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

  • Erin

    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.

  • name. (@lmdub19)

    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.

  • 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.

  • socoolandtrendy

    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.

  • 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

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