Confessions of a Former Magazine Intern

Fashion interns are fighting back! But is it worth it?
Publish date:
September 13, 2012
work life, interning, being broke, paying dues

I've written a lot about my salad days as a plucky magazine intern/temp/assistant in post-9/11 Manhattan. When my senior year of college began, it was as if the whole world was at my feet. A week later that all came crashing down.

There were no jobs in New York. I wanted to be a writer. I'd never watched "Sex and the City." I had no time between graduation and real life to lounge around. After my first big-girl interview, someone pointed out that the back vent on my new H&M suit jacket was still sewn shut. Same for the pockets. I could say the same for my prospects. I was new and shiny and as yet unworn.

So when I got an internship at Oprah Magazine, I didn't care about silly details like pay, hours or anything. I just wanted to be worn. I needed some experience. Turns out getting your big toe in the door of the publishing industry wasn't for the faint of heart, or the unresourceful. At Hearst, we made minimum wage, $5.15/hour, which was more than the $0.00/hour interns at other magazines were making. We took our $180 a week and were grateful for it.

After my third of the rent was paid and boxes of Ramen tucked into the kitchen, I had just enough left over to be broke. Some people think I'm exaggerating when I tell the story of walking the 50 blocks to O's old offices on 53rd street from my first apartment in Harlem. Then they do the math. Eighty dollars a month on metro fare or being able to eat meat once in a while? I opted for the extra protein, even if it was burned off faster than it took to cook.

All that is to say I know about that intern life, y'all. I know it sucks. I know it seems unfair. But despite all that, I'm still not sure I'd be marching with the more than 3,000 interns involved in a class action suit against the Hearst Corporation.

Former "head accessories intern" Diana Wang is being heralded by New York Magazine as the "Norma Rae of fashion interns." After a four-month unpaid stint at Harper's Bazaar, Wang was told by her supervisor that she needed more experience (maybe another internship) before getting a paying gig. Wang wasn't having that shit.

"The experience we all worked through was so outrageous," she told New York Mag, "and it was the kind of thing that the interns couldn’t tell their personal circles about. It was very belittling. They couldn’t tell their adviser what they were doing at their internship."

But the examples Wang gives are pretty vanilla on the scale of normal grunt work to "Devil Wears Prada"-level humiliation. She answered phones, organized the accessories closet, ran errands for editors during Fashion Week and filed expense reports. Oh, OK.

"She recalled one frantic night when, after the editors had left the office, she unpacked a trunk full of accessories, tissue-wrapped piece by tissue-wrapped piece, to dig out a single misplaced necklace. Or the practical agony of getting through a subway turnstile with seven shopping bags in her hands," goes the article.

And loopty loop go my eyes.

Listen, interning is hard work. You're basically working for a recommendation, a resume bullet point. It's a lot like pledging a sorority without the guarantee of actually getting in after you've tap danced in your skivvies on the quad during hell week. You're stressed, you're underfed and underappreciated.

Wang's lawyers say that they doubt the suit will abolish the practice of paying interns nada. What they hope, according to the article, is that companies reconsider the infamous "school credit" carrot and simply pay interns a minimum to living wage. That I can get behind, no question. The practice of unpaid internships also, in my opinion, breeds the homogeny of the magazine industry and obstructs even robust attempts at diversity. For the most part, who do you think can afford to not get paid for full-time work? Rich (and usually white) girls.

But what I think bothers unpaid interns the most, more than the fact that they've got to practically starve themselves just to get ahead in the race, is the fact that what's behind all the glitz of the glossies ain't all that pretty. For every polished editor featured on some popular street style blog, there are 10 interns sweating in the beauty closet she "runs." When they see how the sausage is made, some people can't keep eating it, especially when they're paying a premium. But for the hungry ones, though, it doesn't matter.