This Page-Turning Memoir Is ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Meets the White House
Beck Dorey-Stein, President Obama’s White House stenographer, answered an ad on Craigslist for her position… only to ditch the interview before finding out what the gig actually was. In the end, she rallied and got the job, plus the experience of a lifetime and a total page-turner of a memoir, From the Corner of the Oval ($28). The book is already being called the new The Devil Wears Prada (complete with makeover montages, brushes with celebrity, and infidelities that take place in the kind of expensive hotel rooms Anna Wintour would approve of). Instead of name-checking Calvin Klein and Patrick Demarchelier, From the Corner of the Oval drops references to New Yorker editor David Remnick, White House giants like David Plouffe and Joe Biden and, naturally, the 44th President of the United States of America.
Dorey-Stein wanted to be a stenographer like The Devil Wears Prada’s Andyc wanted to fetch Hermès scarves and hot Starbucks for Miranda Priestly. She knew she was a writer — so between early-morning runs and late-night rounds of Cape Codders (that’s a vodka/cranberry with a slice of lime, FYI), she documented her long days inside the Obama “bubble.” In From the Corner of the Oval she shares her insider observations, experiences, and stories about the kind of inevitable screw-ups that we all make in our 20s. It’s all very relatable — except for the fact that Dorey-Stein was going through all that tumultuous early career and relationship stuff while circling the globe on Air Force One with the President of the United States.
From the Corner of the Oval is a book for anyone who has dreaded the question “So, what do you do?” because “I’m still figuring it out” isn’t the most impressive answer. The point is, it doesn’t have to be. This memoir is proof that if you’re passionate about something, then sometimes your path finds you.
We spoke with Beck Dorey-Stein about what it was like to witness history in the making from an extremely close vantage point — and how to handle the heartbreak that comes with an ending none of us were expecting: the election of Donald Trump.
Brit + Co: At the beginning of the book you provide a list of guidelines for aspiring stenographers like “Be discreet and neat — like a librarian or a well-paid prostitute” and “Breathe quietly or not at all,” but the one that stands out is “Above all else, keep the secrets to yourself.” Did you stick to that one in writing this book?
Beck Dorey-Stein: I made up those rules. It was like, “These are the rules for being a good stenographer” and I was never going to be a good stenographer. It’s not who I planned on being, it’s not who I necessarily wanted to be. Working at the White House was an honor, but being a stenographer, transcribing other people’s thoughts when I really wanted to write down my own opinions, that’s what was going to happen.
B+C: The book is set in the Obama White House, but so much of it is about being in your 20s and out of school and navigating the beginning of relationships and careers — which makes this seemingly unimaginable world really relatable.
BDS: I was thinking about how when you work at the White House, it’s so cool and unique, but in a lot of ways it’s like any other office. You’re thinking things like, “Okay, when’s the best time to get coffee?” In any workplace, there are going to be these politics you have to navigate, especially as a young woman. Thinking about other young women who were going to read this, having been a high school English teacher, I wanted them to read it and know that even at the White House, even in this really magical place, you’re going to deal with all of these unappealing things. That’s just part of your job.
B+C: Your book got us thinking about that sometimes awful question (especially if you don’t have an answer yet): “So, what do you do?” Do you think that question should be abolished for anyone under 30?
BDS: No! I think if it’s asked with a generosity of spirit it’s fine. It’s just in DC, the culture is all about “So what do you do?” There’s all this measurement. But I love finding out what people do because I only ask people who I think are really interesting — the answer can be whatever [but] my follow-up is, “Do you love it? Do you want to do it? Do you want to keep doing it? What do you want to do?” That’s really different than in DC where they were calculating: “Can this help me?”
B+C: It’s funny how every industry, no matter how niche, has its own lingo. Yours had the “bubble,” “pool spray,'” “gaggle” and, a personal favorite, “secondary hold” (which meant that POTUS was in the bathroom). Did anyone give you a crash course in that kind of thing?
BDS: Noooooo. Certainly not. Especially with secondary hold. People would be like, “Oh, he’s in secondary hold” and I’d be like, “Should I be in there?! Do we need a transcript of that?” I had no idea. I was just fumbling in the dark for a while. I think stenographers are sort of lone wolves on the road, so no, there’s no orientation, you feel your way through it… and make some mistakes along the way.
B+C: Okay, relatability aside, you’re going through all these things, making all the mistakes everyone makes in their 20s while wearing the red metal pin that tells the Secret Service you’re a part of POTUS’s inner bubble. Do you think being so young made that manageable, like had you been older and wiser would you have been more stressed out by the job?
BDS: Probably. I think part of it was being open to everything. At the White House everyone was seasoned, [but] I kind of landed there through this Cinderella Craigslist story. Being young was helpful but more than being young, it was being open and not being so self-serious that I was too embarrassed to ask questions.
B+C: Obviously there were so many incredible things about the job, but you also witnessed some really terrible tragedies, specifically the Newtown, CT shooting. That must have had a profound effect on you, being so close to the President and the official response.
BDS: It’s hard to talk about even now. It was heartbreaking. It was devastating. And it was shocking to go up there and see these families. We actually had a bunch of the families come back on Air Force One to appeal to Congress about gun reform. To have them on the plane, all carrying pictures of their children who had been massacred, they were telling us their names and what they liked to do with their siblings… It was like, we let this happen and Congress is going to continue to let this happen. You can never unsee that, you can’t forget it.
What still devastates me is that nothing has changed. The silver lining is supposed to be that we take action so that this doesn’t happen again. Every time [President Obama] would try to do that, Congress wouldn’t even bring it to a vote. It’s frustrating as a citizen and it’s more frustrating because we’re the ones going and seeing these heartbroken families and we can’t even say, “We can do something about this.”
B+C: Near the end of the book, this sense of dread builds because we all know what’s coming: Trump. Knowing how much he’s undone, was it difficult to write about all the great work Obama had been doing at the time?
BDS: It’s like watching the Titanic where you’re like, “Oh, this ship is going to sink!” [But] I was keeping notes the whole time, so it was actually more like patching a quilt together, reaching back into the annals of what I had written in real time, which was great because I wouldn’t have been able to write the book if I had saved [the writing] until the end. I have a terrible memory.
But that was the hardest part, having to write about the work we did and then having this guy come in who has no respect for progress or the Constitution. To have him fumble his way in. To see him not respect anything that our country stands for. That was the hardest part.
B+C: You kind of gloss over the way you ended up leaving the White House. You stayed on briefly post-Obama.
BDS: I really lucked out. I was typing a Sean Spicer briefing and my literary agent called and said, “You have a book deal. You’ve typed your last press briefing.” So that was the silver lining personally — when Trump won, I thought, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” Before that, I was interested in seeing Hillary. I wanted to see what it would be like to work for the first female president. But because Trump won, it was the ultimate incentive to take my writing seriously because if I don’t take it seriously now, when will I? So I got a book deal, which is great, but I’d much prefer not having Trump as president. We’re going to have a lot of explaining and apologizing to do.
B+C: Is there one especially strange moment that stands out for you working in the early days of Trump? We can’t even imagine what that atmosphere would be like, although in the book you describe it as both a divorce and a funeral…
BDS: From his inaugural speech on. The language he used was so different than anything I’d been typing for the last five years. President Obama was all about “We’re the United States of America, we’re better together.” To go from that to this us-versus-them was like, “Uh, who’s them? Who’s us?” I thought we were all together in this. Going back to the White House the first day and walking by what had been my friends’ offices, where they had done really cool, important stuff, and all of the sudden they’re either empty or it’s some 22-year-old who had been working for Ted Cruz and had been shipped over. It was chaotic.
B+C: Setting aside the fancy hotels and regularly traveling on Air Force One, what was the best part of the job?
BDS: Getting to see President Obama up close. I was so nervous when I started the job that he wasn’t going to be as great as I hoped he’d be. Like, what if when the cameras are off, he’s just another slick politician? He’s so authentic. What you see is what you get with him, except when the cameras are off, he’s actually a little funnier and he takes more time with each person. He’s so respectful of everyone in the room. He’s so generous with his time. He’s like your friend’s really cool dad — when he walks into the room, you hope you don’t say anything really dumb, because he’s that cool. And then you always end up saying something dumb because his intellect is so intimidating! And he loves those gotcha moments.
B+C: The book has already been optioned for a movie. Let’s talk about dream casting. Casting Obama would be really difficult, but what about some other characters? Who’d play you? Who’d play Jason, your White House bad romance? Who’d play the mean girl, The Rattler?
BDS: I think it would be really fun if we got POTUS to play POTUS, because no one can do him. He’s just too good. As for me, it would be really fun to put it on Craigslist as a one-day thing for an extra. And then they come in and we’re like, “Just kidding! You’re going to star!” To keep the generosity and the magic going.
[Jason] is this Jim Carrey-type doppelganger so we could do that. Also Woody Harrelson. He’s just this charming, funny guy, and he’s a great actor so I think he’d do a good job at being unassuming. The Rattler just becomes [a question of] which actresses I love, but Cate Blanchett would be so fun. She can nail any role.
B+C: Do you miss going to work every day at the White House?
BDS: If it was still the Obama White House, I would be crying all the time and have incessant FOMO. But because I stayed for Trump, it was like staying a little too long. Like when you stay too long at the dance and the lights come on. So it was easy to leave. I’m so happy I’m not there. Even though things are slower now, I love my new life. I love getting to be proud of what I’m doing.
What books are you bringing to the beach this summer? Tell us about it on Twitter @BritandCo.
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(Photos via Lawrence Jackson and Evan Gaffney and Penguin Random House)
Artist Dev Heyrana On How Bravery, Resilience and Sunshine Influence Her Work
Ever meet someone who you feel immediate kinship with on a deep almost spiritual level? That is legit every person's experience upon meeting Dev Heyrana, the star of this edition of Creative Crushin'. A fine artist, hip hop dance teacher and constant collaborator, Dev's particular brand of creativity is one-of-a-kind. She manages to be warm, welcoming and woke, with a focus on inclusivity, social justice and motherhood that comes through in every piece of art she creates.
Anjelika Temple here, co-founder of Brit + Co and one of many humans who has benefitted from Dev's boundless generosity and kindness. We first connected at a launch event, then I asked her if she and her family would like to model for a B+C shoot (they did!), then months later, I asked the IG universe if anyone would be down to co-parent with me for a day so I could speak at a conference. Dev said yes! And for those that know her, none of these serendipitous moments are surprising.
Now it's time to delve more into Dev's story, her creative inspiration, her thoughtful approach to parenting and what makes her more passionate than ever about bringing her point of view and artistic voice into the universe.
Anjelika Temple: First, foundations. Where did you grow up? What is your heritage? What did you study in school? Where do you live now?
Dev Heyrana: Born in The Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 9 years old. Me and my family are from the island of Cebu and I'm a proud Cebuana. My childhood in the Philippines felt like freedom. I had my swimsuit in my backpack for whenever we decided to swim and I biked everywhere.
Immigrating here at 9 yrs old was a transition, to say the least. My parents had big dreams but the move was heavy on them. It wasn't easy. I had to grow up fast. I took care of my sisters while my parents worked night shifts. By the age of 12 I would cook dinner and get my sisters ready for bed. Something I didn't realize was that kids my age didn't do those things until I got older. We would play these make-believe games to make, in hindsight, our hard situation brighter.
I think this is really when art played a big role in my life. It was something I could escape in and always felt healing.
I witnessed racism towards my family and didn't know how to make sense of it. These events left a mark. I was a quiet kid and observed everything and everyone around me. I think about my grandparents, Lolo Jose and Lola Rita, a lot as I walk through life. When I make decisions. As hard as it feels, you have two choices, do you let it take you down or take it one step at a time forward. I kept going and it really shaped me as to why I am the way I am today.
I studied Fine Arts at The Corcoran in DC. I owe that decision to my art teacher, Mr Giles, in High School. He was retiring and wore a Hawaiian shirt every day during my senior year. He was a curmudgeon and I felt incredibly special since out of everyone in the school he really believed in me. As grumpy as he seemed to the class, he would tell me things like "Go into the other studio and break some glass, then put it on a canvas." He's the reason why my abstract pieces have elements like clay and sand in them.
I've had incredible mentors and all were teachers. Mr. Giles in High School and Christine George in College. Christine was the one who told me to go either to New York or San Francisco because "D.C. is no place for an artist like you." She told me to not listen to anyone, how I can still paint, be a graphic designer, and, if I choose to, have a family. I've never had anyone tell me anything like that before.
I took a chance because of her. Moved and went to Design School in 2006 and I've stayed in the Bay Area ever since, raising two girls with the love of my life.
Anj: You are one of those magical human beings that has figured out how to be a full-time artist. What was your career path like before you were able to dive fully into your creative passions?
Dev: The most radical thing I could have done in my family, I did, I went to college for Fine Arts. A mix of being so young and having to do it on my own, I went with the school that gave me more scholarships. Even then I worked three jobs to be able to get through it. Hard work is ingrained in me.
With my sculpture background, I fell in love with Print and Packaging and why I came out here to San Francisco. I appreciated the security of having a career in Graphic Design. I also learned how to work with clients and the business side of things. Even then, I never stopped painting.
A few years ago I went through a pretty hard time with my health. I dealt with six surgeries in one year and I still have to do some follow-up ones. That experience almost broke me and what got me through was my family and painting in bed while I recovered.
When I finally got back on my feet, my heart just wasn't in Graphic Design anymore. So I made a two year plan. With a toddler and a mortgage, I wanted to make sure my steps were thought out. I put myself out there as an Artist while I still worked in Design. After a year I worked part time as a Graphic Designer and stepped down from my Creative Director position. I loved it, to be creative as an Artist and as a Designer. I looked at 2018 as my year to make the jump. If my work as an Artist balances out with my salary then I would quit in the Summer of 2019. And so here we are. I also am sharing a studio with my good friend, Naomi PQ, and I feel like my creative drive is just beginning.
Anj: What do you love about painting? How do you feel when you're in a creative flow state?
Dev: Like every part of me is free. Free to express myself through the stroke of my hand. How all of it leads back to my heart. These elements I use to paint have a mind of their own and how I need to respect the process.
It centers me and reminds me that the process is just like the life we lead. I know I still have so much more to learn but while I'm painting no matter how it's going, I'll embrace this moment.
Anj: You reference your roots quite a bit in your work. Talk to me more about how your roots inspire your work.
Dev: One of my earliest memories is of my Lolo Jose teaching me how to water mango saplings. He converted to Buddhism when my mother was young, so he viewed the world with love and kindness. I didn't realize it then but watering those mango trees were life lessons. We need to take the time to nurture, practice patience, and respect all living things. I still imagine him walking beside me often, carrying his teachings as I find my way in this world.
Nature and the Sun drive my pieces. My abstract works are fragments of moments. Like the sunset I grew up with when I was seven years old in the Philippines, like how I saw the water in Cebu when I dove in as a young adult, and like when I saw the redwoods with my children for the first time.
I see earth in our skin and especially when I paint people. How our mango trees grew and blossomed because the dark earth was rich with nutrients. I imagine the Sun piercing through these women I depict. I paint their love and bravery because their resilience cannot be contained. I want to celebrate all of it.
This is the beauty of Art, I am able to paint exactly how I see it.
Anj: Motherhood and your daughters are also central themes in your work. How has motherhood changed your approach to creating artwork?
Dev: Everything. I was still deep in my Design Career and I would paint at home. One day Quinn, who was 3 years old at the time introduced me at the park to a mom. "This is my mom, she's an Artist." It struck me that my toddler knew who I was more than I knew myself. That's really when I really owned it. I am more fearless because of my girls.
I own my body, I thank people when they compliment me, and I am selective but fearless when I use my voice. I am more in tune how I speak about myself because of them. When I paint these women I want to celebrate them. I notice how I embrace myself is translated in my paintings.
Anj: What advice can you give to parents who are trying to tap into their kiddos' innate creativity?
Dev: I don't have a lot of guidelines set up. I'll say "Let's draw the biggest fish we can draw" or "how many silly lines can we make" and I let them lead me. They ask me questions, show me things, and I sit there with my coffee watching their eyes wide with excitement. Watching them in their creative process is pure joy for me. Those silly lines can turn into a dragon or waves and next thing we know, we're drawing a big beach scene. My advice would be that you can suggest something to start it off but be open to how they take it. It is such a beautiful window into their minds.
Anj: Shifting gears to HIP HOP DANCE! Talk to us about his component of your creative expression.
Dev: I loved the Hip Hop scene in DC and discovered how much fun the clubs were in college. My friends told me about this Hip Hop Crew I should try out for, I was so scared because I've never taken a dance class in my life. I got in and it was like having another family. We competed all over the East Coast, it was a blast!
I found hipline when I started my first Design Job and needed an outlet. It was exactly what I needed and one of the owners asked if I was interested to teach. I've been teaching there since 2009 and am still going strong. It's a wonderful community of women. Now we're virtual and reaching clients all over.
Anj: What does a typical [pandemic] day look like for you? How does it differ from your rhythm before COVID?
Dev: I've been practicing being kinder to myself lately. Both me and my husband work full time and so having the girls at home is a challenge. Some days we are amazed by how smooth it went and then there are others where if the girls are clean and bellies are full, it's a total win.
Now that we're on month 8 our rhythm before covid felt more chaotic to be honest. I felt like we were always rushing out the door while carrying so many bags. Now my husband and I try to have coffee together, if he has a break from his meeting, and we sit with Quinn before school to see what she has to do for the day. Rowan's preschool closed down but we were able to find a wonderful speech therapist for her and she has an Adventure Pod we go to two times a week.
The one thing we really try to do is go outside once a day. Have some magic in their childhood no matter how small. It could be just going up for a hike by our home and picking up leaves, riding our bikes, or watching the sunset from our window. Seeing how the girls' react to these adventures we have is pure magic.
Anj: When you get creatively blocked or burnt out, how do you reset? Do you have tips you can share?
Dev: I go outside. I go out for a hike or go to the beach. Even if it's 15 minutes, something about grounding yourself in Nature is really healing. I also do exercise where I doodle for two minutes because it feels doable. Judgment-free doodles, always opens the doorway to more.
Anj: I know firsthand that community-building is huge for you. Tell us more about what your support system and creative community looks like.
Dev: I feel a lot of love and strength when I think of my community. My relationship with my sister led the way what women supporting women looks like. It's listening, asking questions, remembering, cheering for all the wins, being there even if it's hard, and taking time to invest in them. The way me and my sister show up for each other is why I have these amazing women in my life. I can talk to them about my family, motherhood, and we're all trying to balance it all while sharing my most recent project. I feel really blessed especially looking back in my college years where I don't know where Art would take me.
Anj: When you need to give yourself a pep talk, what does it sound like?
Dev: I usually take a deep breath then say or think "One step forward". Most of the time, I'm scared (as shit) but the thought of not trying scares me more. That one step forward can be hard as hell and maybe even heartbreaking, but I have to try.