By Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal
Getting to New York City had been on my mind since I watched the Muppets Take Manhattan as a kid. The logistics never fazed me. It was happening —even if it meant sleeping in a locker at the bus station like Kermit. In high school, I told my friends I was moving to New York City as soon as I could figure out how. My dream of attending NYU or Columbia weren’t financially possible so, I attended the University of South Florida. It took until my junior year of college to make my city dreams a reality. I was accepted in the American Society of Magazine Editor’s (ASME) prestigious summer internship program. During the summer between my junior and senior year, I lived in an NYU dorm, interned at a notable magazine (and got paid a whopping $2000 for the summer — though maybe less and I just blocked it out) and attended workshops/panels with the top editors of the time.
Fine, I’ll date myself. This was 1998 when George magazine was trending, Tina Brown helmed Talk magazine and Bonnie Fuller had yet to go to the dark side of tabloids. Once I was accepted into the ASME program, I refused to believe that my internship assignment would be at any magazine except for Rolling Stone. I thought it was waste of a summer that my roommates were at Reader’s Digest and had to, gasp, commute out of the city to Westchester. In my mind, I was the female Cameron Crowe and I belonged with Jann and the gang. So when I did indeed receive that dream assignment, I was positive that my summer—no my life and therefore career—was made.
Spoiler alert? My roommates at Reader’s Digest ended up having the best experience out of anyone in our program—especially me—learning a ton, sitting in their own office and receiving byline after byline. They were set up for success and learned the real tools of the trade.
Over at Rolling Stone?
There was ONE computer/desk for up to eight interns to share. If you didn’t get there before sunrise to snag that prime seat, you were homeless and roamed aimlessly around the office. Or you camped out in the back of the library—at least that’s what I did.
Because I was an ASME intern and not a “regular” Rolling Stone intern, I had two perks and they both blew up in my face. Perk One: I was supposed to have a senior level editor serve as my dedicated mentor. Well, my mentor was awesome but brand new to the staff (he obviously lost a game of ‘not it’ to babysit me) and when he remembered I existed, gave me futile assignments to get me out of his hair. The biggest one was having me trek to the architecture library at Columbia University and discover the “next big” architecture star for the upcoming “Hot Issue.” I chose Rem Coolhouse, not realizing he’d been on top of his game for decades already. Oops! Perk Two: The tiny stipend I got paid every two weeks. No other “regular” intern received any form of compensation. All hell broke loose when a sneaky intern saw my name on a paycheck envelope and put two and two together. The war for the desk turned ugly and personal after that. I spent many afternoons hiding out in the library, playing a game I invented called “Does this issue have a Cameron Crowe byline?”
Rolling Stone was the first place I really screwed up one day and shined the next—a pattern that’s emerged throughout my career. My mentor’s assistant gave me a big assignment that I botched that big time. I could have taken over the “Mail” page, something assistant level editors usually do. I didn’t quite get the magnitude of it then, however, so, when I met with her, I didn’t bring a notepad along to take copious notes. She offered me pen/paper and I declined, thinking that was the more “impressive” response. It wasn’t so impressive when I missed my deadline and another intern nabbed my plum assignment instead. Then there was the big day that Jann Wenner met with all the ASME interns. As he went on and on about how great and relevant the band the Rolling Stones still were– I made an embarrassingly ballsy decision to challenge him on that. As a HUGE Aerosmith fan, I made the case for Steven Tyler and co being an even more influential rock band. Um, let’s just say Jann wasn’t so into my chutzpah—or dig at his dear friend Mick Jagger.
I do, however, have journal entries detailing every conversation I had with editors when they did give me the time of day. I rode the subway home with a rising star of an editor one night and kept the conversation going from Rockefellar Center to Union Square. A feat I was so impressed with, I believe I described my part in that convo as my “Emmy award winning performance.” It took everything out of me to keep that witty banter I kept going.
I also quickly discovered that Rolling Stone was a massive boy’s club—unless you were a hot girl in a size two sundress with your boobs hanging out. If not, you were essentially ignored. I was neither hot nor tiny but many of my fellow female interns were both so I fought doubly hard to be noticed. I forced myself to befriend the incomparable Jancee Dunn, an amazing writer who wrote almost all the cool cover stories (in that era, I considered those to be Katie Holmes and ‘NSYNC). She was the best at celebrity interviews, better than any guy on staff—yet they still stuck her in an office that technically was a broom closet. One day, I couldn’t take sitting on the library floor anymore and decided it was time to take control of my experience. Did I really want to go back to school and tell everyone I read back issues all summer or did I want cool stories to share? So, with invisible hands shoving me—I knocked on Jancee’s office door. She was gracious, welcoming and flattered that I wanted to meet her. She spoke to me like we were equals, not like I was this starstruck, stammering kid hanging on her every word.
I consider that the official start of my internship. Knocking on Jancee’s door literally opened new ones for me. She put me in touch with editors who had legit work for me to do. The best was conducting research for a Rolling Stone branded book called Rock N Roll Raves—What Your Rock & Roll Favorites Favor. My research earned me a thank you in the acknowledgements page. That was as good as seeing my name on the front cover.
Around that time, an ASME alum spoke to us at one of our “lunch n learn” seminars and apparently he interned at Rolling Stone, got hired at the end of the summer, didn’t graduate college and became one of the most in demand young editors of the late ’90s. He worked at Jane magazine for JANE PRATT! That was going to be me—I just knew it. Diplomas were overrated and what could my professors at USF possibly teach me now that Rolling Stone was on my resume? Chevy Chase hung out by my desk one day (the day I actually sat at one) and told me to “hang in there.”
I was big time!!
So, I started telling all my friends—including my sorority sisters of a sorority that I was serving as president—that I likely NOT coming back to school. They weren’t impressed, in fact they were blatantly annoyed—I told myself they were just jealous. But, no, they were just onto me and fully aware that I was full of shit. Plus, they needed to know if I’d be back in time for Rush Week.
To this day, I don’t know WHY I ever thought I was getting a job offer when my “mentor” barely acknowledged me. After discovering a “hot” architect went awry, the main task he gave me was making sure no one else took ownership of the one transcribing machine in the entire office. Of course, I accidentally left it out one night and had to practically negotiate my first born child to get it back from the editor who placed it in his locked file cabinet. My “mentor” wasn’t even there on my last day to say goodbye, let alone make me a job offer and beg me to stay.
I mean, is it just me or do you think it’s SO WEIRD that he didn’t chase me down at the airport and beg me to ditch school and work at Rolling Stone!?
Let’s Get Real!
– On what planet was there any indication that overweight, over-talkative, out-of-her-league, non-penis wielding ME was getting hired at Rolling Stone and forgoing my last year of college? Uh, that would be planet YOU’RE DREAMING.
– It’s amazing Jann didn’t black ball me from the Wenner Media offices . . . because spoiler alert, I was back there six years later for a crazy job experience at US Weekly.
– I basically have a notebook and pen taped to my hand at all times because of that internship and I will ding anyone who works with me or for me and does not bring those two items along to any meeting — no matter how long or short, important or not, the meeting!
– No one likes a bragger and everyone has a BS meter—even at the tiniest level— in their DNA. I learned the hard way that my friends and sorority sisters had supersized ones.
– I wish I kept in touch with Jancee Dunn and am a little nervous she might read this . . .in fact, I legit just screamed into my pillow!
Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal is the Storyteller-in-Chief of her site The Not So It Girl, sharing lessons learned from her career in media as a writer/editor (and more) over the past 20 years. She gets real about her experiences at outlets ranging from CosmoGIRL! and Glamour to MTV and Sirius Satellite Radio—and recounts painfully true stories (such as how/why reality stars got her fired and declaring bankruptcy at 30) to dole out career advice and create camaraderie. Follow @thenotsoitgirl on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—and read my full bio here!