Rubber-necking at the Monica freak show

Hundreds queued for a woman to sign copies of a book she didn't write
Click to follow
The Independent Online
MONICA LEWINSKY'S week did not begin well. Thousands pressed up the Egyptian staircase at Harrods and shuffled into the bookstore to see her. In the road outside, television vans blocked the kerb, cameramen weaved among the crowd, and the L!ve TV News Bunny handed out cigars. Upstairs, the queue for her signature was snaking back towards the picnic hampers and barbecues long before she had arrived, and the exits were jammed.

Harrods sold 600 books in a few minutes and was running out. Not everyone was thinking about adultery. One man waited at the till, then leaned forward and asked: "Where might I find Brideshead Revisited?" But the subject on most people's minds was sex. Where was she? What did she look like? "It's hard to believe, isn't it?" said one. "She's here, she's actually here."

When Lewinsky shook her smart new hairstyle at all the media attention and fled, someone remarked that it was probably the flashes from the cameras. Only moments later people at the back were telling their friends that "apparently" Monica burst into tears because some joker had flashed at her.

Monica's role was clear. She was our version of a Victorian circus act: the elephant man, the hairy dwarf, the woman with two noses. People talked about her lips as freely and callously as visitors to a zoo marvel at the tiger's teeth.

The following day, at Borders in Oxford Street, I looked at the queue and thought: in for a penny, in for pounds 16.99. "It's not for me," people said. "It's for my mum/girlfriend/aunt/ school raffle." I joined the line and chatted to a Californian pharmaceuticals consultant who already had Bill Clinton's signature and wanted the set. "I'll give it 15 minutes and then I'm outta here," he said. An hour later, when the queue hadn't budged, he went off to look for a pub.

After two hours I laid my open book on the table. "Thank you," I said. "No, thank you." She glanced up and down for about the 500th time that day.

The next book was already sliding towards her. I tried to envy her the attention, but it seemed anything but enviable. People whiled away the time calculating how many books she could sign in a minute (eight), and how much money she could earn per hour (pounds 8,160). Such are the dizzy economics of celebrity: all week, thousands of people stood in line to have a book signed by a woman who didn't even write it. On the whole people felt that her earnings (pounds 400,000 for the Channel 4 interview alone) absolved them from any need to sympathise with her at all.

Later that day, outside Books Etc in Bayswater, the tour truly did turn into a circus. Lewinsky was due at 6.30 pm: the queue formed at three. A pair of American teenagers sat on the tiled floor by the entrance.

"What else is there to do?" they said.

But why did they want to have Monica's signature? "To laugh at. It'll make a fun story." And how many copies were they planning to buy? "What, you think they'll make us buy one?"

A few hours later the atrium was packed. Perhaps 1,000 people hung over the railings on the four floors. As before, the gallery was three-quarters female: proof that women enjoy bloodsports every bit as much as men. It was like a day at the races: raucous, greedy and spiced with the flavours of sex and money. "It's amazing, isn't it?" said one man. "In this little place, the woman who actually tumbled the most powerful man in the world. She's the new Mata Hari, the new Josephine. In a few years these books will be on the Antiques Roadshow."

Otherwise the conversation was abbreviated.

"Has she arrived yet?"

"Dunno. I think they've sneaked her in the back."

"Is she wearing blue? I bet she's wearing blue."

"That's not the queue is it? Jesus."

"They say she came by helicopter."

And so on. Suddenly, a man wearing a Clinton mask burst on to the ground floor with a four-foot phallus strapped to his waist. He wagged his finger and yelled crude slogans. The mall filled with loud, ribald laughter.

"Do you reckon that's his actual size?" said one of my neighbours. "I was just thinking how small it was," said his friend.

It can't be anyone's idea of fun to be the object of such bawdy ridicule (even if some of it is tinged with envy). Fortunately, Lewinsky herself was at the back of the shop, screened from the mob. It was just as well. Late-arriving Arab boys were pushing to the front of the crowd. "Have you seen the bitch yet? How fat is she then, the bitch?"

Charming. But Lewinsky's fame is now sufficiently glowing to make her a focal point for almost any prejudice. To these boys she was a spoiled Jewish American Princess, a hate figure, and they didn't bother to hide their contempt.

At Waterstones in Leadenhall Market the posters in the window were advertising Come Together, "a novel for anyone who's ever been dumped". A pair of dressy young women sucked suggestively on cigars for the television cameras and offered signed copies for pounds 100. The queue slid around the corner towards the butcher, while hundreds of passers-by pressed their faces against the window.

Customers came out looking like released hostages: half-excited, but half-bashful. They gave snatched interviews to the cameras, held up their books and said that Monica had seemed "nice/tired/big/ small/ beautiful/cheerful/fed- up/a waste of time".

"There are some sad people around," said one, craning up for a closer look. "Yes, and we're two of them," said his pal.

"I don't know why they don't just go and buy Playboy," said the fishmonger.

It is easy to mock the roots of Lewinsky's magnetic charisma, but most people in the queues were prodded by a simple urge to touch base with the real person behind the artificial media excitement - to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. They will have plenty more chances. The tour continues with visits to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham.

When it's over Lewinsky will have signed some 15,000 books, worth pounds 25,000. For the publisher and author it's a lu-crative game. For us the people, it's a hoot. And for Lewinsky herself? Well, all of this humiliation might pay for a few hours of her mountainous legal bill. I left wishing I'd bought more copies.