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Published: Sunday, 12/11/2011

Chelsea Clinton steps out of the shadows

BY AMY CHOZICK
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Chelsea Clinton Chelsea Clinton
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Over a series of casual dinners at neighborhood restaurants near her Manhattan apartment in the spring, Chelsea Clinton began talking to a couple of longtime friends about something she'd been mulling for a while.

She wanted to stop pretending she was not Chelsea Clinton.

It was quite an assertion from someone who, despite the very public profile of her parents -- one a former president, the other the current secretary of state -- had lived most of her 31 years at a far remove from the spotlight. Yes, there had been sightings of Chelsea over the years, as she grew from a gangly, curly-haired teenager into the confident, stylishly dressed woman making the social scene in her adopted home, New York. And, yes, her marriage to Marc Mezvinsky landed the happy couple on the cover of People magazine -- and then later on Page Six when rumors circulated that there might be marital problems.

But for the most part, Ms. Clinton seemed determined to keep her private life strictly private, refusing to speak to the news media and requesting the same from her loyal inner circle. Now, however, talk turned to the notion that, if she was going to face the downside of being the daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, under the constant scrutiny of the news media, why not also take advantage of the upside?

Thus, in the past 12 months, she has joined the board of Barry Diller's Internet media holding company IAC/InterActiveCorp, spoken at fund-raisers for organizations like amfAR, taken an increasingly public role with the Clinton Global Initiative, presented an award to her mother at Diane Von Furstenberg's International Women's Day event, and hosted her father's 65th birthday at a Hollywood benefit for the Clinton Foundation with fellow guests Lady Gaga and Bono. She's even started a Facebook page.

And in her most high-profile move so far, she has taken a job with NBC News as a special correspondent, contributing to the network's "Making a Difference" franchise. On Dec. 12, Clinton will make her first appearance on the prime-time newsmagazine Rock Center With Brian Williams, with a segment she developed on a nonprofit organization in Pine Bluff, Ark. It was a career move she initiated, having her close advisers arrange interviews with top network executives and at one point working with the powerful Creative Artists Agency.

"For a multitude of reasons, she decided the time was right to more publicly own a responsibility she feels to serve in the public good," said Bari Lurie, a former intern in the East Wing of the White House during the Clinton years, whom Ms. Clinton brought on as her chief of staff in September.

"I hope to make a positive, productive contribution, as cheesy as that may sound," Ms. Clinton wrote in an email earlier this month. "For most of my life, I deliberately led a private life in the public eye."

But after campaigning for her mother's presidential bid in 2008, Ms. Clinton realized she liked speaking publicly about issues she felt strongly about. Her grandmother, Dorothy Rodham, gave her some advice. "She told me being Chelsea Clinton had happened to me, and outside of my advocacy work and campaigning for my Mom, I wasn't doing enough in the world."

Those conversations continued over the next couple of years, until Ms. Rodham died in November. "I took what she said seriously -- that I had led an inadvertently public life for a long time and maybe it was time to start leading a purposefully public life."

Chelsea Clinton gets a hug from her father, the President-elect Bill Clinton, during inaugural festivities in 1993, as her mother looks on. Chelsea Clinton gets a hug from her father, the President-elect Bill Clinton, during inaugural festivities in 1993, as her mother looks on.
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On a chilly February night, Ms. Clinton attended the annual gala of the AIDS research foundation amfAR. There, she greeted Elton John and Richard Gere. She kissed Harvey Weinstein, a family friend, on the cheek as she took the podium to present her father with an award.

"I grew up in a house where I heard Mathilde Krim's name more frequently than I heard the people that Harvey puts in his movies," Ms. Clinton said, referring to the doctor and AIDS activist who founded amfAR.

Also presenting an award that night was Mr. Diller. Not long after the gala, Mr. Diller recommended Ms. Clinton to the nominating committee of the board of IAC/InterActiveCorp, along with Michael Eisner and Edgar Bronfman, Jr., among others. She attended her first board meeting this month.

As always, the downside of being the Clinton daughter was not far behind. Her IAC board position, which pays an annual retainer of $50,000 and a $250,000 grant of restricted stock, prompted critics to say that Ms. Clinton got the position solely because of her famous parents, painting her as the thinking man's socialite, with a seat on the IAC board and a stint on NBC News being the meritocratic equivalent of a designer handbag line. (Similar criticisms were lobbed when Jenna Bush Hager, the daughter of President George W. Bush, was hired as a correspondent for the Today show in 2009.)

As unlikely as it may seem for someone who had aggressively shunned the news media, the job at NBC does not surprise the aides who watched Ms. Clinton closely when she campaigned for her mother in 2007. They described her as someone who, in a matter of weeks, went from speaking to a dozen people at a coffee shop to fielding questions from crowds of thousands.

"People were interested in coming to hear and see her because they watched her grow up, and then they'd realize how substantive she was," said Howard Wolfson, a senior strategist on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign who now works for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

That experience persuaded Ms. Clinton to take on a larger public role and, in particular, the TV job, said Steve Capus, president of NBC News. "She talked about the stories she heard on the campaign trail that she found inspiring and said she'd like to go back and visit some of the people she'd met," he said.

That Chelsea Clinton even existed might have come as a surprise to many voters 20 years ago. During Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, the 12-year-old Chelsea was so shielded from the routine photo-ops that polls showed many voters didn't know the Clintons had a child. The family promptly sat down for a spread in People magazine.

"The No. 1 thing Bill and Hillary accomplished is raising Chelsea Clinton," said James Steyer, of Common Sense Media, who has stayed close with Chelsea Clinton since she was his student at Stanford University.

In public, she has always seemed like her mother -- dutiful and restrained, as if politics were the high price to pay for public service. In private, friends say, she is much more Bill Clinton's daughter -- voluble and argumentative, warm with a biting sense of humor and a knack for remembering arcane facts.

Part of the fascination with Ms. Clinton's life is that, unlike other famous offspring, she has never been photographed drunkenly stumbling out of a club or been caught using a fake ID. It's not that she carefully avoided those kinds of situations, it's that that's just not her, said Nicole Davison Fox, a close friend who was Ms. Clinton's matron of honor at her wedding to Mr. Mezvinsky in summer, 2010.

Mr. Mezvinsky, a former Goldman Sachs banker, will soon start a hedge fund with a friend. They share their apartment with a miniature Yorkshire terrier named Soren, after the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

Last winter, the couple rented a house in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Ms. Clinton shuffled back and forth between wobbly (but fearless) skiing and work in New York, according to several people close to the Clintons. Still, the trip provided tabloid fodder.

"We live in a culture of gossip and entertainment, and Chelsea Clinton seems to be neither a great gossip or a great entertainer," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who worked for Bill Clinton. "She's a very serious person."


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