My Honest Thoughts On Unpaid Internships In Fashion And Journalism

Like many girls my age, I can state with much confidence that Carrie Bradshaw pretty much screwed me. Aside from making some shitty relationship choices (#TeamAidan), she set totally unrealistic expectations of what my career could be. Yes, you can move to the big city and live in a small but cute central-based apartment whilst freelancing for Vogue, and your designer shoe habit will totally be supported by your weekly sex relationships column!

…. Loooooool. Granted, SATC had its heyday before journalism took a big hit in light of the digital revolution that gave us the internet, back when there was more money and opportunities in it and living costs weren’t as extortionate as they are today. But yes, it certainly gave me a slightly skewed idea of what my life would be like if I followed my dream of being Carrie Bradshaw. I mean, a fashion journalist. I hate to admit it. It’s embarrassing to admit it because it’s such a cliche. But watching that show with my Mum whilst I was growing up put stars in my eyes that I – and around another half of the female population – wanted to chase.

One of my most read pieces from last year was the reality of ‘real’ jobs in fashion vs blogging as a career, so I’m revisiting a certain element of that topic – the role of unpaid internships, as it’s something that hits close to my heart and I think has hugely affected my own career story. If you read that piece, you’ll know I blog for a living now not entirely out of choice, but because getting a job in fashion editorial was so fucking difficult I had to find other ways to make money from it. You know it’s hard – it’s exactly why you’re reading this post. It’s the millennial curse that so few of us end up working in jobs we actually studied for – but why is this industry such a notorious bitch on so many levels?

Expectations: studies, gets good grades, interviews for a few jobs/ paid internships at magazine/ news paper/ website, lands a job, works way up to permanent positions, works way up further, moves publication, earns more money, takes over Anna Wintour, becomes President of the United States (well, it worked for Trump?), retires by the age of 40 with a 20 year old toyboy and a super yacht. Eats Gucci for breakfast.

Oh, did I just get carried away?

Reality: well…

I come from a relatively working-class background. I studied a BA in Journalism at Cardiff, then went immediately into studying an MA in Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins. I showed up to the MA being the only student not to have any intern or industry experience and felt like a very teeny tiny fish in a huge pond. MA’s are fucking pricey and unless your university has funding options, your only hope of paying for it is

a) savings
b) parental support
c) a professional and career development loan

Lol what are savings? – I’ve literally just graduated. And my background meant I could get a bit of parental support, but it was mostly the loan that got me there. Luckily, half way through the degree, I somehow wangled a part scholarship for 1/3 of the cost of the course, which helped relieve some pressure. The rest of my funds came from weekends spent waitressing (this is where the Carrie Bradshaw dreams start dying and you might leave in order to look at someone more #Goals rather than a pre-fairy Godmother Cinderella over here.)

Despite graduating with a distinction, I still found it borderline impossible to get a job in fashion editorial without any industry experience. It’s a shitty reality that some of you probably know so well – your degree, whilst filling you with so much knowledge and capability, is actually worthless whilst experience is priceless. My MA had given me plenty of contacts and gave me confidence I didn’t feel like I had beforehand – and this industry is a notoriously “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” kind of one – and work experience of sorts could have been arranged. But it was all unpaid. How’s a girl going to pay her rent if she’s working for free? Of course, not all internships are unpaid. But I can’t tell you the amount that I applied for and never heard back from, despite my qualifications.

Now internships can be a vintage Chanel handbag of the industry – utterly invaluable in terms of experience and a mention on your CV. But they can also be an awful fake Chanel – full of promises of job opportunities with nothing at the end to show apart from a few hand burns from scalding coffee and eyebags no amount of PR sample peptide cream you pilfered during your internship will remedy. And with a loan to pay off and London rent to deal with, for me, taking an unpaid internship was a totally financially unfeasible option.

Unpaid internships are seen as a rite of passage in creative industries. It’s seen as almost a sacrifice to show your dedication, commitment, and ambition to landing a role in a highly competitive market. And yes, of course it does show just that. Because who really wants to work for free unless they really really really want something? But unless you have the money to be able to afford to work 5 days a week without payment it’s a sacrifice you quite simply cannot afford to make, and your window of opportunity begins to get smaller.

And that’s my problem. What happens when you can’t afford it? More often than not, your dream job stays just that: a dream. And this makes me bitter and angry to the highest levels because it saddens me to think what incredible talent are being pushed out of the market and penalised because they cannot afford to work for free.

Do you want to know how much the estimated outgoings of a London-based intern was? £926 per month. And that was in 2014 – so it’s likely to be much higher now as rent has rocketed and travel has gone up in the past three years.

To answer the question do unpaid internships favour the rich? Well, obviously. It’s not fair. The opportunities for people who come from affluent backgrounds are much different to those who come from low/middle-income ones. It’s the “curse of the arts industry”. I’ve had several girls email me or text me asking for some advice on getting a job without interning for free, all of them with incredible academic credentials and writing talent, but no funds to pay to travel to the capital every day from their out-of-London homes, no friends in London to stay with, and no way of affording the rent money to move here – not to mention a costly deposit. Even if a company pays travel expenses – which most will – these jobs are so London-centric that I’ve had to lie on my CV in the past back when I was living in the Midlands, giving a random London address, just to even get a look-in as they will always consider London candidates first.

It absolutely breaks me to watch some incredible bright young things miss out on opportunities due to class and financial background, because everyone should have the same, equal opportunities. As newspapers and magazines have had to cut staff due to dwindling circulation figures, advertisers, and lower profits, they’ve replaced roles and padded out skeleton staff with cheap, often unpaid internships. It impacts social mobility, and keeps an already notoriously elitist industry just that: elite.

I’m not attacking anyone who has been fortunate to be part of a London-based family, or who has contacts through their parents, or comes from an affluent background – or all three in one. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be where I am now without the little help I got. My Dad is an editor of a magazine, be it one totally unrelated to fashion and based up north, but it gave me an idea early on how the industry worked. And people who are more fortunate don’t just get these opportunities handed to them because of their background, they get them because of talent and merit and skills. But having a certain background does put them on a platform to be seen that is unreachable and out of sight for many.

There’s a little bit of a reputation that precedes certain situations like this, with many people believing that us millennials don’t want to graft long and hard and we want everything handed on a plate. And yeah, of course, give it to me on a plate and I’ll eat it it and ask for more – who wouldn’t? But when you’re not even getting the opportunity to work hard, and you’re already cut out of the market, what hope do people have? And you’ll get some people weighing in on this saying:

“Get a part time job!!!” – Intern hours are looooong, so working part-time after work and weekend jobs are difficult without entirely burning out. It’s a difficult thing that yes, some can manage, but you’ll still be earning a total pittance – not enough to subsidise around £1k+ of monthly outgoings.

“Couch surf on a friends whilst you intern!” – a fair thing to suggest, but I’ll tell you as a London resident, many people here house share with others they didn’t know before moving in to their place, finding rooms to rent via SpareRoom and Gumtree. So random flatmates rarely want someones mate stopping on their sofa for however how long. And rent is extortionate – so most people I know will always charge their friends a proportion of the rent for staying at theirs because having someone stay indefinitely at their pokey zone 3 London flat is an inconvenience.

It’s bleak. It’s fucking bleak and it makes me angry. Is it any surprise why blogs have become so popular? On a bloggers level, it gives a higher chance of working in the fashion industry in some way shape or form, whether you blog for a living or just for a hobby. I started mine whilst studying in Cardiff as there were zero opportunities in fashion editorial there other than writing for the uni papers (which I did) and starting my blog was the only way to show I was doing something fashion related. And on a reader level, it gives opportunities to find content written by girls from similar (or exciting different!) backgrounds to you, rather than magazines written by those from affluent backgrounds that aren’t necessarily relatable anymore – the variety is the joy of it all!

I don’t want to discourage anyone from fulfilling their dreams. I’m just writing my honest and angry thoughts down here because it’s been a problem I have faced for the past 4-5 years. And like I said, I’m in no way trying to undermine anyone who got their foot on the ladder to their dream job because they were in a position to be able to do unpaid internships. I just wish there was a fairer way for everyone to get the opportunity they deserve. 

But there are other options. I took a role in product editorial after graduating – a job for a luxury online store writing styling tips for the clothing online. It was a relatively low wage but it paid my bills and was still a form of fashion writing and experience. It’s a job to get you down to London to perhaps seek more editorial-based roles – although you may have to be prepared to then take a pay cut if you’re going in for a role of editorial assistant.

For a silver lining, you never know where a lack of opportunity will take you. Doors may be closed, but windows are always open – you just need to keep looking. Thinking back on my career so far, if I could have afforded to intern for free at a publication who knows what would have happened? I may have got a job there or at another title, and ended up giving up my blog because I couldn’t keep it up, worked my way up higher and moved around companies, then maybe left to do my own thing anyway because the industry is rapidly changing. But many of the jobs in that industry are still underpaid, and right now I’m working for myself, earning more than I was on a salary job, and doing something I love – so I feel it’s worked out for the best right now. The future is so uncertain though, who knows how long I’ll be saying this?!

The industry is changing. There are calls for MP’s to ban unpaid internships so the more we speak up about it the more chance we have of making some form of change.

I’d love to know your thoughts, experiences, and struggles in the comments below. Always feel free to tweet or DM me on Instagram because it’s a topic I’d love to talk to you about! Find me @sophiemilner_fs on both twitter and instagram.

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  1. One of the reasons I love reading your posts is that you're always so honest and you write about such important topics I don't often see being spoken about in the blogging world. This post's no different! I completely relate to your story, except I did the unpaid fashion internships (well, they paid me £10 a week to 'cover my expenses', but can that really count?) in the summer between my 2nd and 3rd years of uni. In fact I split my time between 2 internships simultaneously, in good stead that when I graduated surely this meant I'd paid my dues and I could therefore qualify for paid jobs…? Well surprise surprise, I now know how naive I was.

    As I applied for jobs in my final year (with 2 relevant internships under my belt, plus my blog, plus on track to graduate with a first), I found I was still expected to work for free. I actually had a high street retailer ring me and ask directly if I would like to be a stylist's assistant after I graduated, for free. As if they were doing me a huge favour. In the end I ended up going into a very corporate, un-fashion job, which I'm still in now. It's not terrible, I still get to be creative, I get to travel but it's not fashion. I'm kind of debating my next move now; do I give up the dream and suck it up? Like you say, most fashion jobs are based in London, do I commit to a soul-sucking commute (which would also drain the £££), or do I think about kissing goodbye to my savings and moving to London?

    It's sad the industry has become this way, I guess as they say in the Devil Wears Prada 'a million girls would kill for this job', and unfortunately as long as there's people willing to work for free they'll continue to exploit young hopefuls!

    Sinéad ♥ Fabuleuse Du Jour

  2. I found this a really interesting read. I work in employment, although not in London. I've always found the whole work experience/unpaid internships very wrong. Employers should invest in their staff, they build the business! Employment in general is a hard thing to crack for the younger generation, you're not alone!
    Good luck with the fashion world, your blog is fab also!

    Abby x

  3. Such a great, honest post and I couldn't agree more having been through a very similar thing in the fashion industry!
    I hope unpaid internships do get banned and they stop exploiting everyone attempting to break into the industry!

    Kirsty x |

  4. This post deserves an almighty round of applause. It is frustratingly difficult in the job market- especially in fashion and/or editorial! Even now I have my foot in the door, and have been working my butt off to boost my skills and experience, it feels like I'm getting nowhere! I'm committed to working hard to achieve my dream job and career goals, but it's so disheartening when even the unpaid internships on offer are so competitive and unattainable!
    After all, I didn't get a degree qualification, have part-time jobs in retail, work unpaid internships, and take on various projects to up my game just to be offered a full-time job that actually doesn't even cover my travel costs.

    Having said that, I don't think it should stop anyone trying to achieve their dreams. As Carolina Herrera once said, "to work in fashion, you must have perseverance, discipline and talent."

    Bisous, Faz

  5. This post is 100% on point. I spent years building up my portfolio alongside my degree, only to still find that I was stick expected to gain more experience. It just feels as though nothing I'm doing to get into journalism is enough and the more I try, the more obstacles are put in my way and that is quiet unfair. It's the drawbridge effect. Also, even though I live in London, I just can't afford to do an unpaid internship because it's not feasible.

    To be honest, I'm at a stage where I am (kind of) giving up on going into journalism. I would never rule it out but the industry is notoriously difficult to break into, and it seems to be all about knowing people and less about talent.


  6. I was actually searching for ombré hair inspo when I came to your blog and I have just fallen in love with you by only reading this article! You really got me by comparing unpaid internships to a chanel bag – unfortunately mine was a fake one sold as a real one 😀 I really wanted to go in PR, but after my unpaid internship I kind of gave it up… not because of the (non) payment but because I expected it to be different. I started my blog in february, I would really love to be my own boss and live from that. I really admire your writing skills, can learn a lot from you.
    keep going girl!

    kisses from Germany

  7. I love this post so much, and I wish more people in the fashion industry would talk honestly about these issues!! It's disgusting how poorly our generation is treated. I've overheard influential bosses and people in the industry give advice to new fashion start-ups such as, "Just get some interns to do all the work for you. You don't have to pay them. It's what everyone does." I've also heard them validate these things by saying, "They have to earn their dues before they can be paid for their work… I've noticed a lot of arrogance and entitlement among young people who still need to earn their dues." I personally think the ultimate form of entitlement is expecting people to work for you for free, remain loyal to you despite being treated like servants and expecting them to be cheerful, high-quality, productive employees despite that – but that is another thing.

    Thank you so much for writing your thoughts on this! It's really nice to see other people experiencing the same things and discussing how messed up it is. I am similar to you, BTW – a grad with a distinction in Fashion Journalism from an extremely prestigious uni – but as I can no longer continue to work for free I am switching over to advertising. I'll be keeping up w your future posts here for sure though! Good luck 🙂

    Diana from Yanker Magazine