At age 13, Chelsea Clinton entered the national consciousness as a collateral celebrity, blistering in the margins of the spotlight aimed at her famous parents. Almost 30 years later, she still bears a passing physical resemblance to that willowy teenager, but with a palpable spark of voice and zeal of purpose that demonstrates she moves in no one's shadow.
Heir to one of the most famous political family names since Kennedy, she once wished she could fade into the background only to lead the kind of professional and personal life that feels almost preordained today.
"I think it was inevitable that I would wind up in the work of making the world a better place," Clinton, 42, says. "I think it was inevitable that I would ultimately wind up trying to change the world, as idealistic as that sounds.
"As a kid, I learned what a purpose-built life looked like. I learned what a well-balanced but also high-achieving life looked like and how that purpose and always pushing yourself to do more wasn't incompatible with also being a good parent, a good daughter and also a good friend."
There are many titles to which Clinton will answer today -- author, activist, television series producer, former journalist, advocate, foundation leader, teacher, podcaster. But it's the personal elements of her life that give these undertakings their verve. Being a mother helps her empathize better with underserved families, for instance, while having stood at the elbow of her powerful parents taught her how to leverage resources effectively for political and humanitarian causes in an increasingly divisive society.
"I don't know if it was inevitable that I would wind up with the constellation that I am lucky enough to engage in or the work that I do today with the Clinton Foundation, with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and other partners through the Clinton Global Initiative," she says. "I don't think the components were necessarily inevitable, though I do think the direction of my life probably was."
NORMAL CHILDHOOD IN A FISHBOWL
Chelsea Victoria Clinton entered the world Feb. 27, 1980, in Little Rock, during her father, Bill Clinton's, first term as Arkansas' governor. Her mother, Hillary, later to serve in the U.S. Senate and as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, was then a partner in Little Rock's Rose Law Firm.
"I am like both my parents in different ways," she says. "I am probably most like my mother in that kind of ferocious ability to schedule, and then if it's on the schedule or on the to-do list, it gets done. I've taken from both of them not only the importance of being involved and compassionate, but also being very clear about family expectations."
Despite having such high-profile parents, Clinton describes her childhood as remarkably normal.
"I never felt like my parents had to make a trade-off of quality versus quantity of time, because my parents were always present," she says. "My father jokes, but it's true, that when I was in elementary school, I could name the one softball game and the one choir performance he missed, because he only missed like, two things my entire elementary school years. I never felt anything but the center of my parents' lives."
The effort to maintain normalcy also rested on other members of the family, something Clinton looks back on fondly.
"I am so thankful that my grandparents were part of my life, my grandma Ginger, my dad's mom, and her husband Dick, and Grandma and Pop-Pop, my mom's parents, who moved to Little Rock in late 1987," she says. "My grandparents were, in the best sense, just additive to the family who was cheering me on at a softball or soccer game, in the audience for a dance recital or for a school play. I never felt like I was being rotated among family members."
"Chelsea and I met when we were in elementary school at Booker Arts Magnet," says Paula Drilling of Little Rock, a lifelong friend. "We went to school together, elementary school through junior high school. She got me involved in classical ballet and that ended up being my major in college. We remained friends after her dad ran for president and they moved away."
As surreal as slumber parties in the Governor's Mansion or later visits to the White House may sound, Drilling says the atmosphere was anything but.
"Chelsea's parents and Chelsea herself were so down to earth," she says. "First and foremost, her parents were her parents. Even though all these big, crazy and wonderful things were happening around us, it was just a part of my friend's life. They made it as normal as possible."
As the Clintons' ambitions rose to the presidential level, the complexity of maintaining the atmosphere of childhood normalcy followed suit.
"I was aware of how taxing that was for them," Clinton says. "My mom would be campaigning and would fly back to put me to bed, or my dad would fly back late so that he would be home when I woke up in the morning. I was aware that that took enormous effort and coordination on their parts. Yet, in the best sense, it just felt like that's what parents did.
"I became aware, though, how extraordinary that was when my father did run for president, announcing in October of 1991. In the 13 months between October of 1991 and election day in November of 1992, I was overwhelmingly with my parents. I think there were three nights when I wasn't with one or both of them."
LIVING WITH CRITICISM
Bill Clinton took office as the third-youngest commander-in-chief behind Presidents John F. Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt, touting the start of a new era in the history of the country. In one respect, the changing media climate, that claim was all too true. Over its eight years, the Clinton Administration was the steady slosh of gasoline flaring conservative talk radio.
The era also saw the birth of Fox News of which, Chelsea recently told Variety, "we were the reason that Fox News was created. Because Rupert Murdoch recognized a great market opportunity." This new era carried an "anything goes" toxicity within the media landscape, unseen since the notorious yellow journalism of the William Randolph Hearst-Joseph Pulitzer era.
Not even the first daughter, growing through her awkward years, was off limits for the insatiable news cycle. As Clinton recently told Variety, "sometimes I really wanted to fade into the background because I didn't want as many people looking at me, or as many bright lights glaring at me."
"She understood, and I think she was very graceful in her role, even as a teenager growing up," says Stephanie Streett , executive director of the Clinton Foundation, who also served in the Clinton White House. "She understood the scrutiny that came along with it. But she still had some tough experiences with late night comedy shows making fun of her.
"I think she's been a real champion, especially for the social media space, that it's hands-off on the children of presidents, whether it was Baron Trump or whether it was the Obama girls. They should be able to have as normal a life as possible."
As unique as her situation was then, Clinton says many of today's kids reside in the same cross hairs as she did, famous or not, due to the pervasiveness of social media.
"In some ways, young people today have an experience more akin to my childhood 30-plus years ago than I could have ever imagined when I was a child," she says. "Preteens and teenagers overwhelmingly have mobile devices and overwhelmingly are on multiple social networks with not only their friends, but friends of their friends and the friends of the friends of their friends. I think young people today are growing up in the public eye in a way most young people didn't 30 years ago, although I did.
"While there was evidently a public dimension to my life, I always did have wonderful friendships at school, at ballet, through soccer, through church, that always very much felt more like me than the public perception of my family. Kids today are growing up in the public eye in a way that wasn't true a generation ago. I think about how I navigated that for my mental health and well-being, and anything that worked for me that I can try to help other kids or parents learn from, I deeply am committed to doing."
The Clintons' status afforded Chelsea extraordinary opportunities, starting with education. She attended the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington, Stanford University in California and earned graduate degrees from New York's Columbia University and Oxford University in England. Even within these elite halls she stood out, both for her academic achievement and for the family business, which more than once made it into classroom discussions.
"In eighth grade studying current events when my father was running for president, we talked about the election and later in eighth grade, we talked about the then-new cabinet," she says. "In graduate school when I did my master's in international relations as the predicate to ultimately getting my doctorate, I remember talking about what had happened with the United Nations with various parts of different multilateral organizations.
"I remember feeling like, 'I didn't know that happened during my dad's administration,' or, 'Oh, I agree with that,' or 'Oh, that's probably not the choice I would have made.'"
Clinton's professional career began in the financial world with McKinsey & Company of New York and Avenue Capital Group. In 2011, she joined NBC as a special correspondent, leaving in 2014 to focus on the Clinton Foundation, of which she is now vice chairwoman. Among her proudest accomplishments there is Too Small to Fail, an effort to increase early childhood development by putting books and other resources within easier reach of all families.
Her career would also wind through authorship of children's books -- 11 at last count -- as well as a collaboration with her mother on 2019's "Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience." That book was the basis for this year's Apple+ streaming series "Gutsy," which the duo co-produced.
Along the way, she married investment banker, fellow Stanford alumnus and longtime friend Marc Mezvinsky in 2010. The couple has three children whose arrival fundamentally changed Clinton's view of the world and her place in it.
"First of all, I am a mom and that informs the choices I make," she says. "Being a mom is the most important part of my life; my children are my No. 1 priority, and they see that reflected in the time we spend together."
WOMEN'S VOICES SUMMIT
Chelsea and Hillary's latest collaboration is the Women's Voices Summit, coming Dec. 2 to the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. The summit features an international slate of speakers addressing various topics on women's rights and coincides with a special exhibition featuring 18 original works of art by 16 world-renowned artists, paying tribute to women who have risked their lives fighting for human rights.
"My mother has been bringing together women to talk about issues that affect women, families and communities for longer than I've been alive," Clinton said. "It's work that she did when she was first lady of Arkansas, sometimes with a specific focus around education or legal rights or women working in agriculture. She continued that work as first lady of our country and then as senator and secretary of state.
"One of the aspects of the summit I am particularly looking forward to, and proud of, is how multigenerational and intergenerational it is. We have women who have been working to advance and protect women's rights and women's opportunities and women's agency for decades. We also show younger women who are newer to this work yet equally committed to it and thinking about it and doing it in different ways. The hope is that we will learn from each other and with one another and leave stronger for it."
Asked if she thought today's generation at large was as engaged with such causes as the women who came before them, Clinton says the fervor is as strong as it ever was. But, she says, between restrictive voting laws and media bias, such voices are often muted to the point of people dropping out of the governing process altogether.
"I am not concerned about young women understanding what's at stake right now," she says. "I think we see quite clearly how engaged young women are online and offline in a wide array of issues that affect all of us, whether gun violence, climate change, a woman's right to reproductive choice, the student loan forgiveness program. On so many issues, we see young women deeply engaged, and I think it is important to establish and recognize that.
"I do think, though, we need to continue to do more to ensure that young people, and everyone, are enfranchised in the democratic process, that they understand the importance of voting and are able to vote in a way that is not onerous. And then, hopefully, that they also turn out to vote in every election."
As for her own professional future, Clinton the list-maker confesses to being something of an opportunist, allowing the universe to draw her to her next project, be it a children's book, teaching, a media product or the bully pulpit.
"I always feel like every time something is done it just, in the best sense, creates the next challenge for what should come subsequently," she says. "I've never oriented or directed my life toward, 'I want this title,' or 'I want to win this award.' I have always wanted to do, particularly in the last dozen years of my life, work that is meaningful, purposeful and, hopefully, impactful."
Arriving at this juncture, unique yet familiar, Clinton finds herself fully invested in the lessons of her past while working toward the kind of world she wishes for her own children.
"My parents always ensured that I felt included in their work, that I understood when they were taking on new challenges, including my dad running for president or my mom running for the Senate," she says. "When I was little, if my parents had to work on the weekend, I went to work with them. I had a little desk in both my dad's office and my mom's office and I'd bring my 'work', which was a coloring book or a Berenstain Bears book that I was reading. And when I got older, it was my actual homework.
"Yet I also always felt like I had my own life, whether as a kid, as a student, having my own friends, having my own world. Now, I organize my life so I can be the mom I want to be, which is so deeply connected to the experiences I had as a kid. If I have to work on the weekends, I will work on my computer next to my older kids while they're reading. I want my children to have the completely unshakeable sense that they are the most important part of my life."
Chelsea Victoria Clinton
Family: Husband Marc Mezvinsky, daughter Charlotte, sons Aiden and Jasper
White House code name: Energy
My personal motto I tell my children: “Bravery and kindness are the most important character traits.” Another one I adhere to is “You’re never too young or too old to make a difference.”
Something I’ve done that took me farthest outside of my comfort zone: Running the New York City Marathon for the first time in 2021.
The one thing I know to be true about all people is: We all deserve fundamental human rights.
The hardest piece of advice or constructive criticism I’ve ever had to hear: While growing up, my mom always told me, “Take serious criticism from serious people seriously. Take unserious criticism from unserious people un-seriously.” It’s as true today as it was then, and I think it’s something that all of us need to internalize.
The secret to my happiness in life is: My kids and being the best mom I can be, plus lots of runs, date nights with my husband, time with my friends and work I find meaningful.
My guilty pleasure is: A vodka martini.
One hidden talent not many people know about me is: I am a pretty good baker! We do a lot of baking in our home, and it is a fun family activity. Though if you asked my kids, they would say my talent is removing stains from carpets, walls, clothes and more.
My favorite quote or motivational saying is: My grandmother’s mantra that life’s not about what happens to you, it’s about what you do with what happens to you.
Of the people I’d most like to have dinner with, living or dead: I wish I could have one more dinner with my brilliant friend and mentor Dr. Paul Farmer, who passed away earlier this year. I’d also invite George Washington Carver and Rosalind Franklin. They would have a fascinating conversation, and I would certainly learn a lot.
The essence of being is: To be kind. Be brave. Love and be loved. And, do all you can, in all the ways you can and in all the places you can, to make a positive difference in the world.
The word that best describes me: Mom.