When I was just starting out in journalism I took a feature assignment from Vogue. It seemed like a nice chance to practice writing long reported features, plus it paid more than I made in six months at my internship. The assignment was to write about the trend of attractive women signing up to lobby for evil or beleaguered causes—cigarettes, oil, chemicals. I was surprised that Vogue would take such an investigative approach to a Washington topic, but also pleased. I wrote the story and it came back to me with a cheerful note from the editor asking me to cut certain women out of the story and focus on certain other women. The logic behind the particular choices was not that obvious to me until I saw the photo layout—the older and less attractive women were being cut from the story and the younger and hotter ones were being preserved. One edit later the story had turned into a series of mini profiles which were vastly more flattering than the versions I had written. It dawned on me what Vogue was after: They wanted me to portray the women as members of an exclusive club, who had managed to pull one over on the rest of us and set themselves up well enough to buy Jimmy Choos for a lifetime. I was naive and idealistic back then; I pulled the story.
I thought of this when I read Joan Juliet Buck’s tell-all in the Daily Beast today about how she had come to write a flattering profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad for Vogue on the eve of the Arab Spring and the brutal Syrian crack down. Buck started out reluctant but was seduced by an editor’s pitch. The first lady, the editor explained, was “young, good looking and had never given an interview.” Vogue admired her because she seems to be part of a new glamorous Syrian elite who might be tempted to try political reform. (To be fair, Hillary Clinton liked her for the same reasons). When Buck got there, the first lady was coy and stylish, but also creepy. She told some kids at a children’s center that it was being shut down, which wasn’t true. She said she did it “to see how much they care.”
Buck says Assad “duped her” but of course it’s more complicated than that. Buck had her suspicions throughout the visit and it’s clear from her latest story that she is not at all blinkered about the brutality of certain Middle East regimes. But she wrote the story nonetheless. It was called, embarrassingly, a “A Rose in the Desert” and it began like this:
Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.
Vogue, of course, let Buck fall on the sword. Her contract was not renewed and her reputation suffered. There are two lessons in this cautionary tale. First, despots and fashion don’t mix. When you find yourself wondering who designed the dictator’s wife’s dress, close your notebook. Second, never trust an editor.