How many publicists would dare admit that they ended up transforming a well-known woman’s stubborn and unfair persona into a positive one because they experienced “incredible guilt” at being part of the problem?
Dini von Mueffling would. A former New York City prep school girl turned New York Post would-be crime reporter, she’s the founder and CEO of Dini von Mueffling Communications. Dini has been so successful in the past few years, toting up awards and nominations for her record-breaking social impact campaigns against the shaming of women and the prevention of high-school loners becoming school mass-shooters for one reason: She leads with her conscience and her heart.
Reaching out to the Victims of Bullying
Let’s start with her heart. Twenty-six years ago, the slow and brutal death—preceded by social ostracization—of one of her best friends turned her into an activist. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) And that “incredible guilt” she’s talking about? It’s how she came to work with Monica Lewinsky and helped transform a woman who had been universally mocked for two decades into an acclaimed anti-cyberbullying activist with a TED Talk that has been viewed almost 13 million times.
“I read Monica’s Vanity Fair essay, ‘Shame and Survival,’ which came out in June 2014,” says Dini during a recent phone conversation. (Full disclosure: We have met several times, and I wrote a profile of one of her heroic clients a few years ago.) Monica—as most of us recall all too well—was a 22-year-old White House intern who had a sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton that made her a target of derision even years after the blaring headlined gossip, the excruciatingly detailed 1998 Ken Starr Report, and the failed impeachment effort against Bill Clinton had all died down.
In that Vanity Fair essay, Monica wrote of how difficult it had been for her to start a wiped-clean-slate life. Even a decade and a half after the events, young, supposedly evolved college students asked her in public forums what it was like to be a “Blow Job Queen.” Can-do-no-wrong Beyonce snarked her name in a song. After receiving an advanced degree from the London School of Economics, Monica lost a job opportunity because Hillary Clinton was running against Barack Obama for the position of the 2008 Democratic Presidential nominee—and the job profferers were worried of offending Hillary.
Dini helped transform a woman who had been universally mocked for two decades into an acclaimed anti-cyberbullying activist.
Monica detailed (but with calm reason, not anger) a raft of other indignities, including having been made fun of by an admired “in group” of female writers and intelligentsia, including Erica Jong and Katie Roiphe, who put down her looks and intelligence and said, “She should rent out her mouth” at a supposedly felicitous gals’ lunch thrown by the New York Observer. (I remember reading that piece in late ’90s real-time, my jaw dropping in incredulous anger.) Even feminists like Susan Faludi put the interests of supporting a liberal, female-liked President far above their duty to support a 22-year-old female who was being sniggered at and demonized.
One essay, by the late and wonderful Marjorie Williams, got the situation right at the time. But Williams was an outlier during a very defensive—and confused—moment for the Sisterhood. As she put it, Monica Lewinsky had spent two decades trying, against the odds, to have a normal life. And those odds were pretty staggering.
Dini, who by then had a successful boutique public-relations firm, was galvanized by Monica’s essay: “I felt a flood of emotions, including incredible guilt. I was complicit. All of us were complicit, in accepting the narrative that had been presented for years—that it was ‘the Monica Lewinsky scandal,’ not ‘the Bill Clinton scandal.’ And that she was somehow to blame. So many people, including feminists, had piled on her. I realized I hadn’t looked at the situation clearly. I posted something about it on my Facebook page—I said, ‘Everybody needs to read this essay: It was so self-aware and funny and brave.’ A mutual friend of ours sent my post to her, and she reached out.”
Out in Public Again
Monica says that her friend “suggested Dini because she was equal parts brains and heart. We had a connected, powerful lunch.” Dini explains, “Monica said she’d like to be out in public again. She needed to figure out what to do next, what requests to say yes to and what to say no to.” Her name had been an automatic jeer-trigger since 1998.
“Even before the end of the lunch we were working together unofficially,” says Monica. “Dini offered to help me with a PR issue even before I hired her. Whether I chose to work with her or not, she was concerned that I would not be left in the lurch. That’s Dini.”
For her part, Dini was deeply moved. “Something that Monica said to me during that first meeting was: ‘You know when you’re in high school and you’ve done something wrong and you walk into school and everyone knows and you’re mortified? That’s what happened to me, but everybody on the globe knew about it.’ She had to live with that level of shame,” explains Dini. “On top of it, she was harangued and vilified by the Clinton machine. She was bullied—there was no doubt about it.”
Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk was viewed over 12 million times in five languages and is shown in schools.
The gossip-fueled internet—in its early, dial-up, pre-social media form—had just burst on the scene and, via the brand-new Drudge Report’s ambulance-siren headlines, Monica was its first victim.
Dini and Monica started working together to “re-position” her story and to launch a reasoned, original campaign against cyber-bullying, which, of course, is now endemic via social media and has led to suicides. Forbes magazine gave Monica a forum at their “30 Under 30” Summit.
People in their 20s too young to have known what happened to her in 1998—were freshly horrified by her travails, and Monica was invited to give a mainstage TED Talk. “We had five months to prepare—it was nerve-wracking but also an amazing opportunity,” Dini says. “Monica worked her ass off.” To perfecting the speech—which, among other things, made the point that people will say crueler things on social media than they would face to face—“we had in-person sessions over my kitchen table and dry runs in my living room with other people responding.”
The TED Talk was viewed over 12 million times in five languages and is shown in schools. Monica has continued to write and speak and make public service films about cyber-bullying and, most recently, her unique place in the #MeToo movement.
Helping Monica Lewinsky Reclaim Her Name
Now, at the beginning of Anti-Bullying month, Monica and Dini have come up with a nifty new campaign called #DefytheName. The point is to disarm the shame of name-calling by having famous people embrace the ugliest or most painful names they were bullied with as children or adults, and to use those volunteers to start a viral movement whereby all of us will start using those names as our middle names on social media. So Monica is now #MonicaUnmarriagableLewinsky (that epithet hurt her the most), and if you look at the PSA that goes along with the campaign, you’ll see what names Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham, John Oliver, Andy Cohen, Kelly Ripa, and Olivia Munn were bullied with, too.
#DefyTheName came from Monica’s sense that “one of the most insidious effects of bullying is the feeling of isolation.” #DefyTheName removes that isolation by flooding social media with everyone’s most pain-inducing names. “It especially sends a powerful message to teens,” who are victimized through social media, Monica says.
Monica Lewinsky’s new campaign, #DefyTheName, came from her sense that “one of the most insidious effects of bullying is the feeling of isolation.”
But women over 45—having been children and, sometimes, teens, in the days before school sensitivity training and political correctness—carry our own baggage. So at least say I, #SheilaCornyCheerleaderWeller, who spent my high school years going to black churches alone; playing Ray Charles and Aretha, before most people even heard of them; and vowing to somehow become a bohemian poet or a jazz club waitress, to try to defy the cringe-inducing school day image I was saddled with.
Monica had spent years understandably unwilling to trust people (remember Linda Tripp…?), even publicists. That faded with this association. She says, “Dini is the first one to greet you after your first major public speech—with tears streaming down her face and open arms. After that speech, she personally returned the calls of hundreds of reporters who made inquiries afterwards. She pushes you to consider things that you’re afraid of doing when she knows you’re acting out of fear. She encourages you to go back and give your work another go because it’s not quite up to snuff. When a document dump with your name in it is about to be let loose on reporters and you’re feeling anxious, she will change her day around, work from home, invite you over and just be there for you.”
The Friendship that Formed a Social-Change Agent
Dini, 52, is married to advertising guru Ted Sann, has a daughter, 23, from a previous marriage, and a stepson, 13, didn’t start out expecting to be a social-change agent. Growing up in a sophisticated milieu in Manhattan, she attended a tony private girls’ school, then Vassar. After graduation, she landed a job as a copy girl at the New York Post, falling in love with gritty local crime stories and feeding her editors leads, which she often got from her second gig as a door-girl at a hip nightclub, that sometimes landed on the front page.
At the proud-to-be-brash-and-tacky tabloid during the early ‘90s, “the presses were in the basement, and they would rumble whenever the subway passed.” Uber-macho columnists Mike McAlary and Steve Dunleavy were still there. “It was an old-time newsroom. It would have never survived the #MeToo movement,” she says.
At the very same time Dini was working at the Post, her best friend, Ali Gertz, in her early 20s, was dying of AIDS, which she had contacted through a single heterosexual encounter as a 16-year-old at another elite high school. Despite this being Manhattan just past the heated start of the AIDS epidemic, no doctors thought Ali had AIDS when she came in with her symptoms. (Only certain populations—Haitians, hemophiliacs and gay men—were thought to be susceptible.)
Ali was infected for six years: most of those undiagnosed and thus improperly treated. Once she was diagnosed, peers were told, “Stay away from her.” This was the era of Abstinence Only sex education outside of metropolitan areas and paranoia inside them.
After her friend died in her arms, Dini worked to make Love Heals into a major provider of HIV/AIDS education in New York.
Ali bravely went public with her story while very ill—wanting to prove that even cautious upper-middle-class girls who used birth control pills could be struck down by AIDS. “If this can happen to me, it can happen to anybody” was her message, which she got out via Oprah and People, with the help of Dini and Ali’s other two best friends through an organization they founded, Love Heals. In 1992, at 26, with a brain infection and unable to speak, Ali died in the arms of her parents, Dini, and the two other young women. Dini spent the next three years working full time to make Love Heals, the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education, a major provider of HIV/AIDS education in New York, educating 850,000 young people. Love Heals was later taken over by an organization called Acria.
After freelance writing and authoring two books about romance and the re-imagining of the word “lady,” Dini rolled into press-release writing for a design and furniture company—she found herself immensely good at it—and went into design and fashion PR with a colleague, Laura Henson. She launched her own PR shop—still office-sharing with Henson—in 2014.
Getting to Sandy Hook
Something had happened two years earlier—on December 14, 2012—that took the country’s breath away. Twenty six- and seven-year-old children, as well as six educators, were murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in peaceful suburban Connecticut. The perpetrator was a highly disturbed, machine-gun-collecting “loner” named Adam Lanza, who also died in the carnage, which was then the deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history. The age of the children—and the sheer horror of it all—was beyond anything we had been used to enduring. Amazingly, Nicole Hockley, the mother of one of the victims, Dylan Hockley, age six, and Mark Barden, the father of another child, Daniel, refused to collapse.
They marshalled their grief to form the group Sandy Hook Promise, aimed at going into schools around the country to prevent any more such tragedies. The group focused on establishing programs to recognize warning signs and threats and to prevent the kind of social rejection and marginalization that turn kids into Adam Lanzas.
By 2016, the group had partnered with 450 organizations and had about 2,000 trainers, with the valiant Nicole Hockley spending half of each month flying all over the country to speak and organize. (Traveling so much, she told me, when I interviewed her, had a poignant advantage to it. “I can believe I’m coming home to Dylan. I can believe he’s still there.”) But what this group needed was an unforgettable public service message—something that would transform a potentially bland-seeming “good works” idea into the riveting understanding that we do miss the warning signs of potential mass shooters.
“I attended a fundraiser for Sandy Hook Promise at a dear friend’s house,” Dini says. “I heard Nicole speak. I walked up to her afterward and asked who was doing her PR and she said, `You’re looking at her.’ I volunteered to help her. The fact that Nicole had not crawled into bed and stayed there after Dylan was murdered showed such enormous strength. I wanted to help her in any way I could.” Interviewing Nicole is how I met Dini.
Guided by Her Heart
The public service announcement “Evan” was created by the powerhouse ad agency BBDO. It’s the rare commercial you fall in love with, with the additional virtue that its message is brilliantly unexpected. An endearing high-school boy—Evan—mischievously carves the message “I’m bored” on a library desk. A mystery girl adds an assenting message. We watch the exchange of penned sentences and we see Evan’s vulnerability and eagerness grow through quick snippets of his typical high school days.
The fact that Nicole had not crawled into bed and stayed there after Dylan was murdered showed such enormous strength. I wanted to help her in any way I could.
On the last day of school, Evan bounds toward the library for perhaps the penultimate message from his secret soulmate. But the library is locked—his face falls! He’ll never find her! Then, in exchanging yearbooks through a mutual friend and noticing a very familiar handwriting, Evan and the mystery girl meet. Suddenly, just as a romance may be starting and the viewer is helplessly smiling, a fellow classmate bursts into the room with an AK-47 and starts shooting. The PSA then goes over the scenes we’ve just viewed—this student has been in the background in almost every frame, subtly making gestures and drawing pictures that foreshadowed his intent. But we paid no attention to him because we were totally focused on Evan.
It was Dini’s job to make sure “Evan” was seen. She designed a strategy and “I basically didn’t leave the executive producer of Good Morning, America alone for months and months” until the producer agreed to have Nicole on the morning show (“I wanted to get Nicole’s voice to be articulated; it hadn’t been”) with the PSA featured. “Evan” became one of the most viewed PSAs in recent history. It garnered more than four million views in just a few days, and the snowballing effect of the appeal of the ad and the media campaign has led to nearly three billion media impressions. It also won a score of awards and nominations. The message of Sandy Hook Promise—we can prevent school shootings and turn around dangerously alienated students —was clarified and multiplied and its funding and reach strengthened.
Dini von Mueffling: Advancing an Amazing Agenda
Dini is often on Facebook, hinting at another social-impact project. Her firm also works with lots of real-estate, tech, and business companies as well as social impact start-ups, but a special part of her heart is in the latter. She was recently pictured with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey (but when I asked her what that was about, she said, “It’s a secret”). But she can say this: “I’m working with clients doing extraordinary work in the green tech space, which gives me hope that the planet can be saved. We also represent two former debt-collectors who had a change of heart and now buy up needy people’s medical debt and forgive it, forever. I’m working with a woman who is the head of her own construction firm in New York.”
There’s a Philadelphia group, Girls’ Auto Clinic, she’d love to work with—they help women learn enough about car repair to either do it themselves or to not get ripped off —“they’re trying to get nationally franchised.”
We still don’t have enough women on corporate boards. We still have too many white men running things.
Her wish list is ambitious, but she’s getting to the point where it’s do-able: She’d love to work with Reese Witherspoon, New York Democratic Senate nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz’s nemesis Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Judge Stacy Abrams, the first black woman running for governor of Georgia.
And she’d love to work with director Ava DuVernay. Speaking of the acclaimed director of Selma, 13th, and A Wrinkle In Time, she says, “She came out of PR.” Indeed, DuVernay had been a studio publicist. “That’s a word I still choke on,” Dini admits, because publicists are, wrongly, branded as “these hyper-aggressive people, a career with a `dark side.’” But what DuVernay said, and Dini agreed with, is that “PR is all about constant problem-solving,” which is what film directing is about, and what social impact work is about. Do women do this better than men? “I can only speak from my own experience and that of my closest friends,” Dini says. “I believe that women are used to juggling many different roles simultaneously and that inherently includes a lot of on-the-fly problem solving—and nurturing, and listening, and looking for details.”
That’s why women are good at social impact work, she thinks. And why there are a lot of them in it. “But we still don’t have enough women on corporate boards. We still have too many white men running things. We really, really have to get to parity.”
Pushing for Women’s Power
Parity. Exactly. I am writing up my conversation with Dini just as decisions about (the immensely credible and dignified) Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about the high-school incident with Brett Kavanaugh are being made in real time. Every woman I know—and most men—are biting their nails, wringing their hands, screaming under their breaths—and wondering WTF century we are living in.
For all the advances women have made in every sphere (and there have been a lot of them), the prospect of 11 white anti-choice men—who’ve been mandated to swear in a white anti-choice Supreme Court justice—coming down on a woman who has been threatened with death and vilified with lies has been an unexpected nightmare. Perhaps akin to the nightmare Monica Lewinsky personally lived through. Re-reading about Monica’s particular nightmare is much of what motivated Dini to up her good social-impact game to a great one—one that is currently launching Monica’s new anti-bullying campaign. Maybe we can use what’s happening now as a similar collective incentive to mobilize for true, lasting change.
Sheila Weller is the author of seven books, most recently the bestseller Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation. She is a writer for Vanity Fair, a longtime senior contributing editor at Glamour, and has written for just about every women’s magazine in existence.