Sunday 22 April 2018

The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger targets professional tennis in new book

She took a swing at the fashion industry with her best-selling debut novel The Devil Wears Prada, now Lauren Weisberger is hoping for another smash with her new book based on the elite world of professional tennis. Here, Jennifer O'Brien asks the author if any real life players provided the inspiration for the story - and finds out whether she's run into former boss Anna Wintour at Wimbledon…

The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger. Photo: Mike Cohen
The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger. Photo: Mike Cohen
Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada film.
Anna Wintour, bottom left, at Wimbledon last week.

Jennifer O'Brien

Lauren Weisberger is freezing. Having just arrived in rainy London from "hot and gorgeous" New York, she's finding the adaptation to the weather on this side of the Atlantic "just terrible". Still, it is she who chose Wimbledon fortnight to release her fifth book The Singles Game, so she's going to have to suck it up.

"It's been great, I have to admit," Weisberger says coyly of the decision to release her latest novel during the famous tennis tournament, which has certainly spiked interest in the book. "I've always been interested in tennis, although the idea of using it for a book didn't always come to me."

It's a sport that the 39-year-old from Pennsylvania has loved since childhood. "My father put a racket in my hand when I was four, much like Charlie's did," she says. "But to very different results. I've played casually ever since and have always been a big fan - I love the sport."

Charlie is Charlie Silver, the novel's protagonist who makes "a pact with the devil" in the form of her infamously brutal coach Todd Feltner. Despite describing the story as being set "in the glamorous and oh-so-sexy world of international tennis," Weisberger says that it's the work ethic rather than the glittering lives of tennis' real-life stars that inspired her.

Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada film.
Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada film.

"There's all the fashion and celebrity that surrounds women's tennis and we are intrigued and so interested in what they are doing, who they are wearing," she says. "But really I like that our obsession with tennis players is mostly down to their incredible hard work and determination and not just down to looks. These girls are a lot more than just pretty faces on the red carpet, so that was interesting for me."

This is not Weisberger's first time at Wimbledon - as part of her research for the novel, in 2014 she travelled to tennis tournaments throughout the UK and the US, before settling down to write last year.

She interviewed players including Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova (once ranked No5 in the world), met with tournament officials, coaches and Serena Williams' hitting partner and the president of the Women's Tennis Association.

"I went to Wimbledon and then Miami, Connecticut and a whole lot of tournaments. I had great behind-the-scenes access and went to the Players' Lounge and Players' Dining and things like that. Everyone knew that I was researching for a book and they were really welcoming and open.

"The book comes from a place of tremendous admiration for these women, so there were no problems, they were terrific. Everyone who I met was incredibly gracious. It's not easy what these girls do, it's incredibly hard."

One person she probably wasn't inclined to cross paths with was her former boss - and frequent Wimbledon attendee - Anna Wintour, Vogue's Editor-In-Chief. Weisberger is widely regarded to have based her hit 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada on her time working as the fashion queen's assistant when she first left university. The book was later made into a film, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway.

Although Wintour admitted she was a fan of the "light" The Devil Wears Prada shone on the fashion industry, you get the impression that even 13 years after the release of the book, Weisberger is wary of her former boss. When asked if there was any sign of Wintour in the Players' Lounge at Wimbledon during her visit, she responds sharply: "No, I did not bump into Anna Wintour." I can almost hear her teeth grinding…

"No, no, but I loved Wimbledon, the Pimm's and the strawberries," she adds, changing the subject to get back 'on message'. "I mean I thought all of that was out of a movie, but it's not, it really happened. I'm going back again tomorrow and I'm so looking forward to it."

Anna Wintour, bottom left, at Wimbledon last week.
Anna Wintour, bottom left, at Wimbledon last week.

For Weisberger, life has changed dramatically since her internship days at Vogue, not least because she now juggles her writing with bringing up two children with husband Mike Cohen at their home in Connecticut. As someone who spent more than a year on the bestseller list with her debut novel, and has gone on to sell over 13 million copies of her books, she possibly could have retired by now.

She has, however, continued with writing since 2003, following up The Devil Wears Prada with five more offerings - including Revenge Wears Prada, which failed to enjoy the success of its prequel.

"Typically a book will take a year," she says. "My writing is much more regimented now I have children. Before it used to be whenever it struck me and I would sleep late and things like that, but now it revolves around when the children are at school and when they get home. I'm probably more disciplined now than I ever was because as a mother, I have to be."

Following on from the dizzying heights of The Devil Wears Prada must have been hard? "The second effort was certainly difficult," Weisberger admits. "It was especially challenging in terms of expectation after the first one because that was such a big hit. I had no understanding of how big The Devil Wears Prada was going to be until my editor called me to say that it was going to debut on the New York Times' bestseller list. That was really the very first time I realised and it was incredible."

In an age of unpaid internships and countless stories of horrible bosses and abuse in the workplace, does Weisberger think much has changed since her stiletto-wearing, Starbucks-fuelled stint running around for Wintour at Vogue?

"It's been a while since I've been working as an assistant intern but I know in New York they are making a move towards ending the fact that a lot of people at assistant level can't earn overtime. I certainly do see the importance of internships, but it's hard and especially hard and unfair for the kids who can't afford it and need to go out and get a proper job. I waited tables and worked in a yoghurt shop and all those things... I would not have had months and months available just to learn at Vogue."

And what if one of her own daughters wants to follow in her mother's footsteps and take up an internship at a fashion magazine? "I'll see if she has read the book by then," Weisberger laughs. "If she hasn't, I'll just say: 'Have a look at this book right here and then we'll talk."

One thing she's certain about is that bosses who treat interns and staff badly are still to be found around the world. "Are there women like Miranda Priestly still? Of course, there are and are there men like that? Yes, and far too many," she sighs. "I certainly don't think being successful and being nice are mutually exclusive. It's nice to think that karma would come back and visit people, but I don't know about it."

Despite the substantial backlash from the fashion community to the novel, Weisberger says she has no regrets about publishing The Devil Wears Prada - in fact, she says she would do so again, even in the age of social media trolling.

"That's the book that gave me a career as a writer. I've gotten to meet so many people on the road who related to it and got that job out of school and had a terrible boss in whatever industry. That made it all worth it no matter what anyone had to say. I drew on my own experience when it came to writing and to know that reached out to so many other people was touching.

"Twitter and online is what it is, and in a lot of ways, it's good for me. I did an event last night in Soho and immediately after people were posting pictures and reviews and that's tremendously valuable, so I enjoy that part of it. I don't think that it's a bad thing and I wouldn't necessarily have been afraid of the backlash if Twitter had been around when the book was released."

So far, reviews for The Singles Game have been promising, something Weisberger is thrilled about. "Overall, it's uplifting and fun," she chirps. "The relationship between Charlie and her coach Todd in the book is ultimately the centre of the story. Charlie's a hybrid of a number of players," she says cautiously, all too aware of the volcanic eruption that can result from basing her characters on someone specific.

And yet, Charlie finds herself caught up in a drugs scandal, which will surely lead to speculation that she's based on shamed Maria Sharapova? "She's definitely parts of one tennis player and another tennis player," Weisberger insists. "It was important to me that she didn't have a tennis background with overbearing tennis parents. I really wanted it to be her story and her choice and decisions for everything. Charlie doesn't necessarily start out as a winner - for her, it needs to be a little bit more learned and that's one of the things she struggles with during the book."

In real life, it's Serena Williams who has earned Weisberger's admiration on the court. "Endorsements are their own beasts, but when you look at just winning, nobody comes anywhere near Serena Williams for wins and she has made more than double what Maria Sharapova has. Serena is untouchable."

Unsurprisingly, Weisberger is harbouring hopes that film execs might be similarly confident in making Charlie Silver's story into another Hollywood blockbuster. "I would jump at the chance of The Singles Game being made into a movie," she says excitedly. "Fingers crossed, that would be great, but you just never know. The best team worked on The Devil Wears Prada, and who wouldn't jump at the chance to have their book made into a movie? That would be fantastic."

Given the recent stir caused by their baby doll dresses floating up perilously during play at Wimbledon, perhaps if there is a Singles Game movie, the devil will turn out to wear Nike.

'The Singles Game' by Lauren Weisberger, published by Harper Fiction, is out now

Lauren Weisberger's survival tips for interns

The Devil Wears Prada author tells Weekend how interns can survive that first job.

• Realise that this position is temporary. It will end.

• Look at it for what it is, which is a good learning experience.

• It's an opportunity for you to prove yourself and maybe go on to get another job.

• You were chosen for this position because you are talented.

• It's your door into the industry and you can gain insights you would never have elsewhere.

• It's long and hard, it's not easy but it's great experience and it will stand to you. Stick it out if you can.

• If nothing else, you might just figure out what you definitely do not want to do.

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