Like one of her predecessors, Diana Vreeland, she has become a fashion icon. Her pageboy bob haircut and trademark sunglasses have become a common sight in the front row of the most exclusive fashion shows. Away from the cameras, she has become as much an institution in the fashion world as her magazine. Universally hailed for her keen eye for fashion trends and support for younger designers, her aloof and demanding persona has earned her the nickname "Nuclear Wintour". A former personal assistant, Lauren Weisberger, wrote the 2003 bestselling roman à clef The Devil Wears Prada, later made into a successful film starring Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, a fashion editor widely believed to be based on Wintour. She has also drawn both praise and criticism for her willingness to use the magazine and its cachet to shape the industry as a whole. Animal rights activists have also singled her out for her continued promotion of fur.
Wintour had four siblings: James Charles, the managing director of Gravesham Borough Council; Nora Hilary Wintour, the deputy general secretary of Public Services International in Geneva, Switzerland; and Patrick Wintour, who started as labour correspondent at The Guardian in 1983 and rose to become the political editor first for the The Observer, and then, in 2006, The Guardian. Her eldest brother, Gerald Jackson Wintour, died as a child in 1951 when he was struck by a car while cycling to school.
She began an early pattern of dating well-connected older men. At 15, she was involved briefly with Piers Paul Read, then 24. In her later teens, she began dating gossip columnist Nigel Dempster and became a fixture on the London club circuit with him. "She would go to the opening of an envelope", joked a friend.
She entered the field of fashion journalism in 1970 when Harper's Bazaar merged with Queen to become Harper's & Queen, and the new magazine needed editorial assistants. While there, she let it be known to her coworkers she ultimately wanted to edit Vogue. She discovered model Annabel Hodin, a former North London classmate, and used the connections she had built up to secure locations for some striking, innovative shoots, often shot by Helmut Newton and other trend-setting photographers. One shoot recreated the works of Renoir and Manet using models in go-go boots. She left the magazine in 1975 after chronic disagreements with new editor Min Hogg, whose job Anna herself had vied for, and relocated to New York with yet another older boyfriend, freelance journalist and playboy Jon Bradshaw.
After several months, Bradshaw's help got her her first position as a fashion editor, with Viva, a women's adult magazine started by Kathy Keeton, then wife of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. While she was there for two years until it folded in 1979, she has rarely admitted to working there due to the Penthouse connection. It would be the first position for which she would be able to hire a personal assistant, and along with it came her reputation for being a demanding and difficult boss.
When Guccione shut down the money-losing Viva in late 1978, Wintour decided instead to take some time off. She had endured a difficult breakup with Bradshaw, briefly dating Eric Idle afterwards, before beginning a relationship with French record producer Michel Esteban, dividing her time with him between Paris and New York.
The next year, she moved on to become fashion editor of New York. It would be the turning point of her career. There, the fashion spreads and photo shoots she had been putting together for years finally began attracting the attention she wanted them to in the industry, and made her a favorite of editor Edward Kosner. He sometimes bent very strict rules for her, and aroused the ire of the rest of the staff. Nevertheless, he began letting her work on other sections of the magazine, and she learned through her work on a cover involving Rachel Ward how effectively celebrity covers sold copies.
A former colleague arranged for an interview with Vogue editor Grace Mirabella. It ended quickly, with Anna declaring that it was Mirabella's job she was after.
She was given the newly created title of creative director. Since her responsibilities were not clearly defined, she often changed aspects of the magazine without letting Mirabella know, which caused friction between Wintour and other staffers. During this time, she began dating another older man, prominent child psychiatrist David Shaffer, thirteen years her senior, an acquaintance from her younger days in London. He gave her strong emotional support during a difficult and stressful period in her career. The two married in September 1984.
Wintour became pregnant by him shortly thereafter, and, a year after the marriage, was chosen to replace longtime British Vogue editor Beatrix Miller. She took over in April 1986, shortly after giving birth to her son, Charlie. Her husband remained in New York, working on a research project about teenage suicide, and the company paid for her townhouse, nanny and frequent roundtrip flights on the Concorde for the two.
She radically changed British Vogue, steering it from a tradition of eccentricity to a direction more in tune with the American magazine, borrowing her ideal reader from Savvy. " There's a new kind of woman out there", she told her father's old paper, the Evening Standard. "She's interested in business and money. She doesn't have time to shop anymore. She wants to know what and why and where and how." She replaced many staffers and exerted far more control over the magazine than any previous editor had, earning the nickname "Nuclear Wintour" in the process. Those editors who were retained began to refer to the period as "The Wintour of Our Discontent". "It was the end of life as we knew it", said Liz Tilberis, who had hoped for the top job herself.
Tilberis got the job in mid-1987 when Wintour returned to New York to take over House & Garden. It had long lagged Architectural Digest, and the company gave her a free hand. Again, she made radical changes to staff and look. "She destroyed House & Garden in about two days," complained a fired editor, referring to the $2 million worth of photo spreads and articles she cancelled in her first week. She put so much fashion in photo spreads that industry wags began to refer to the magazine as House & Garment, and enough celebrities that it was referred to as Vanity Chair.
Wintour's changes did, indeed, have a negative effect on the magazine. When "HG" became the name on the cover in March 1988, many longtime subscribers thought they were getting a new magazine and put it aside for the real thing to arrive. Many eventually canceled, and while some fashion advertisers came over, most of the magazine's traditional advertisers pulled out. After ten months, Conde Nast finally made a long-awaited move and put her into the job she had aimed for since 1971: the editorship of Vogue. Under Mirabella, it had become more focused on lifestyles as a whole and less on fashion. Industry insiders worried that it was losing ground to the upstart American edition of ELLE, which had been introduced from France in 1985. Besides sweeping staff changes, Wintour made her mark early on with a shift in the cover pictures. Whereas Mirabella had preferred tight headshots of well-known models, Wintour's covers showed more of the body and were taken outside, in natural light, instead of the studio, echoing what editor Diana Vreeland had done years earlier. She used less well-known models, and mixed inexpensive clothes with the high fashion — the first issue she was in charge of, in November of that year, featured a young Israeli model in a $50 pair of faded jeans and a bejeweled T-shirt by Christian Lacroix worth $10,000. Eight months later, another model was shown in wet hair, with just a terrycloth bathrobe and apparently without makeup. She also made a point of seeing to it that photographers, makeup artists and hairstylists got as much credit for the images as the models.
Under her editorship, the magazine renewed its focus on fashion and returned to the prominence it had held under Diana Vreeland. Vogue held off the challenge from not only ELLE but Harper's Bazaar, which had lured Tilberis to compete with Wintour, and Mirabella, a magazine Rupert Murdoch founded for Wintour's predecessor. Her most serious adversary, in fact, was within the company - Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair and later The New Yorker, whom she competed against for writers and photographers. The two are said to strongly dislike each other, despite, or perhaps because of, similar personal qualities.
Her salary is reported to be $2 million a year. In addition, she receives generous perks, such as a chauffeured Mercedes S-Class (both in New York and abroad), a $50,000 shopping allowance, and the Coco Chanel Suite at the Hotel Ritz Paris while attending European fashion shows. Condé Nast president Si Newhouse also had the company make her an interest-free $1.6 million loan to purchase her townhouse in Greenwich Village. She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours.
Anna Wintour, through the years, has become one of the most powerful people in fashion, setting trends and anointing new designers. The Guardian has called her the "unofficial mayoress" of New York City. She has worked behind the scenes to encourage fashion houses to hire younger, fresher designers such as John Galliano, who owes his position at Christian Dior to her intervention. She persuaded Donald Trump to let Marc Jacobs use a ballroom at the Plaza Hotel for a show when he and his partner were short of cash. More recently, she persuaded Brooks Brothers to hire the relatively unknown Thom Browne. Her protégé at Vogue, Plum Sykes, became a successful novelist, drawing her settings from New York's fashionable élite.
Like many successful power brokers, she rarely makes her wishes known directly. Fashion industry publicists say that a simple "Do you want me to go to Anna with this?" from a subordinate is often enough to settle a dispute in Vogue's favor.
Wintour is also a noted philanthropist. She serves as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Wintour began the CFDA/Vogue Fund in order to encourage, support and mentor unknown fashion designers. She has also raised over $10 million for AIDS charities since 1990, by organizing various high profile benefits.
She rises daily before 6 a.m., plays tennis and has her hair and makeup done, then gets to Vogue's offices at 8. She always arrives at fashion shows at their scheduled starting time. "I use the waiting time to make phone calls and notes; I get some of my best ideas at the shows," she says. According to the BBC documentary Boss Woman, she is similarly efficient with her time elsewhere in her day, rarely staying at parties for more than 20 minutes at a time and getting to bed by 10:15 every night.
Her control over the magazine, particularly her strong suit, photo layouts, has long been industry legend. She has, since her first days as editor, required that photographers not begin until she has approved Polaroids of the setup and clothing. Afterwards, they must submit all their work to the magazine, not just their personal choices. But her control over the text is less certain. Her staffers swear she reads everything written for publication, but former editor Richard Story has claimed she rarely, if ever, read any of Vogue's arts coverage or book reviews. Similarly, in younger days she often left the task of writing the text accompanying her layouts to others, since, say many of those who did, she has minimal skills in that area. Today she writes little for the magazine save the monthly editor's letter. She reportedly has three full-time assistants but sometimes surprises callers by answering the phone herself. She often turns her cell phone off in order to eat lunch uninterrupted, and likes to have a good steak for her midday meal. Others who have known her likewise report that high-protein meals have been a habit of hers for a long time. "It was smoked salmon and scrambled eggs every single day" for lunch, says a coworker at Harpers & Queen. "She would eat nothing else".
Her practice of wearing sunglasses indoors has been the subject of many speculative explanations. According to biographer Jerry Oppenheimer, she really wears them to conceal poor eyesight (her father's vision deteriorated seriously in his later years, and she fears a similar fate). A former colleague he interviewed recalls finding her Wayfarers in her office once while she was out and putting them on, only to get dizzy from the strength of the prescription lenses.
She famously said "If you look at any great fashion photograph out of context, it will tell you just as much about what's going on in the world as a headline in the New York Times."
In the February 2008 issue of Vogue Wintour sharply criticized Hillary Clinton for backing out of a cover photo shoot over concerns she would look too feminine in designer outfits: "The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. This is America, not Saudi Arabia."
Prior to its publication, Wintour told the New York Times, "I always enjoy a great piece of fiction. I haven't decided whether I am going to read it or not." While it has been suggested that the setting and Priestly were based on Vogue and Wintour, Weisberger denies this, and even gives Wintour herself a cameo appearance near the end of the book.
The novel's portrayal of Wintour/Priestly is not entirely negative. Andrea notes that she does manage the difficult task of making all the key editorial decisions in a major fashion magazine every month all by herself, and that she has genuine class and style.
Yet it is almost universally believed that the book's success was due to the real-life angle. Neither Vogue nor any other Condé Nast publications reviewed Weisberger's book. When the film was released, The New Yorker ran a review that disparaged the novel in comparison. The New York Times's Janet Maslin avoided mentioning Wintour's name in one of the paper's two negative reviews of the book. Its favorable notice of the movie mentioned neither Vogue nor Wintour.
The film was released, in mid-2006, to great commercial success. Wintour attended the première wearing head-to-toe Prada. In the film, actress Meryl Streep plays a Priestly different enough from the book's to receive critical praise as an entirely original (and more sympathetic) character (although Streep's office in the film bears similarities striking enough to Wintour's that Wintour reportedly had it redecorated).
Wintour reportedly said the film would probably go straight to DVD. It made over US$300 million in worldwide box office receipts. Later in 2006, in an interview with Barbara Walters which aired the day of the DVD's release, Wintour said she found the film "really entertaining" and praised it for making fashion "entertaining and glamorous and interesting…. I was one hundred percent behind it".
While Wintour may have borne no malice toward the film and those involved in it, she has reportedly never forgiven Weisberger. When it was reported that Weisberger's editor told her to start her third novel over, Wintour's spokesman suggested she "should get a job as someone else's assistant."
Ultimately, The Devil Wears Prada may have actually done Wintour a favor by increasing her name recognition. "Besides giving Weisberger her fifteen minutes", Oppenheimer writes, "[it] ... place[d] Anna squarely in the mainstream celebrity pantheon. [She] was now known and talked about over Big Macs and fries under the Golden Arches by young fashionistas in Wal-Mart denim in Davenport and Dubuque."
In 2005, two years after The Devil Wears Prada, Oppenheimer's Front Row: The Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue's Editor In Chief was published. It drew on many unnamed sources, often with grudges, to paint a similar portrait of the real woman. According to Oppenheimer, Wintour not only declined his requests for an interview but directed others not to cooperate, consistent with other reports that she goes to great lengths to manage her public image. When she took over as American Vogue editor, gossip columnist Liz Smith reported rumors that she had gotten the job by having an affair with Newhouse. Wintour was reportedly furious and made her anger the subject of one of her first staff meetings. She remained angry enough that she still complained about it when accepting a media award in 2002.
Her successful request that key shows at the 2008 Milan Fashion Week be rescheduled for earlier in the week so that she and other U.S.-based editors could have time to return home before the Paris shows led to complaints. Other editors said they had to rush through the earlier shows, and lesser-known designers who had to show later were denied an important audience. Dolce & Gabbana said that Italian fashion was getting short shrift and that Milan was becoming a "circus without sense".
Giorgio Armani, who at the time was cochairing a Met exhibition on superheroes' costumes with Wintour, drew some attention for his cutting personal remarks. "Maybe what she thinks is a beautiful dress, I wouldn't think was a beautiful dress," he said. While he claimed he couldn't understand why people disliked her, saying he himself was indifferent, he expressed hope that she hadn't made a comment once attributed to her that "the Armani era is over". He accused her of preferring French and American fashion over Italian.
"I think she has been very rude to a lot of people in the past, on her way up - very terse," said the same friend the Observer quoted on the positive effect of her relationship with Bryan. "She doesn't do small talk. She is never going to be friends with her assistant". A former assistant said, "You definitely did not ride the elevator with her." Even those who like her admit to some trepidation at her presence. "Anna happens to be a friend of mine," says Amiel, "a fact which is of absolutely no help in coping with the cold panic that grips me whenever we meet."
She has often been described as a perfectionist who routinely makes impossible, arbitrary demands of those who work for or under her, and treats them unkindly: "kitchen scissors at work," in the words of one commentator. She once made a junior staffer look through a photographer's trash to find a picture he had refused to give her. An intern at the magazine was told she must not make eye contact with Wintour or initiate conversation with her. One day in the hall, the intern saw Wintour trip and stepped over her rather than violate this taboo. "The notion that Anna would want something done 'now' and not 'shortly' is accurate," Barbara Amiel says of The Devil Wears Prada. "Anna wants what she wants right away." A longtime assistant says "She throws you in the water and you'll either sink or swim."
Her treatment of employees has, on one occasion, cost her financially. On May 11, 2004, a court ruled that she and Shaffer were to pay $104,403, and Wintour herself an additional $32,639, to settle a lawsuit brought against them by the New York State Workers' Compensation Board. They had failed to pay the $140,000 it incurred on behalf of a former employee injured on the job who did not have the necessary insurance coverage. Peter Braunstein, the former Women's Wear Daily media reporter later convicted of sexually abusing a former coworker, was moved to a murderous rage by Wintour's attitude. After receiving only one ticket to the 2002 Vogue Fashion Awards, which he perceived as a snub, he became so angry that WWD fired him. At his 2007 trial, prosecutors introduced as evidence a journal he kept as a computer file in which he stated his intention to kill her. "She just never talked to peons like us", he complained.
Others outside of PETA have raised the fur issue. Braunstein alluded to them in his manifesto, saying she would go to a hell guarded by large rats, where it would be so warm she wouldn't need to wear fur. Pamela Anderson, in an early 2008 interview, chose Anna Wintour as the living person she most despised, and said it was "because she bullies young designers and models to use and wear fur".
Another Vogue writer complained that Wintour excluded ordinary working women, many of whom are regular subscribers, from the pages. "She's obsessed only about reflecting the aspirations of a certain class of reader," she says. "We once had a piece about breast cancer which started with an airline stewardess, but she wouldn't have a stewardess in the magazine so we had to go and look for a high-flying businesswoman who'd had cancer."
Wintour has been accused of setting herself apart even from ostensible peers. "I do not think fiction could surpass the reality", an unnamed British fashion magazine editor says of The Devil Wears Prada. "[A]rt in this instance is only a poor imitation of life." Wintour, the editor says, routinely requests to be seated where competing editors cannot see or be seen by her. "We spend our working lives telling people which it-bag to carry but Anna is so above the rest of us she does not even have a handbag."
In 2005, Wintour was heavily criticized by the New York chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance after Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and confessed that, at one point, Wintour demanded he lose weight. Talley then told Winfrey "Most of the Vogue girls are so thin, tremendously thin, because Miss Anna don't like fat people.
Friends see her purported coldness as just traditional British reserve. Brockes further notes that it may be mutual: "... it is partly a reflection of how awkward people are with her, particularly women, who get pre-emptively chippy when faced with the prospect of meeting Fashion Incarnate." Wintour describes herself as shy, and Harry Connick Jr., who escorted her and Bee to shows in 2007, agrees.
Her defenders have charged her critics with sexism. "Powerful women in the media always get inspected more thoroughly than their male counterparts", said the New York Times in a piece about Wintour shortly after the film's release. Some of the former have even seen her as a feminist whose changes to Vogue have reflected, acknowledged and reinforced advances in the status of women. Reviewing Oppenheimer's book in the Washington Monthly, managing editor Christina Larson notes that Vogue, unlike many other women's magazines, Wintour, unlike Vreeland, "...shifted Vogue's focus from the cult of beauty to the cult of the creation of beauty". To her, the focus on celebrities is a welcome development as it means that women are making the cover of Vogue at least in part for what they have accomplished, not just how they look.
Complaints about her role as fashion eminence grise are dismissed by those familiar with how she actually exercises it. "She's honest. She tells you what she thinks. Yes is yes and no is no", according to Karl Lagerfeld. "She's not too pushy" agrees François-Henri Pinault, chief executive officer of PPR, Gucci's parent company. "She lets you know it’s not a problem if you can’t do something she wants." Observers also point out that she continued supporting Gucci despite her strong belief PPR should not have let Tom Ford go. Designers such as Alice Roi and Isabel Toledo have flourished without indulging Wintour or Vogue. Her willingness to throw her weight around has helped keep Vogue independent despite its heavy reliance on advertising dollars. Wintour was the only fashion editor who refused to follow an Armani ultimatum to feature more of its clothes in the magazine's editorial pages.
Ugly Betty's character Fey Sommers shares some characteristics with Wintour, such as the bob and sunglasses, having a homophone for a season as her last name, and being targeted by animal rights activists for using fur. Wintour is also referenced in that series directly when Wilhelmina Slater is poised to take over as editor-in-chief of MODE after Bradford Meade is arrested. She declines a lunch invitation from Wintour, saying she should have called back in 1998, not 2007.
In August of 2008, the online virtual pet site Neopets added a character named "Wintoura" as part of its "Petpet Park" microsite. Wintoura is described as a "fashionista" and wears Anna Wintour's signature hairstyle.