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New York notebook

 
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Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen allegedly did little work as interns

Summer work experience, or internships, are all the rage, but there are as many quirks as perks, warns Bee Shaffer

In the past, a typical summer for a university student involved travelling, maybe a part-time job as a waitress and a lot of doing nothing. Summer holidays were just that - holidays.

These days, at least in America, the season that students used to look forward to all year is anything but a vacation. Bikinis for the beach have been traded for "appropriate office attire", as they spend their summer days as lowly interns at the bottom of the corporate food chain, with a typical income of $0.

In an ideal world, these much-sought-after internships would entail valuable work experience, rather than the reality of fetching coffee, arranging messengers and sending faxes.

Sadly, it appears these "jobs" have become CV boosters more than anything else. I have one friend who had so little to do at the architecture firm where she interned that she spent the majority of her time reading Harry Potter and playing solitaire.

In addition, the actual process of acquiring an internship has become one of the most common forms of nepotism, with parents relentlessly calling in favours from friends (I must admit to abusing a few connections myself), while hard-working, intelligent and deserving students are frequently turned away so that some eminent person's daughter can have the job.

Even celebrities are taking on internships, although it is not clear how hard they work. Teen actress Mary-Kate Olsen worked for the photographer Annie Leibowitz while her twin sister Ashley did a stint at designers Zac Posen, along with first niece Lauren Bush. Harrods heiress Camilla al-Fayed spent some time at Vogue last year.

I happen to know one of Mary-Kate's fellow interns and he informed me that she didn't know what a negative was, and that when she attended a Sarah Jessica Parker shoot, she only stayed for an hour and all she did was sit and smoke Marlboro Reds. Apparently, she not only left the photo assistants dumbfounded, but also Ms Parker, who muttered: "What the hell is an Olsen twin doing here?"

So with all this pressure to secure one of these all-important internships, some of you must be wondering what tasks an intern must perform. I have experienced both the good and the bad in my summer jobs. I had my first-ever piece published, a 350-word blurb, but it was special to me, and I was able to take a two-week trip to Los Angeles to assist on a few shoots and pass it off as work. Not bad. Plus, I scored myself a cute date while on the job.

However, I also had to run around NY to find hand-towels for my boss and fetch the umbrella he had left at a restaurant the night before, and they wouldn't even pay my subway fare!

My good friend, who used to spend his summers as a lifeguard, has moved up in the ranks and this year he worked in the mergers and acquisitions department at JPMorgan. Like me, he's had a mixed experience, the good part being a BlackBerry, a corporate card for lunches, a company car when he worked later than 9pm, and quite an impressive salary for a 20-year-old student.

On the bad side, he was worked insane hours - 36 hours without a break was his record. One night, after taking me as his date to a party, he went back to the office and didn't leave until 4am.

Another friend of mine was told by the magazine that hired him to find out where juice vendors were in New York, so he walked from 34th to 59th streets between 2nd and 9th Avenue, counting all the juice carts. His story never ran. The same friend also worked at US Weekly, where he had to ask 100 people which Olsen twin was the hottest.

Other strange tasks I've heard about include playing with your boss's hair all day long and being obliged to run a triathlon. Baby-sitting duties are not unusual, and the interns at The Paris Review have to take out the rubbish.

But not all interns are treated like slaves. Jeff Whitledge, one third of the Trovata design team, told me his interns were told to take Thursdays off so they could have surf lessons. I guess they're more relaxed in California.

In terms of how to dress for an internship, I think it depends where you're working. When I started my summer job, I was very excited to wear all my new summer dresses with my Marc Jacobs heels, but I quickly realised that jeans and Converse sneakers might be more appropriate.

On the other hand, my best friend, Tess, is working at Vogue and she told me one of the most important things she learnt this summer was how to walk in heels. However, she's not complaining, adding that it's fun to get dressed up for work every morning. And she has discovered the office secret: keeping a pair of flats under your desk. Manolos are only necessary when the boss is around.

 
 
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