40-year-old intern woman with laptop and plant

What It's Like To Be A 40-Year-Old Intern At A Fashion Magazine Like ELLE

Bestselling author of erotic thrillers Maestra and Domina, LS Hilton, trades in her PA and three-book deal for the coffee run and fashion cupboard at ELLE

ELLE magazine takes a regular slew of interns, as we are dedicated to passing on knowledge and giving others (especially women) a hand-up in what can be a very competitive, sometimes closed off world of publishing and fashion.

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Recently, we took on a rather unusual intern - 40-year-old Ms LS Hilton, who also happens to be a best-selling author. Who better to pen an essay about her experience of interning at a fashion magazine like ours than someone who writes fabulous books for a living?

Here you can find a detailed account of her time with us and then beneath that, you can also find the account of one of our other, younger features interns.


Pushing nervously through a scrum of paparazzi and fashion-week gawkers, dodging a radiant Daisy Lowe (oh God, her shoes; should I note down her shoes?), braving the clipboard Stasi, the precious envelope of show invites for the editor clutched to my chest… No, it's not an outtake from The Devil Wears Prada, it's my actual life – the first day of my week interning at ELLE.

LS Hilton, best-selling author of Maestra and Domina

I'd never thought that delivering a package across a few London streets could feel so challenging, but that journey knocked two decades off me, rendering me as sweaty-palmed and anxious to please as any rookie straight out of college. Getting the editor's Erdem tickets to her on time felt like the most urgent task in the world, and accomplishing it produced an unexpected sense of triumph. It was the first lesson in one of the most invigorating and challenging weeks of my life.

At an age when I was supposed to be settled, mature, I found myself dreaming of fetching skinny matcha lattes and hanging out in the fashion cupboard

Back in my twenties, I had an opportunity to intern at a fashion magazine, but the maths just hadn't worked out. I couldn't afford to work free of charge, and the hours were incompatible with my second, rent-paying job. Professionally, things hadn't turned out too badly: I'd always wanted to write, and, after publishing eight historical books, I wrote an erotic thriller, Maestra, which secured me a three-book deal. It has been sold to 41 countries and is being made into a film.

Still, I hadn't realised how much I regretted turning down a fashion internship until I watched The September Issue documentary with my 10-year-old daughter. 'You know, Mum,' she said, 'I could imagine you doing that job.'

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I don't trust people who claim to have no regrets – they generally turn out to be sociopaths – but that decision not to take the fashion internship had been buried pretty deep. Professionally and financially, I was more secure than I had ever been, and while I have never thought of myself as particularly 'successful', I had achieved a certain status in the publishing world. I have a child and a job and something resembling a life.

Yet suddenly, I couldn't stop thinking about it – that Sliding Doors moment when I had chosen one path over another. It was absurd: I'm the wrong side of 40; who'd want me as an intern? But – what if? At an age when I was supposed to be settled, mature, I found myself dreaming of fetching skinny matcha lattes and hanging out in the fashion cupboard.

CAREER CHANGE

So I made some calls and, a few weeks later, found myself perched anxiously on a sofa at the ELLE office, being interviewed by Commissioning Editor Hannah Nathanson. Somehow, I convinced her to give me a go. I left feeling exhilarated, but, that night, the doubts set in. Was I about to make an idiot of myself? Was I deluded to think it was possible to realise a lost ambition?

Turns out I'm not alone. According to research by YouGov, nearly 60% of employees would choose a different career if they could start again. And more women than ever before are experimenting with varied roles: the average millennial will now change jobs four times in the first decade after leaving education, a 100% increase on the previous generation. This may, of course, be a requirement of a more flexible and precarious job market, but might it not also suggest a less blinkered, more creative attitude to our capabilities and aspirations?

At least, that's what I told myself in Topshop, as I tried to find suitably fashionable camouflage for the week ahead. As I dispiritedly rejected yet another cropped top and acknowledged that I am Too Old For Pleather, I started panicking about fitting in at a fashion magazine. What was I going to talk about at the water cooler? Would I even be able to identify a water cooler? My only previous experience of an office environment was a brief period as a junior art researcher at a big auction house.

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My usual writing routine of coffee, silence and track pants had never looked more alluring. At ELLE, I would have to actually talk to people. And, for the first time in 15 years, I wouldn't be my own boss. These days, I have an assistant of my own, so the thought of having to defer to someone younger than me was nerve-racking and just a bit intimidating.

FIRST DAY

I must admit, my first day in the office was initially rather... disappointing. No one was throwing a tantrum while wearing a full-length fuchsia Miu Miu fur. I hadn't exactly expected a maelstrom of bitchy drama, but nor had I been prepared for everyone to be so, well, nice. The Acting Editor, Lotte, was warm and friendly, while my new boss, Hannah, couldn't have been more reassuring and helpful.

I admit I was too scared of looking old to confess that I had never used the publishing software on my office-issue Mac, but a few furtive minutes of chimp-like stabbing at the screen helped. After spreading out the newspapers for the team to check up on stories, my first task was transcribing an interview. Hannah did look slightly askance when she caught me frantically scribbling the recording down by hand (I'm not a digital native, OK), but she was kind enough not to say anything.

I managed the transcription, only looking up to sample a vegan gluten-free brownie, which had arrived for, ahem, testing. Writing a 'sell' (the short narrative that accompanies a headline) was a novelty, but one I was prepared for – after all, my 'real' job is writing. Sitting in on the daily digital meeting proved an eye-opener, though. Used to working in isolation, I'd never participated in the collaborative process of exchanging ideas for stories, and it was fascinating to observe the distinct ELLE perspective taking shape.

TIME FOR WORK

I've written for dozens of magazines, but had no idea how complex the process of actually putting one together or running the ELLE website might be. The office atmosphere was intensely focused, but universally calm and supportive. No one made me feel like a lowly worm, or was mean enough to ask Hannah why her new intern had wrinkles.

French tour #domina #lesbains #paris

A post shared by L S Hilton (@l.s.hilton) on

There were a few moments when I felt like a fraud: asking Hannah's permission to leave early because I was being interviewed for another magazine about my new book; getting back from the office in time for a conference call with Amy Pascal, the Hollywood producer making my book into a movie. Yet even though my junior position was temporary, it felt oddly reassuring. Taking orders from people much younger than myself was stimulating rather than demeaning, as I was learning so much; it made me realise how predictable my expectations of work had become.

Carrying out jobs such as proof-reading – reading final printouts of features to check for errors – was curiously satisfying. When Natasha, the Digital Editor, accepted a short piece on the Milan shows for the website, it felt like more of an accomplishment than anything I had achieved in a long time. In fact, the experience was proving more rejuvenating than any of the creams waiting for inspection on the beauty desk.

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Finally, being allowed into the fashion cupboard confirmed the excitement I was feeling. Sorting returns from a recent cover shoot may not be everyone's idea of fun, but I was in heaven, particularly when, by the afternoon, I was promoted to organising shoes. Refreshments for my own wardrobe aside (I had no idea how much I needed a pair of silver stiletto ankle boots), being around the energy and enthusiasm of the fashion team was a postcard from a more exciting future.

CAN ANYONE BE AN INTERN?

Of course, my being at ELLE at all was a luxury. Not many women can afford to take the time to indulge in resurrecting their dreams. Employment-wise, we live in an insecure and scary culture. A report by The Future Laboratory suggests that only 30% of university graduates believe their chosen careers will still exist in 10 years' time: 'Technological change, economic turbulence and societal transformation are disrupting old career certainties,' the report says. But maybe it's a moment to take this very uncertainty and turn it to our advantage? We're prepared to use our holidays for mindfulness retreats or boot camps, so why not internships or work shadowing?

These days, I have an assistant of my own, so the thought of having to defer to someone younger than me was nerve-racking and just a bit intimidating

With women living longer than ever (today's ELLE reader can confidently expect to hit 90), our working lives are no longer governed by the linear plod towards retirement. The cliché that it's never too late to fulfil your dreams might now be a palpable reality. The 'corporate ladder' no longer looks the same – that is, an ascent towards seniority, with a carriage clock at the finish line. Instead, employment experts – such as Cathleen Benko, co-author of The Corporate Lattice – posit a different model, in which complementary skills and experiences are woven like a lattice across our careers, allowing us to envision a radically different series of trajectories across our working lives.

As a nine-year-old, I fantasised about being a Hollywood stunt rider, an ambition that's probably beyond my reach now, but my experience as an ELLE intern has made me reassess my own attitude to both regret and possibility. I would love to return to the glamour of fashion magazines, a hope that no longer feels futile. I plan to write more online, and might even take myself off to the shows next season as a freelance stringer. What has been most inspiring about my time at ELLE has been the sense of not being stuck, of there being so much left to discover. Stunt riding might be a step too far, but I once fancied being a war correspondent…?

'Domina' by LS Hilton (Zaffre, RRP£8.99) is out now


A DAY IN THE LIFE OF ELLE'S FEATURES INTERN

By Ella Wills

Like the changing faces that grace the cover of ELLE each month, no one day in the life of a features intern is ever quite the same. From writing and research to running errands around the streets of Soho, interning at ELLE is an exciting insight into the world of magazines.

Work begins at 9.30am. It's hard not to feel intimidated on first entrance to the office (or to stop myself having a fangirl moment when sharing a lift with the editors I've admired from afar). I'm surprised by how quiet the office is when I arrive, immediately spotting the ELLE emblazoned on the wall in neon, and the fashion cupboard is larger than my bedroom. But I am quickly settled by how friendly everyone is.

Working at ELLE, it's been great to observe how the whole team, from production to art to editorial, works closely together. And how they get along so well

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My first task is to lay out the day's newspapers on the incredibly well-stocked magazine table at the front of the office. There are copies of ELLE from all around the world – as well as a pick of the best arts, fashion and culture mags – which everyone is welcome to leaf through. It's magazine heaven!

Here to help out the features team, I report to Hannah Nathanson, Acting Content Director, and Deputy Editor Lotte Jeffs. I'm also on hand to assist Rachel Macbeth, PA to Anne-Marie Curtis, with general office duties. This can be anything from carrying out a secret mission to buy the Chief Sub Editor a birthday cake, or mailing out the latest issue to the top names in the publishing industry. On the scale of one to stressful, choosing cake for someone I had known for a week definitely scored highest.

In charge of commissioning content in print and online, Hannah organises the big interviews in the magazine. Big interviews mean big (time-consuming) Dictaphone recordings, so that's where my speedy typing skills come in. Billie Bhatia, ELLE's Fashion Assistant, asks me to transcribe her interviews for an upcoming cover – my chance to get a sneak behind-the-scenes peek into the August issue!

Behind every great interview – and feature – comes a lot of research. Hannah asks me to put together detailed biographies and past interviews for celebrities, as well as a list of events and openings during August to generate ideas for the culture section. As the magazine is created several months in advance (Christmas comes in July), the editors and writers need to think ahead. Throughout my first week I put together research documents on potential cover stars, up-and-coming YA authors and where the A-listers like to spend their summers.

There's also research to be done for my own writing. Lotte asks me to write a piece about the best private members clubs in London for the site. I spend the afternoon with the digital team, learning how to operate the website's content management system. Before I know it I can upload my copy complete with SEO, images and a strategically-placed gif or two.

And with that, at 6pm, my work is done. Until the next morning's 'Exchange' meeting, where the print and digital team meet to discuss content ideas for day, and I have my chance to pitch another article.

A seasoned intern, I'm always interested to see how the office matches up to the publication. Working at ELLE, it's been great to observe how the whole team, from production to art to editorial, works closely together. And how they get along so well (is ELLE Fit the ultimate squad?).

Interns are made very welcome and given plenty of opportunities to learn across departments. In my view, that makes a very successful placement.

If you are interested in becoming an ELLE intern, you can email your CV to: ellefeatures@elleuk.com.

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