Ashleigh asked for a one-way ticket to London for her 21st birthday and decided that she would figure it out when the plane landed. And that she did. Starting out as a receptionist intern at Dazed - while waitressing at night - she worked her way up to become the Arts & Culture editor.
This interview took place between Tate and Ashleigh at Dazed Media's London office
TVPS: So how did you get here?
AK: I grew up in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne. I always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve always been very self-conscious about my work. I’m a Virgo, so in other words, I’m a perfectionist, and nothing I do is good enough. I thought, "Well, I can't be a writer because this person is better than me. They read more. They've got a bigger vocabulary." So for a bit, I decided to study PR as well because I assumed that it’d be easier to get into, or at least more fruitful financially.
I was still in Melbourne and since the fashion industry wasn’t as huge there, I had a difficult time trying to figure myself out, find the right career and people to look up to who felt like me. After a while I was thinking, "This is not working for me here. I'm going to move to London."
I was 20, and this sounds very privileged, but my mom asked, "What do you want for your 21st birthday?" And I said, "I don't want a party or presents. I want a one-way ticket to London. I think it was about £300." So she sorted that out, and 3 weeks later I was here. I thought, "Cool. I'm going to go to LCF," but the tuition was 10k, so then it was “Guess I’m not going to LCF.”
I scrapped my degree and made my way around London doing a lot of hospitality work, and eventually got into consumer PR a few years after making some money in restaurants. It wasn’t for me – it wasn’t the creative work I had craved. So I took 2 years off to work in hospitality again while I figured it out. I was 25 at that point, and that’s when my now ex-boyfriend, his parents, asked us to look after their apartment while they dealt with some family things overseas.
Oh, sweet deal.
So I picked up my studies again but this time with a focus in journalism. One of the modules that I needed to complete was an internship. I was searching on this website called fashionworkie.com and saw that Dazed had a listing for a receptionist intern, so I thought, "Okay. I'm going to do that because 10 people are going to apply to that one in comparison to 100 for the editorial one.” When I applied this amazing guy, Harry Pearce, emailed back, and asked for me to come in the next day. I was freaking out. I ran out and bought the latest issue of Dazed; I didn't have it. People think that you have to be obsessed with the magazines that you want to work for. You obviously have to appreciate them, but you don’t have to be an expert. You just need to be prepared to learn and throw yourself in head first and wholeheartedly.
I looked up everyone in that issue, but they actually didn't ask any of that, they just wanted to get to know me. Harry was asking me questions about my personality and who I am, what I want to do, and I mentioned I wanted to do journalism, and that I was studying it. He said, "Great! Well, you know, if you had the opportunity to intern here, you could obviously, speak to those departments." He’s one of the people that I list for really giving me a leg up.
Somehow I got it and when I started, I was really appreciative to be there, but I was thinking, "How do I get from this point to writing?" So I just said “Hi” to everyone because I was the first person that people saw in the morning. People think that being the receptionist or handing out the mail is trivial but no, it builds relationships. Those people remember you because you've done something for them. I would also ask questions when I could and soon I got to a point where I felt comfortable emailing those people and asking, "Hey, I'm a journalism student, I'd love to write something." And they'd say, "Yeah, pitch some ideas go for it." But nothing was really getting picked up.
Then I thought, "Whatever, I'm just going to email the fashion features editor,” who's now our editor-in-chief, Isabella Burley. She's a huge inspiration, and I was nervous, but I emailed her and asked, "Do you have anything that I can write?” She emailed back saying, "Hey, write this. Someone's written it, but I'm not happy." I was freaking out because she wasn’t happy with the one that she paid for! But I wrote it and sent it back to her, and she said, "This is great. When can you come and intern for me?"
So I did and I made myself indispensable. I was still working part-time at the restaurant, but I was just so excited to be there. I would go home and stay up all night transcribing the editorial team’s transcriptions. This one time I knew what I had transcribed was going to be in print so when it came out, I was like, "Oh, I transcribed those words." It’s so silly but it’s the small things that you really take hold of and appreciate.
Also, Dazed is really DIY, and we're still independent, which filters through to the way that things are structured and how we work. Everyone is doing a million jobs at once, and since there’s no time to micromanage, you're thrown right into the deep end which is the best thing. I never had to get anyone coffee or walk someone's dog. Instead, I was transcribing, coming up with interview questions, working on brand features, from the get go. I was so scared, of course. I was good scared, though. I would stay up until 4 AM writing something. But the feedback that I got was so helpful where I just hung around after my internship ended and did things for Isabella here and there.
Also, another thing is that everyone is really friendly, you just have to put yourself out of your comfort zone. I was 25 years old doing an internship with 18-year-olds, and I wasn't like, "Hey, I'm a failure. I'm 25, doing my first internship." I was appreciative that I probably had my head on a bit more than my 18-year-old self. I put my pride aside. I didn't take it personally when they would say something like, "What is this sentence you've written?" Instead, I would say, "Okay, great, I'll change that." I feel like if I had done that internship at 18, I don't know if I would have been the same person doing it at 25. Every time I was transcribing and researching I took that as a real learning opportunity.
Then a freelance job popped up at Nowness when they were relaunching their site so I took that. I was recommended by my colleagues at the time, Trey Taylor and Owen Myers – I’ll never forget how appreciative I was to them, and still am. At first, it was a lot of menial tasks, but soon, the editor in chief at the time, Terence Teh, asked me do a few interviews for them. Also, just meeting all of these people, they might not do something immediately for you, but 6 months down the line, they're going to say, "Hey! I remember that person." Hopefully. I always thought that even though I wasn’t the best writer but if I was nice, friendly, and open then I might land on my feet.
So after a year of interning and assisting, I was getting pretty antsy, like “Shit I’m real tired and broke, and where is this even going?” Luckily though, the digital assistant was leaving Dazed, and Harry, who's always looked out for me, said, "On the down-low, nobody knows this yet but the digital assistant is leaving her position, and you should apply before it's announced.” So I did, and, after a few interviews and serious moments of doubt, I ended up getting it.
Within that year a lot of things were changing, so I sat down with the HR and said "This is what I'm doing, this is what I have done and this is what I can do. I need some more faith; I need a different job title." Then the guy who was our editor in chief at the time, Tim Noakes, said, "Do you know what? You're going to be our Arts and Culture editor, but we can’t pay you anymore right now. You’ll see though; this will open a lot of doors.”
At that point, I was walking to work, I was so broke. Tim was right though, quite quickly, things did start to change. So many doors opened which made me realize that, of course, you need money but if there’s any way that you can make it work, prioritize on getting the job that makes you excited to go to work every day.
It was tough; I used to try and get on the tube and not pay the fare. Where I was living, I could take the DLR, and there were certain points where you could get on and get off, and you wouldn't have to tap in. There are no gates. Or I’d get on a bus and not tap in or whatever. Don't do that though; I got done a few times. It's not great.
Someone said this the other day, and I think it’s true, I find that it’s the journey up to wherever you want to go that is the most important because once you get what you want, it's even scarier. I guess because you have to decide what to do with it. But that journey is the most rewarding and when you're going through it, it's important to stop along the way and think, "Wow! This is what I'm doing.”
I feel like today everyone is so focused on what’s next and I want to say enjoy where you are, don’t look at who's around you or who you think might be doing better, appreciate where you are. And just move forward with your own thing.
So what’s your role now?
I’m the Arts and Cultures editor, but I primarily focus on photography and art because I’ve learned that you can’t do it all. As we've developed as a team, we've gotten designated news writers and news editors, and now they’re the ones who focus on culture and look after that side.
Also, in a company like Dazed where we’re constantly changing and growing yet still independent and a bit DIY. There’s always an area which can be developed, you can find your niche, and I did. I focused on art and photography.
My daily job is to publish 2 articles a day, and they could be something that I’ve written, or someone else has that I’ve commissioned. People say editors don't write, but I write and commission every day. Commissioning is quite a tricky one, I always thought publications had a huge bank of writers that they just choose from, and they send their amazing ideas and words and then that's it. To be honest, it's a lot harder to do because first of all, you need someone with your tone of voice and your outlook, in a sense, the Dazed way that we look at things. Then they also need to follow through with it. I actually end up commissioning a lot of our old interns.
So keep that in mind, if you’re on the other side and sending out your own work. We don’t have a crazy amount of writers, and I don't have millions of articles to choose from. So yeah, I go through pitches every day and commission them, or I have ideas, and I send them out to people because unfortunately, I don't have time to always write larger ones myself. Or we’ll have the opportunity to conduct these amazing interviews, and if I don’t have time to do them, I’ll see who can. Then I’ll get the copy in, feedback if needed, edit it, publish it.
The other side of the job is commercial, because we’re a magazine, so that’s what funds us. So that’s working on brand campaigns that are either through the Dazed channel, so it’ll be Dazed presents with Levi's or whatever and they get published on the site. Or we also have Dazed Studio as well, which is a white label so that’s working on brand campaigns that don't have Dazed associated with it but they have our outlook, our team, and our contacts. Those are 2 things that make up a big part of my day.
Then the other thing that is a huge part of the job, which can be overlooked, is that you do have to go out and meet people. You have to go to meetings and parties or dinners or just meet a photographer who's in town or whatever. There are so many times when I've met someone randomly, and it's led to an opportunity for both of us.
People think that everyone just sits behind their desks a lot now. But I always try and get out and go to events and stuff, especially art openings or whatever. London's so DIY and we always have something going on. When people ask, "How did you make your connections?" It is literally that. It's being awkward and not knowing anyone but going anyways. It's only awkward for like a few minutes max, and then you run into someone you know, or strike up a conversation. It's putting yourself on the line, which is maybe even the hardest part because you're not secure like you are on your keyboard. You have to go out and put your faith in humanity. Which is fucking scary but it's so important. And most of these events are public! You just search the web or search Facebook or follow who your friends are following and you see where people are going and you go there and meet people, and make friends.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to pitch something?
Yeah, definitely. I actually have this little guide for how to pitch that I’ll send out to people if what they’re pitching isn't quite right because I want to hear from them again.
The art world and the fashion industry are both becoming increasingly democratized, so I was wondering why you think both are heading in that direction at the same time?
It's definitely the internet because you have a platform to show yourself, but I don't think that you can judge the quality of your work through social media. There are posts that I know will do well on social media because they're easy, attention-grabbing, a great image or something. But it doesn't mean that they're always the best quality of work. It’s the things that are super deep and important in theory that don’t get the hits because they're too complex in theory – or maybe make people uncomfortable – for social media.
Also, it does give a new level of accessibility, you can get in touch with people, and people can see your work no matter where you live. It brings a new space that is outside of the gallery walls or agent’s books or whatever.
But art doesn't... I feel badly for art because it doesn't always come across well on the internet. You need to physically be in the space, feeling the art in front of you, feeling the scale of it. On the other hand, though, photography is great for the internet, and I think that has opened up a new world. But, I also think that it’s tricky. I have seen people straight up copying other shoots, straight up copying masters from years ago and they palm it off because people don't have that knowledge of what’s come before, so they get all of the credit. The internet has democratized art and photography which is great, but since there are no real rules people need to think about what they’re putting out there and looking at. So not just taking something at face value. In other words, it has both good and bad sides like anything else.
Also, Instagram has enabled everyone to think of themselves as a photographer. Someone might get 1,000 likes on a photo, and that makes them think that they’re a photographer even though they’ve only been taking photos for 2 weeks. All of a sudden they’ll say, “I want my photos to be in a magazine or on a website." Then when someone gives them feedback that might not be to their liking, they take it very personally. The thing is that you need to give yourself time to develop. Just because we get everything so fast, we get what we want when we want, people don't allow themselves the years that it takes to develop into an artist and to work under someone who's already been established. There’s a reason why a lot of people in the past haven’t gotten their big moment until they’re 30, 40, 50. Obviously go out there and knock on people's doors and send them emails but take a moment to consider your work and where you want to be and understand that time can be a good thing.
I agree, I also think that makes it challenging for someone who is coming up in this industry. All you ever see are these 19, 20, 21-year-olds making their big breaks which makes it hard to realize that maybe it's not so bad to take a slow route and to really learn and study your craft and to develop your own point of view. I feel like putting value in longevity is a bit overlooked these days.
Exactly, because you need to be prepared for that big break. People need to realize that being on a website isn't the be all and end all of your career. It's one moment that might do something or do nothing. Your career goal can't be to get on Dazed or to get on i-D for the sake of being on it. What is important though, is you creating what is authentic to you. People get really caught up with being featured, when maybe your work is amazing, but it doesn't fit with that one aesthetic that that magazine caters to. That’s just one magazine, or one place to put your work. It’s not the end of the world.
Yeah, and just because you think Dazed is cool, don't switch up your work because then you're going to end up tripping yourself.
You're going to trip yourself, and you're going to feel shit about it, and people need to understand that this social validation is nothing after you get that post because 3 days later everyone’s onto something else. So that can't be your main thing.
So 2 of my favorite articles that you wrote are when you introduced the new magazine Azeema and...
She was an old intern.
Oh really? That’s so cool.
Yeah, she's great, I'm so proud of what she’s done.
Yeah, what she’s doing is awesome.
And my other favorite article is when you wrote about Campbell Addy diversifying stock images.
We all know that diversity is an extraordinarily important topic because it's 2017 and things should be looking a lot better by now. But I think that diversity can also be an intimidating thing to write about as a journalist because you don't want to be misunderstood and you want to get it right. So I was wondering if you had any advice for someone who wants to write about diversity?
I think diversity is a sensitive thing to approach. We write about Campbell Addy a lot. I don't always write about him myself though because his work is very rooted in him being a black gay man. As a white straight female, I don't have the experiences that he has gone through to discuss that with him. Sometime it’s not my place to discuss that with him, and he should discuss that with someone else who has had those experiences if he feels comfortable. So we will find writers who have similar experiences and pair them with the artist. Writing about diversity is tricky, and we’re always having the conversation of "Can I write about this? Or should I get another voice to write about this?" Of course, I want to, but is it in the best interest of who I’m interviewing and our audience for me to write this just because I want to? You have to think of the artist or the subject and the audience and what’s best for them.
So I’d say find writers that have passion and experiences in that topic. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be gay people can only write about gay stories and white people can only write about white stories, and black people can only write about black stories. I think that's problematic as well, but it’s something we are learning and working through everyday. I don’t have the answers just yet. I’d just say be sensitive and thoughtful.
What you said though made total sense because of course, you can write about it, but it’s really challenging if you don’t have that first-hand experience.
Exactly because what’s most important is to tell that person’s story in the most authentic and sincere way as possible.
Dazed has continually done an amazing job with that.
Yeah, and obviously we do trip up, we're not perfect, but we do have amazing writers in all different areas. The beauty of online is that you can meet people. I can be on Twitter and ask, "Who loves this person? Who loves this artist?" And people will be like, "I do. I have knowledge.” It doesn't always work, but when it does, it’s great.
That's really smart.
It’s about giving other people platforms. The journalism industry is predominately white, and it's probably predominantly male as well if you're looking at it. You need to be giving platforms to different voices. Does a white male need to be writing about this? People shouldn't take these things personally and think, "Well, I want to write about it, why can't I?" You just need to look at the bigger picture and understand what's best for the public that you're writing for.
And that's where your commissioning comes in.
Do you have any ideas of where you’d like to go?
Right now, all I want to do is Dazed because I'm developing and learning so much. But if at one point I stop learning and developing, and having new experiences then I’ll say, "That's it" and think what’s next. But I've been with Dazed for 3 years now, and every day I learn something new.
Also, I’ve started freelancing more because my job at Dazed brings me to new things. Amazing people will get in touch and they’ll share their ideas and their time and say, "I've got this coming up." So then that'll fuse into other consulting jobs that I do where a brand will ask me, "Who's cool?" So I’ll say, "This person, this person, this person." Which is super rewarding for me because most of the time, they’re going to get paid for whatever they’re doing. It's rewarding for me to connect people. A lot of people say, "Oh I know about this person because you wrote about them." or "You introduced us." I like doing that; I like giving people a platform and helping them. So, consulting's good for me.
I also want to curate some more stuff. But I'm not looking that crazy-far ahead. I just started my journey, 4 years ago - ish. It's silly to look too far ahead. I just want to keep learning, picking up different skills, curate a show, keep doing more things and really going for it.
And what advice would you give to someone who admires your work and all that you’ve accomplished?
That everyone is human, and at the end of the day, I'm scared of many things, and I feel nervous and insecure too. But you need to harness the moment and push forward. I was editing this video this morning which stars Tommy Genesis, and she said: "The best advice I ever got was that it just takes 10 seconds to overcome any fear.” It’s scary but in 10 seconds you know it's going to be chill. It's going to be fine. You shake that person’s hand or start singing or whatever.” And it's true; you just have to make yourself uncomfortable to find a level of comfort in the future. It doesn't happen immediately, but you know soon it will.
Also, be nice to people and listen to people but look after yourself. People ask me for a lot. Everyone has something going on, and I can't do something for everyone because sometimes it's not right or I don't have the time or whatever it is, and you can't really beat yourself up over it. You have to look after your own self. You have to put yourself first, or you can't help anyone. So be nice to people and stay positive and listen and learn and don't become too good or too big for your boots. It's good to be humble.