Rising up the ranks from intern to Refinery29's features writer, Vanessa has come a long way from her days as a text book editor in Boston. When she's not busy living the dream at everyone's favorite blog she can be found perfecting her comedic timing on stage or enjoying her lovely surroundings in Park Slope.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I do. I had a very memorable first week. I don’t know if I should even tell you this but when I moved to New York I was very irresponsible, I didn’t have a job or anything. A friend of mine set me up with a bartending job. March 1st, 2012, I drove a moving truck from Boston, I unloaded it, and started working that night.
I was living in the Upper East Side and that first week is when the “soccer mom brothel” was discovered on my street. It was this woman who was running this underground brothel.
I remember walking out of my apartment the day after I’d gotten there and there were news trucks everywhere. I was like “what’s going on? Did someone die?” I guess she was, for the lack of a better word, a “pimp”, and was running this, what I imagine to be “nice”, brothel above the bakery.
So my first week in New York was very colorful.
Where were you bartending?
I was bartending in your neighborhood, at Tonic. It was a very “bro” scene. It was very much centered around sporting events so I worked a lot of games. I like sports so it was fun for me to work because I could watch the games.
Working in the service industry is an excellent lesson in humility. I think everyone should work in the industry at least once.
Hats off to anyone who does it. I couldn’t handle it. How long did you do it for?
I did it all through college and a little bit after in Boston. I was at Tonic for about two years.
When I started at Refinery29 full time I was still doing it on the weekends. Just to keep my hand in it for a little extra money.
What were you doing in Boston?
I did my masters there after finishing my grad school in Ireland. I was editing text books if you can believe it.
When I was editing text books I used to google “how to stay awake at work”.
That’s when you know it’s not great.
It was important work though. They were college textbooks so there was a lot of fact checking. I learned a lot about subjects I’m not so familiar with but I didn’t love it. I didn’t love it so much that I was willing to move to New York and start over.
I had my masters in Publishing and I had editorial experience but I wanted to make that switch more into journalism.
I’m surprised you didn’t stay there… What were some of the tips for staying awake?
The tips were like take a walk around the office, drink more water. Stuff that doesn’t really work.
It just didn’t feel inspiring. Now that I’m at a place that I really love I couldn’t imagine ever doing that.
So why New York? Was that always a goal?
It was. While I was still in Ireland I was applying for jobs in New York and Boston. I got the job in Boston first so I went there. I was there only a year before I picked up and moved here.
I thought “maybe I should try to get a job here first” but I thought if I don’t just go maybe I’ll never go.
How long did it take to make that decision?
About two months. It’d been a year since I returned to Boston and I wasn’t happy.
What did it feel like when you showed up here?
Ok so, I moved here with a friend of mine. We were both looking to do the New York thing. At the time, in January, when we decided we wanted to come here we were taking the Megabus here every weekend looking at apartments and it just wasn’t working out. It wasn’t a good use of our time so we decided to bite the bullet and hire a broker.
Everyday the broker would email us apartments he was going to show that day and give us first dibs. Eventually he showed us the one on 78th and 2nd, where the brothel was, and we just took it blindly. We knew the neighborhood and we thought worst case scenario it’s only a year.
When we walked in with all of our boxes I was like “where is the living room?” So that was my first reaction, “where’s the space?”
Do you think you’ll be sticking around for a while?
Definitely. It’s funny because I can’t even imagine where I would go next. I’m very happy here. I love living in Brooklyn.
I feel like I had my Manhattan thing, which was really exhilarating, but I feel like when people move to Brooklyn that means that they’re staying a while.
It’s definitely a different vibe. Even coming out of the subway here I was like “it’s so quiet”.
It is like that and you see a lot more families.
So how did you end up at Refinery29?
I started there about six months after I moved to New York. I was a reader of Refinery29. When I was googling how to stay awake I was also visiting the site.
I was on Twitter one day and they tweeted something about looking for interns so I applied. It was funny because when I went in, Gina, who is still a coworker of mine, asked me where my writing was. I said I wasn’t a published writer. I was a 24 year old trying to be an intern.
She gave me an edit test, which is when they say “give me a headline for this…” or “write a short story about this…” The point is to see, not only if you can write, but if the right tone is there. So I got the internship that way.
I think I was very lucky. Timing is everything.
I interned for three months and then I was hired as an editorial assistant. I was writing one story a day but it was more assisting the editor in chief and the creative director. I did that for just six months and then I was promoted to actual editorial assistant, which was only writing.
A little over a year later I was promoted to associate entertainment editor. That’s really where I hit my stride, where I started developing my voice more, started becoming a better reporter.
Then in January I was promoted to features writer. So I do a lot of interviews and reported stories. Rather than being chained to my desk all day I’m out experiencing things and I also do a lot of video work. We have a lot of “sketches”, which are like scripted videos.
Are you coming up with this stuff or is somebody telling you what to write?
Sometimes. I think a really turning point for me in the company was when I pitched them an idea about going to the Superbowl. It was in New York that year and I was like “I’ll take care of all the passes, I’ll set it up, just let me go and do a video.”
They have this thing called Media Day. The teams that are competing are both there and every media outlet is running around the field trying to talk to them. I got approval the day before to go so I went and did this totally original thing where I was making players uncomfortable with random questions.
I pitched that but sometimes they’ll say “hey, we have this weird video idea to test out a hands free blow drier, will you do it?”
I’ve probably seen videos of you then! What do you think is the hardest part of your job?
I think there are two hardest parts. The first hardest part is keeping up with all the deadlines. It’s a fast paced industry, not just us, but digital publishing in general. You can’t be like “I’ll write this story when I feel like it”, it’s stuff that’s happening right now.
The other hard part is coming up with original ways to interview people so you can get them to say things you won’t find anywhere else. Not even anything personal. But there you are on the red carpet and you’re shouting at celebrities to come talk to you and sometimes you go for hours and no one stops.
How do you do that? By researching stuff about them?
Yeah. I think about stuff they’re in now, things they’ve done in the past, look at their twitter feeds, see what’s on their minds and what they might feel like talking about. Sometimes I ask them about something that’s been in the news that involves them. I think I’m getting better at it. It’s not that I feel flustered around them, but I know their time is limited. So if I only have one question, what should that be?
Have you been star struck at all?
The one time, very recently, I was caught totally off guard. I went to the Empire State Building to interview Scott Eastwood (Clint Eastwood’s son). He’s the most beautiful man on the planet. He just is. I had about five minutes with him and a list of questions.
He shook my hand and I was about to ask my first question and he goes “you have beautiful eyes”. I had this great list of questions, and instead I asked “what are you doing for your birthday?” It was awful, I think the interview lasted about 1 minute, I bombed it. I called my editor and said “I totally blew it, but it was worth it”.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
That I get to do so many different and new things. For example I went to Puerto Rico on a yoga retreat, that story is coming out soon. I’m very open about being a yoga skeptic, it’s just never really done it for me. A yoga company got word of this and they said to come along to see if they could change my mind.
Even just yesterday, I went to a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival with George Lucas and Stephen Colbert. I have so many “pinch me” moments. It’s not even the celebrities, it’s more about getting to do the things I want to do.
Do you think you’d be able to do this kind of thing if you weren’t in New York?
No. But not only that, I wouldn’t be able to do these things if I wasn’t at this company. Many publications have a very certain way in which they work, people get stuck in the news room. Refinery29 has really allowed me to get out of my shell.
Do you see yourself there for a while?
I think so. I can’t really imagine what place I would go after this. Time goes by so quickly, I’m already coming up to the end of my third year working there.
Do you find working in digital media helped you as a writer because you have to work so quickly?
It’s definitely helped me stay on my toes. I have to say that I think and write differently when I’m typing and when I’m writing out an outline by hand. I like to switch it up a bit.
Are you constantly on social media to stay on top of news? Where do you get your information?
I’m always on Twitter. If I have a feeling about a certain person that I think might have news soon I put a mobile alert on them. So anything that they tweet I see. For example last year at the start of the football season the Ray Rice situation happened. Thursday night football had a Rihanna song as their theme. They said that they changed it because of her history with domestic violence, but I thought that was bullshit. I knew she would respond to this so I put a mobile alert on her. Two days later she tweeted basically “fuck you NRL”. As soon as she tweeted I wrote the story, I was the first one to get that up.
Twitter is a huge thing. There are also a few sites that don’t necessarily get as much traffic but have good reporters that are great as well … The Daily Dot is great. I also go on Papermag, they help me think of ideas for bigger features. I like Mashable a lot, they’ve grown so much to cover everything.
What’s the turnaround time to push out a story? If you hear something on Twitter how quickly do you get the piece online?
I think the fasted I’ve done it was probably 9 minutes. That includes sourcing an image as well. I have to say, at this point, I am very good at getting things done quickly. Not just getting them up quickly with the appropriate information, but making them interesting to read. That’s a real talent that I’ve honed at Refinery29.
If you look at Twitter in the morning, every other headline is the same story. It’s usually whatever happened on late night, or breaking news. I think it’s important to be able to differentiate your coverage, to push something out that you can’t find anywhere else. I try to do that.
Have you ever had any problems with people reading something you wrote about them?
I’ve had a couple of times where people were unhappy, but not because it was inaccurate.
How do you react to that?
It depends how much it escalates. To be honest it’s only happened a couple of times. The real problem is that sometimes people email you and tell you …
… that you suck? [Laughs]
Yeah. Sometimes it’s funny. One time I got an email and the subject line was “57 Year Old Male”, and the body of the email was “Read your writing. Good stuff. You need a new haircut.” You have to have a thick skin.
If I’m touching on something like racism, or religion, or sexism, people have a lot of feelings, and they just go off. I respond to them if they have an actual question that merits discussion, or if they write something positive. If they do I’ll usually write back saying thank you. People don’t often take the time to write positive things.
Are your work hours crazy because you have to be onto news as soon as it breaks?
It can be, but I have a rule for myself that I leave the office at a reasonable hour. I’m very much a morning person, so as soon as I get up I’ll start answering emails before I take a shower. I leave the office by 6pm every day. Even if it’s a matter of taking a break for a couple of hours, having dinner and then going home to do some work. It’s something that I’ve struggled with.
In a lot of workplaces people love to say “I was here until 8 last night”. What were they doing all day that they had to do that? It’s a weird competitive thing that people do. I’ve left between 6pm - 6.30pm almost every day since I started there and I keep getting promoted.
I completely agree. It’s so important to have work/life balance. In New York it’s so competitive.
People expect you to be working 24/7. It’s an unwritten rule whatever profession you're in that you should be available all the time. You need to draw boundaries. I’ve never encountered a problem from it.
Sometimes on weekends I’ll go in to work, but because I enjoy the nature of my work I don’t mind. It’s usually an event, or a screening.
So what do you like to do when you’re not working?
My hobby on the side is comedy. I’m a total fledgling. When I moved to New York I made a goal to really work on my creative outlets. Refinery29 is great for creativity, but it’s still my work. I wanted something else.
I started taking sketch writing classes, and I’m doing an improv class now. In February I did my first stand up show. Are you familiar with The Moth? In November I did that. I have a natural part of me that’s super comfortable being on camera and on stage. Even though I love to write, I find that a small performance outlet for me is really rewarding.
That’s awesome! What was your first stand up experience like?
It was terrifying. I was afraid that none of my jokes would be funny so I wore a t-shirt that I knew was funny. It’s a shirt made up entirely on Channing Tatum faces.
If nothing else, my shirt was great. I did it in a really supportive environment, through Femsplain. It’s great, content for women by women. They hosted a stand-up night, and a co-worker told me about the auditions. I went along and auditioned and got in. I shared the stage with some really great women.
It was the night before Valentine’s Day, and it also happens to be Friday the 13th, so it had a Valentine’s Day horror stories theme. My set was about the pressures of Valentine’s Day.
It was a really cool experience, and I’d love to do it again. I have this note on my phone where every time I think of a joke I write it done, but then when I read them again they’re not funny. [Laughs] If I don’t write the whole thing down though they don’t make sense. One note just said “hotel towels”. I have no clue what that means.
When I did the stand-up show I was practicing every day in the shower, and the jokes that ended up getting the biggest laughs were not the ones that I thought were my funniest stuff.
Well done, that would be so scary! Keep us posted of your upcoming stand-ups.
Tell us about living in Park Slope, do you like living here? What are some of your favorite places?
I love it. I only moved here in October. There is a really wonderful cocktail place called Blueprint.
I love Prospect Park obviously. There is also a great place called Stone Park Cafe that does great brunch.
In other places in the city, my weakness is terrible Irish bars, like Doc Holliday's in the East Village. Nobody takes themselves too seriously, I feel like I could walk in there by myself and have a drink.
Our office is near the World Trade Center, there aren’t a lot of bars around there. One night after work my co-worker and I googled somewhere to go around work. It was a place called Nassau Bar, and it looked just like a regular bar. We walked in and it was a bikini bar! We had walked in and didn’t want to walk straight out, so we sat down, paid $10 for a corona and left. It was so funny, not a place to bring a co-worker, an HR nightmare [Laughs]. The bar was full of guys, and then the only women were me and my female co-worker.
We’ll leave that off your list of favorite places!
What advice would you give to yourself today?
The best advice I could give myself would be to be patient. I don’t know if it’s because of the age we live in, or all my years working for tips but I’m a very “instant gratification person”. Even when I write a story and it goes live I instantly want to see the traffic overview, see the response to it. It’s been that way with my own writing as well. I’ll read something really brilliant in Esquire or The Atlantic and think “why don’t I write like that?”
But I have to remember I’m still working on it. I even find myself walking really quickly. Where am I running to?
The city is so conducive to that. I get so angry at people who are walking slowly … Move!
That is good advice. Last question, what do you think about when you think of New York?
I feel like I moved to New York in search of the city I saw in movies and read about in books. I’ve never really found that version of it, but I like that I’ve been able to form a relationship with it.
When I think of New York now … people who are here really want to be here and it’s a great place to be as long as you’re willing to hustle and make your own way.
Was that interesting?