Achieving Internet fame is a sticky wicket. An unearthing of one's private life and backlash often follow the initial adoring headlines and cheering tweets. But does it have to be that way? For The Washington Post Magazine, I explored a case that I consider the Goldilocks of virality: In 2017, after a photo of Dianne Bruce — wearing a sable coat and looking amused as she watched a protest in front of Ivanka Trump's house — got widespread attention, she became well known enough to merit positive recognition from strangers, but not so much that she got a barrage of hate.
My piece featured a more recent photo of Bruce in her trademark sable with the headline “A Trump protest, a fur coat and a viral photo: What did it all mean?” It spent hours on the top of The Washington Post home page in early October.
Some commenters dismissed the story as fluff. “Who CARES about a woman wearing a fur coat?” wrote one. “I care more about stopping the madness that is tRump and his cronies.”
Deborah Hennessey, 63, had a similar reaction. In the comments section, she wrote: “I can’t stomach reading this article and find it difficult to understand why it remains center stage on the front page? There are critical issues playing their hand today that would seem to need our attention.” A sampling of some of the other news that day: The FBI was wrapping up its week-long inquiry into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the New York Times published a detailed look at President Trump’s “dubious tax schemes,” and scientists huddled over a report about government failure to stem changes in the climate.
I called Hennessey at her home in Boise, Idaho, to speak in more detail about her critique. A retired analyst at the U.S. Forest Service, she checks The Post home page about four to five times a day. The morning the Bruce story ran online, she had been writing more than a dozen letters and calling the offices of U.S. senators, imploring them to vote no on Kavanaugh. Then she saw Bruce’s photo on The Post site. “She’s a one-percenter and she’s got a big smile on her face, and it’s right on the middle of the front page,” Hennessey recalls thinking. “She looked like one of the people who’s benefiting from all the things I find so disgusting about the current administration,” like the 2017 tax bill and attacks on the Affordable Care Act. Hennessey had no interest in reading further.
Before we chatted, though, Hennessey read the article. She told me she was surprised she felt a certain kinship with Bruce. “I find that I’m more like Dianne than I ever imagined,” she says. “Though I don’t have a fur coat and I live very modestly.”
Hennessey doesn’t object to the idea of lighthearted stories. I told her that I believe reporting in the public interest can sometimes mean delving into something that people find interesting, in addition to unearthing corruption and scandals. She agreed. She says if the story had been presented as “a celebration of something, I think I would have not hesitated a moment” to read it. “I got hung up on the sable coat and the word ‘Trump.’ ”
Another commenter had replied to her: “Relax. Cool down and enjoy some good news. There is too much bad news going on that this is a great change.” Hennessey says she took the advice.
Now that she’s retired, she spends her time caring for her elderly father and pursuing activities like skiing, hiking, trekking and biking. “You get out of yourself and you become involved in the moment and you don’t think about what’s in The Washington Post — that’s really healthy.” Though even in the tranquil moments she savors, such as when she walks her dogs along the Boise River, inspiration for a certain letter to a senator might strike. Politics always seeps back in. “I’m writing all these letters every day to all these senators, and I know they’re meaningless to these people, so I’m not really sure why I continue to do it, but I do,” says Hennessey. “I’m just more worried about the outcome of everything we’re seeing on the American people who don’t fall in the top one percent. I just think we’re gutting their lives.”
Rachel Kurzius is the senior editor of DCist.