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The Woman Who Could Bring Down Fashion Internships

Diana Wang sued Hearst after she finished her unpaid internship at Harper's Bazaar — and her lawsuit is going forward as a class-action. But previously unseen court documents show that her case might not be as strong as she thought.

Art by John Gara for BuzzFeed.

Last fall, things were very different for Ohio native Diana Wang. She was living and working in New York, where she held the coveted title of head accessories intern at Harper's Bazaar, gaining experience she hoped would propel her to a career in the fashion industry. But at times the internship at one of fashion's most prestigious publications seemed like a Devil Wears Prada parody — except unlike Miranda Priestly's fictional assistant Andy Sachs, Wang was working for free.

One day, as part of her intern duties, she was returning accessories borrowed for photo shoots to their showrooms. In a subway station in Midtown Manhattan, well-heeled women strode past Wang, unable to avert their eyes from the logos on her shopping bags, numbering four in one hand, three in the other: Versace, Marc Jacobs, Rag & Bone, Proenza Schouler. As she struggled to hang onto the thousands of dollars worth of products, Wang dug through her own not-designer handbag to find her subway card. She swiped, twisted her body and pushed, but couldn't fit through the narrow turnstile.

"It was so frustrating," Wang says. "I swear, if the surveillance cameras outside the Hearst building were ever leaked to the public, you'd see dozens of girls hauling these bags through the doors, up and down the elevator — shopping bags and garment bags they could fit into."

It seems like a trivial — even comical — story, but it's one Wang, 28, has told often since her internship ended in December of last year. In February, she filed a lawsuit against Hearst, the publisher of Harper's Bazaar and 19 other U.S. magazines, for violating labor laws related to unpaid internships. In July, it became a federal class-action suit.

Despite being christened the "Intern Muckraker" and "Norma Rae of fashion interns," that's not how Wang sees herself. And so far, only three other interns have joined the federal class-action: one from Marie Claire, one from Redbook and one from Esquire. If the state version of the lawsuit becomes a class-action, 6,000 interns will automatically join, unless they opt out, Wang's lawyers say.

"I'm okay with being the first person to stand up to Hearst," Wang says. "But I didn't do this to shake things up. I just wanted to raise as much awareness as I could about what it's like in the fashion industry when you're starting out, and what kind of person this industry is really for."

But in court documents examined exclusively by BuzzFeed Shift, Hearst paints a picture of an incompetent intern who was almost fired — though that might be beside the point. The legality of unpaid internships has been questioned for years, and Wang's lawsuit comes at a particularly crucial moment in the debate. Her attorneys represent two other high-profile plaintiffs: the 25-year-old former Charlie Rose intern suing the show for not paying its interns, and the unpaid Black Swan interns suing Fox Searchlight. They also represent Wang in a second unpaid-internship lawsuit against Fenton-Fallon, a jewelry company she interned at before Harper's Bazaar.

Still, Wang's case against Bazaar is particularly compelling because of Hearst's prestige. An estimated 1,000 interns pass through the company's ornate lobby doors each year. Only two of the company's 20 magazines have paid internship programs, Esquire and O, The Oprah Magazine, according to documents Hearst filed with the courts. And it's been this way for years. Hearst won't say how long it's offered unpaid internships, but it's required unpaid interns to provide proof of academic credit for internships since at least 2006. Unpaid internship regulations were added to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1947. (They're still in place today.)

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, has been exploring the problem of unpaid internships for years. He's noticed that interns in certain high-profile fields tend to be more willing to put up with harsh office environments.

"You see this culture in the highly competitive, cool, prestigious, rock-star fields, which include journalism or politics," Perlin says. "There's a kind of hazing process — a feeling that you've got to put in these hours, you've got to be one of the last people to go because you never know when you're moment will come when you'll be plucked from obscurity."

Harper's Bazaar, like other high-fashion magazines, is known for being a particularly brutal introduction to the magazine world. The title clings to pre-recession rituals that other magazines have given up. A former Harper's Bazaar intern told BuzzFeed Shift the magazine's editor-in-chief, Glenda Bailey, has an intern meet her at her car every day to carry her handbag up.

Despite the menial quality of much of the interns' work at Bazaar, alumni seem to cherish the experience. To them, it's fashion boot camp. You spend long hours working for no pay for three months, but you come away with celebrity sightings, free swag and exciting stories that will at once horrify and fascinate your friends. More importantly, you get a nice line on your resume and maybe even a reference from one of those high-profile editors.

For Wang, it was supposed to be her big break — the gig that landed her a real, permanent, glamorous gig in the fashion industry. It was her second fashion internship, and she hoped it would be her last.

Wang found the Harper’s Bazaar internship listing on Ed2010, a website that posts job and internship openings and advice for aspiring magazine editors. Wang interviewed in August 2011 with senior accessories editor Sam Broekema, who was hiring his first batch of interns at Bazaar, according to court documents. (He had started at the magazine in July of 2011.)

Around this time, Wang was admitted to the fashion marketing program at Parsons The New School for Design; she thought the degree would help her get a high-profile fashion internship, but when she realized it “wasn’t that hard” to get one, she deferred her admission. She maintains that she was transparent about all this with Broekema. She still, however, needed to prove she was getting school credit, per Hearst's three basic requirements for interns: enrollment in a bachelor’s or master’s program, documentation on University letterhead confirming school credit will be given for the internship, and approval of said documentation by Hearst's human resources department.

Rather than follow these steps, Wang contacted her alma mater. An academic adviser at Ohio State wrote a letter to Hearst confirming that Wang would get credit. She was in. (Some schools allow students to take courses after graduating.)

Hearst didn't comment for this story beyond the statement it had already released to the media: “The plaintiff in this case, Xuedan Wang, misrepresented that she was a student, when in fact, she was not. The facts will show that this case is without merit."

Court documents filed by the company with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York mostly focus on Wang's shortcomings as an intern. As head accessories intern, Wang’s job duties included delegating assignments from editors to the other accessories interns. The “head” intern also works more closely with Broekema, doing things like his expense report. (Bazaar is also the only Hearst title with “head” interns.)

By Broekema’s account in the court papers, Wang wasn’t very good at her job. The interns Wang supervised approached him with complaints. “For instance, she repeatedly provided interns with the wrong address for a pick-up or return, and more critically, she would try to cover the mistakes up instead of bringing me in the loop,” Broekema wrote in a declaration under penalty of perjury (a court document similar to an affidavit, but not notarized).

Wang also risked losing or breaking products, “which can be damaging to the reputation of an accessories editor,” added Broekema. The products she and the other interns handled included jewelry and shoes and bags from every high-fashion house you could image — thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of merchandise the magazine would have to pay for if anything were damaged or lost.

Broekema wrote that he met with Wang multiple times to talk about her shortcomings. One Friday afternoon, Broekema asked her to take the weekend to decide whether she still wanted to be “head” intern. When she returned on Monday, Wang told him she’d like to keep the position and would try harder. But her performance, Broekema said, didn’t improve. (Interns who worked under Wang contacted by BuzzFeed Shift declined to comment.)

For her part, Wang says she was constantly stressed and exhausted by her duties — managing interns and tracking packages for a boss who would "smack his leg and yell every day," losing his temper over things she couldn't control. It was also frustrating for her to get assignments not related to the accessories department — like delivering new outfits to editors between shows at Fashion Week. Even though these tasks had been explained before the start of her internship, she felt like it was an inappropriate amount of work for no pay. She felt her job, which she spent more than 40 hours a week doing, should have been filled by a full-time staffer.

Still, she never made these concerns known while she was at Bazaar, and when her internship ended, she tried to enlist the help of her contacts at Hearst to find a job. On Jan. 4, she sent an email to Bazaar's then-accessories director Ana Maria Pimentel, asking if she could come in and thank her for “the most unique and valuable professional experience I could have asked for.” Wang says Pimentel never replied.

On Jan. 5, she sent an email to Amy Helmus at Hearst's Human Resources department, inquiring about open fashion positions at Hearst. “The job I held [at Bazaar] was extremely demanding and necessitated a high level of responsibility, but was the most valuable work experience I have had to date,” she wrote. Helmus never replied.

On Jan. 20, she sent another email to Pimentel, asking for a reference for a public relations assistant position she was applying for. Again, Wang got no reply.

And this was when Diana Wang went from an ex-intern who may have felt taken advantage of but ultimately satisfied with her experience, to an angry, disgruntled intern bent on revenge. On Feb. 1, she filed a lawsuit.

The suit is based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s six criteria for unpaid internships. Essentially, an unpaid internship has to be an educational experience and must benefit the intern, although the intern must know that he or she isn’t entitled to wages or a job at the end of the internship. The intern should also not displace regular employees, and the employer should not derive any immediate advantage from the intern. In other words, the office should operate the exact same way with an intern as it would without one.

Wang says that wasn't the case at Bazaar. By her count, the magazine had almost as many interns as it did editors. She also maintains that her internship violated the Labor Department’s fourth rule — “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” Having an intern to do his expense reports almost certainly was an advantage to Broekema.

“I think about number 4 a lot,” says Rachel Bien, one of Wang’s attorneys. “It’s quite an uphill struggle for a company like Hearst, or any private company. Essentially the internship has to be purely shadowing. It’s quite a high standard to meet, and pretty much impossible when you’re actually giving interns tasks to do.”

Word spread quickly about Wang’s lawsuit, the first of its kind in the magazine world.

If the case goes to trial, Hearst can emphasize that Wang misrepresented her intention to get school credit for the internship. But pretending to get school credit for these gigs doesn’t seem very uncommon or hard to do. Wang admits she never obtained school credit for her work. A former intern at Hearst who spoke to BuzzFeed Shift anonymously (she still wants to be a Hearst staffer someday) says her school drafted a letter promising she would get credit for independent study. But the next semester, she didn’t go through with the class. No one at Hearst ever knew.

This former intern has her own share of horror stories. She interned in the office of an editor-in-chief she never even met, whose assistants tasked her with maintaining the magazine's "gift closet," which involved organizing any gifts that came in and re-gifting any of the gifts the editor didn't want. But she says she'd never consider joining Wang's suit.

“I don’t think it’s the company’s fault that I had this unreasonable boss,” she says. “The more I think about it, the more bothered I am that [Wang] is suing. You had a bad internship — deal with it.”

She's not the only one who seems to resent Wang's actions. Since the suit, big publishing companies, including Hearst rival Condé Nast, aren't as willing to bend the rules of unpaid internships by, for instance, having someone who graduated college stay on indefinitely — an under-the-table practice that often benefited both the intern, who gained experience and connections, and the magazine, which got cheap labor from someone who knew the ropes.

“Some internships can be atrocious. Some magazines can be atrocious. But there are good situations and bad situations, and obviously she had a bad one. All of the other interns shouldn't be punished” by only being able to work for three months, says an editor who supervises interns at one of Hearst’s competing publishing houses.

But Condé Nast didn't suddenly buckle down on internship policy because of Wang's lawsuit. Former interns say the company quietly changed its internship policies in the summer of 2011, before Wang began her internship and the Black Swan and Charlie Rose lawsuits were filed, although the new policies didn’t receive attention until March of 2012. (Condé Nast, which publishes magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair and Glamour, didn't respond to requests for comment on when exactly the policy changed.)

According to former interns, the new policies stipulate that Condé Nast interns can only stay for one semester and must be enrolled undergraduate students. Instead of paying interns $10 a day for any day they worked longer than three hours, the company now pays a stipend of $550 per semester. Editors have to help interns come up with goals for the semester; interns also attend seminars regularly, and must leave the building before 7 p.m.

“I don’t think I benefited from the change,” says a former Condé intern whose internship overlapped with the new policy implementation. “I think it’s a little contrived the way that they had the goals for the semester. It’s not that kind of environment. It’s dynamic and I don’t think you can map out specific things you’re going to learn in the publishing industry.”

About five months ago, she got a letter from a law firm. (She's since thrown out the letter, and can't recall the firm's name.) They had information she had interned at Condé Nast, and wanted to talk to her about any poor working conditions she may have encountered.

“The letter said that according to the law, I was supposed to be getting minimum wage, and any time over 40 hours a week, I should have gotten overtime,” she says. “I never got in touch with them. I’m very grateful for my experience, even if that is naïve of me to think so.”

The magazine intern supervisor who spoke to BuzzFeed believes stricter policies ultimately provide interns with a more valuable work experience, and benefit editors, though it’s admittedly more work for them. But she added, “Everyone in magazines works really hard. We should be aware of the interns’ needs, but this is an industry that asks you to put a lot in. If you don't like that work style, it's a good learning experience to figure out that’s a world you don't want to be in.”

Wang says she praises Condé Nast for revamping their intern program — even if it's just a way of "covering their asses" — but she’s bitter that Hearst hasn’t changed anything since she left.

“I know people who are working entry-level at Hearst, whose bosses told them they were working too much overtime and that they needed to hire more interns to make up for it,” Wang says. “That was in April, two months after the lawsuit was brought forward. That’s left a huge impression on me.”

Wang says she wants to expose the fashion industry’s poor working conditions. If her lawyers win the suit, she and the others who've joined will be paid back wages, including overtime.

“I think the piece of this that is susceptible to change is the pay piece,” Perlin says. “The culture of killing yourself to make deadlines and taking 14-hour days — whether that will change, I'm not sure. But certainly when people are being paid, it will have some kind of effect. It will humanize the whole situation more. Interns won't have to work side jobs to pay their rent.”

Still, there’s an overwhelming sense of fear among interns — past and present — to step forward and stand beside Wang and demand better conditions.

“When I was working on my book, a lot of people would only talk to me off the record. They said they wanted to, but that they were fearful,” Perlin says. “In some cases, I think these fears are a little overblown about blacklisting. People may feel that worlds are smaller than they are. Not every editor until the end of time is going to remember the name Diana Wang.”

The intern supervisor agrees.

“I don't think people pay that much attention,” she says. “We're all busy. If we get a qualified applicant who has good references, I can't imagine ever double-checking their name with a list of people who joined the suit.”

That message hasn’t made it to the former interns who spoke anonymously for this story.

“If you ever want to work in magazines, you can’t join the suit,” says the former Hearst intern.

The former Condé Nast intern agrees: “If you’re going to go up against a publishing giant, I don’t think you’d be able to get that far in your career."

Wang is acutely aware of this sentiment.

“When I decided to file the lawsuit, I had nothing to lose, because I had decided I was never going to work in fashion again,” she says. “That still hurts me so badly. I loved fashion. I still love fashion. I never wanted to hate what I loved, but Hearst has almost made me hate it.”

As court dates near and her story gets more media attention, Wang says she's stopped reading the comments on pieces written about her. It’s there she’s been torn apart and praised — but mostly torn apart.

“Good luck finding a job in the future, troublemaker,” one New York Times commenter wrote. ”Get over it,” wrote two others on The Cut. A former Bazaar intern even chimed in: “When you do an internship in my opinion you have to suck it up! This younger generation needs to develop a thicker skin.”

Meanwhile, some are rooting for her. “This is nothing new in the fashion industry, but I am so thankful that people are finally standing up against it,” wrote another Times commenter.

Wang, who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, has been freelancing for a non-profit company since July. She has no proof that potential employers have turned her away after finding out about the lawsuit, but she says she thinks her new “volatile” profile has contributed to a tough job search.

“I’m a Google result now,” Wang says. “That’s one of the things commentators point out, how hard it’ll be for me to find a job now. And it has been. It makes me sad. If Hearst was Walmart, no one would be saying, ‘How dare she sue them.’”

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