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How Barbara Walters Turned a Chanel Suit Into a Surprising Statement

How Barbara Walters Turned a Chanel Suit Into a Surprising Statement

In 1989, I was an associate producer at 20/20, the weekly ABC news magazine. Five years prior, Barbara Walters had given me my first job in broadcasting when I was hired to fill in for her assistant over the summer. Now, I frequently traveled on assignment with Barbara for her big, news-making interviews, and was learning at the shoulder of the country’s most celebrated and influential broadcast journalist, who would soon turn 60. 

That year, the most sought-after interview on earth was Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. In those days, pursuing an exclusive from the major newsmaker of the week was almost a blood sport; every star journalist went after the athlete, celebrity, world leader, maybe the disgraced politician who had a story to tell, or a narrative they wanted to set straight. Barbara’s interviews—with Fidel Castro, Baby Doc Duvalier, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and Richard Nixon, among many others—had become major events on the cultural and political landscape. 

In 1986, Ronald Reagan had bombed Tripoli, including Qaddafi’s own home, in retaliation for an attack at a discotheque in Berlin. It was reported that U.S. bombs had killed one of his children. Every journalist in the world wanted to speak to the notorious dictator, and once again, it was Barbara Walters who snagged the big one. It was the “get” of the decade, and confirmed her status as the most powerful interviewer in the world.

Yet it was the pink Chanel suit Walters wore to the meeting in the desert that was the ultimate power play.

In January, we flew to Tripoli for the much-anticipated encounter with the man known by his people as “The Leader.” Days before, Barbara had been at the White House to interview President George H.W. Bush, who had just been inaugurated. While she was in Washington, New York got word that Qaddafi had invited Barbara to the Libyan capital.

It was a delicate political moment. Qaddafi’s regime was suspected of multiple acts of terror against Western targets. The tragic explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, was just a few weeks in the past. (In 2001, a Libyan would be convicted for making the bomb that brought down the plane.) Qaddafi was an international pariah.

On the way to Tripoli, we changed planes in Switzerland. At the airport, Barbara gifted me with a deep green Chanel scarf with a pattern of gold chains and cut jewels. I worked with her on and off for nearly two decades, and over that time, she offered many such gestures. Wolford hosiery was difficult to find at the time in New York, and when we were in Europe, she would buy me all the black opaque tights I could carry home.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Chanel in early 1989. Since coming on as its artistic director six years earlier, Karl Lagerfeld had blown wild energy into the fabled Parisian brand, which for a time was synonymous not with haute couture, but with perfume. He transformed Chanel in part by reviving and refreshing Coco’s traditional suit; it was, to say the least, the uniform of socialites and the international glamour-and-power set in the money-drenched 1980s.

We arrived in Tripoli in the middle of the night, and the airport staff made a massive pile of our gear and luggage in the empty concourse. It was a large group: camera crews, a still photographer, a production team from Paris, and from New York, Barbara’s producer and I. We were moved to a nondescript airport lounge, and then to a wildly ornate one. Photos of The Leader were all over the walls: in sunglasses, in military garb. Sitting in overstuffed sofas, we were attended to with tea, cake, and dates by a skittish but welcoming staff. Barbara, wrapped in a cream cashmere coat, her eyes shielded by large oval sunglasses, was inexhaustible. Her nerves never showed, and she never complained. (In all my years working with her, I never once heard her say that she was tired, hungry, or needed to use the bathroom. That could be difficult for the rest of us, as mere humans.)

We chatted with government officials, waited and waited, and at dawn, were driven to the Al Kabir Hotel. The sun was rising over the city, and above the streets loomed enormous billboards bearing equally enormous images of The Leader. My room overlooked Martyr’s Square; on the other side was the Port of Tripoli and beyond that, the Mediterranean Sea.

I had been left a roomful of presents: A gold-embroidered white caftan and matching slippers. (It was, I was later told, a wedding dress.) A coffee-table book on Libya’s Roman ruins, Leptis Magna. Several copies of the Green Book, the Leader’s revolutionary manifesto, as well as Commentary on the Green Book, and How to Speak Arabic in Libya. A dozen bottles of water. A basket of blood oranges with the leaves still attached.

We waited all day to be summoned, receiving frequent updates from Qaddafi’s people, who scurried in and out of Barbara’s suite. “Could be tonight,” they relayed. “Could be tomorrow.” It was not Barbara’s job to be impatient, it was ours, so we pressed on with the Libyans. Meanwhile, the producer and I met with Barbara to go over our research and questions, as we always did several times before an interview. She was already highly prepared, but until the cameras rolled, she never stopped refining, rewording, and restructuring the order of her questions.

Just before dawn, we got the call. We were expected immediately at Qaddafi’s compound. I quickly dressed and ran to the lobby. In walked Barbara, blonde hair perfectly coiffed, resplendent in a black-trimmed, pale pink Chanel suit and sheer black stockings. The skirt grazed just above the knees, and the jacket—affixed with the black silk camellia brooch that was a Lagerfeld signature at the time—was unbuttoned over a white blouse. She was draped with yards of Chanel gold chains and pearls.

At first, the vision of this bold sartorial statement shocked me. It seemed curious and off: Too New York, excessive, heavy and hot for the desert climate. A rare misstep. Tailored suits were her signature style, both on set at 20/20 and on assignment with the world’s newsmakers. But this one was so formal, and so pink. For a moment, I was embarrassed for her. But then I immediately thought to myself: She knows exactly what she’s doing.

The heavily armed compound was not far from the hotel. We drove inside, past his camels (“He drinks camel milk for breakfast every morning,” we were told), and were led into his massive tent—his primary office. There, we were enveloped by the dizzying green, yellow, red, and black-patterned fabric that covered every inch of the interior. Cameras in position, we milled around in anticipation, when suddenly a battered green V.W. Beetle veered onto the grass. Qaddafi was at the wheel.

He was a large man, and it was bizarre to see him emerge from the Bug. His posture became ramrod straight. He wore a billowing white wrap with gold trim over a white suit, dark green shirt, and crimson sweater. That palette would match the tent perfectly, but Barbara’s pale pink suit would clash spectacularly.

And brilliantly.

Barbara and the translator crossed the field to greet the leader, and an extraordinary portrait emerged: Qaddafi strolling in crocodile mules without socks, Walters in her elegant black heels. Suddenly, the Chanel suit made perfect sense. It was an unequivocal statement: She was worldly, sophisticated, of the West, massively accomplished. This is my interview, the suit seemed to shout. She was supremely at ease, womanly, the consummate pro, and—as she peppered one of the world’s most feared dictators with blunt and tough questions (“People say you’re a madman. Are you?”)—absolutely fearless. It was she who intimidated, she who dominated the conversation; not the other way around.

He had the blackest hair and the whitest teeth, and he railed against the American “Zionists, who control the press media.” He said, “They will show pictures of me next to skulls, to dead bodies. They are not reflecting the true picture of me.” The Jewish television star who sat across from him never broke her stride, and remained focused, persistent, polite, and surprisingly patient, even as Qaddafi refused to look at her directly.

Her comfort and confidence on set may have been helped, in part, by her just-off-the-runway Chanel suit—almost the same pink Jackie Kennedy wore the day her husband was assassinated. This was the outfit of a great woman. It was not artifice; it declared her position and prominence as a major cultural figure, a force, a titan. A woman, above all, who was bien dans sa peau—well in one’s own skin, and at ease with her stature as, no exaggeration, the most famous journalist in the world. Barbara knew who was in control that day, and it wasn’t the Libyan dictator, even in his country, even in his own tent. It was never anyone but Barbara.

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