I was never in the inner circle of glossy fashion-magazine hell depicted in The Devil Wears Prada, but for years I worked with these dragon-lady editors as a Los Angeles lifestyle writer, so the opening of the movie this weekend has brought on a certain nostalgia. Among the many reasons a real career in one of these bitch pits was never in the cards for me is because I’ve always had an unfortunate habit of wearing cheap clothes literally to pieces, even when I was on the fashion beat.
Not long ago, for instance, I came in from being out all day and discovered the shorts I’d been wearing around town were split right up the back. At least my sister was happy there was one less pair of men’s boxers in my wardrobe, as she thinks my habit of wearing them as a summer uniform is unseemly.
We were strolling down the mean streets of Beverly Hills one afternoon, for instance, when she said disapprovingly, “That man was staring at you.”
“Maybe because he thought I looked good!”
“Maybe because he saw your shorts and was overcome with a sense of deja vu about his underwear drawer.”
But honestly, I was dressed perfectly appropriately when years ago I showed up at a Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot to interview an actress and her film-executive husband for the magazine. Still, Nancy Dinsmore, the longtime west-coast editor supervising the shoot, let out a little shriek of horror when she saw me. Then she immediately ran to the phone to complain furiously to the editor who’d assigned me the story.
“I told her she couldn’t come!” I heard her yell to New York. This was true, but I’d ignored her, because the photo shoot was the only day the actress’s husband could fit in to talk to me and I needed to get the piece done. Besides, as anyone who’s been on a photo shoot knows, these events are pretty much defined by down time, so there was no reason for her to make things difficult. Except perhaps that at the time I was young, like that Devil Wears Prada assistant, and Nancy seemed to me about 103.
Perhaps she was feeling the pressure of hanging on to a plum job, with all its attendant freebies and ego-stroking flattery, by her last remaining claws. Because a few months later, Bazaar assigned me another one of these at-home pieces. And Nancy, who’d nastily called the magazine’s mother ship to complain about my offending presence on the previous story, now felt no shame whatsoever about frantically calling me, sometimes twice a day, to futilely plead that I work the name of a certain tableware shop into the story. Evidently she owed them for some reason.
A few years after that, I was working at the now defunct L.A. glossy Buzz when one of its posh founders, Eden Collinsworth (then married to New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton) suggested I write a profile of The New Yorker’s well-connected west-coast editor, an Englishwoman named Caroline Graham. But when I reached Graham at her office, she announced in flutey, Pantomime dame tones: “Well, I’ve known Eden for years, of course. And I’ve also known her husband William for years. But you” – and here she paused for breath, as if considering some unfamiliar species of insect that had just appeared on her wall – “well, I don’t know who you are at all.”
“Hey, no skin off my nose if you don’t want to do it,” I said cheerfully. But to myself I thought: What a moron.
I’ve always rubbed these high-powered lady editors the wrong way for some reason. But unlike Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger, I’ve never managed to make any real money from the experience.
Buzz became a hopelessly money-losing proposition when it became clear that its rival, Los Angeles, wasn’t going out of business. But in its last year the magazine tried to survive by concentrating on celebrity profiles and other features that might attract ads from day spas and pillow stores and makers of overpriced leather goods. New editor Marilyn Bethany, a veteran of New York’s design-magazine world, understood that I no longer fit in once Buzz became a sort of Tiger Beat meets InStyle, and it didn’t take long for her to cut my job.
Being a seasoned New York magazine gal in the traditional Best of Everything mold, however, she still seemed to hold that against me! As it happened, Buzz’s money troubles weren’t entirely alleviated by the disappearance of my salary from the payroll, and in its waning months the magazine entered into a desperate but rather remarkable deal with a movie studio, offering first chance to option articles in return for a few thousand extra dollars to help pay for assignments. So I called Marilyn up to interview her about this for another publication. She was grumpy, but did agree to talk on the record.
“Uh-huh,” I said, taking notes as Marilyn said boosterish things like “This is going to allow us to do the type of journalism we’ve never done before,” etc.
“Uh-huh!” she mimicked testily. “Uh-huh! Uh-huh!”
“I’m just writing down what you’re saying,” I said, making a mental note to inject a more sincerely sympathetic tone to my please-do-go-on murmurs while interviewing people. “Now, by how much will the writer share in the movie rights?”
“I don’t know. Some reasonable percentage.”
“Can I see the contract?”
“No-o-o-o…” said Marilyn, drawing out the word slowly, then suddenly snapping: “This is private property of the magazine, Catherine!”
Note to anyone interested in buying the screen rights to any of my articles: I always thought this would be a good place for the giant alien to burst out of my stomach, travel via computer-generated imagery through the fiber-optic phone line, and eat Marilyn. Just a suggestion. But since I never got a lucrative, Devil Wears Prada-style deal out of my years working with these women, maybe I can at least have a say in the special effects.
— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.