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It's Working Girl Meets Cruella de Ville

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Author Lauren Weisberger
Author Lauren Weisberger (Photo by Michelle Ocampo)

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Audiobook Excerpt: "The Devil Wears Prada"
Audiobook Excerpt: "The Devil Wears Prada" (Random House) (RealAudio)

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By Jennifer Krauss

April 14, 2003

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, by Lauren Weisberger. Doubleday, 360 pp., $21.95.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, by Lauren Weisberger. Doubleday, 360 pp., $21.95.

Nothing I experienced in the 17 years I worked as an editor - at publications from The New Republic and The New York Review of Books to Newsday and Talk - could have prepared me for the six months I spent recently as features editor of a beauty magazine at Condé Nast.

What was it that finally sent me over the edge? Was it the prevailing notion that the hot new mascara should be treated with the same seriousness as, say, famine in India? Or the demand for a "journalistic" headline on a story about "fast ponytails"? Or the firestorm I set off when in a fashion credit on a preliminary proof that had yet to go through a whole team of copy editors and fact checkers, in letters so tiny even a Lilliputian couldn't read them, I mistakenly typed in Armani's first name as Georgio instead of Giorgio? I don't know. I do know it was one of the eeriest environments I've ever inhabited.

Former Vogue staffer Lauren Weisberger, despite her deficiencies as a writer (give the girl a break; it is, after all, her first book) gets it. The wall of silence that's greeted this roman ... clef - which received not a single review in the April women's magazines or in Condé Nast publications such as Vanity Fair, whose bread and butter is the catty tell-all - only serves to confirm this.

Weisberger precisely conjures this surreal world where office supplies don't exist and everyone's always in the Closet (the fashion or beauty closet, that is); where one's colleagues - "seminaked" in mid-November - look "more suited for a late night at Bungalow 8 than a day at the office"; where stockings are verboten and stilettos (or, more accurately, "stilts") are "the enforced footwear."

"In and out, in and out they walked gracefully on four-inch skinny heels," recounts Weisberger's heroine, Andrea Sachs, "sashaying over to my desk to extend milky-white hands with long, manicured fingers, calling themselves 'Jocelyn who works with Hope,' 'Nicole from fashion,' and 'Stef who oversees accessories,'" their eyes "glazed over in the way seen only in cult members or the brainwashed."

"It's like, everyone's beautiful and thin and wearing gorgeous clothes," she tells her father. "And they really do seem nice enough - everybody's been really friendly. ... There's just this feeling that it's all a house of cards. ..."

When one hears the word Orwellian, one thinks police states, not magazines. But when Andrea refers to the Elias-Clark empire - which houses not just Runway magazine (where she's putting in her obligatory "year of servitude" in hopes of clinching that writing job at The New Yorker that she's always dreamed of), but also Chic, Reaction, The Buzz, Maison Vous, Mantra and Coquette - as "more than a little Big Brother-esque," she's right on target. (When I worked at Condé Nast, not only did our I.D. cards track when we entered and left the building, but the sensors that controlled the automatic lights in my "private" office tipped off the magazine's bully of a managing editor every time I left my desk for more than 10 minutes, prompting him to report me to "human resources" whenever my lunch hour didn't coincide with his. What was this, kindergarten?)

Weisberger takes this one witty step further: At Elias-Clark "the cards tell everything," from what you eat in the cafeteria to which newspapers you buy at the newsstand to how much time you clock at the gym. "I was quite sure," Andrea quips, "that Runway's surveillance put the mob to shame."

No, it's not breaking news that Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, for whom Weisberger worked as an assistant and on whom she's clearly modeled Runway editrix Miranda Priestly, has a reputation for being icy and difficult. And yes, the novel is somewhat trite and predictable, as well as saccharine and maudlin when it comes to the scenes about Andrea's personal life (not to mention repetitive in places and longer than it should be and sloppily edited). But wow, will it make a great movie!

From the setting - Miranda Priestly's "starkly furnished, deliberately cold office" with its "uncomfortable black chairs" facing her (the hard-backed steel version of which I'll never forget sitting on years ago during a bizarre interview with Wintour for a job referred to as "the three T's": television, theater and travel editor) - to the larger-than-life, good-vs.-evil starring roles, it has all the elements. It's Working Girl meets Cruella de Ville, and it's made for the screen: "She removed her waist-length mink, so plush I had to physically restrain myself from burying my face into it right there, and tossed it on my desk," Andrea recalls. "As I went to hang that magnificent dead animal in the closet, trying to run it discreetly against my cheek, I felt a quick shock of cold and wet: There were tiny bits of still-frozen sleet stuck to the fur. How fabulously apropos."

Miranda's so over the top she's even finagled a "monthly marathon shrink session" of three straight hours, since she "just doesn't have time to go all the way over there once a week." Talk about the ultimate power trip!

Andrea, on the other hand (or "Ahn-DRE-ah," as Miranda sonorously pronounces her name), does nothing but Miranda's drudge work - from "calling in" skirts to interviewing dog breeders in search of the perfect cocker spaniel puppy for her twin daughters to purchasing tampons - from 7 in the morning to between 8 and 11 at night, when she drops off "the Book," always accompanied by the dry cleaning, at Miranda's apartment.

Against her better instincts, Andrea jumps through hoop after hoop - even becoming something of a "mini-Miranda," while her relationships with her family, her boyfriend and her best girlfriend disintegrate from neglect. Until, that is, Miranda goes one step too far and Andrea turns the tables, rescuing her personal life and her integrity in the balance.

It's an escapist fairy tale, and nothing more, in which the abused underling tells off her evil boss without burning her bridges - hey, I said it was fiction. Weisberger is certainly no Shakespeare, but she's got guts. And "The Devil Wears Prada" is a fun, frivolous read. Take it to the beach. Or better yet, wait for the movie - to be adapted by Peter Hedges ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") and produced by Wendy Finerman ("Forrest Gump"). Life is just a box of Jimmy Choos?

Jennifer Krauss is a freelance writer for Newsday.


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