The internship – the infamous feature of the tough fashion industry – is all work and no pay. Nicole Newman asks if it’s worth it.
Will never forget the day I received the phone call from Tarryn Oppel, then ELLE’s Fashion Editor, saying that I had been successful in my interview and they would love me to be an intern. I remember being unable to find the words to say how thankful I was that, out of all the young, stylish girls they had interviewed, I was chosen to become part of the ELLE team. This had been a dream of mine since high school, and only in fairy tales do dreams come true, right? Well, after the first week of orienting myself in the ELLE way of life, reality hit and the dream quickly began to fade amid the checking of countless items into the fashion closet and the sourcing of clothes in the city of Cape Town (and all its extensive surrounds! ).
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We’ve all seen the movies about the magazine industry – The Devil Wears Prada, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days and more – where the staffers sit in beautiful offices, browse through rails of glamorous clothes and strut about in the most beautiful heels a girl can imagine, all the while holding a Chanel clutch in one hand and carrying coffee in the other. I have to tell you that this is nowhere near a true reflection of what an internship entails: that carrying seven heavy bags strung on each arm is not only difficult but tiring; that unpacking boxes of sample clothes (and packing them again after the.CO. ZA GO TO ELLE.CO. ZA to see a week in the life of an ELLE intern MAKE OR BREAK LAST WORD shoot) is anything but glamorous; and that the coffee you’re carrying is headed for anyone on the team other than you. And you do all this while not getting paid? People reading this might think that we interns are mad. We’re not. We love what we do.
It’s a passion that is wildly out of synch with the amount of money to be earned. And, yes, it is not easy. It is usually made very clear at the beginning of an internship that there is no guarantee of a job offer at the end of the six months (or however long the internship may be). But this is the way to break into the industry, get your foot in the door. And the number of interesting, dynamic, involved creatives you meet, the experiences you are exposed to, the influential people you work for will, if you let them, slowly but surely start to shape your life. I was an inexperienced 21-year-old when I started my internship; now, at 24, I am a wiser, more responsible version of myself.
In the first two months I didn’t realise the extent of the contribution of interns and the role that they played. I didn’t realise how heavily the fashion department relied on them to produce the beautiful shoots, or even to put a production together. After guidance from a certain someone (the same someone who made that fateful phone call), I figured out I wasn’t going to gain anything by not giving the internship my everything. I started to take it seriously and use my initiative. If something went wrong, I didn’t go running to someone else looking doe-eyed and confused but rather set about finding a solution. I learnt to take full responsibility; I learnt to organise the fashion cupboard so as to make life as simple as possible for the fashion editors and director; I extended my help to other departments within ELLE.
I was going to make it impossible for them to let me go. Having now seen interns come and go, I can safely say that not everyone has the same experience I did. Some interns start out and then, realising it’s not like in the movies, very quickly leave. Some never give it their all and as a result don’t learn it all. You get what you give. Now, working at ELLE as Junior Fashion Editor, with my dream come true, I can share this: there may be no pay, and the work may seem overwhelming, but learning from the best, pushing yourself and discovering qualities in yourself you didn’t know you had are worth more than money can buy. The jury may be out, but if you ask me – the internship experience is as valuable as you want it to be.