Before The Devil Wears Prada and The Bold Type There Was Intern

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Style Points is a new weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

Several years ago, a stranger came up to Jill Kargman at a party to say, “Oh my God, I’m a fan.” She assumed they were talking about her Bravo series Odd Mom Out, which drew on Kargman’s experiences as an atypical Upper East Side mother in a sea of Stepford moms. As it turned out, they’d never even heard of the show. “You wrote Intern!” the self-professed fan exclaimed.

Released in 2000, the movie did not find the audience that later fashion-world chronicles like The Devil Wears Prada, The Hills, The City and Ugly Betty did, but it feels like a prequel to all those onscreen portrayals. Twenty years after its making, it’s retained the kind of cult status that surrounds a little-known designer who never quite made the big time. But now that it’s on Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services, it has been finding a niche new audience. Kargman’s admirer even told her it’s informally screened for freshmen at FIT: “They watched it with like 20 people piled on the couches and they said this was the proto-Devil Wears Prada, so I was very flattered.”

To channel SNL‘s Stefan for a moment: this movie has everything. Including an impressive cast pulled from both Hollywood (Billy Porter, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Gwyneth Paltrow in a cameo role) and the fashion world (André Leon Talley, Diane von Furstenberg, Paulina Porizkova, Tommy Hilfiger, Simon Doonan, and Kevyn Aucoin, among many others.) If that somehow hasn’t sold you, it opens with an out-of-context musical number and only gets wilder from there. ’90’s starlet Dominique Swain plays the titular intern, while a pre-Pose, pre-fashion darling Porter stands out playing an art director who’s type A even by art director standards. (His delivery of the line “Send this fax to Galliano’s buttonist’s boyfriend’s stylist in Monaco!” changed my life.) “He elevates the whole thing,” says Kargman. Rivers’s character was inspired by fashion editor Polly Mellen, who would “weep” at runway shows, she says. The movie is rife with late ’90’s/early aughts fashion in-jokes, including models named Aloha and Resin (a takeoff on Shalom Harlow and Amber Valletta.) Even my favorite bitchy line, which is delivered by Cynthia Rowley, came from a famous designer. “I can’t take credit for that one, it’s all Karl Lagerfeld,” says Kargman. “May he rest.”

through her lenstribeca chanel women's filmmaker program luncheon

Jill Kargman

Paul BruinoogeGetty Images

I consider myself an obscure-fashion-movie encyclopedia, but Intern was barely on my radar. Beyond its SEO-unfriendly title, the poster makes it look like more salacious fare. “I’m actually looking at the poster now on Wikipedia, and it kind of looks like Intern is a film where Joan Rivers yells at her slutty daughter,” says Griffin. “Which also would be great. There’s no bad combo with this crew.”

Set at the fictional Skirt magazine, the film grew out of Kargman and her co-writer Caroline Doyle’s real-life experiences working at magazines in the ’90’s. One night, they were out late at Balthazar, sharing their wildest anecdotes with a group of friends that included Paltrow, their Spence classmate. “Everyone was laughing,” recalls Kargman, “telling us that we have to write it down.” Kargman experienced a version of the scene that features an editor having a meltdown over 2 percent milk instead of skim in a cappuccino, and culminates with her sticking her finger down her throat. Another real-life moment that made it into the movie: the time Doyle was addressed as Bob, and corrected the editor on her name, only to be told, “No, bob! Your hair is too long! You need a bob! Trust me, people would pay thousands for my advice!” (“Carrie was just like “What?”)

Talley has a memorable part where his fashion almost serves as his costar. “I had just had a black silk taffeta court coat made at Givenchy haute couture, by John Galliano, who had just been hired to be creative director,” he told me via e-mail. “It was inspired by his women’s collection. The coat had 30 feet of ceremonial train and that was what I wore. The coat, ordered and made, was worn only once. Just for that film.” Now, he says, “It’s in a dust free box in my couture archives of coats. I love that coat and since that occasion, I’ve not had an opportunity to wear it. Perfect, cinematic and appropriate. Jill, I think, loved the coat.”

dominique swain   filming of "intern"

Dominique Swain during the filming of Intern.

Ron GalellaGetty Images

Griffin, meanwhile, sports a towering hairstyle that almost doubles as a sculpture. “I remember it was really painful,” she says. “At first I was like, OK, this is very different, I have a really different look, and this is cool, and I felt like a real actress. Cut to a few hours later and I was like ‘Ouch! Ouch! Get me out of this fucking thing.’”

For all its camp value—and it contains a Met Gala’s worth—the movie also crystallizes a time when fashion and magazines felt both unimaginably glamorous and closed off from public view. “[Fashion] was not as accessible,” back then, says Griffin, “so I would argue that in those days it maybe had a specialness to it that the Kardashians ruined. There, I said it!” It has an insider-y feel to it that other Hollywood attempts to channel the fashion world, like Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear, never quite achieved. And rather than focus on editors, it heralds the intern-as-protagonist storyline we would later see on The Hills.

polly mellen at a dolce  gabbana boutique

The fashion editor Polly Mellen, who inspired Joan Rivers’s character.

Rose HartmanGetty Images

There don’t seem to be any big 20th anniversary plans brewing, à la the widespread celebrations of Drop Dead Gorgeous and But I’m a Cheerleader. “I don’t even think that anybody involved with it has seen it in 20 years,” says Kargman. But the film has a loyal, if small, fan base, including a student who recently contacted Kargman for a paper they’re writing on it. Says Talley, “I am so glad it’s getting recognized as a smart film today. Today, people can see how brilliant the whole project was.” He adds, “I think Netflix should buy it.”

When I tell Griffin that kids are rediscovering it, she adopts a faux “get-off-my-lawn” intonation: “What?! Kids, with the Twitch and the TikTok? I’ve actually done two standup gigs at FIT, and I’ve never known how they even know who I am. But damnit, I’m in the fashion industry, Véronique!”

Maybe the next time she does it, the students will erupt into applause, I tell her.

“I want them to cry,” she says, “and I want someone to call me a fashion icon at some point.”

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