Wintour's-Thaw-3

The Summer of Her Discontent

As she fought off a barrage of bad press over staff defections and her affair with a married man, a funny thing happened to Vogue’s famously frosty Anna Wintour. She began to seem, well . . . human.

(New York, September 20, 1999. Photo: Mario Testino)

ANNA WINTOUR, the most powerful woman in fashion, is curled behind a sleek wooden desk in her vast corner office in the new Condé Nast building, a phone tucked beneath her Louise Brooks bob, forehead buried in her hand. Behind her, the crisp September sunlight is stained blue by a twenty-story Times Square movie poster for Deep Blue Sea: a tidal wave bearing the devouring jaws of a shark, an image that fills her entire wall of windows.

“Oh, that,” says the Vogue editor-in-chief, in a distracted tone, when I note the presence of this oversize predator. “I try not to notice it.” But in a world dominated by symbol and gesture, Wintour’s new view is too delicious a metaphor to ignore.

These have been unsettling days indeed for Anna Wintour, the British-born editor who has ruled over the world’s preeminent (and most profitable) fashion magazine for the past eleven years. Hidden behind a pair of glued-on Chanel sunglasses, she transformed Vogue from a lackluster legend into a blockbuster that generated $149 million in ad revenues last year. A notorious workaholic with a cool, imperious manner, Wintour has as many enemies in the fashion set as admirers. “She’s the scariest woman in the whole wide world,” said one designer. “Not the kind of gal you’d want to cross.”

But in the past few months, her flinty ice-queen facade has begun to melt. Last February, her affair with married Texas cell-phone millionaire Shelby Bryan made tabloid news, wrecking her fifteen-year marriage to child psychiatrist David Shaffer and frequently reducing her to tears. While she and Bryan are now both separated from their spouses and happily together, friends say she’s obsessed over her failed marriage and worried about the impact a nasty divorce will have on her children, a girl and a boy aged 11 and 13. As the city’s gossip columnists circled — feeding on rumors of Parisian trysts, gifts of fat emeralds, and even marriage proposals — Wintour dug in her spiked Manolo Blahniks and declined to comment, directing all inquiries to her attorney, Edward Hayes.

Then, in June, came another burst of unwanted publicity: Wintour’s top lieutenant at Vogue, Kate Betts, bolted for the editor-in-chief’s job at rival Harper’s Bazaar, an All About Eve scenario that the catty fashion world lapped up with delight. Smart and driven, the 35-year-old Betts played a vital role at Vogue, where she was responsible for the magazine’s fashion news and many other features. Her departure — accompanied by several writers and followed by that of fashion director Paul Cavaco — left Wintour reeling to find replacements.

With pushy newcomers like InStyle and Marie Claire gaining momentum and stealing Vogue‘s buzz, there was talk that Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse was losing confidence in his golden girl. Friends whispered that Wintour was burned out, bored with fashion and more interested in joining society than covering it. “The general feeling is that people are abandoning Anna,” says one Vogue editor. “And that her heart isn’t in it anymore.” In November, she will turn 50.

Inside Vogue, “it’s really weird,” an editor tells me later. “It’s like, we all know about the affair, and every time there’s something on ‘Page Six,’ it’s all you talk about. It’s kind of chipped away at her whole persona. Like she’s been caught in the act of doing something . . . human.”

Such humanness has made Wintour vulnerable for perhaps the first time in her professional life. “What I feel bad about is people trying to use whatever situation is going on in her life to attack her professionally,” says Wintour’s close friend Oscar de la Renta. “Is she giving up her job? Is she not doing as good a job? It’s easy to try to beat someone down,” he continues. “But anyone who’d try to do that to her would be a fool.”

Indeed, Wintour dodged the arrows and soldiered on through August, lunching at her usual haunts and maintaining a high profile. On the week of August 16, she headed to The Four Seasons for a long tête-à-tête with her friend Patrick McCarthy, Fairchild Publications’ chairman. Friday’s Times revealed a surprise: Newhouse had agreed to buy Fairchild from the Walt Disney Company for $650 million, merging two of fashion’s biggest publishers. Wintour had agitated for the move for years. The deal potentially gives her control over a vast fashion-publishing empire that includes Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine. The timing may have been coincidental, but it looked enough like a masterful counterstroke to a season of bad publicity.

This week, as the world’s fashion press gathers in New York for Fashion Week, Wintour is sure to be the prime topic of discussion. For the first time, Vogue’s Website will feature live video reports from the Bryant Park catwalks. But the most interesting spectacle, Wintour knows, will be sitting front row and center. “It’s like an accident,” snipes a rival editor. “You can’t help but look.”

Though she resolutely refuses to discuss the affair, Wintour acknowledges that all the attention has come with a price. “There are certain things that no one wants to read about in the tabloid press,” she says haltingly. We are installed at Wintour’s table at The Four Seasons, deposited there by her driver. Tanned from a recent Greek vacation, she is dressed casually in a tight Calvin Klein shirt and a floral Gucci skirt, her sunglasses tucked safely out of sight. She is picking at a rare burger, sans bun, and a baked potato, her regular lunchtime meal. I ask her how it feels to read about her private life in the papers. “You know that your friends and your family have one vision, and if the outside world has another, then that’s just something that you just don’t focus on.”

But the subject seems to unnerve her. Not long ago, when animal-rights activists dumped a dead raccoon on her plate in this very room, Wintour coolly ordered a waiter to remove the offending animal and continued with her meal. Today, however, she seems battle weary and nervous.

I ask if there are press inaccuracies she’d like to address. “No,” she says brusquely, and returns to her meal. Suddenly, she shakes the bangs from her green eyes and looks up with a warm smile. “But thank you for asking,” she says.

The first installment in fashion’s latest drama began last winter with a series of teasing blind items that finally exploded in June, when the press outed Wintour’s paramour. J. Shelby Bryan, 53, was a telecommunications millionaire, a well-connected Houston native with rugged good looks and a wife of seventeen years.

He and Wintour met when they were seated next to each other at socialite Anne Bass’s table in November 1997, during a New York City Ballet gala at Lincoln Center. Bryan, head of half-billion-dollar ICG Communications, is a Democratic rainmaker who raised $1.5 million for Democratic candidates, including Al Gore, during two 1997 fund-raisers at his posh Upper East Side home. To observers, the chemistry seemed obvious. Friends of Wintour’s had long remarked on the disparity between the glamorous editor and her bookish husband, a respected child therapist. But friends say that for many years they were genuinely close. “His friends in Britain all marveled at how these two got together,” says one British pal. “But David is a brilliant man, quite charming, and they love playing these word games. Anna is a big fan of all kinds of game books.”

Friends also say that Shaffer played an important role in Wintour’s ascent, spending hours on the phone with her every day, plotting her rise, taking care of the children, supporting her behind the scenes. “It was a very supportive, energetic, intellectual relationship,” says one longtime friend. Wintour was proud of her husband’s expertise in his field, and occasionally their worlds overlapped. When Donatella Versace’s daughter, Allegra, began suffering from eating disorders, Shaffer stepped in and guided her treatment.

By the mid-nineties, however, their marriage had run out of steam. A man who vacationed with Wintour and Shaffer in St. Barths last winter recalls the couple’s sitting next to each other on a beach for seven hours and never exchanging a word. “There was no sense that they were kindred spirits. They both just seemed incredibly sad and bored.”

In contrast, Bryan was a flashy extrovert with undisguised social ambitions. A Wasp country-clubber with a notoriously roving eye, he was becoming a player both in Washington circles and on Manhattan’s power scene. A friend says the pin-thin editrix gave him entrée into a more glamorous sphere. “It’s all part of the turn-on,” says a Democratic pol close to Bryan. “He loves all of this attention. The notoriety raises his profile.”

Though Wintour has never lacked for a high profile, she was eager to broaden her circle as well. In recent years, she had become increasingly interested in politics. She peppered Vogue‘s pages with profiles of politicos like Madeleine Albright, Leah Rabin, and Katharine Graham. Last December, with the help of Oscar de la Renta, she scored a press coup, putting Hillary Clinton on the cover of Vogue soon after the president’s Congressional impeachment. “The whole fashion kick was starting to seem a bit silly,” says a friend. “Shelby was this real Type-A player kind of guy, and he gave her access to a whole different world.”

In the weeks after they met, Bryan showered her with flowers and gifts. As the relationship progressed, Wintour’s employees saw a noticeable transformation. Out went the dark glasses. In came highlighted hair and a decidedly un-Wintour-like glow. “It became pretty obvious,” a Vogue staffer reports. “She started shutting her door whenever she got these phone calls.” Another staff member says the cat was out of the bag when she began returning from long lunches with her usually meticulous hairdo noticeably askew.

Early one November morning, several months into the affair, a sharp-eyed acquaintance spotted Wintour and her alleged paramour exiting the elegant Parc Vendome apartments. Within hours, reports of the sighting were buzzing around the city. Ironically, Wintour may have been undone by her own fashion sense. The acquaintance had done a double take when she spotted a waifish woman draped in a chinchilla wrap, clearly meant for evening.

Bryan’s wife, Katherine, had learned of the affair a few months before, and though she was devastated, friends say she was not exactly surprised. Three years earlier, Shelby had had an affair with another married woman. “Katherine worked hard to forgive him,” says one pal. A refined Kansas beauty, Mrs. Bryan had given up her own career to push along her husband’s. When she discovered his first affair, “Shelby was very apologetic. He said he had made a mistake and begged her to take him back.” When another friend called a year ago and told her about Wintour, “she felt like she had been kicked in the stomach.”

Mrs. Bryan wasn’t the only one caught off guard. After finding a message Shelby left on an answering machine to his wife, David Shaffer phoned Katherine Bryan in a panic. “He was just like, ‘Oh my God, your husband and my wife are fucking each other,’ ” says a lifelong friend of Katherine’s. “He’s supposed to be this brilliant shrink, so the whole thing was really weird. But he was obviously upset and disturbed by it all. He didn’t want his marriage to end.” Bryan listened sympathetically but told Shaffer she didn’t feel comfortable discussing the matter. Soon after, she approached her husband and insisted that he end the affair.

Unnerved by the media attention, Shelby swore to his wife that it was over and presented her with a brand-new ring. He also agreed to buy a new Upper East Side townhouse. Katherine continued to painstakingly plan the elaborate wedding of Shelby’s daughter, Ashley, which took place in June on the couple’s sprawling twenty-acre Locust Valley estate.

The same month, Wintour and Shaffer presided over a celebration of their own: an engagement party for socialite Marina Rust that took place in their elegant Sullivan Street townhouse. As guests sipped wine in the dining room, Shaffer self-consciously toasted the couple, wishing them a lifetime of wedded bliss. Wintour, who one guest described as “insanely bubbly all night,” did the same.

But their reunion turned out to be short-lived. By July, Bryan and Wintour began to see each other again. Bryan’s wife Katherine, a trained marriage counselor, had agreed to salvage their union on the condition that they seek couples counseling. But “Shelby was very busy and kept putting it off, saying his schedule wouldn’t permit it,” says the longtime friend. “Frankly, he couldn’t do it and keep living this dual life.” Soon after, he moved out of their Upper East Side apartment and into Trump Tower. When news of their separation became official, says a source, Katherine received a surprise phone call from Air Force One. It was the president, calling to offer his condolences. As it turned out, Bryan’s well-publicized affair nearly derailed his appointment to Clinton’s prestigious advisory board on foreign intelligence. Anxious aides approached Bryan and suggested that he bow out until the affair blew over. Bryan refused.

Meanwhile, Wintour found herself putting out fires at work as well. Throughout her tenure, Wintour has governed Vogue with an unspoken set of rules. Food on the premises is discouraged. Junior staffers are not to speak unless spoken to. One young editor who made the mistake of greeting Wintour in an elevator was upbraided by one of Wintour’s two personal assistants. Another, agonized over how to react when she saw the boss trip in a hallway, decided to walk past Wintour. When she told a senior editor what had happened, she was told “You did absolutely the right thing.”

Wintour and her allies dismiss these reports as fantastic, saying Wintour’s shyness is misinterpreted as haughtiness. But the effect seems to be visible when we meet at Wintour’s office. As Wintour and I round a corner for the elevator, a young blonde in a tight black skirt and silk shirt waiting for the door looks panic stricken. She turns away before realizing there is nowhere to hide. As we wait silently, Wintour looks her up and down. The scene is repeated as two staffers joined us on different floors, until there are three young women solemnly standing in front of Wintour with their heads bowed like schoolgirls before a headmistress.

That’s because in some ways Wintour is like a headmistress. Vogue has long been viewed as a finishing school for women from good families — with enough of a trust fund to survive on low-paying junior salaries. Wintour’s girls, as she calls them, are expected to be slim, pretty, and tastefully attired. She once told a reporter she wouldn’t hire a fat person, even if she was a brilliant editor. She makes no apologies for it. “It’s important to me that the people that are working here, particularly in the fashion department,” she says, “will present themselves in a way that makes sense to the outside world that they work at Vogue.”

Her own look carries a hefty price tag. In addition to a salary rumored to be close to $1 million year, she also receives lavish perks, including a $25,000 clothing allowance, a chauffeured car, Concorde travel to European shows, and a suite at the Ritz. Every Christmas, says one staff member, her accessories department “goes crazy” buying Wintour’s presents for friends, family, and major advertisers. “Everybody feels really bad for the person who has to shop for Anna’s family,” says the staffer.

Among those who flourished in this high-strung atmosphere was Kate Betts, who started off at the magazine as a fashion writer and soon became Wintour’s protégée and presumed successor.

Headstrong and famously opinionated, Betts had come up through the fashion press under the tutelage of John Fairchild, the famously grumpy founder of Fairchild Publications. At Vogue, where she landed eight years ago, her brassy confidence was an asset. “Anna liked Kate,” says one editor, “because she had the balls to argue with her.” Wintour doesn’t disagree. “I do like Kate,” she trills at lunch. “She had a point of view. She was strong and not a mouse. What’s the point of sitting there with a bunch of mice? I’d have no fun!”

Betts helped improve Vogue’s news coverage, broadening the magazine’s reach into general culture and writing gritty stories on street culture, women in politics, and the financial travails of top designers. In 1995 she conceived and edited the popular “Index” section, a trendy but servicey compendium of beauty, style, and shopping tips. “Kate felt you should be able to tear out pages and have information you really need,” says arts editor Michael Boodro. “She wanted the look of the moment: who’s designing it and where you can buy it.”

But Vogue insiders say that Betts’s relationship with Wintour withered over the past year as the two disagreed over story ideas. Betts felt that Vogue’s fashion coverage had begun to look narrow and stuffy. An astute observer of pop culture, she assigned stories on music, street fashion, teen tribes, cyber culture, and television. “Anna had a different idea of who the Vogue reader was,” says a Vogue source. “She felt stories like these were beneath them.”

The office atmosphere further deteriorated when Wintour began pitting Betts against a more recent favorite, 29-year-old British socialite Plum Sykes. Though Wintour was impressed by Sykes’s glossy pedigree, Betts, says a friend, dismissed the young editor as “a pretentious airhead.” The two clashed frequently. “Kate despised Plum,” says another source, “but Anna enjoyed making them work together. I think it was her way of keeping Kate in line.”

Hoping to appease Betts, Condé Nast higher-ups offered her the editorship of Details, which she turned down. They also assured her that she would be next in line to edit Vogue, if she could just hang in there until Wintour stepped down.

“But it didn’t look like Anna was going anywhere, says a friend of Betts. “Kate began to think she would have to wait ten years.” As it turns out, she may have been right. “If Anna had retired mysteriously or disappeared, I don’t know that we would have thought that Kate was ready yet to take on Vogue,” says James Truman, Condé Nast’s editorial director. “If the right magazine came up for her, she would have been one of the people considered for editor-in-chief, but the right magazine never came up.”

Frustrated, Betts interviewed for several positions outside the company, including the top fashion editor’s spot at The New York Times Magazine, a job she lost to longtime rival Amy Spindler. Last spring, when Hearst Magazines chief Cathie Black approached her about taking the reins after Bazaar’s beloved chief, Liz Tilberis, died of cancer, she didn’t think twice. Eight months pregnant at the time, she crafted an elaborate dummy issue that “blew me away,” says Black.

News of Betts’s Hearst courtship soon reached Wintour. When she confronted her deputy about rumors of an imminent defection, sources say, Betts fervently denied them. But on June 24, a week after she left for a planned six-week maternity leave, Betts stepped off the Condé Nast elevator, wearing her usual black leggings and maternity shirt, and marched into Wintour’s office. By the time she emerged, ten minutes later, the news had spread throughout the building. “Everyone was calling each other saying ‘Kate’s quitting,’ ” reports an assistant. “When she came out, people were hugging and congratulating her.” In a last-ditch attempt to keep her, claim sources close to Betts, Condé Nast dangled one last prize before the young editor: editor-in-chief of the flagging Mademoiselle. Betts turned it down.

While Vogue’s editors and writers cheered Betts’s appointment, Wintour wasn’t sharing in the general goodwill. Her departing words to Betts, says a Vogue source, were a terse “good luck.” With all the turmoil in her life, the defection of her protégée was an awful blow. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” says Isaac Mizrahi. “I think Anna’s feelings were hurt.”

Publicly, however, Wintour remains exceedingly gracious. “I always knew that Kate was going to be an editor-in-chief,” she says, reclining in her low-back banquette at The Four Seasons. “I’m sorry she’s not going to be an editor-in-chief at Condé Nast. I mean, I would have loved that. I think she’s a very talented girl and very incredible at what she does and very hardworking. I’m very, very proud that Hearst was smart enough to give her that job.” In Vogue’s September editor’s letter, Wintour gave her an affectionate send-off that even featured Betts’s photograph.

Betts didn’t return the favor. When the Times interviewed her shortly after she assumed the new post, she complained that her old boss had not sent her a baby gift, a quote that some fashion insiders saw as peevish and ungrateful. Chastised by Hearst higher-ups for her indiscretion, Betts apparently learned her lesson. She has since turned down all requests for interviews, and she rebuffed all invitations to be interviewed for this story. She did, however, issue a faxed statement: “I had eight incredible years with Anna at Vogue, and now I am thrilled to be starting my new job at Bazaar,” she wrote. “I have just started here and look forward to talking more about the magazine when I have my first issue out on newsstands next year.” “She’s not a girl who is known for biting her tongue,” explains one arch observer. “And I guess she was worried about biting it off.”

Wintour’s cool hauteur in the wake of Betts’s departure is cited by fashion insiders as an example of her astute political skills. Born in London, she was the privileged offspring of a highly political family. Her celebrated father, Charles, editor of the London Evening Standard during its heyday in the sixties, frequently entertained journalists and politicians. Wintour’s mother, Elinor, was the bright-eyed daughter of a Harvard professor, a “tireless American-style radical,” says one lifelong Wintour friend, who found food and homes for indigents.

Wintour says her mother raised her to have a social conscience. From her father, “there was always this sense of deadlines,” she says, “this excitement about the news. One holiday was ruined by Marilyn Monroe’s death. My father had to rush us back from Venice.” Wintour was close to her father, and was often wounded by press reports about his icy demeanor and steely temperament.

“His nickname was Chilly Charlie,” she says, clearly cognizant of the irony. “And you know, as a kid growing up I never could understand why they kept writing this about this man who I thought was warm and wonderful. Certainly there were times when I could see him being angry or upset. But it just seemed to have nothing to do with the person he was.”

As a girl, Wintour’s own interests veered toward the softer side, such as going to the movies and fixing up her hair. Her brother Patrick, a political editor, and her sister, Nora, now a human-rights worker in Africa, often teased her for being superficial. (Another brother, Gerald, died at 14, killed in a biking accident.) “My sister would leave messages for me saying, ‘Are you at the dry cleaners or the hairdressers?’ ” laughs Wintour.

A slightly pudgy teenager who hid behind a mop of unruly hair, Wintour became an avid runner (she later quit, her father once said, because she thought it would make her calves too big), and eventually a sought-after fashion plate on London’s swinging night scene. Within two years, Wintour was dating theater producer Michael White, who backed the Rocky Horror Show and brought Yoko Ono to London, where she met John Lennon. “She knew so much about politics, theater, and dance,” says White. “Delightful in a number of ways.”

Wintour delighted her editors at Harper’s & Queen, her first job, where she produced a much-talked-about photo spread that re-created Impressionist works by Manet and Renoir using models in fringe and go-go boots. In 1976, she moved to New York, where she started off at Harper’s Bazaar and later jumped to Viva and then New York Magazine.Always flawlessly turned-out, she reinvented the role of fashion diva with a flair that hadn’t been seen since Diana Vreeland’s days. “Most fashion editors are notorious for looking like bag ladies,” says then-New York writer Anthony Haden-Guest. “Anna kind of broke the mold.”

Among the people she impressed was Condé Nast’s famed creative director Alexander Lieberman, who arranged for her to meet with Vogue editor Grace Mirabella. As Wintour recounted the story, Mirabella asked the young editor exactly what job she wanted at the magazine. Wintour smiled brightly and replied, “Yours.”

The exchange proved prescient. Ordered to hire Wintour by Lieberman, Mirabella watched helplessly as her ambitious underling undermined her authority. “She’d go behind my back and redo layouts, bring in new art, circumvent me and my fashion editors,” wrote Mirabella in her 1995 book, In and Out of Vogue. “When she couldn’t bypass my editors, she’d harass and criticize them.”

To stem the growing tension in the office, company chief S. I. Newhouse, smitten by Wintour’s heady glamour, moved her first to British Vogue and then to House & Garden, which Wintour renamed HG and packed with so many celebrities the magazine was nicknamed Vanity Chair. The new look proved a disaster; circulation and ad pages plummeted and Newhouse had to set up a separate phone line just to handle calls from irate readers. But Wintour had impressed her boss with her stylish layouts and pop sensibility. In a way, she was applying for the job Newhouse eventually gave her in 1988.

Vogue at the time felt too mired down in a very conservative look,” says Si Newhouse. “We felt that Anna would bring a balance between high fashion and wearable, accessible fashion.” In 1988, Mirabella was fired, and Anna was installed in her place.

Wintour quickly set about restoring Vogue’s luster, turning it — and herself — into an unstoppable force in the $160 billion fashion industry. She locked up top photographers like Steven Meisel and Mario Testino with huge contracts and insisted on exclusives from top designers. She put New Society types on her masthead and ushered in a youthquake of new editors. In short, she gave the magazine a rarefied buzz that reestablished Vogue’s position as a fashion arbiter.

André Leon Talley, Vogue’s editor-at-large and Wintour’s off-and-on confidant, who compares his boss to both Jacqueline Onassis and Catherine the Great, defines Wintour’s winning formula. “She’s very concerned that the kinds of fashion in the magazine address a real woman’s needs as well as project a kind of attractiveness that will make people think Vogue is special.”

“She’s defined the modern powerful elegant woman,” says Michael Kors. “Elegant women in the past were always sort of precious. Anna is all about the best of the future while holding onto some of the glamour of the past. She’s the quintessential woman right now. Sleek, powerful, sexy — that’s what women want to be today.”

Over the past decade, from her perch at Vogue, Wintour has not only dictated fashion tastes to the public but also influenced fashion’s course in the back rooms of design shops as well. “She truly sees the magazine as a bridge between the designer and the consumer,” says Donna Karan. Wintour is often called on by the world’s biggest design houses to recommend new blood. She has single-handedly boosted the careers of favored designers such as Kors and Marc Jacobs, pushing their clothes to department stores and TV audiences. Another pet was John Galliano, whom she set up with a backer and virtually installed at Dior. “These are all behind-the-scenes things where we can help and we want to help,” says Wintour. “Because it’s all good for fashion.” And it’s good for business, too. “Whenever Anna gives us an editorial, we get a direct sales increase in the stores immediately,” says Calvin Klein, another close friend of Wintour’s. “It always happens.”

Klein and other top designers return the favor by advertising heavily in Vogue. Wintour readily admits that if she has to choose between two equally impressive dresses, she will choose an advertiser over a non-advertiser every time. “Commercial is not a dirty word to me,” she says.

Designers who fall out of Wintour’s favor don’t fare as well. When she stopped covering Geoffrey Beene in 1994, the designer stopped inviting her to his shows. “Wintour is a woman of simmering discontent,” Beene said in a statement to New York, “a boss lady in four-wheel drive who ignores or abandons those who do not fuel her tank. As an editor, she has turned class into mass, taste into waste. Is she not a trend herself?”

If she is, the industry knows when to follow. When grunge failed to help advertisers sell beauty products and accessories a few years back, Wintour demanded an immediate return to glamour. “She went to the designers personally and told them, ‘This is what we’re shooting. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be shot,’ ” says Times fashion editor Spindler. “And they all did it.”

If fashion purists complain that Wintour has made Vogue too commercial, upstart lifestyle magazines like InStyle and Marie Claire, with their mix of celebrity editors and servicey fashion tips, are nipping at her Manolos from below. In just six years, InStyle has come from nowhere to claim a circulation of 1 million. In the same time period, Marie Claire has managed to attract a circulation of 700,000. W, Fairchild’s large-format glossy, has jumped to 416,000.

Meanwhile, competition for ad dollars has sprung up on Internet sites, TV shows on CNN and MTV, and on newsstands, where 165 new women’s titles have sprung up in the past ten years. “They’ve all nibbled away at Vogue and made the landscape a little more harsh,” says Steve Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter. “But it’s always been No. 1 in terms of influence and ad pages.”

At Harper’s Bazaar, Kate Betts is reportedly planning to infuse the ultra-rarified magazine of her predecessor with a jarring dose of pop music and edgy culture news. She hopes to attract younger, hipper readers and halt the magazine’s fifteen-year slide to fourth place in the core fashion books, behind Elle and W as well as Vogue. “Everybody is keeping an eye on her,” says a rival editor. “But nobody is sitting there thinking Bazaar is going to be nose-to-nose with Vogue.”

Still, Wintour and company are taking no chances. This spring, the magazine launched a massive publicity push, just to remind advertisers and readers who’s on top. Nearly 2,000 city buses began carrying the slogan ‘Before it’s in fashion, it’s in Vogue.’ The magazine has begun sponsoring concerts and street fairs. And it’s aggressively pushing the upcoming “Millennium” issue, at 600-plus pages its biggest November issue ever.

Vogue’s circulation of 1.1 million has dipped slightly since Wintour took over, dropping 100,000. But its ad revenues, though flat last year at $150 million, have perked up 9 percent already this year. Wintour and Newhouse say they’re not worried about pretenders to the throne. “There’s always going to be competition from one area or another,” says Wintour. “I think one just has to remain focused on what you do. Maybe there’s some bumps along the way. Some things are great. Some things are a disaster. But you just can’t concern yourself with what everybody else is doing.”

With the purchase of Fairchild, rumors have circulated that Wintour could be bumped upstairs to oversee a number of fashion titles — with McCarthy eased in to run Vogue. It would make sense, since she just inked a reported five-year contract with Newhouse. “Like other middle-aged people who have achieved a lot, she sometimes says to herself, ‘There has to be more,’ ” says one Wintour confidant. “This Fairchild thing, and a bunch of new Internet ventures, definitely give her some opportunity.”

The Internet and its potential seem to genuinely delight Wintour, though she admits she still has trouble sending e-mail. When I mention Vogue’s sleek new Internet site, she turns instantly animated, chatting excitedly about e-commerce and the site’s picture quality. “I’m very excited about it,” she says. “I want to do it right. I don’t want to just rush in. I’m very interested in the commerce side, how it will support itself. The ‘Index’ section is something I’ve felt could work well in that area.”

But despite the number of old-media bigfoots who have recently joined the Web gold rush, some staffers say high-tech glamour may not be enough for Wintour. Media reports and a few of Wintour’s friends suggest she may covet the job of Condé Nast’s shaggy young editorial director, James Truman. Truman and Wintour were once friends, but in recent years, sources say, the two have become increasingly distant. Wintour has made no secret of her disdain for Truman’s performance at Condé Nast, and his impact on Vogue is minimal.

Is Anna gunning for his job? “I don’t think so,” says Truman, hesitantly. “She’s never said or done anything to lead me to believe that she is.” Newhouse is slightly more enigmatic. “I think Anna is capable of handling anything within magazine publishing,” he says. We are sitting in his corner office, our knees practically touching, since he is hard of hearing and has pulled his chair close to mine. He is wearing black pants, loafers with raised white stitching, and a baggy pea-green sweatshirt. He vehemently denies that Wintour’s travails have distracted her from her job. “Anna is driven by a desire to express herself as an editor,” he says. “I don’t think she thinks of herself as having a job anymore than Baryshnikov thinks of himself as having a job.”

For her part, Wintour denies that she has career aspirations beyond Vogue. “I don’t think I’d be any good at it,” she says, downing her second cappuccino. “I just really don’t. I don’t have the sensibility to direct an editor of Bride’s or Details or those other kinds of magazines. I think I can have opinions.” She smiles slyly. “But I don’t think they’d necessarily be right. I can’t imagine anything better than Vogue.”

Making sense of her home life is a more urgent question for Wintour. This month, Wintour began proceedings toward a divorce, but her friends say Shaffer is going to make it difficult. “I know she’s totally distraught,” says one, “because what she had with David was very deeply genuine, yet a very confused situation. But he certainly doesn’t want it to end.”

For Shelby Bryan, who is worth an estimated $30 million (including a $6 million home in Locust Valley and a $3 million home in East Hampton), getting out of his marriage will most likely cost half his fortune. He recently retained divorce attorney Robert Stephan Cohen, whose clients have included Christie Brinkley and Marla Trump. But his first move when the affair became public was to retain P.R. powerhouse John Scanlon. Mrs. Bryan is represented by Bernard Clair, whose last high-profile client was Jocelyne Wildenstein.

“I think Shelby’s going to pay Katherine a lot of money,” says a Wintour confidant, who claims that Wintour recently offered her former husband “a very generous settlement.” If Wintour wants to keep her Sullivan Street brownstone, she will most likely need one of Newhouse’s generous zero-percent mortgage loans, which he gives to senior editors — perhaps as much as $1 million, a figure that’s been floated in numerous gossip items. Neither Newhouse nor Wintour would discuss any such arrangement.

If Wintour and Newhouse have bigger plans for her future, they’re not saying. And if Wintour is indeed on the edge of career burnout — and casting her net a bit wider (perhaps hoping to become a “Washington hostess,” as one friend put it) — she’s keeping it all to herself.

But to the outside world, it’s clear that Wintour’s once iron-maiden image has been irreparably smashed. Her allies say that’s not such a bad thing. In fact, her hardships may prove to be strangely redemptive.

Patrick McCarthy, who was in Paris for the couture collections, accidentally ran into Wintour one evening at the Tuileries gardens, where Wintour had taken her children. “It was all glittery and lit up, and she was just having a ball, riding round and round with her daughter on this garish carnival ride. She was having a great old time. She even got me to get on.”

Last week, as she prepared for Fashion Week, friends reported that Wintour had started to seem energized again, freed at last from the restrictive icon she had turned herself into.

“She’s not hiding behind her glasses anymore,” says a fellow editor and longtime friend. “Now she’s having fun again. I look across the room and and see someone enjoying her life.” To another observer, Wintour’s long summer of discontent may turn out to be transforming. “She’s never seemed so giggly and sparkly-eyed and beautiful and happy,” says Mizrahi. “Listen, this doesn’t look like a crisis to me. To me, it looks like a liberation!”