even the company chairman, Si Newhouse, can only gush. "Anna Wintour is the greatest Vogue editor of them all," he says. Suddenly, you realise that you are about to be stuck in the lift for 13 floors with an icon who also happens to be your boss.

She is wearing red shoes. At this moment you drop all your papers. You bend down to collect them, ferreting round the fiery Manolo Blahnik stilettos. The shoes do not move. The 13th floor arrives and you hear a voice from on high. "Oh do get your act together," it says. And then, in a flash, she's gone.

There are many reasons why everyone makes such a fuss about Anna Wintour. She is a Brit who has made it big in America. She is powerful, smart, elegant. Her magazine makes a fortune, her approval is courted by designers big and small. When she throws a party - as she did last week in London - the fashionistas arrive as flamboyantly as possible (Concorde, Eurostar or, at a pinch, boring old limo). But what makes her special is none of the above. What makes her special is the way Anna Wintour can make a drama out of almost anything - even a ride in a lift.

Her sense of theatre is acute and, unlike so many in her business, she doesn't overdo it. When a fur activist known as Racoon Girl threw a frozen animal on to her plate when she was lunching at the Four Seasons, Ms Wintour merely covered the furry corpse with a napkin and called for coffee. This tendency towards the dramatic marks most things in her public life - her appearance, her career, her fashion. No scene is too small to play well. Most people would have moved at least one stiletto in that lift. Not Anna. And her exit was all the better for it.

She likes exits and entrances. There have been plenty of those over the last week, after she jetted in for London Fashion Week (for the first time in years) and there will be plenty more in the weeks to come in Milan and Paris. Her entrances at these shows are famously and almost royally late.

She hates to waste time. "I don't like to make people wait," she says. Nor does she like to be kept waiting. So what she likes to do is ring the designer to find out the real start time of a show, and then arrive accordingly. She may change into that particular designer's clothes en route in the limo. By the time she takes her front-row seat, usually accompanied by an entourage of at least two underlings and a personal PR, everyone is looking at her.

But who is she looking at in turn? No one knows, and this is part of her own personal theatre. Her dark glasses are Jackie O-esque and she wears them indoors as well as out. Over the years she has made many excuses for this: bright lights, shyness, habit. But many people think that it is simply an affectation. Anna Wintour is sensitive to press comment (she hated the nickname Nuclear Wintour) and has made a real effort to give interviews with naked eyes. It is a painful sight. When I interviewed her a few years ago, she spent the entire time clutching a monster pair of Chanel sunglasses. She fiddled and fiddled. Several times they almost made it to her nose, only to be whipped back down to her teeny tiny lap. "It probably means something very dramatic, like that I'm hiding from the world behind them or something," she said. Yes, or something.

We are fascinated by these sunglasses, just as we are by her thinness. I mean, the woman is said to wear size 4 trousers. The Daily Telegraph once described her as a fabulously glamorous insect. Last week someone said that walking behind her is like watching kitchen scissors at work. Not many shoulder blades can say the same.

She is a woman who loves to lunch as long as she doesn't have to chew. She has made pushing food round her plate into something of an extreme sport. Fashion types are always talking about what she eats and the latest word is that breakfast is so out that it is never coming back this side of lunch. And, as for that, she prefers to have an egg and mayonnaise sandwich - but only every third day. Every night, though, she has a steak and some mashed potatoes. And then there's always water.

She says that when she comes back to London (and inevitably that means a suite at Claridges) she doesn't have to wait long to remember who she really is. This is because people are always mentioning it. Isn't she the daughter of Charles Wintour, a former editor of the Evening Standard? Or perhaps the sister of the political journalist Patrick Wintour? She is, in fact, both.

She remembers her childhood as one of extreme bouts of shyness, and being the odd one out in an academically inclined family. She was athletic instead - sprinting was her forte - and didn't go to university. At the age of 20 she became something lowly in the fashion department of Harpers & Queen. Even then she had something, though. "I can remember the editor saying to me that Anna was not a writer, but that she had something else; that she had the eye, and that one day she would be employing us," says the writer Vicki Wood. And indeed she would.

After five years she moved to New York in 1974. She liked the anonymity and admits that she reinvented herself. She was fired from Harper's Bazaar for not "understanding American fashion", and says that everyone should be sacked once. Soon, Si Newhouse hired her as creative director of American Vogue. She married David Shaffer, a child psychologist, and returned briefly to London to edit British Vogue. "That's where the Nuclear Wintour stuff started. I can't pretend that was pleasant," she says. She returned to New York and edited House and Garden, though not terribly successfully. Then came the editorship of Vogue. Since then she has never looked back.

"Working mother" is not a description that seems to fit her, but that is how she sees herself. She and her husband have two children - Charlie and Bee. They are being brought up as Americans. She herself belongs to a country somewhere over the Atlantic, and her accent fluctuates accordingly. She may come from a quintessentially British background, but there is much in Anna Wintour that shrieks New York. She is absolutely driven, a perfectionist, and punctilious too. Life is detail, detail is life. That's her world. She is not one of life's warm and sweet things, but she does try to be nice. It's just that chit-chat is such a waste of time. Why use 50 words when you can use one?

She likes to get started early. This means 5.30am. She has her non-breakfast with her children before taking them to school and is at her desk by "about" 7.50am. "I guess that's early here, but it's not there. Wall Street starts earlier - at 7am!" she says. I get the feeling she approves of this.

She likes to be in charge. "I'm horribly hands on, I'm afraid. I like to read every caption. I like to know what's going on. I find that people work better if you are talking to them all the time. I think people thrive on attention."

She tries to be home by 6pm, for dinner with her children. "I've learnt that the magazine is always going to be there the next day." She may go out to a party, but there are few late nights. She is rumoured to leave even her own parties at 11pm.

Impressive is a good word for Anna Wintour, but she is very good at diverting our attention from what is really impressive about her. People gossip about her perfectionism. Or the fact that she has a hairdresser on permanent call. Or the fact that Claridges manages to find huge bowlfuls of out- of-season peonies for her ("my favourite"). But what is really impressive about Anna Wintour is the way she has made Vogue into a money-making machine. "She's vastly important because it is," says one observer. "The advertising is mind-blowing. The magazine is like a telephone directory. It beats everyone else. And so she sits on top of this sort of million-billion- billion-dollar empire, and she can do no wrong. Vogue doesn't have to be right. It just has to say what it wants to say, and that will be it, because the commercial clout of the magazine is so powerful that it cannot be wrong."

Anna Wintour is not a journalist's editor like, say, Tina Brown. She does not take those kinds of risks. The editorial content of American Vogue is mainstream to a word. The fashion shoots are breath-takingly expensive and the pages of ads are simply endless.

But there is a pernicious web at work here, and it is one that she herself has spun. "Anna is running the industry far beyond her influence as a taste-maker," Conde Nast's editorial director, James Truman, said last year. "All designers check in with Anna about what she thinks is modern, and what she thinks is hip. She gives them broad trend ideas about what the public is ready for." And then, of course, she features these designs in her magazine, and tells store buyers that this is, indeed, going to be the latest trend.

Each season, after the fashion shows, she writes a catwalk report predicting which items will sell big next season. She gives this vital information to the big stores, along with tips as to what Vogue will be featuring. They are grateful.

"Anna tipped us off on the impact of athletic clothes for non-athletic purposes a couple of seasons ago," the fashion director at Bloomingdales explained. "We rushed to the market to look for these kinds of clothes. Vogue featured them editorially, and Bloomingdale's was right there at the same time, with the look in an ad and in our window displays." See how easy it is to get a licence to print money - if you are Anna Wintour. And it's the one thing that she isn't dramatic about at all.

Life Story

Beginnings: Born on 3 November 1949. Father is Charles Wintour, journalist and former editor. Entire family is academic, Anna being the honourable exception.

Education: Queen's College School. London; North London Collegiate School (fashion dept)

Career: Fashion editor, Harpers & Queen, London; Harper's Bazaar, New York; Viva; Savvy US Vogue (1983-6), editor-in-chief, British Vogue, editor, US House and Garden, editor, US Vogue (1988-)

Trademarks: Genetically glamorous. Addicted to sunglasses, bobbed hair, spindly heels.

Blackest moment: In 1990 she declared black to be a non-colour and remains a true non-believer.

Furriest moment: Two years ago she told her readers she had a confession to make. "I wear fur. I also eat juicy steaks." The animal activists went nuclear, attacking her with fake blood and at least one dead raccoon.

What fashion victims say: "What does she think we are, sheep?"

What people who know her say: "She's so powerful that you fear for her. All gods can be pulled down."

What she says: "You have to be true to what you are."

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