by Dana Schuster and Kirsten Fleming, NY Post
They work until 11 at night, lug 40-pound garment bags throughout the city and get scolded for not adhering tape to mood boards correctly. And yet being a Condé Nast intern remains one of the most coveted, sought-after unpaid jobs in town.
To an aspiring media-ite, a Condé internship is a stiletto stacked in prestige wrapped in promises of opportunity. It is a fancy incubator for future media power players: Fashion designer Whitney Port, author Lauren Conrad and beauty blogger Emily Weiss all got their start interning at the media mammoth.
So you can imagine the surprise when, last month, Condé Nast announced it was terminating its internship program. Starting in 2014, Condé publications including Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair will no longer give students the opportunity to toil — and learn — in their hallowed halls. The bold decision came on the heels of a lawsuit filed in June 2012 by two former Condé interns: Matthew Leib, who interned at The New Yorker in 2009 and 2010, and Lauren Ballinger, who worked at W magazine in 2009.
The two sued the media conglomerate for failing to pay them minimum wage — claiming that their measly stipend amounted to less than $1 an hour for their unpaid internships.
“The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law do not allow employers to allow workers to work for free — even if the workers give their consent,” says Leib and Ballinger’s attorney, Rachel Bien at Outten & Golden. “Internships, like those at Condé Nast, that involve performing the same kinds of work that employees perform and provide no training beyond on-the-job training that employees receive are not lawful,” she adds. Condé refused to comment on the pending lawsuit.
Even if Leib and Ballinger are fighting for the greater good of interns everywhere, not all of their fellow errand-runners are supportive. “It feels like the people who sued kind of ruined it for everyone else because, I mean, if you don’t like your internship, you can cancel it. You can say, ‘I’m sorry, I quit.’ Not, ‘Well, I’ll stick it out and sue you,’ ” says Jenny Achiam, a junior at Florida State University who was an editorial intern at Lucky magazine this past summer. “It’s a shame that the resource won’t be available to other students in the future,” she says.
But not everyone thinks it’s a great loss. Lisa Denmark, 22, who interned at Vogue last summer and found her 10-plus-hour days there “belittling,” thinks it’s a blessing that the program’s being shuttered. “To hear that the internship program ended, it wasn’t very heartbreaking to me,” says Denmark, who currently works in Chanel’s marketing department. “I don’t think Condé Nast, or Vogue, for that matter, is something that should really be on someone’s list anyway.” Denmark snagged her coveted unpaid internship at Vogue when she graduated from Florida State University last December. She calls it “one of the worst internships I’ve ever had.” Denmark, who quit after two months, says her days were spent running personal errands for editors, including picking up dry cleaning or, in one case, a boss’ juice all the way down on the Lower East Side (Condé’s offices are in Times Square).
“One time, Grace Coddington was selling her books, her Dolce & Gabbana books and her Tom Ford books, and [the interns] had to take them to the bookstore, five boxes of them, in a car, and we were told not to tell anybody,” says Denmark, who was not eligible for school credit since she had already graduated. She was paid nothing for her work. “I cried myself to sleep at least three nights a week,” she continues.
“It’s not because I didn’t have the tough bones,” Denmark clarifies, “it was because I would be scolded for not putting the tape on the mood boards correctly . . . if it stuck out a little or if there was a little bump in the corner of it, or if it wasn’t to their liking, I got in trouble.” Still, Condé’s decision to abolish its internship program is undoubtedly an industry game changer.
Optimists say it will only open up more entry-level positions down the road, since someone, after all, needs to fetch Condé Nast editors’ coffee. “It’s going to make all the other internships more competitive,” admits Achiam, 20. “But it does mean that [Condé] will have to hire more people, which is nice if you’re already in the work force.” But that hasn’t tempered the shock.
When news broke, Achiam’s Facebook newsfeed was aflutter with cries of dismay. “All of my peers in my major were suddenly posting these statuses where you would have thought it was the end of the world,” she says, like: “ ‘There goes that dream internship!’ ‘Hearst it is, then!’ ”
The thing is, Hearst may not be so far away from killing its own internship program, or at least revamping it. After all, they were the first ones hit with a lawsuit — in February 2012 by Diana Wang, a former Harper’s Bazaar intern who complained that she was working up to 55 hours a week sans payment. (The case is currently in litigation; Wang recently told CNN Money that coming forward has made it difficult to land a full-time job. She is currently selling granola in Columbus, Ohio.)
Other media entities have come under fire recently, too, for their unpaid internship programs, including “The Charlie Rose Show,” which settled early on in the case, and Fox Searchlight Pictures, which was found guilty of violating minimum wage laws by failing to pay two interns who worked on the film “Black Swan.”
And while many people would say the experience is payment enough (or college credits, if you’re able to get them), some past interns say the experience is just a bunch of disappointment and missed opportunity. One former Condé intern, who worked for three different publications within the company, starting in 2008, was elated when he got tapped to work in the fashion department at a top mag. But to the now-25-year-old’s dismay, “The interns were not allowed in the fashion closet when they did run-throughs,” referring to when an editor presents the final looks that will make it onto the fashion spread. “It was disappointing because when you aspire to be an editor or a stylist, you want to see how the whole process works. It cut off anything we would have gleaned from all our hard work,” he says. “Which is all we wanted in the first place.”
During one summer Condé job, the former fashion intern — who lives in Washington Heights and asked to remain nameless because he still works in the industry — said his unpaid compatriots “dropped off like flies.” “The accessories interns [who didn’t quit] would go downstairs to the bar and take shots to deal with the OCD accessories assistant.” He spent hours researching and delivering a “chic breakfast tray” to one editor in Brooklyn — only to realize it was for the woman’s house party, and not a photo shoot as he had assumed.
Despite the downfalls of the program, the former fashion intern says it gave him the thick skin he needed to acclimate to NYC life. “If you want to work in fashion, it’s important to understand that it’s not all glamour. And we definitely learned that at Condé,” he says.
But not everyone is able see the sunny side. "Vogue was the only one I had my heart [set] on. It was such a coveted role. The top of the top. The No. 1 thing you could possibly get,” says Denmark. “And I didn’t really learn anything on the editorial side. I didn’t take anything out of it. I just spent most of my days from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., just running errands and grabbing people lunches . . . I felt belittled.”