Why Anna Wintour is closing in on that top diplomatic job

The White House has not denied that the Vogue editor will be its UK ambassador – and she might be ready for the role

Some see her as the ultimate fashion ice queen whose regal style judgments can make or break a designer's heart – and their business model.

As the long-serving editor of America's Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour has one of the most recognisable faces in the world – despite hiding it behind dark sunglasses – whose office regime is so famously brutal that it inspired the book and movie The Devil Wears Prada.

The 63-year-old induces terror and awe among fashionistas and shoppers alike. In a cut-throat global business, she has risen to the top and earned her nickname "Nuclear Wintour".

None of which would suggest she is the ideal candidate to be the next American ambassador to Britain or France, where she would be thrust into the spotlight of delicate international diplomacy. Yet that is exactly the rumour that is doing the rounds in Washington DC, the chic boutiques of Manhattan and the office suites of Condé Nast, which publishes Vogue.

The Obama administration has not denied it. "I will not engage in any speculation about personnel announcements. I just won't," snapped White House spokesman Jay Carney while being questioned on the matter by the Washington press corps.

That comment has convinced some that Wintour could indeed join America's diplomatic elite. "Anna Wintour is perfect to be an ambassador," said Noah Levy, an editor at celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly. Others are more sceptical. Jerry Oppenheimer, who wrote a tell-all biography of Wintour called Front Row, could scarcely believe his ears. He pointed out that Wintour's reputation had taken a knock when she ran a glowing Vogue profile of the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad just as he launched a bloody repression. "That raises the question of whether Obama is really considering this woman for high and important positions," he said.

But that sort of gaffe might not be a disqualifier. Presidents have long rewarded top campaign donors with plum overseas appointments and Wintour has been a feverishly successful fundraiser for Obama, hosting celebrity parties and bringing in more than $500,000. Rather than diplomatic nous, Wintour has revealed she has buckets of what the White House really looks for: power, money, loyalty and being a canny operator who can work their contacts. In those terms, none would argue that Wintour is not highly qualified. Few match Wintour's colossal stature in her own industry. And the story of her rise to the top of the fashion world is one of a bullet-fast upwards trajectory from the lowliest of starting positions to a 25-year reign at the top of Vogue's masthead. It is also the remarkable story of how a young Englishwoman went to New York and conquered her adopted country. Or to put it another way: no one has ever got very far by betting against Anna Wintour's ambition.

Yet despite her steely reputation, it is not hard to find those whose experience of Wintour has belied her image.

Associates, friends and even critics praise her ability to be charming, fun and sociable. For someone seen as a distant monarch of Fashion Land, she can show a side that is warm and clearly cherishes those who would follow her rise. Just take the experience of New York-based fashion writer Melissa Whitworth. After arriving in New York in the late 90s, Whitworth wrote to Wintour out of the blue asking for advice on how to make it in the Big Apple. To her astonishment, where more lowly editors had ignored her, Wintour promptly invited her in for a chat. For Whitworth, spending time in Wintour's notorious office was a wonderful experience. "She was very supportive of being a young writer in New York. She was approachable and lovely," she said.

Others note that much of the brouhaha around Wintour's reputation might be rooted in sexism, aimed either at her or her female-dominated industry. After all, she has merely displayed the drive needed by any top executive. "If you are a woman and difficult, you are considered a mean person. If you are man and difficult, you are considered a great businessman," said Levy.

Her rise has been spectacular. Born in London to Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour, she developed an early interest in fashion, pushed to some extent by her father, who got her a job in a boutique. She drifted into journalism, firstly at Harper's Bazaar in London and then in New York. By the early 1980s, she was back in Britain at Vogue as the magazine's editor.

From there came one more jump across the pond, landing the top Vogue job in America in 1987. She immediately revamped what was then an ailing title. She used lesser-known models, mixed street style with high-end fashion and rapidly established the magazine as the leader in its field. Along the way and over the years she broadened fashion's appeal to the masses. "She modernised fashion and created a big business out of it. It was a fantasy world and she gave everyone a taste of it," said New York fashion blogger Dawn del Russo, who remembered the impact Vogue had on her teen years. "I have my Vogue magazines from high school. I don't want to throw them away," she said.

Wintour also embraced her adopted country, joining a long list of British journalists who went native in America, from Christopher Hitchens to Tina Brown. "She adores the US. She loves it. This is her country. She is really an American at this point," said Oppenheimer.

She stayed at the top of her game too. In a media world in decline, Vogue has 1.2 million readers, brought in $390m in 2011 and in September this year put out its biggest issue ever, with a staggering 658 pages of adverts.

Like the captain of any other industry, Wintour's word is almost law. She can promote or demote models, fashion lines and designers. She has embraced the fashion status of Michelle Obama, putting the first lady on the magazine's cover. "Anna helped make fashion as interesting and important as Hollywood and Washington," Oppenheimer added. But that enormous influence does have drawbacks – though Wintour and her loyal cadre of top staff are unlikely to see it that way. So powerful is Wintour that designers sometimes know they have to work to please her. "That can be stifling," Russo said.

Wintour herself is no innocent when it comes to her own image. She works in an industry obsessed with appearance and her magazine has been the subject of two documentaries – the most recent one broadcast on HBO last week. She knows how to play the game. When The Devil Wears Prada appeared – with Meryl Streep playing a thinly disguised version of her – Wintour turned up to the premiere. And what was her fashion choice for the evening? Prada, of course. "She was having a laugh with it," Whitworth said.

But perhaps she was also making a point. It is hard to tell for sure with such a skilled player of the image game as Wintour. How then to explain the ambassador rumours? One theory is that those close to Wintour might be helping them along in order to keep her job and fight other persistent rumblings of a desire for change at Vogue after a quarter of a century. "One way to keep that job would be to appear that she can leave. That's a conspiracy theory that is being batted about," said Oppenheimer.

Or the rumours might be true. Wintour might genuinely be in the running for a diplomatic hot spot or, much more likely, a roving cultural role. "This has been rumbling for quite a long time. I think it's going to happen," said Whitworth. "She would be an amazing cultural ambassador for the arts."

In the end when it comes to Wintour's next move – like the best of cutting-edge fashion – it is hard to tell reality from outlandish fantasy.


Paul Harris in New York

The GuardianTramp

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