This woman tells America’s girls what to think (and it’s not about lip gloss and sex)
You might think that Teen Vogue is all about designer dresses and celebrity gossip but the magazine has been punching above its weight recently in the world of American politics. A large part of that is due to its most prominent writer, Lauren Duca, whose essay accusing President Trump of gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse that makes its victims doubt their sanity, garnered well over a million views. Since then she has become one of America’s most closely watched political commentators and an icon for young feminists.“I think there was an element of condescension there — people were surprised that the article was in Teen Vogue,” says Duca of her opinion piece going viral. “But I think it also echoed what a lot of people were feeling, that these are confusing times. We have to stay on our guard every single day and find out for ourselves what’s true and what isn’t.”
Duca is sitting in a bar in downtown Manhattan, having just come from discussions about a TV project that she is not yet allowed to talk about. She requests peppermint tea because she says she is “over-caffeinated”, talks a mile a minute and constantly fiddles with her lustrous brown hair. “It’s definitely my security blanket,” she acknowledges.
Like half of America, Duca was thrown for a loop when Hillary Clinton lost the election. “I’ve been aggressively anti-Trump for a long time and right up to zero hour I thought Hillary was going to win,” she sighs. “Election day was very much a switch for me; it was ‘now nothing else matters more than this’.”
Her prescient article Donald Trump is Gaslighting America, which was published a month after the election, accused Trump of lying so frequently that Americans have become confused about what is or isn’t the truth. Trump’s blithe dismissal of the Central Intelligence Agency’s view that Russia intervened in the election, she wrote, was a textbook example of the term taken from the 1938 play Gas Light in which a man tries to trick his wife into believing that she is going insane.
Gaslighting, Duca wrote, is a “buzzy name for a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate”. She went on to say that Trump’s rise to power had “awakened a force of bigotry by condoning and encouraging hatred, but also by normalising deception”.
“I have moments when I am so struck by inspiration,” Duca says, laughing and miming being hit by lightning, “that the words just pour out and that was definitely one of those occasions. It was like a spout you couldn’t turn off.”
All this might have been filed away as just a clever piece of political opinion writing but then Duca appeared on Fox News where she and the host Tucker Carlson had a testy back and forth about an incident in which Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter, was verbally accosted while travelling on an aeroplane with her children. Duca called Carlson a “partisan hack” for not allowing her to put her points across while he, referring to a pop-culture story Duca wrote for Teen Vogue about the singer Ariana Grande and her thigh-high boots, suggested that Duca should stick to “the thigh-high boots. You’re better at that.”
“It was so dismissive of young women. You can still be interested in fashion and movies but stay politically active and process all the daily horrors of this current news cycle. That’s a balancing act, not just for writers but for everyone,” retorts Duca.
Election day was a switch for me — ‘nothing matters more than this’
Duca’s profile rose farther when she began to be trolled by the 33-year-old pharmaceutical company executive Martin Shkreli, who achieved notoriety when he raised the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000 per cent. Tweeting an invitation asking her to be his plus-one at the inauguration, Duca spiritedly replied: “I’d rather eat my own organs.” Shkreli, whose Twitter bio said that he had a crush on Duca, also manipulated photos of the 25-year-old and her husband. After she complained, he was suspended from the social networking service for alleged harassment.
“I think he chose me because I was having a moment and he loves being a provocateur,” Duca says, shrugging. “He just wants attention. Clearly there’s something wrong with him — that’s the kind way to put it. I mean, he photoshopped himself as my husband. What a sicko!”
Duca’s journalistic career began at Fordham University in New York, where she studied English and wrote for one of the student newspapers. “That’s where I first developed a voice and discovered my feminism,” she says. “I definitely came out of school more radical than when I went in. “
She has continued to direct zingers at the new president on Twitter and has 170,000 followers. “It’s very bizarre to be taken so seriously and to have so many people cued in to what I say,” she says. “I want to rise to the challenge and do my best but I’m 25 years old and I’m learning and I’m not perfect. My work is ethically driven but I’m not the queen of advocacy. I want to fight for equality and help people to be activists but I’m a writer first.
“I made a joke about Steven Bannon [the president’s chief strategist] looking like an eczema-ridden space slug who’d had a falling out with his dermatologist and I got so many earnest messages saying: ‘You’re better than that. Don’t stoop to commenting on his appearance.’ The amount of cruelty that has come out of this administration so far? I certainly think I can take a jab like that. I’m not a paragon of goodness. I refuse to be.”
She is unapologetically passionate in her writing. “I was on a panel for Slate magazine recently about how the media should be covering this administration, and someone kept emphasising dispassionate reporting, and then David Remnick [the editor of The New Yorker] said he thought some of the reporting can be passionate. I was pleased. I could never shut down and be dispassionate — that’s not me. It would be ridiculous to pretend that this isn’t an emotional experience. Everything is horrifying. I cry reading the news sometimes. I mean, when you think of all the heartbreak this travel ban has caused . . . I think that’s why people respond to me and follow me, because it’s not an act, it’s an authentic experience.”
Does she never get tired of talking about Trump? Duca admits that her obsession with the president is all-consuming. “I don’t know how to think about anything else and I’m trying to figure out how to use this energy instead of being crushed by it,” she says. “It gets exhausting. Nobody can be calibrated to outrage all the time. My husband and I have a rule — he’s not in the media — and instead of having a Donald-Trump-is-bad summit every night we find something specific and try to learn from it and not have this doomsday scenario back and forth. This is our life now and we have to be productive.”
To this end, she adds, she has been talking to and messaging with a couple of Trump supporters who contacted her. “I feel so right about everything — how can fighting for equality or the truth be the wrong thing? — but I’m trying to understand the other point of view,” she says.
The publicity over the gaslighting essay has also been good for Teen Vogue, which is a sister publication to Vogue and a digital-first publication with four print issues a year. Magazines such as Elle, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan also write trenchantly about politics but Teen Vogue seems particularly adept at capturing the mood. The website is close to its goal of 10 million unique visitors a month and counts among its fans oldies such as the veteran newscaster Dan Rather and the comedian and activist Sarah Silverman.
We got a lot of comments that said ‘I read you for fashion, not news’
“When we first started writing on politics and other issues such as reproductive rights, for example, many of our followers were shocked,” says Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director. “We got a lot of comments that said ‘stick to fashion’ or ‘stay out of the election. I read you for fashion, not for news.’ ” Politics started out being a low performer for us and now it’s the top vertical of the website.
“For me the strategy is a testament to the complexity of young people and serving them with meaningful and engaging content that they’ll actually enjoy reading. We never assume that someone just comes to us for fashion or just visits for news. It’s much more realistic to expect that our audience might want some foundation tricks after she finishes a piece on Trump’s immigration policies. She can do both.”
Duca plans to continue writing for Teen Vogue — she recently wrote an analysis on the Women’s March and the size of the “resistance” movement — and has a book proposal about the cultural moment that built up to the election of President Trump. “A lot of people are waking up now to the idea of living politically active lives so that’s the optimistic view, that’s the reason for hope,” she says.
Her mother is a physical therapist and her father is a chemist. Both — to their daughter’s chagrin — voted for Trump. “I love my parents very much and they’re smart and kind so my heart breaks over them being part of the problem,” she says, looking pained. “They would have voted for whoever the Republican nominee was because they’re very much subscripted to the ‘corrupt Hillary’ narrative — it’s impossible to shake them of that. For them it’s indifference; they’re writing it off as politics and you know what? They have the privilege to do that. Most of the horrible things he’s going to do, they’ll be insulated from it.”
Duca says she was irritated when her parents suggested that the tumultuous American election has been good for their daughter’s career. “I was like, ‘How dare you think this is anything other than the worst thing that’s happened to the world?’ The idea of Trump as just writing material is pretty cynical. I would love to be living in Hillary’s America right now, thank you very much. I’d be writing low-stakes culture features and deciding which yoga class to go to. Instead, I’m a radical freedom fighter.”