(Lorraine's jacket by Hussein Chalayan, top by Zara, jeans by Paige, shoes by Gianvito Rossi)
The editor in chief’s PA is perhaps one of the most important jobs on the magazine. Not only does she know all the behind-the-scenes activity, she works with every department and has the best access to the one person everyone internally and externally wants to get close to: The Editor. The PA has a VIP pass to my office and this means she can open many doors for herself, too.
Over the years, I’ve had excellent PAs, most of whom have became friends. They have gone onto work as commissioning editors, editors, PRs, stylists and, on one occasion, the manager of a famous pub in Essex!
I view the PA’s role as a stepping stone and at ELLE we have traditionally employed PAs who are keen to work across features – possibly because my background is journalism rather than fashion and features is my heartland and magazine comfort zone.
When Natalie first started she replaced Hannah Swerling, who is now our commissioning editor. Hannah and I were very close professionally and personally and her shoes were big ones to fill. I was bereft at losing Hannah (who else knew my many minor hypochondriac worries and sugar requirements so well) and I think it was tough for Natalie to feel confident at first replacing someone so trusted. But she soon overcame that and brought her own strengths to the role. She’s adaptable, loyal and extremely hardworking. Her enthusiasm and energy are admirable and very useful.
Natalie also works as an editorial assistant, as I think creative people get bored in purely assistant roles. I want her to feel involved in ELLE, too, and encourage her to write. Her main task, though, is managing the world’s most hectic diary and knowing who to say yes to when they ask, ‘Can I just have five minutes?’ If I accepted every five-minute request I would spend the day in meetings!
Natalie fully understands that all jobs have great bits and bad bits – even mine – so she works through the tough, less exciting duties knowing the value of what she will also be doing later on. For example, who else gets a former Times features editor working with them on their writing skills in one of their first jobs?
There are five things I look for in a PA: 1) Loyalty. 2) Humour – you need to have fun. I like to laugh, it’s good for the soul. 3) Confidentiality and trustworthiness around some of the issues I deal with. 4) An excellent telephone manner. 5) Patience and supreme organisational skills – these two usually go together.
So, to get an idea of what Natalie does, I asked her some questions on your behalf:
Q Is it really like The Devil Wears Prada?
A Yes and no, and probably not for the reasons you’d think. Lorraine doesn’t throw her coat at me, I’m not peer-pressured to look a certain way and the team are genuinely great people who get on (most of the time!) and who you would actually hang out with outside of work. On the flipside, it’s busy, really busy. There is that room (two, in fact) full of all the Prada, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana you can think of and fashion shows like the ones you see in the film do happen – but for a whole month, twice a year.
Q Explain your job on an average day.
A Average days don’t happen often. My day reflects the editor’s, so the most important part is fixing Lorraine’s diary. This means setting up appointments with designers and PRs, booking meeting places and sorting her travel arrangements. Around that, all manner of things can happen! In the run-up to the ELLE Style Awards, it’s very celebrity focused, other times I might be interviewing a famous model for a feature or Closet Confidential. I am allowed out, too!
Q What are the biggest challenges you find in the job?
A Not being able to create more time! It sounds silly but if you could see Lorraine’s diary you’d understand what I mean.
Q And the biggest rewards?
A One of the great things about my job is that you get an insight into how all the different departments work and how a big magazine is put together. You also see all the editors at work which is a great environment to learn in.
Q How did you get to ELLE?
A I originally wanted to be a stylist, so I set up work-experience placements that led to internships so I could learn. On placements you’re often thrown into the thick of it and you’re taught an invaluable amount about the industry. As the sector is so competitive these placements have become a pre-requisite to getting a job.
After a year of doing internships full-time, I got my first job as a fashion assistant at an independent magazine. It felt great to finally get the break. While I was there, I was encouraged to write and eventually worked my way up to be deputy editor.
I had fired my CV out to ELLE, and an opportunity came knocking with a features assistant role – I was interviewed, I got it and I loved it. Whenever Lorraine’s PA at the time, Hannah Swerling, went on holiday I would cover her role. Lorraine and I got on well, so when Hannah was promoted to junior commissioning editor, I was there to step up.
Q What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be in your shoes?
A Get as much experience as possible at lots of different placements and give as much as you can to them. Work hard. You’ll figure out what exactly you want to do and where eventually you want to do it, while gaining the experience editors are looking for. At the same time, you’re getting the chance to meet all these different people who will think of you when positions arise – be they the bosses or fellow interns. When I was going for my first job, an editor kindly recommended me for it and that stuff counts.
Q With your job, what are your career prospects?
A Lorraine has always said that you can make what you want from my position. During her editorship at ELLE, she has employed people who first spent time in the features department – and features and writing is also my ambition. However, she’s also open to hiring an impressive fashion or beauty intern. You can platform from this role to wherever you would like to be with the editor’s support behind you.
Q How do you hear about job openings?
A It’s true that a lot of it is word of mouth – which is why getting as much work experience as you can is important; you’re meeting people all the time who might think of you for future positions. Canvassing your CV with a short but sweet cover letter is another good way – you may just have sent the email when a vacancy has appeared. Otherwise job sites like Gorkana often list internship vacancies.
Q What are the most important qualities to have for the job?
A Being organised – which I am, despite the state of my desk sometimes! – patient, hardworking, determined and sympathetic. There’s other stuff, too, that doesn’t come so naturally that you just have to work on.
Q What do you wear?
A You can’t compete with the fashion team. It’s their job to be a season ahead and know what you’ll want to be wearing next! I try to adapt my style (colourful and simple) to office-appropriate outfits (for me, always heels, never denim) that work for my shape (I’m curvy so I often find vintage pieces fit well and are as affordable as the high street).
Q What single piece of advice would you give?
A If you really want it, it’s achievable. There are plenty of inspiring stories around to prove this. Just do the best that you can and keep plugging away.
Q And if all else fails?
A A classic Krispy Kreme doughnut works like magic on Lorraine!
And there you have it. For those of you who want to see more of my outfit today, here are the details.
(Sequin detail on my Hussein Chalayan jacket)
(Suede Gianvito Rossi heels)
(Sunglasses by Karl Lagerfeld)