Recollections of an Unpaid Intern

by Caroline Leung

A very common beginning line is, “We are not like the others,” as though they are trying to sell to us, rather than the other way round. It’s a cold, calculating seduction that bewilders, like getting eye-fucked by a hot little number who’s way out of your tragically septuagenarian league. There must be an ulterior motive, we think, but we can’t help but salivate over the possibility. We race-read the thing, fist-pumping at the arguments they give us, the things we will be responsible for. We think about lofts and blazers, the definition of business-casual, the strength of our handshakes. We get lost in fantasy.

And then we think about the undoubtedly numerous others, others just like us, who are also reading this — practiced, polished, and published others. Fuck, we think. We must hurry. And we hastily apply (“To Whom It May Concern”? Don’t) and click send, like saying, “I do” at a shotgun wedding. Driven by passion, you have just signed away (an estimated) four months of your life. And you are painfully unsure of what you’ll get in return.

Welcome to the predicament of an unpaid media intern.

The first magazine I ever applied to was a free weekly, akin to The Village Voice. I was eighteen, and knew little of a proper office environment; same ignorance applied to journalism. I had never had a job before. Despite my aspirations to badassery, I was a thoroughly allowanced and curfewed child, and never needed to earn my own money. I only knew that I liked to read and write, and that media was a shitty place to work these days, so I’d have to work my way up. This philosophy (combined with the circumstances — it was 2008 and the most cesspool-y the economy has ever been) necessitated an armor of masochism that I will cling to for the rest of my undergraduate years. The publication was a notorious staple of the city’s expats, and because I had a handy grasp of the English language, I was hired.

The newsroom did not lack in stereotypes, which delighted me to no end. The politics guy was an undeniable nerd whose exposed inches of sock did little to curb my infatuation. The fashion editor was an Asian caricature of Andre Leon Talley (so he was a caricature of a caricature). My immediate superior was the culture editor. He could be casually callous at times, and never spared a cigarette, but gruffly kind in the way that Clint Eastwood might be if he was a manny in a rom-com. The publisher’s presence was only a frightening rumour but still haunted my occasional bouts of idleness. I never went on Facebook.

What does an intern do? This question can, again, be easily answered by using a metaphor of romantic relations. The intern’s responsibilities are, in nature, equivalent to that of a fuck buddy’s — hazily bordered, undefined, saturated in passive aggression. On the days I had nothing to do, I would send my editor (who sat a mere three desks away) an email, asking if he had anything for me to do, agonizing over whether an exclamation point would be too much. I sounded just like that girl you were fucking but not dating. Same principle. After all, I was the girl who was hired to work for him, but wasn’t getting paid.

My boyfriend is a motion graphics designer. The studio he’s working at recently hired an intern to shadow him, and over dinner last night, he told me how frustrated he was with her presence. I couldn’t believe it. “Why?” I asked — maybe a little too shrilly. It didn’t make sense to me; she was there to help. “Because I don’t know what to give her,” he replied. He explained that because she was unpaid, she couldn’t be assigned to do anything of substance. Otherwise, it’d be exploitation.

When I was at that weekly, I was everyone’s little helper. I darted to and fro, the flip flop of my season-appropriate footwear punctuating each eager step. So much for “business casual.”

On my first day, I transferred contact information from post-its and memos to a spreadsheet. During my second week, I fact-checked listings, struggling to retain the honey in my voice after a long day of phone calls. I considered my tagging along with my editor for an interview with the head of the city’s pest control a real coup.

Halfway through my internship, I was assigned to collect “vox pops” (or “man on the street” interviews) for a feature on the city harbor’s reconstruction. (The Belle Jolie to my Peggy-esque circumstances, I excitedly thought.) Exploitation, what? I just wanted to contribute.

All the recorders were being used, so they gave me a digital camera (“film them,” they said, when I asked politely what I was supposed to do with it). It was July. The summer was stifling. I flitted madly from person to person, asking if they spoke English. I settled for three tourists; useless for a feature that was about how the construction affected long-term residents. The background noise — ironically, from the very construction that I was interviewing them about — drowned out every word of their answers. Pissed off, I took a cab back to the office, wondering if I could expense it.

My editor shrugged when I told him, apologies up to the eyeballs, what had happened. “Half the time we make it up,” he said. A day later, another editor was too hungover to make it to a review. I spent two hours in the Four Seasons’ newest venture, watching a crazed publicist cut my Kobe slider into bite-sized pieces. Was the vox pops gathering a thinly guised hazing ritual, and had I passed? I’m guessing yes.

There was no shortage of tasks that I was suited to do, but that didn’t mean I was always busy. There were days I’d have nothing to do, stuck in a limbo of faked studiousness and eye-crossing boredom. I wallowed. The company then had the audacity to hire another intern at the apex of my uselessness. Aghast, I became more aggressive in asking for tasks. A few days into it, the new girl, with little to do, asked me if I had a pair of headphones to spare. I handed them over. She began to stream Korean dramas on her computer.

“What’re you doing?” I wrote in an email.

“Who cares? They aren’t paying me,” she wrote back. She had a point. I glanced at my editor. He was gnashing his usual post-lunch toothpick into his gums, but had his eyes trained on the girl. I quickly went back to “work” (i.e. listless browsing of New York archives).

A week later, she was fired. Not because she was useless, exactly — as interns, aren’t we all? — but because she didn’t have the smarts to at least pretend.

Let’s be real. People apply for unpaid internships from places of desperation. I was happy to help, no matter how irrelevant the task; I felt like I was proving myself somehow. (Productivity: What a beautiful mirage you are.) I felt like I ought to be grateful for the exposure I was getting, particularly when I knew a lot of kids couldn’t afford the time, or lack of money. I learned a lot — probably more than I would’ve if I had spent tens of thousands on journalism school. And companies like feeling useful to your education in return. The ill-fated intern rubbed her cynicism in her editors’ faces; no wonder they didn’t want anything to do with her.

One enormous argument against the unpaid internship is the classist one. Most unpaid interns tend to have privileged backgrounds, and go on to get the jobs that those who can’t afford to work for free.

Full disclosure: During my multiple tenures (!) as an unpaid intern, my mom supported me. Not without question, but she did. When I first told her I wanted to be a writer, she shrugged, but did not protest. There might’ve even a bit of encouragement, like handing your curious kid a cigarette and forcing them to smoke the whole damn thing in order to prove just how shitty it’ll make you feel. I live in Toronto. She paid my $825 monthly rent and gave me a monthly stipend of $1,100 that went towards groceries, pet insurance, utilities, and my phone bill, leaving me roughly $600 a month for personal expenses. I have a credit card, the limit paltry, but reached.

Did I feel embarrassed, or ashamed typing that? Yes. Does it make my experience as an unpaid intern less legitimate somehow? Probably. After all, part of the hardship and tragedy of unpaid internships is the unpaid part. There is no dumpster-diving, midnight-oil-burning gore in my story. Might you call me unsympathetic, ungrateful, unqualified, then compare me to Lena Dunham’s character in Girls. But I was still subjected to the same humiliation, confusion, and (all right) gratification of being a media apprentice.

I’m in utter admiration of the balls and energy that comes from the savers and double-shifters. The best moonlighting story I’d ever come across is from a friend, also an aspiring writer. She had been a waitress at a crêperie, milking tips from drunken customers who would come in for a sobering bite. She was an excellent flirt, an admitted floozy with intellect, and decided to become a mid-range call girl. (Prostitution and journalism: undoubtedly the professions with the best PR, particularly on television.) She now works only four hours a week, at the rate of $160 an hour. “Put that away,” she’d say whenever we’d have drinks together, slapping my wrist whenever I reached for my wallet, like a sugar mama.

Despite having most of my needs being taken care of, I still trolled Craigslist for paid, but meaningless, work. Money and work are both means of validation, and while I had the latter taken care of, I wanted to earn the former. I flirted with retail, copyediting, and catering, and spent my hundred-dollar paychecks frivolously — never for necessity. Everyone I knew who were on the cusp of ‘adulthood’ were doing everything they could to make ends meet. To hustle seems like the only way; people bragged about how little hours they slept a night, or how many Ritalin pills they took to get through shifts. I cowered in their coffee-breathed bravado.

A few months ago I read a blog post in New York about that Harpers’ Bazaar intern who sued Hearst for lack of compensation. A lot of people were outraged at how that poor girl got nothing out of the experience. But what’s new? She knew what she was getting into; she stuck it out for a full year. This is the prenup-less divorce between you, the loaded rich guy who deigned to marry the eye-fucker. It was never fair. If she’d remained quiet, she probably could have gotten a full-time job based on the “Hearst” on her résumé. Now, she’s likely blacklisted. For the Black Swan interns, I have an equal lack of pity. It’s like suing McDonald’s for that heart attack.

Working for free is a touchy subject. It basically all comes down to “why aren’t I good enough to be paid for what I do?” It’s important to recognize the value in your work and take ownership; success is impossible without it. But then again, so is the art of taking people’s shit. Am I condoning the fetching of coffee, photocopies or dry cleaning? If it’s for a company that’ll be useful, then go forth and fetch for a while. All those fabulous success stories always have a chapter on shit-pile swimming. And I guess this is mine.

Caroline Leung is an aspiring barfly living in Toronto. She still uses air quotes when she describes herself as a writer. Photo: Flickr/pommru

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