Every time we glimpse her, Amal Alamuddin Clooney is bored. Flanked by tittering, self-congratulatory figures at the Met’s Costume Institute Gala, Amal alone is not impressed. She’s at the hottest event in town, standing next to the Sexiest Man Alive, but wears the pained grimace of a city councilwoman enduring a hearing or a tired parent indulging a deluded little child. We saw the same look at the Golden Globes, one halfhearted, disinterested smile amid a sea of thrilled, smug faces, and we’ll probably see it again at every award show George Clooney drags his wife to. Amal Clooney was born to bestride the narrow world (or at least Hollywood) like an over-it colossus. That’s exactly what’s so mesmerizing about her.
It’s no secret that Americans have been looking for their own version of royalty to swoon over for years now. We tried to shove a glass slipper on Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s foot, but she was too sophisticated for all of that taffeta, plus she kept squabbling with her prince, whose struggling vanity projects never matched the aristocratic flair of his patriarch. We tried pushing Beyoncé and Jay Z into a castle on the hill, but we turned on them. For a while, we grudgingly accepted Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes — Tom even called his bride “Kate,” as if that would erase her penchant for bad bangs and suede demi-boots. Yet as Tom grew creepier and Katie’s style read more Chico’s than chic, it became clear that Suri was the only member of the family with the proper bearing for the throne.
But before Suri could come of age, there was Amal Alamuddin, the barrister with a heart of gold and a head of luxurious black hair rising like a phoenix from the smoldering flames of countless unfit Yankee royals. Over the past month, we’ve watched her dash from one engagement to the next looking like an exotic, luxe-brand Princess Diana upgrade, from dinner at Caravaggio wearing a $4,695 Alexander McQueen jacquard-knit dress on April 28, to a D.C. press conference for the imprisoned president of the Maldives on April 30, emerging from lunch at Jean Georges in a $4,000 vintage Courrèges coat on May 1, and later that night, at the Public Theater with her parents, her $4,600 Alberta Ferretti chiffon dress flittering in the breeze. Every step of the way, Amal is so magnetic she seems dreamed up by Disney’s marketers to lead a generation of princesses into the future. Their extraordinary heroine is sharp, compassionate, and multicultural, a valiant demigoddess with caramel skin who won’t sleep until the world’s most persecuted underdogs are safe from oppression. Amal isn’t just destined for the American throne; she’s destined to make all other royals — real or fake — look a little empty and foolish by comparison.
Just look at what she’s done to George Clooney, reducing our American prince to the status of adorable sidekick, like an animated chameleon or snowman who provides comic relief and gentle chuckling in between his master’s courageous adventures in saving the world. As George leads Amal through the crowd in his baggy jeans looking docile and outclassed, Amal pulls all the focus. The set of her glossy red lips tells us she has better places to be. She doesn’t have time for this foolishness.
She’s not wrong about that. Since she married George, Amal has been juggling several extremely high-profile cases. In October, she met with Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras to discuss efforts to return the Elgin marbles to Greece; in January she represented Armenia before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, speaking out against Dogu Perinçek, chairman of the Turkish Workers Party, who described the Armenian genocide as “an international lie”; in February, she continued her work to free Al Jazeera journalists from prisons in Egypt, issuing a statement that Canada’s “sheepish whimpers are woefully inadequate” in getting journalist Mohamed Fahmy out of Egypt; and in April she held a press conference to call for the release of the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for “terrorism” in what Amal called “a show trial.” Oh, and last week, Amal attended that Costume Institute Gala in a red strapless Galliano gown.
But what’s been most striking about Amal might be just how gracefully she’s kept the eerie glare of the Hollywood limelight away from her accomplished career. As George promotes his new film, Tomorrowland, offering good-natured nonanswers to dim-bulb questions about whether his wife has a bun in the oven, Amal is nowhere to be seen. At the Met Gala, George did the talking. At the Tomorrowland premiere at Disneyland, Amal walked the red carpet, then disappeared into the theater, and George was left to face the microphones alone. In other words, if we want to hear Amal talk, she’ll be talking about human rights. She won’t be talking about love and marriage and babies. That’s George’s job. He’s the man behind the woman. Which is a pretty unfamiliar, teachable moment for George and for America.
And somehow, Amal has effortlessly rendered our most sophisticated 50-something bachelor tongue-tied and foolish. “I’m always very proud of her when I see her speaking at the International Court of Appeals in Strasbourg, you know, with her robe on,” George tells ET. “It’s a nice-looking robe.” George also volunteers that Amal’s style is “eccentric but fun” and wants us to know that Amal is “an amazing human being” who’s “caring” but also has “a great sense of humor” and is “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.” George is stating the obvious, and it’s touching, but he sounds a little bit like the star forward’s parent on the sidelines at the NBA finals, trying to claim ownership of something that was never really his in the first place.
This is all only fair, since, let’s be honest, Amal makes all of us look a little stupid. She’s a fashion icon who, it’s easy to imagine, is dismissive of fashion icons, a megastar who would rather not be associated with megastars if she can help it. If you drew a Venn diagram of what the world wants from a feminist superhero — and by the world, I mean feminist scholars, People readers, fashion bloggers, and guys who buy Maxim — the middle circle would include Amal and Amal only. This is a circle that, for decades, we’ve been told, or told ourselves, was a null set — impossible to enter. Amal satisfies every requirement, including the flatly sexist requirement that all women be impossibly gorgeous and thin and young-looking while they do whatever important shit they’re supposedly doing (and getting paid far less for it). Which might even have us consider whether making mere mortals feel bad about themselves isn’t a bigger piece of what celebrities actually do than giving them something to look up to.
And now that we have our impeccably dressed, savvy, superintelligent, insanely accomplished princess, what comes next? What do we do with a woman who is this much better than us? If history serves as a guide, we’ll probably track her weight loss and weight gain by the ounce. We’ll probably notice when lines appear on her forehead, then we’ll question her choices when those lines disappear. We’ll probably claim that she’s cheating or that she took on the wrong oppressed nation-state or that she is cold or insincere. We’ll launch theories about her desire for children or her distaste for them. We’ll cast aspersions on her fertility, the freshness of the eggs, waiting around in her ovaries for George’s once evasive but now overeager swimmers like bored coat-check girls between seatings. We’ll probably let her know that we’re Americans so we don’t like strong women, not really, not deep down inside, and we don’t like snooty British accents, either, unless you’re Madonna or the host of So You Think You Can Dance.
What will we do with our brand-new, regal, compassionate, human-rights-championing royal? We’ll try very hard to destroy her. Her life in the spotlight will begin with the words “George Clooney Gushes About Married Life With Amal,” and it will end with the words, “You Broke Her. Are You Happy Now?” and “See, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” But maybe it’s time we at least tried.
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.