Sarah Dubbeldam started Darling magazine to bring images of everyday women to the public eye. A brief career in modeling, and a perspective grounded in reality, lay the foundations of what would become Darling.
Do you remember your first week out here in LA?
I do. I moved down to Orange County for college. My new roommates and I settled into our dorm room and we went shopping that afternoon. I remember we got on the freeway and I almost died from the traffic. People were being so aggressive. I literally almost got into an accident trying to go to the mall. So that's my first memory. I was like, "People are so aggressive here. We're just trying to go shopping."
I feel like that's a pretty standard intro to LA! What made you choose Orange County?
I had been there a couple of times to visit some friends and I just thought it was a really cool area. I eventually wanted to work in film, so Orange County was close to LA and I wanted to be by the beach. I also got a scholarship for track there.
That's such an American thing: scholarships, track. That doesn't exist in Australia. So were you doing a lot of running?
I ran all four years of college. I did hurdles and short distance relays and long jump.
Was there hope to make it to the Olympics one day?
None at all. My dad did track and he loved it, so I got into it. It was really fun. I liked the team building. It was a lot to take on with my studies and everything. I haven't really run since. I do yoga and pilates and different things, but I don't ever run. Never.
How did you get interested in film?
I don't really know where it came from exactly. I was always creative, and I just really love good stories. I always loved movies and how art was used to translate the story. I felt like a lot of things out there were really negative and really dark and really down-putting to women and different things like that. I just started to notice there wasn't a lot of light media that made you feel better about yourself.
In high school, I started having a passion for creating positive media. Telling good stories—things that are life-giving to people, versus things that make us feel bad as humans.
Was there an example of that in your childhood?
This is super cheesy, but Anne of Green Gables is such a powerful story. It's such a classic for so many women. Just really raw, vulnerable emotion, capturing the ups and downs of relationships, friends, and romance. A coming-of-age story. I really, really loved that one. I loved a lot of the Jane Austen movies, as well.
When you finished college, did you start working in film?
I did. My first internship was at Sony Pictures. I got in with a big producer named Doug Wick. He did Gladiator and Peter Pan and Bewitched and a lot of other really big movies that have won a few Oscars. I couldn't believe that I actually got the interview.
I was working with several different executive producers at Sony, reading scripts, writing summaries of the scripts, talking about character development, helping writers with research. That was really interesting, just being able to see the different scripts that come through the door.
I did that for quite a while and then I started working at Sony Pictures as a floater assistant. I got to work in a bunch of different departments for different people. And it was all fascinating and magical, just to be on the movie lot everyday and see all the big stages and everything.
Was this in LA?
Yes, in Culver City. I drove back and forth from Orange County for my internship, making it a ten-hour day. It was crazy.
Eventually, I realized I didn't have any money because I was just interning. I had been scouted for modeling when I was in high school, and I got into it a little bit then. So I thought maybe I should try to do that on the side.
I went to an open call at Wilhelmina Models, which is a big agency in LA, and I got signed with them right away. That was really crazy! I started doing a lot of commercial modeling; I did that for about five or six years on the side while still working at Sony. Around then I started to develop the idea for Darling with a friend of mine.
Was it difficult to be in the modeling world and also searching for relatable, authentic stories?
Completely. I think, though, because I had just such a strong upbringing and a strong sense of self, I wasn't really affected by a negative body image. I mean, your agents will email you and say, "Hey, I noticed you've probably gained a half-inch on your thigh and Nike wants to book you, so… What are you doing for exercise classes right now?" I literally would get emails like that. I would just write back, "Hey, all my clothes fit. I think I'm good.”
I didn't really let that affect me deeply, but seeing myself Photoshopped, literally seeing the measurements that models have to fit into, was disturbing. It just shows that there is such a narrow view of beauty—such a narrow view of what you have to live up to as a woman.
That was definitely part of why I created Darling. I wanted to say that all different sizes, heights, body types, and ethnicities are beautiful. No Photoshop. You can cast women that just look so different from one another. You don't have to fit this narrow ideal that culture creates for you.
Since you started Darling, have you seen a shift in media’s perception of women?
There's a little bit of change in the industry. I mean, you see celebrities speaking out about being Photoshopped. Or companies like H&M or Aerie [American Eagle's intimate apparel division] doing their first plus-sized swimsuit lines and editorial modeling. There are definitely some bigger companies that have gotten on board with more diversity, because there's been a lot of backlash from people complaining. People are starting to talk.
But in general, if you look at the “big” magazines, they're all still saying the same exact thing with the same type of girls and no one's really moving away from Photoshop at all. We're grateful that the advertisers we work with agree to our rules to send us raw files and not Photoshop their ads, as well.
I remember the first time I picked up Darling at a Whole Foods in New York three years ago. I didn't know anything about it. But I read a few stories and I was thought, “This is me. This is exactly what I was thinking.”
That's the reaction we want because we're just normal girls. Everyday girls, not this glossy, unattainable thing.
How is it sustainable? Where do you see it going?
Well, right now, we're working on the quarterly print magazine, and then we have the online platform. We branched out into doing events like dinners, and recently we've done three retreats. We’re doing lots of different types of experiential things.
We're also in the process of building out another division called Darling Studios, which is basically video content that reflects the heart of the manifesto and the magazine.
Is this something you will be creating yourselves or are you partnering with other people?
We have created 20 shows right now. Ten are already in pre-production. We've partnered with some people that have experience in the video industry. They're helping us figure out how many episodes there should be, from two-minute episodes to 25-minute documentaries.
That's how we see it being sustainable. A magazine in itself these days isn't as sustainable as it used to be, but a quarterly publication is better because it's more like a book. It's a higher price point. It's more like selling a t-shirt. But then we have all these other divisions that fuel the whole company. The magazine is just that special product that's the heart of the brand. It’s the thing that introduces people to the whole Darling network.
Does it blow your mind to think about how you’ve progressed from your teenage aspirations to actually doing those things now?
Sometimes. It seems like it's happened really fast. When you think back on all the days and moments and hours and decisions and late nights, suddenly it seems like a lot of work. So sometimes it's pretty surreal to think, "Wow, I actually have created this thing and all these people have done it alongside me."
How long has it been since that moment you had the idea?
I had the idea in 2006. My friend and I came up with a concept, then we started meeting with a bunch of women to develop the idea more. Then we launched the website and the Kickstarter in 2011.
The first print magazine was made in September 2012. So there was about six years of just building our foundation, and trying to make my life work while doing random jobs, just developing a really strong concept before we even launched anything.
Was the goal to have something that was yours so that you wouldn't have to do a side job?
I think about two years into the company, I stopped modeling. I was doing print modeling, commercial modeling, and fit modeling. I did all three of those jobs on the side, which dragged me all over the city to go to auditions. All of that while I'm on the phone making calls, coming back home at night to work. Some days I wouldn't have auditions so I could work all day on Darling. We had an office and some staff at that point even, so it was crazy. That was about two years ago that I stopped doing all my other jobs.
Did you have moments where you thought, “Maybe I should let this idea go?”
Sometimes, for sure. Because you have to pay other people before you can pay yourself. If you never can pay yourself, it's not a sustainable business. You start to think, "Okay, well, maybe I can’t make a living from this." But I feel like it's worth it to be an entrepreneur, to have that passion and ability to do what you want.
Did you know when it was going to work?
I think I'm always still asking myself that question. I mean, it's working all the time but running a business is so crazy. The way things change—technology and the market changes all the time. We're always hopeful and the business is growing and we're super thankful for that, but we kind of hold that loosely. We're like, "Well, if it doesn't work out, we'll do something else and it will be great."
That's a good attitude to have.
I don't think I am Darling. So if I lost it, I wouldn’t be nothing.
I think having that kind of mentality will probably keep you going. You have the resources to start again and do something different.
There was one moment where I thought, “Okay, it's going to work.” That's when Anthropologie picked up Issue 3 for all of their stores. That meant 250 other stores, so that was really amazing. I thought, "Oh, people actually resonate with our idea. That's cool.” Someone sees value in this just like I do.
Has it been tough to let go of the reins at Darling and let other people in?
Definitely. You have to start slow and hire slow. Not hiring beyond your means. The thing with a startup is there's always so much work and there's always more work that could be done. You’re constantly feeling that you could be working harder and everyone else could be working harder, too. Everyone's wearing 12 hats and trying to juggle and saying, "I have too much on my plate." You say, "Okay. Well, I have to give you one more thing because no one else can do it." That is definitely interesting.
I think being able to delegate is important. I've learned it’s really important to have good management in place, where people have very clearly defined roles. Otherwise, as a founder, you'll just work yourself into the ground. Not everybody else can do that because they don't own it. It's not their thing. You have to make sure you're checking in with people. “Are you okay? How's your workload? Are you clear on what you're supposed to be doing?” That's been a learning lesson for me.
At first, I didn’t know how to manage people. I didn’t know how to meet their expectations. I'm getting better and better at keeping my employees happy and valuing them. Making sure that they feel like they’re a part of the mission.
Especially coming from modeling, where you're not working in such a structured environment.
With modeling, you're not a boss of anybody. Now all of a sudden, people are reporting to you, it's a strange feeling. Also, having that boss/friend balance is really important to me, too.
How do you do that?
It's definitely a fine dance of wearing the “boss hat” versus the “friend hat.” If there's a problem, I'm going to put on my boss hat. But most of the time, I'm going to keep on my friend hat. It’s like, “Let's try to keep it that way so I don't have to put on my boss hat and reprimand you or tell you you're doing something wrong. I know that we're friends and everybody's like family around here, but this is also a business and we don't do X, Y, and Z.” These kinds of conversations will happen. I think all the girls understand that. We understand that balance.
You don't have any guys working at Darling?
We do now. My husband is our CEO. He oversees all the business development and all our accounts. He’s also our brand director so he works on all the big marketing campaigns. We have two guys and ten women now.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think just getting away to nature. My husband has a company called Wilderness Collective where he takes guys on nature adventures. We have all the gear you could ever imagine for camping. We get out into nature and that really helps.
I also really, really enjoy food. I love going out to dinner. If I can be with people I love, like my husband and my friends, spending that time together really helps clear my head. It makes me realize that people are the most important thing and that business is a business.
I also like a painting. I try to paint sometimes, because I was an art major in college.
What would you be doing if you didn’t have Darling?
I think I would be a creative director for an agency, helping create interesting advertising campaigns, because I am passionate about the way that people are marketed to. That would be fun.
Or I'd want to be a college professor because I would really love to help young people form their opinions, be there for them in those really formative years. When I was developing Darling, I was going through a lot of personal things. If I had something like Darling to help guide me through that, or different mentors to support me, that would have been really great. I think I would go back to school and get my masters and become a professor.
How do you feel about having your first baby?
I feel really excited about having my first baby. It's a boy and I'm really excited for what that looks like. I feel like it'll be like being a kid again. You're going to teach them about everything and learn to play again and learn to be curious again and to be creative. I'm really excited. It feels like this whole new chapter that's going to bring me back into a childhood mindset again. I'm hoping that will help my creativity even more.
That's super exciting. Congrats! What is the best piece of advice you would give?
My mom talked to me a lot about what it means to be “classy.” She talked to me about modesty; not that there's anything wrong with “sexiness,” but it’s important to find that balance. That was always really interesting to me. Just that idea of having really awesome fashion sense, but not having to degrade yourself by putting it all out there just to be loved or to be noticed.
Your mom sounds like a classy lady.
Yes, she is. She would tell me that I’d get noticed for who I am, for how kind and smart I am. If I carry myself well, then I will still be noticed and valued. I think that that was a huge, huge thing for me that I would love to pass on to young girls.
Also, my mom taught me about competition—how we should not compete with each other, but see one another as an asset. We all have something to give to the world and being able to appreciate that in other people makes you even more attractive. Probably those are two big things that I would definitely want to pass on.
What does Los Angeles mean to you?
I really love LA. My ultimate goal is to live in Europe, because I love beauty and I think the aesthetic in Europe just makes me feel so alive. I feel like LA in itself is an ugly city. It's very spread out. It's all boxes and everything is a different style and it's so eclectic and weird. But on the flip side, I love that because it's a melting pot of people from literally everywhere in the world.
I think that's so important to be exposed to different cultures, different beliefs, and different perspectives. Everyone is here to pursue a dream, which creates a really awesome energy. I feel like the city just pulses like that. People are so passionate and they just hustle on work so hard and they're so fun and quirky and creative.
I just love this city. It's like a beacon to the rest of the world.