Anna: The Biography
U.S. journalist Amy Odell on long-time Vogue editor Anna Wintour
New York-based fashion and culture journalist Amy Odell is a whole lot braver than the rest of us. In her new book, Anna: The Biography, she dares to dig in and capture the personality and personal details of fashion powerhouse Anna Wintour. Famously nicknamed “Nuclear Wintour,” the longtime Vogue editor-in-chief is notoriously icy, private, mysterious and powerful— you probably know her big-screen alter ego, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada — so how could Odell possibly climb into her Chanel-clad circles and psyche? And was there fear in her heart the whole time? Just days before Wintour’s 2022 Met Ball, Zoomer called the author in New York to discuss what we have right — and wrong — about the legendary editor.
Rosemary Counter: Anna Wintour’s reputation is legendary and ginormous and … terrifying. Did you hesitate at all before tackling this book?
Amy Odell: Totally, of course. I’m not going to lie. This is my first biography and it’s a daunting task even before the subject is Anna Wintour. I wasn’t sure who would talk to me, and there were many times at the beginning that I thought I’d have to give up, because people who really know Anna are very loyal to her and wouldn’t talk to me. Some people said that Anna would do everything in her power to shut it down.
RC: Now you’re scaring me.
AO: But after I worked on the book for about a year and a half, I connected with Anna’s office and they ultimately decided to help me. They sent over a very helpful list of names, including names you’d recognize, like Serena Williams and Grace Coddington and [the late] André Leon Talley, and those you wouldn’t, from colleagues to personal friends to important people in the industry. The access was so helpful, because once people found out that Anna was actually involved, they talked to me and opened up. People who had previously hung up on me called me back. So that was great, and I ultimately interviewed more than 250 people.
RC: Wow, that is a ton of people. Does it include Wintour herself?
AO: I didn’t interview her, no, but I have met her. Twice, actually. I found her to be perfectly nice, but efficient, and of course immaculately dressed and manicured. A meeting with Anna is usually no longer than 15 minutes, and if she lets you stay that long, you’ve done very well. Both times, I met her in her office. I know that Anna likes printed dresses, so I wore a printed dress. The one thing Anna will never wear is all black.
RC: I’m wearing all black right now. I think I’m afraid of Anna Wintour because I’m afraid she definitely won’t like me.
AO: You might be surprised! Anna really likes creative people, especially writers. I was intimidated too, though. I get it.
RC: After 250 interviews, how does it feel to finally finish?
AO: This book has been such a long time in the making – I started in the fall in 2018 – so finishing feels kind of like graduating. In another way, because I worked so long in fashion, I’ve been watching her so much longer than that. In this world, Anna Wintour is the most powerful woman and she sits at the very top, and she’s been there for 34 years. It’s one thing to get to the top, especially in this business, but it’s a whole other thing to stay there.
RC: Do you remember when you first learned about Anna Wintour? Or does it feel like you just always knew her – like Oprah?
AO: That’s an interesting question, and you’re right, it’s just been so long that it feels like she was always there. The Oprah comparison’s interesting, but it’s very different in that [unlike Oprah], despite having a similar public position, Anna’s a total enigma. Most people’s understanding of Anna is based on Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly [in The Devil Wears Prada]. It’s an entertaining film and I’ve enjoyed it many times over the years, but it’s fictional and it’s one-dimensional. There’s so much more to Anna that’s not there, and that’s what I was trying to uncover.
RC: Was there anything you found out about her that surprised you?
AO: Oh yes, many things, big and little. A little thing, for example, is that when she’s planning the Met Gala, she’s personally involved in each and every decision. The attention to detail is absolutely extraordinary, down to the ingredients in the food and the placement on the plate. She banned garlic, onion and parsley from the food because they make guests breath smell bad and food gets stuck in their teeth. Anna has personally grown this party into the Super Bowl of red carpets. The Met Gala is now the biggest red carpet event of the year, not the Oscars. Anna did that one little detail at a time.
RC: …and a big thing?
AO: A big thing that I had all wrong was I thought, when I started, that Anna Wintour’s power had perhaps waned given what’s happening in magazines these days. You don’t need to read Vogue anymore to know what’s going on in fashion; you just need the Internet. That’s true, but it didn’t affect Anna’s power and influence. Behind the scenes, Anna’s involved in media, film, and politics – even sports. When Serena Williams was struggling with tennis, she called Anna for advice. Before Bradley Cooper cast Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, he sent a script and asked Anna if he should. I had no idea this kind of stuff was going on – is going on.
RC: Do you think Anna Wintour deserves her reputation as “Nuclear Wintour”?
AO: Well, Anna’s father was [British journalist] Charles Wintour, who was called “Chilly Charlie.” Anna had a reputation just by being his daughter, from the first time she walked through the doors at Condé Nast. People were intimidated by her because they were intimated by him. That’s fascinating to me. But she certainly lived up to him, too. Anna’s famously decisive, she doesn’t dawdle, she made big changes when she arrived at magazines and cut columns that had been there forever. She once shrunk Lord Snowdon’s photography down to the size of a postage stamp.
RC: That’s quite a message to send about who’s in charge now. After all your research, which Anna Wintour story is the most Anna Wintour?
AO: Oh, hold on, this is fun. Let me think. Okay! When everyone was talking that [Anna’s former assistant] Lauren Weisberger’s book was going to be published, someone asked Anna about it, and she turned to someone nearby and said, “I cannot remember who that girl is.”
RC: Man, that’s cool. Are you ever concerned about being too critical or saying the wrong thing? And do you know what Anna thinks yet?
AO: The book’s about her troubles and triumphs, successes and mistakes, and I tried to write objectively at all times, presenting the facts as they were available. I want readers to make up their own mind about her. Naturally, I’m as curious as anyone else what she thinks about this book. I can only guess and will probably never know, to be honest, and that’s if she thinks anything at all. Anna’s not interested in herself as a phenomenon like we are, and despite what people say, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. I mean, this is a woman who went to the premiere of The Devil Wears Prada wearing Prada. She doesn’t need to say anything at all.