Amy Odell on Writing the Definitive Biography of Anna Wintour

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Arthur Elgort

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Amy Odell is a fashion journalist, former editor at Cosmopolitan.com, and a founding blogger of New York Magazine's The Cut, but her latest work tackles fashion from a different perspective. She's profiling one of its most influential and somewhat mysterious figures, Anna Wintour. Odell, who also authored the fashion industry tell-all Tales from the Back Row, interviewed over 250 sources for the definitive biography of the longtime Vogue editor, which is titled Anna: The Biography. (None of them, however, were actually Wintour.)

In the latest episode of our podcast, Who What Wear With Hillary Kerr, Odell talks about how the book came to be, the harrowing process of interviewing all those sources, and whether she thinks the woman behind that iconic bob and sunglasses actually cares about fashion. Keep reading for some juicy tidbits from our conversation, then tune in to the Who What Wear podcast to hear the whole episode. 

She's obviously a very fascinating person, but I'm curious about your own motivation and desire to write this book. Why this book, and why now?

I started on the book in 2018, and it came to me through the publisher—they had had the idea. And I knew one of the editors over who I worked with on the book, Karyn Marcus, who was phenomenal. She acquired my first book, so that was that connection. I didn't think I would ever write a book like this, to be honest with you. I wanted to write essays. I wanted to write humor. I didn't think I was ever going to write a biography. I was waiting to go into labor with my son, and I must have been five days late. So I was super stressed out about that. And I get this call from my agent, and she says, "They're interested in an Anna biography, and they thought of you. What do you think about that?" And I got a shiver up my spine. I just got chills. I thought, "That sounds like an incredible assignment." I got on the phone with Karyn and another editor, Aimée Bell. And Aimée said it's the idea that's hiding in plain sight.

Also around this time in 2018, I'm sure you remember this, Hillary, but there were rumors that Anna was going to leave Vogue. And they were printed in the New York Post, and it trended on Twitter, and huge fashion stories don't blow up like this. But Anna is an icon who transcends fashion, and she's a significant part of culture and has been for 34 years. And when you think of the opportunity with a book about someone like Anna, it is one thing to get to the top. It is another to stay there. And she has been there running Vogue since the summer of 1988. And as I said, 34 years at the helm. You think of other business leaders like Jeff Bezos. He left [his role as CEO of] Amazon after 27. So this is extremely unusual, this tenure, and she has had this remarkable power in fashion. Yet despite having this public position, she has remained an enigma, even to people who know her, and I wanted Anna: The Biography to pull back the curtain on who she really is as a person and as a mega, mega influencer. 

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I love the nitty-gritty details of how it all comes together, so I would be curious about anything that you are able to share about your process.

It was extremely difficult, extremely difficult. In the beginning, I thought I was gonna have to give up, and I wasn't gonna be able to get it done because you just have to call a lot of people and reach out to a lot of people, and I got a lot of "nos," like weeks of "nos," and that's really dispiriting. But I ultimately figured out how to make some progress. I went back to the beginning of Anna's life, and I decided to report chronologically. I had some success with that strategy. The thinking was that people who she knew when she was 20 would be much more distant from her than people she knew when she was 60. And that turned out to be the case with those people. It was easier to get people from a long time ago to talk. I made a lot of progress, and after about a year and a half of working on the book, Anna got wind of the fact that I was working on it. I was very careful. The reason I was so careful was because when I was approaching people, they would say one of two things. Some people said, "She's gonna shut you down, and she's gonna use Conde Nast to shut you down. And they're going to do everything they can to make sure that this doesn't happen, and if they have to threaten your publisher, though, they'll threaten your publisher." The other group of people said, "I thought she was great, and I think she's going to help you with this." That group of people turned out to be right. She did end up helping me. And what happened was after about a year and a half, I spoke to a representative in her office, and I explained this as a biography about a woman in a unique position of power, and what came of that conversation is that they said, "Anna would like to set you up with some of her closest friends and colleagues for interviews." They sent over a list of names that included people like Tom Ford, Serena Williams, and Hamish Bowles, who has been at Vogue for a very long time. And I subsequently asked if she would be okay with me interviewing a number of other people who wouldn't talk to me without her saying okay, and she said yes to every single person. This was all done through her rep. She declined herself to sit for an interview. She declined several requests to sit for an interview. But once that happened, the floodgates opened for me, so I was able to get the people who would be the main characters of her career, like Grace Coddington, Phyllis Posnick, and Sally Singer in addition to Serena Williams and Tom Ford. So that was major, and people who had [first] hung up on me picked up the phone to talk to me. You have to be really, really persistent as a journalist, as you well know. And you have to go back and ask people again and again and again, and it all ultimately came together. It was a lot of work. It was very, very hard. A lot of doubt along the way.

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So I'm curious about whether you personally, after all of these years of being immersed in her psyche, think… Does she care about fashion? Does she care about power? Does she care about influence? What's the most important thing to her, in your mind?

Different people have different answers to that question, which is partly what makes her a different subject. I asked a lot of people. Is she an introvert or an extrovert? And people couldn't come to a consensus on that question, which I thought was crazy. But I got a lot of answers, like you can't put her in a box like that. You also get different answers to the question, What is her passion? Some people are going to tell you she loves fashion. Some people will tell you she's all about power. André Leon Talley said she's all about power. Or her friend David Hare, the playwright in London, told me she's not about power at all. And he was funny because I asked him if Anna had talked about meeting the queen, and we've all seen those photos of Anna and the queen front row at a fashion show at London Fashion Week. And he said they were just laughing about it. They just thought it was so funny that she had had that opportunity. And he didn't think she was about power at all. So I think, "What do you draw from that?" What I draw from that is that she shows different sides of herself to different people, and she is good at compartmentalizing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Next up, check out our previous episode featuring personal shopper Gab Waller. 

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