It’s timely for me that The Cut would broach the topic of how interns are treated. My latest one, my third, started on Monday. With her arrival, I’d been thinking about writing an essay called something like “How to Train and Treat Your Intern”. I planned to solicit stories from all my friends – anonymous, of course—about their experiences and how bosses could improve. I thought is necessary since most who have help are not given formal training on what to do—or not. Interns get treated pretty much however the person they are working for was— good, bad, and at times, super ugly.

But then Kayleen Schaefer wrote a fascinating story about former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang who is suing the Bazaar parent company, Hearst Corporation, for violating federal and state labor laws since they did not pay her for her work. Her attorneys want Hearst to pay its former interns “back wages, overtime, and other damages.” Her suit, has become a class action one. My idea, went to the  back burner.

Wang described her four-month internship as a “horrible” and “outrageous” experience. She worked five days a week from 9AM to 8PM and her pretty standard duties were to “track the thousands of purses, shoes, and pieces of jewelry lent to the magazine for photo shoots. She managed as many as eight other interns, sending them on 30 to 40 errands a day, and helping them file expense reports. She answered the accessories director’s phone, writing the caller’s name and holding it up, so her boss could decide whether or not to take the call.”

Her tales of woe include the night she stayed late at the office after everyone left to unpack “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. She chafed at tasks unrelated to the magazine’s operations, like hand-delivering new outfits to editors between Fashion Week shows.”

Despite her “E” for effort, Wang was not offered a job at the end of her internship, and her editor declined to write a recommendation, which means Wang wasn’t so great at her duties or her editor was straight up evil. Both are possible.  Hearst has derided the lawsuit as “without merit.”

Why? Probably because what Wang describes is a walk in the @#$%ing park.

This is the part where I’m supposed to go an old folks-like rant. You know how they describe how hard things were “way back when” and how kids “nowadays” don’t understand struggle or hard work. I’ll pass. Let’s just say Wang wouldn’t have lasted a day at Vibe or Oneworld or Time Out New York, all magazines where I interned and where working long hours for free, completing mind-numbingly frustrating (but necessary) tasks—you don’t know hell until you’re tasked with, on deadline, transcribing a two-hour interview with multiple speakers and all of them sound like they’re whispering — and catering to every editor’s competing whim was par for the course.

Let’s focus instead on what Wang missed, but will never realize because she gave up and didn’t make it far enough in The Industry to have an intern of her own. Interning – the long hours for little or no pay, the meager duties, the swallowing of pride (it is impossible not to be humble when as a college student or graduate, one of your duties requires you to stand at a copier for 3 hours)—is a necessary rite of passage.

At the beginning of each season, loads of bright –eyed students cross magazine thresholds, dreaming of getting a byline and turning their government name into a brand. What most don’t know until they arrive is all that glitters is not proverbial gold. There is an extraordinary amount of work and personal sacrifice and humility that goes into filling the glossy pages of your favorite magazines. As an editor, there’s the 2500 feature that was assigned at the last-minute that you researched and interviewed all those people for, then dutifully wrote, and then suddenly its cut. You’re lucky if it runs as a 300-word blurb in the front of the book. There’s the dressing down by a celebrity publicist, who represents near every A-lister and holds so much leverage, who is ticked at an image you ran of their client and threatens not to let others appear in your pages, much less that particular celebrity ever again. Whether it’s your fault or not, imagine explaining that to your boss when you know everyone likes to shoot the messenger. There are the never-ending meetings where you’re expected to pull ideas out your @ss because your higher up, who can shoot the side-eye of death, won’t let you leave until you produce a worthy idea, which means the ones that you’ve spent the last two weeks thinking of was time wasted. You can experience all this before Wednesday.

One of the purposes of an internship, from the intern’s perspective, should be to see the dream up close and decide if what’s behind the Wizard’s curtain is actually what you want. And if it’s not, that’s fine. Understand that your supervisor, in any stressful and fast-paced career, is evaluating you as much on your ability to do the work (if you got the internship, you’ve proven you can produce something of quality) as your ability to handle all the bullsh@#! that comes with the hard-won glitz. Your supervisor wants to see if you’re there for the “flashing lights” or if you’re willing and able to grind for the few and far between grandiose moments. You don’t get the privilege of being “[insert your name here] from [insert publication here]” and all the perks that can come with it without proving you can handle the headaches of being on the masthead. That’s actually what your internship is for. And your editor can’t know if you can handle the pressure if you’re there for the right reasons if you haven’t demonstrated the ability.

Those humbling, mediocre tasks that screw with your ego are actually necessary for the job. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but they are teaching you something if you’re smart enough to open your eyes and observe what’s going on around you.

In between standing at the copier for hours at Vibe, I figured out how to pitch a story and get my first national byline.  At Oneworld, where I was once tasked with, in teen-degree weather, of running around to various record stores to find an obscure, limited edition CD so that the photo editor could use the art in a story, I learned that writing well is more than a good hook and flipping a witty sentence, but actually having substance—a trait that a surprising number of published writers haven’t yet mastered. At Time Out New York, where my main duty was The Most Boring Job on Earth, ie, sorting through the mail and the hundreds of faxes they received daily, I learned how to decipher what was relevant to the audience. No one ever explained to me the purpose of my presence, I figured it out, and I realized long after the internship was over the priceless value of what I’d picked up just by being present.

An internship—even unpaid– is the opportunity of a lifetime for a person just starting out. Whether the tasks are endlessly Google-ing obscure facts or tissue wrapping precious baubles or giving your boss a head’s up of who’s on the phone, it’s still a front row seat at the How We Run This Operation show. You see the key players in action and if you are smart and/or borderline observant, you pick up the traits of how to get ahead in and stay in the game. It’s not about getting a job in the end, it’s about learning the ropes and getting a mentor who will connect you and advocate for you for the rest of your professional life. If you get the priceless chance to have and you can’t learn anything from it, that’s on you.  Perhaps one of the hundreds of other applicants who applied for the spot and didn’t get it may have made more use of the experience.

Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t get to live the dream. If you are privileged and squander the opportunity, or worse, like Wang, don’t even realize when one has been handed to you, you don’t deserve entry into the world you thought you belonged in.

Demetria L. Lucas the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. ABIB is available to download and now in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk

Image Credits: The Cut/Glamazons Blog

84 Comments

  1. I’m in the Broadcast industry… luckily the internship experiences I had during college were great! No one was rude, I learned a large amount about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do, and although I didn’t get paid, it really helped me get the position I have today. I think broadcasting is a way more relaxed medium behind the scenes than what I’ve heard about the magazine industry AND my hours were the best! I guess you just have to hope you get selected to this best ones and luckily know that even if they are bad, they won’t last forever.

  2. I, too, read the article about Ms. Wang and concluded that she was acting out because she just couldn’t cut it. I figured she should be grateful for the experience and therefore willing to do whatever it took. Then, I sat back and thought about my own profession–the law. Legal interns (called summer associates) at big firms (the Hearts of the business) make somewhere around $3K a week. Finance interns stand to make a lot too. With this in mind, I’ve been trying to pinpoint what it is about the entertainment and publishing industries that distinguishes them from those on Wall St. It can’t be that fashion and magazine interns are working any less than those in finance or the law. Is there something to be said for the glitz and the perks of the former? Do companies exploit young people’s (really all people’s) visceral desire to be near the lights? Does that same desire compel the interns to accept low wages and bad treatment? I’d love to hear what people have to think.

    • trisha

      Grateful is good but you should either get experience you can use or be paid accordingly free labor is no go. Thanks.

    • I agree. As I think about it more, I’m more inclined to be be against what goes on in the fashion and publishing industries. I say this because another commenter made me see this as a class mobility issue. I think the current system fosters nepotism and denies access to minority and lower class students who simply cannot afford to do these jobs under any circumstances. Even those of us who “paid our dues” should be mindful of our own privilege to be able to do so. Dare I say, unpaid internships in these fields likely contribute to the lack of diversity, which is a shame. And I do not believe for a second that the phenomenon is completely unintentional.

    • Johanna

      I loved your last reply about how unpaid internships seem to maintain the “status quo” of the communications and fashion industry. The few minorities that work in these fields have wealthy benefactors or parents who can finance years of unpaid internships. I would venture to say that media and fashion make just as much as finance, and gross way more than the legal field. So, the fact that you have interns making upwards to ten thousand dollars a week in one industry and zilch in another is completely discretionary.

      Fashion is notorious for exploiting the lower-level workers in the industry, and because there is not a serious government crackdown, the higher-ups continue to belabor “the little people”. These folks are not going to give your colored- behind a job if you work and not complain no more than if you did exactly as Xuedan Wang did.

      In fact, retail workers get paid the least of any industry, yet there are virtually no diversity on the corporate board; all of the regional managers are practically white; and I want someone to name 50 non-white fashion editors or famous stylists with their own shows…who are not married or have babies with rappers or athletes. Go!

      In fact, I would love to write an article myself on how to pay dues to you, yourself, and I; and how to build a resume without internships. Many of my friends did financed their college years through freelance work and taking on entry-level positions while attending school. And, now they have well-paying corporate jobs.

  3. Kacey

    I completely reject this idea that people have to “pay their dues” to break into an industry by being made to suffer humiliation and degradation at the whim of sadistic company employees who see it as a sport for their own amusement. It is very much a form of hazing and is unbecoming of any professional, in any firm, in any industry.

    I’m grateful that my internship experience was the complete opposite of this.

    • Sweetles

      You know, I thought of hazing when I read this article too. In college my major was Biology, and I loved my internships. I am thankful for the positive experiences because I never had much tolerance with someone treating me like sh*t.

    • Quianna

      I didn’t read anything here that amounted to interns being humiliated or degraded by a boss. Running errands for the fashion department or sending clothes back to the company is hardly humiliating or degrading.

      The bad part of hazing is the physical abuse, sleep deprivation and the danger that students have experienced. That’s the part people object to. Interns working long hours alongside their employers is not hazing. It’s preparation for a a magazine job.

    • Johanna

      Read the lawsuit.

    • African Mami

      Thank you very much!

      An internship is supposed to give a candidate valuable experience! I’m grateful that all my internship experiences were great and did not involve taking someone’s menstrual discomforts!

    • bijoux

      @Kacey and @AfricanMami Thank YOU!!!..I have interned at one of these magazines as well, and I must say, we didn’t really learn anything. Basically, we were hired as “messengers” so the companies could cut on messenger services as well. Demetria, I understand “paying your dues” but I think the line between “paying dues” and being taken advantage of, is blurred in this industry. Truth is, the term “intern” in this industry, is simply a person who does all your dirty work for FREE, without LEARNING anything under the COVER of experience. As I mentioned on The Cut blog, the only thing I learned at this prestigious magazine in Manhattan was the subway system.

    • I initially agreed that internships are how you need to pay your dues if that is required for your industry, but reading the comments and reactions in other articles and on twitter, it does seem to reek of hazing, ESPECIALLY with the sentiment of “If I had to go through it, then you have to go through it too.” Sounds more like tradition than anything, especially when you act like you can’t get your foot in the door without doing months and months of work for free while being disrespected. If you’re acting like there is no other way to get your foot in the door, and this is the way it’s always done, how is it any different than the attitudes surrounding hazing?

      Oh and Quianna, hazing has a lot to do with mental abuse, as well. It’s not defined as just physical.

      Wang does come across as a whiner though, so I’m on the fence regarding her particular situation, but as a whole, the interning situation may need to be re-examined if people are being consistently disrespected and treated as slaves.

    • @Kacey–yes, yes! I disagree with Demetria’s position in so many ways. Don’t get it twisted: while some unpaid internships are great, there are companies that know they can “hire” an intern to do the work they would–should–hire entry level employees to perform but without pay, benefits, etc. By law, an unpaid internship should not be limited to tasks that are integral to the work of the company.

      Full disclosure: I had great internships when I was coming up-one paid and one unpaid. I worked HARD and learned a great deal about my field thanks to supportive bosses. I also volunteered with organizations when I could for my own professional development.

      I have worked with organizations that employed a number of no-pay and low-pay interns.

      BUT

      -I’ve seen college students spend 3 months at a printer copying music (that’s it!).

      -I have worked with an organization where interns were told NOT to seek out upper level management for informational sessions (what’s the point of working at an organization if you don’t have the opportunity to network with the experience professional within it?)

      -I’ve seen managers get upset when an internship program is cut and they are forced to hire an entry level staffer to do their crap work (and, this is in the arts, so the pay is crap!)

      -I’ve seen interns being humiliated for no reason. I’m sorry, we are not curing cancer. It’s NEVER THAT DEEP.

      I’ve managed a few interns and led a professional development seminar for interns. In private, if an intern is struggling to support himself while on this assignment (I live in DC; this is quite common), I encourage them to forgo another internship, get a job so they can eat and pay rent–something that allows them time to network and volunteer on their own with organizations (i.e, restaurant, bar-tending, theater front of house). Sometimes, volunteering with an organization allows more flexibility than an internship program.

      I just don’t think my field is best served by breaking down interns for absolutely no reason at all.

      If an intern is capable, I want them learning as much as possible and meeting as many people in the field while they are working with me. Otherwise, I’ve failed as a manager.

  4. This is such a difficult topic. As someone aspiring to be in the fashion industry I have had two internships and two very different experiences. Any internship is HARD- especially in the fashion industry where deadlines are crucial and workdays go on until all tasks are completed. With my first internship my main problem was not with the work but with how I was treated. The employees in my department were often very rude to interns and this was recognized THROUGHOUT the company. There was a running joke about how many of our interns quit and I was one of the few to finish the program. Although it wasn’t a completely positive experience, I learned a lot and I appreciate the opportunity I was given.

    My second internship was with a smaller company and I performed many of the same tasks.The difference I felt was the respect that my supervisors gave me as a person. I feel that Ms. Wang should not complain about the tasks she was given: all interns go through that. It is par for the course. However, if she was treated unjustly she should speak up. She should also bear in mind that companies are not required to offer employment to interns when the internship ends.

    As for payment. Ahhhh wouldn’t that be nice haha. It only makes sense that people get paid for their work but such is life and the industry we work in. But if Diana REALLY had a problem with what was going down she could have been a big girl and put in her two weeks. Like all other employment, an internship is at will. If you don’t like what’s happening, then you can quit… she didn’t so it must not have been that bad.

  5. trisha

    I totally disagree with this article first of all just because some ppl have to slave away doesnt mean thats okay i worked as an intern at a well known fashion mag in new york. I was blessed to have the opportunity as a black girl but when i arrived i saw that one younger intern was getting paid and as my fam had to pay for my housing and i went to work at a restaurant in the even time i putnon my reeboks while the others where in mizrahi and putting naomis outfit back in the garment closet..i was in my restaruant uniform in the bathroom as other chilled and got to meet and greet one another at the concerts at night developed key relationships while i had to work two jobs…! One of which i was not being paid. They didnt owe me a job and surelybwouldnt give me one when me my black self and my poverty didnt fit in. That is not paying dues that is injustice i did far more then others and i dont have a job at this magazine i am temping. so i respectfully disagree

    • trisha

      It reminds me of that mother kelly who is in jail for putting her child in a better school district.whether she was wrong or right most blacks didnt immigrate so how many sacrifices should one make simply to have a good job and education. Thats unjust if you ask me. Sorry wang may not b the poster child for injustice but many companies take advantage esp in fashion and entertainment been there done that..

    • GIRL. Snaps for you! This is the same in the film industry I went to LA and did my work but being a black girl – and i am NOT using this a crutch – I honestly couldn’t fit in. Or they wouldn’t allow me but there was something off. If I did something wrong I didn’t receive the same punishment as others and I noticed it and it hurt. I grew up believing – I’m JAMAICAN damn it! – that if you work hard you will succeed and if you fail it is on you. And that is the truth in the long term but for this occasion I did work and then some but I believe that I didn’t build a network (and really didn’t learn anything but errands and how superficial people are in LA) with them and felt like I wasted my time. Next time I know to RESEARCH but for 40 hours a week I’m sorry but an entry-level fee would have been nice. I was struggling in LA I’m from NY. What if I hadn’t saved my money how would I have paid rent? Groceries? How do ppl expect other to WORK HARD for nothing? Not even for minimum wage? I have a min wage job now and that still isn’t cutting it for my rent my mom has to help me. What about ppl who dare to dream but have no one but themselves? They just can’t work for 40 hours like dogs for nothing how do established companies expect this from people? Harper’s Bazaar could have paid that girl come on son. I understand if it was a start-up/small business or if she was just committed to 20 hrs a week and had time for a 2nd job but no. 40 or more is very regular. Interns are the 21st century slave. How else can you explain free labor? It’s our will to do it bc we need the experience but bc of that interns are exploited. At this point interns need to wise up, get the experience and hire there damn selves and be that greedy company’s competition. Ppl I know have had 7 internships with no hires. And this article blames the little guys? I am disappointed.

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