When I’d arrived at marie claire for my interview two weeks earlier, I’d spent the better part of 10 years in the media, from photocopying scripts in the ABC newsroom to writing for a number of major newspapers. But here I was, losing my magazine virginity. The only thing I noticed before being ushered into Jackie Frank’s office was a sea of purple and gold wallpaper (turns out it was just a few dolled-up columns, but, hey, a stressed mind can play tricks).
Sitting across from the inimitable publisher/editor and her deputy, Mel, with Sydney’s Eveleigh rail yards glimmering in the distance, I prayed I wasn’t sweating through my carefully selected silk dress. I spied Jackie’s famous treadmill in the corner, and signed photos from celebrities propped up against the wall, and wondered what I was in for.
From across a desk strewn with countless magazines, Jackie whipped out the latest issue of marie claire, flipped it open and announced: “Let’s go through this page by page. I want you to tell me exactly what you think.” Was she serious? Would it be wrong to run away at this point? “I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot,” I said. “It’ll be worse if you don’t,” fired back Jackie, as she sipped a cup of lemon and ginger tea. Righto, I thought, feeling my back stiffen. I’m not going to walk out of here knowing I lost my nerve. “I think this is boring,” I offered, pointing to one story. “Hmm, interesting,” said Jackie. And on and on we went, with me telling her what I liked and disliked about features while I kept my arms clamped to my sides. Looking at a sex story, I shrugged and suggested that it was a bit puerile. “Ah, but that’s about having a perve,” remarked Mel. “You’re too serious,” remonstrated Jackie.
Damn, too nerdy an answer, I thought, kicking myself. I walked out of there nearly an hour and a half later, my mouth dry from talking nonstop, and wondering if I had just wildly offended one of the most powerful women in Australian media.
Two weeks later, I was celebrating a friend’s wedding at an inner-city bar when my phone rang. Squeezing past fellow revellers, I dashed up the stairs out into the late afternoon sunshine. It was Jackie. “Daniela, I’m going to offer you the job,” she declared, as I sat on a milk crate in a graffiti-splattered alleyway. I was thrilled – and scared to death.
Since marie claire’s first issue, I’d loved its mix of intriguing, thought-provoking and sexy features. This was exactly the sort of intelligent journalism I wanted to be a part of. But, first and foremost, marie claire is a fashion magazine. What would it be like sharing an office full of wannabe Anna Wintours? Courtesy of The September Issue and The Devil Wears Prada, I’d imagined arriving at my new job to be greeted by 40 stick-thin women dismally munching on carrot sticks; a roomful of style obsessives who had not come into contact with carbohydrates, non-organic skincare products or polyester for the better part of a decade; and women for whom a normal work outfit cost about the same as a holiday to Europe. In my mind, I had an adult version of Mean Girls with passive aggression and neuroses thrown in.
So I arrived for my first day at the office more carefully dressed, primped and blow-dried than I’d ever been in my life. Suspecting it might be my last carb of the day, I’d devoured a turkey sandwich on the way. I shouldn’t have bothered with any of it. By day two I was back in jeans, and in my first month, we had shared seven birthday cakes.
At my first production meeting, with the entire team crowded into Jackie’s office, I realised I was right about one thing – this is an office of obsessives. Obsessives, that is, who will fight for everything from headlines and pictures to layouts. And they argue...with Jackie! Who knew? (They don’t always win.)
Working with the features team is as hilarious, intense and raucous as I had hoped (but didn’t dare imagine) it would be. On an average day, you’ll find me wandering around the office in bare feet, doing anything from talking to a foreign correspondent in India about a human rights abuse story to liaising with a writer in London about an interview with a British heiress. The features team is a loud bunch, with constant conversation and spontaneous singing, which are occasionally interrupted by Jackie’s signature shrieking.
Sure, some of the assumptions I’d made about life on a magazine turned out to be spot-on: in an office of about 40 people, there are only four men, and there are more designer handbags and tuna salads in this building than anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. But plenty of my other assumptions were nothing but fanciful: I’m yet to come across anyone miserably counting out almonds or subsisting on slimming tea, and there is a wonderful lack of conformity when it comes to style.
Working on a fashion mag means there’s always style advice close to hand. Ripping a silk shirt hours before a party, a member of the fashion team whipped out a roll of double-sided tape and stuck me back into the top. When I was introduced to the creative director on my first day, she reached over and rearranged my twisted necklace while we were chatting. (Note to self: don’t finish getting dressed on the bus.)
Can life at marie claire be glamorous? Hell, yes. The morning of our Christmas lunch, a make-up team camped in the conference room to make sure we looked stunning for our party. Every day, trolleys laden with bags from fashion houses whose logos would make most women weep are wheeled into the office. Then there’s the fashion “cupboard”, a frankly ridiculous name for the impressive room filled with hundreds of outfits, dozens of bags and shoes, and groaning boxes of jewellery. It’s the closest thing to Aladdin’s cave I’ve ever set foot in. No matter how often I stand in there, I never get tired of the glamour, the beauty and the sheer wonder of it all. Even the photo shoot for this story involved delicious hours of hair and make-up, and a photographer who actually cooed, “Perfect, darling!”, while I struck a pose in a pair of 15cm heels.
But there are times when this business is far from glam. Jackie, confined to her couch with a bad back, asked me to her home for a meeting. Walking through the front door, her tiny dog, Sassy, hurtled towards me.
“You like dogs?” said Jackie (I still don’t know if it was a question or a statement. Regardless, the answer I was too polite to give was “not really”). As we sat at her kitchen bench, there was a sudden yelping from the backyard. Sassy looked like she was rooted to the spot.
“Her nails get stuck in the deck!” cried Jackie, as she started riffling through a drawer. “I can’t bend down – you’ll have to cut her toenails.” What? Nervously, I edged towards Sassy, thinking, “This is not what I signed up for.” Mercifully, Sassy freed herself and Jackie and I went back to work like nothing bizarre had just happened.
But bizarre stuff does happen. I’ve learnt firsthand that Jackie is a habitual matchmaker. Arriving at a function, she grabbed my hand and asked: “Are you single?” I nodded yes. “Then meet Ben,” she said triumphantly, as she reached out for the hand of a tall, blond man standing on her other side. Awkwardly, Ben and I sized each other up as we tried to go our separate ways, a tricky proposition given Jackie was still holding firmly onto us.Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to round up foot models for a story (don’t ask). There’s no denying it, working for marie claire is the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. Maybe I’ll even grow to love Sassy.