Park City Institute sparks controversy with event featuring Monica Lewinsky, who’s ‘aggressively taking control of her own narrative’

(Damon Winter/The New York Times) | Monica Lewinsky in New York, March 4, 2015. Once vilified as a "predatory" White House intern, Lewinsky has re-emerged, taking on the fight against cyberbullying.

Mention the name Monica Lewinsky, and she still sparks controversy. Just ask Park City Institute artistic director Teri Orr, who booked Lewinsky to speak Jan. 6 as an activist against cyberbullying.

“Is this the best the Park City Institute can come up with?” asked James F. Oshurt, of Millcreek, in a Salt Lake Tribune Public Forum letter last week, which prompted more than 100 online comments.

Those comments prompted a Google alert to mortgage-industry executive Vincent Valvo, who placed a call to Orr.

Valvo, of Agility Resources Group, told Orr he was familiar with such questions. After Lewinsky broke her public silence with a buzzy 2014 Vanity Fair essay and her headline-grabbing 2015 TED talk “The Price of Shame,” he contracted her to speak at an industry conference. At the news of her booking, sponsors pulled their support, to the tune of $10,000.

But Lewinsky’s speech was so well-received, Valvo booked her again. And this month he called Orr to offer $1,500 to pay for tickets for women who cannot afford to attend.

The Park City talk is Lewinsky’s first public ticketed event, after high-profile talks at TED and other conferences, Orr says. Park City Institute’s full-page newspaper ads feature a provocatively simple photo of Lewinsky staring straight into the camera, and it serves as the centerpiece of the performing-arts group’s 20th-anniversary season lineup.

Orr understands the questions. Settling into the auditorium before Lewinsky’s 2015 speech, she thought TED organizers had lost their edge. She joked that they must be planning to book the Kardashians next.

But listening to Lewinsky’s talk, which prompted a lengthy standing ovation and went on to receive millions of page views, changed Orr’s mind. Lewinsky agreed to the speech and an outreach session with Park City young women, but so far has turned down advance media requests.

The talk follows Park City Institute’s high-profile remote conversation with Edward Snowden last year; the former U.S. intelligence officer and contractor who leaked classified documents, which he says exposed illegal government spying, is now in exile in Russia.

“She’s the tour guide to how we talk to our kids about social media and cyberbullying, because she was patient zero for that,” Orr says, borrowing Lewinsky’s label. “Now, she’s aggressively taking control of her own narrative.”

In her TED talk, Lewinsky, who in 2006 earned a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, explains how her name came to be spun as, among other things, a common rap lyric.

At 22, she was a White House intern who “fell in love with my boss,” who just happened to be U.S. President Bill Clinton. “At the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences,” Lewinsky says, after 20 hours of private phone conversations about the affair, secretly recorded by co-worker and friend Linda Tripp, were handed over to independent counsel Kenneth Starr and then released to Congress, aired on TV, with excerpts posted online.

“In 1998, after having been swept up into an improbable romance, I was then swept up into the eye of a political, legal and media maelstrom like we had never seen before,” she said in her TED talk. “What that meant for me personally was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”

The conservative Drudge Report website came to public attention with its January 1998 report on the scandal, which named Lewinsky. “This scandal was brought to you by the digital revolution,” she says.

Tickets for the speech are selling well, yet Orr has heard complaints from people who vowed the Lewinsky booking would mean they would no longer support institute events. When she looked up the complainers’ names, she could find no record of their financial support in the past.

Orr hopes the talk sparks a larger conversation, especially as it is timed during this #MeToo season, when women are coming forward to talk about being harassed and silenced by powerful men in Hollywood, politics and other fields. Perhaps what makes this era most extraordinary is that women are being listened to.

“I hope we gain the value of seeing with new eyes, that we revisit something we thought we knew, and learn we didn’t really understand it at all,” Orr says of Lewinsky’s speech. “That there’s always a story behind the story.”

“The Price of Shame” • Monica Lewinsky speaks at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6, at Eccles Performing Arts Center, 1750 Kearns Blvd, Park City.<br>Tickets • $29, $49 and $79, at parkcity.institute or 435-655-3114<br>More • If people aren’t interested in hearing Lewinsky, Orr directs them to other powerful speakers and performers on this season’s lineup, such as writer Anne Lamott on Feb. 3, singer-songwriter Dar Williams on Feb. 24, or ACLU executive director Anthony Romero on April 3.