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Anna: The Biography by Amy Odell review – the Genghis Khan of fashion? | Biography books

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Any book that claims to offer an insight into Anna Wintour, the longterm editor-in-chief of US Vogue, is a guaranteed bestseller. This is as true of fiction (The Devil Wears Prada, by Wintour’s former assistant, Lauren Weisberger) as it is of schlocky biographies (Front Row: the Cool Life and Hot Times of Anna Wintour by Jerry Oppenheimer) and hatchet jobs by those who know her (2020’s The Chiffon Trenches, in which her former close friend and colleague, the late André Leon Talley, claimed she is not “capable of simple human kindness”). No other magazine editor has ever held such fascination for the public. But why?

According to Amy Odell in her semi-authorised biography, Anna (Wintour herself did not contribute, but Odell thanks her “for allowing me into her world”), the answer is sexism: “It is probably [Wintour]’s fearsome reputation that first comes to mind when her name is mentioned … Though if a man did her job as well and with similar affectations, his discipline and commitment would likely be celebrated,” she writes. This is a very zeitgeisty point to make, but is it actually true? If a male editor hired a female journalist, and then packed her off to get a haircut, a better wardrobe and skirts cut to “the regulation 19 inches”, as Wintour did according to Odell’s book, would that be celebrated? And if a male editor commissioned a puff piece about Asma al-Assad in 2010 and then, going against the advice of the writer of the piece, Joan Juliet Buck, and some of her staff, insisted on running it in the magazine just because he “liked the photo of Asma”, and then did not renew poor Buck’s contract when there was a public backlash, would that be applauded? (Full disclosure: US Vogue asked me, several times, to interview al-Assad for them in 2010. I declined.)

I don’t say all this to trash Wintour, because, occasional blindspots aside, I believe she’s a great magazine editor. Like Odell, I think a lot of the discourse about her, in which she’s conflated with Miranda Priestly, the bullying editor of The Devil Wears Prada, is extremely silly. But I also don’t think that cod-feminist arguments in her defence, which fly in the face of the facts, act as a sound corrective, let alone get anyone closer to the truth.

I’ve met Wintour several times. Spoiler: she’s always been perfectly polite to me, but there’s no denying the woman is scary. The only time I’ve ever seen a room of journalists truly quake in fear is when I sat in on a features meeting at US Vogue and Wintour asked her editors if they had any ideas. She is not mean, like Priestley, but she is astonishingly brusque and more likely to tell you you’re wrong than right. Odell tries to soften her using the same trick a women’s magazine editor once told me when I interviewed a female politician: “To make her more relatable, emphasise that she’s a mother.” Odell makes great play of how much Wintour loves her children, Charlie and Bee Shaffer, which is no doubt true, but doesn’t reveal anything other than that Wintour is human, which I’d already guessed.

Wintour, I strongly suspect, enjoys her reputation as the Genghis Khan of fashion: after all, when she went to a screening of the film of The Devil Wears Prada, she wore – of course – Prada. She is unapologetic about taking unpopular stances, such as her notorious fondness for real fur and her even more notorious aversion to fatness, both in others and herself. Odell is a scrupulous researcher, but I’m less interested in the size of Wintour’s first mortgage than in understanding what drives her to keep working when she’s been at the top for decades, where she learned not to care about being liked and where that fat aversion comes from. Odell implies that Wintour’s toughness comes from her father, Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour, but it doesn’t sound as if he was around much when she was growing up. Anna is more of a defence of its subject than an insight into her, more interested in the decorative frills than the complex tailoring beneath.

Anna is published by Allen & Unwin (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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