When I moved to Los Angeles, I was lucky to be hired as a stylist almost immediately. I worked in wardrobe houses and on music video sets and had experiences many people who have worked in the industry for quite awhile haven’t had. One day I found myself in the middle of the desert, making adjustments to Jack Black’s costume on a Tenacious D music video shoot, trying not to giggle like a schoolgirl at his impromptu comedy routines while Sweet P from Project Runway, Season 4 (now a makeup artist!) touched him up and joked along. A fantasy I didn’t know I had was fulfilled that day, and I am forever grateful.
However, I wanted to supplement my income earned as a stylist with a writing-centered position, a career in editing my eventual goal. I’m from the Midwest, and I proceeded towards this objective as I would have back home: I sent out resumes and went on interviews, armed with writing samples, and wearing, of course, a neutral button down and black slacks. As I was returning from my second or third fruitless interview, my brother, who I was living with at the time, eyed my outfit and calmly asked me what the hell I was wearing. Evidently, when striving to procure a writing position at a cool magazine in Los Angeles, one does not simply stride in sporting the latest from Ann Taylor and expect to walk out with a job.
So, for my next interview at a small, hip fashion magazine in Hollywood, I wore motorcycle boots and slouchy boyfriend jeans. The editor who interviewed me (swathed in an awesome side-boob revealing tank and fishnets), looked over my resume lazily and informed me there were no editorial positions open, but I looked like a good candidate to intern. She waxed romantically about opportunity and bylines. She kept calling me “love.” There were sweeping arm gestures involved. I, transfixed, jumped in with an enthusiastic, affirmative response. Of course I would intern. Of course I would be thrilled to work for free.
I figured many young professionals were in the same boat, and with my work experience and English degree, it wouldn’t be long before I distinguished myself and secured a paid spot at the magazine. As I’m sure many of you are muttering under your breath as you read this, I was wrong. I was so very, very wrong.
I boned up on proper proofreading marks and InDesign skills to ensure I was sharp and up to date, but I was still terrified on my first day. My boss, sensing my apprehension, condescendingly told me to “cheer up, love, I didn’t work full-time until I was 26.” My resume, thoroughly documenting my six years of professional, full-time work, sat before her. I fumed inwardly. She was 27.
As I got settled at my new desk, I stole glances at the other interns trickling in. They were braless, Skrillex-haired babies, with perky boobs and an average age of 19. I self-consciously tugged my flowing blouse, which had seemed so breezy and chic that morning when I got dressed, over my DDs. They regarded me warily. I could have been the nanny.
I should have prepped for my internship on a treadmill, balancing multiple Starbucks orders in one hand with a phone up to my ear in the other, ordering ten separate lunches, jogging at a steady pace while trying not to sound out of breath. Because as I’m sure anyone knows who has been in my place, interning at a fashion magazine does not involve Adobe skills or glamorous events. At least not at first. It means learning to work in a merciless and cutthroat environment, from the very, very bottom. For me, it meant repeating the years I had spent paying my dues at previous positions, biting my tongue while being lectured on proper email composition, or how to maintain relationships with collaborating companies or write reports and make schedules and organize social functions. Being treated as if I were clueless was understandable, as my fellow interns had to be instructed how to use a multiple-line phone, but it was also insufferable. I had done several versions of this job in other fields, and had successfully moved up and on. I was eager to jump in, contribute content, and learn the editorial skills I hadn’t yet mastered. This didn’t exactly happen.
But I did learn some new things. I can now use social media like nobody’s business to network and expand readership. I can fact-check and transcribe flawlessly. I no longer have butterflies when pitching articles to a room full of people, since I had to do so in front of the most stylish, terrifying people I have ever met. I now know what kind of dude can pull off drop-crotch, harem-style skinny denim without looking like he just took a dump in his trousers (answer: teenaged movie stars). I also learned to live with the incredible frustration that comes from being several years older and wiser than my counterparts, and to take advantage of it. While it didn’t help that my editors (who were my contemporaries) chummed it up with the young-uns, and regarded me with the distasteful attitude one might reserve for an old, expired gallon of milk, I used the time to demand confidence from myself. I stopped short-changing my writing skills and started building on what I had already accomplished instead of bemoaning the reactions I got from my co-workers concerning my advanced age and matronly bod. And though I never nailed the feature spread, I did get to see my writing in print, albeit just a few lines, and without credit, because “of course, love, that is reserved for paid editors.”
I was eventually offered another position at an independent jewelry company, which incorporated writing as well as styling and sales. My editors reprimanded me for taking on more work outside the internship, though a flexible schedule around paying gigs was one of their primary guarantees to us unpaid editorial assistants. I gave them my two-weeks and gladly moved on to greener pastures. And while my experience at the magazine has bolstered my resume as well as my grasp on how an editorial department functions, it was not my ticket to glory and the front row at fashion week. Regardless, I would absolutely endorse an internship to young(ish) professionals. It won’t be a happy exchange of invaluable experience for free labor — in fact, you will likely end up paying them to work when gas money, industry-approved clothing, and the therapy you require in order to keep from killing your coworkers is taken into consideration — but if you shove your way in and demand the tough tasks, you can get that invaluable experience on your own terms. Otherwise, you will be fetching coffee and answering phones, only to end up trampled beneath over-eager teenagers for your efforts.
And try to ignore their whispers and stares and nicknames like “granny intern” or “old titty boobs.” Though you may never have been a lithe-bodied art student with designer clothes and a parent-subsidized pad in Silver Lake, you were once 19. And Skrillex hair really does look cool.