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How I Got Here: Mahalia Chang on transforming an internship into a career at Vogue and GQ

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

“Invest in yourself as an asset.”

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While the internet and social media might have us believe that our ideal job is a mere pipe dream, the individuals who have these jobs were, believe it or not, in the same position once, fantasising over someone else’s seemingly unattainable job.

But behind the awe-inspiring titles and the fancy work events lies a heck of a lot of hard work. So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?


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Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to women who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.

This week, Mahalia Chang, Head of Digital Content and Growth for Vogue, Vogue Living, GQ and Luxury & Lifestyle, explains how a one-week internship with Australian Women’s Weekly led to her climbing to the ranks at Bauer, and eventually to her holding the position she has today at News Corp. Mahalia is proof that saying ‘yes’ to opportunity, while scary, can often work out for the best.

As a young writer, she one day woke up to realise she had ‘accidentally’ moved states, after saying yes to a series of work opportunities that had come her way. Originally from Western Australia, she had spent months living out of a duffle bag that had meant to see her through a two-week Sydney trip.

Mahalia’s story gives a sharp insight into the world of digital media, showcasing how it’s not always as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be. Like many others in the industry, Mahalia has had to work through the challenges of monotony in work, drowning in admin and multiple instances of burnout, due to the 24/7 nature of her role. Persistence has been pivotal her success, and she describes periods where she’s felt ‘bogged down’ in her work and had to work through these with tenacity and drive to ultimately, land promotions.

On the flip side, she shares how supportive the industry is (“it’s full of very nice people!”) and notes how important, influential and rewarding work in fashion and lifestyle journalism can be. They’re two sentiments we share at FJ, and we’re chuffed to hear these echoed at leading mastheads such as Vogue Australia.  Though she’s had her challenges, Mahalia has built an incredibly successful career in media. Here’s what she’s learnt along the way.

What do you do and what’s your official job title?

I’m the Head of Digital Content and Growth for News Corp’s Prestige titles: Vogue, Vogue Living, GQ and Luxury & Lifestyle. Basically, I take care of the content side of things for the sites: editorial direction, day-to-day content approval, social and campaigns.

Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship/entry-level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story. 

Both! I have always loved magazines and fashion journalism, so I studied a Bachelor of Arts and majored in Communications at the University of Western Australia first. Then, because my degree was quite theoretical and not that practical (and because, for some reason, I truly believed you had to rock up on your first day as a ‘journalist’ knowing absolutely everything and that internships didn’t exist), I followed it up with a Master’s in International Journalism. The last unit in that degree was a work placement, so my professor, Peter van Onselen, arranged for me to complete one week at Vogue and one week at the Australian Women’s Weekly, which I flew over from WA to Sydney for.

Luckily for me, at that last placement, I got a little work doing content migration and was able to begin freelancing as a writer after that. I started doing odd days here and there for a number of Bauer brands – Australian Women’s Weekly, Woman’s Day, Mother & Baby – before I started working at Elle, which really kicked off everything. At that point, I was still living out of my duffle bag that I’d brought over for my two-week work placement, thinking I’d be back straight after. I think it took me two months to realise that I’d accidentally moved states. I remember my sister calling me and saying, “So, do you want me to send over your stuff?”

 

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A post shared by Mahalia Chang (@mahaliachang)

What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? 

I guess it would be persevering. Even though I’ve been very (very!) lucky to progress in my roles quickly through the years, it is an exercise in persistence. With digital journalism, there are a lot of long days, a lot of mind-numbing tech stuff, a lot of admin, a lot of boring celebrity/royals news stories that all kind of sound the same.

In order to climb up and progress in your career, you have to do those things day in and day out, sometimes for a long time. I think there is sometimes an outside perception that everything is so fast-paced/glamour/parties/breaking news, but the truth is there is quite a bit of monotony to it. If you want to grow upwards and get better, you have to make peace with doing quite a bit of that and doing it with a smile on your face. (Or, at least for me, not a frown.)

There were definitely spots in my career where I felt a bit stuck or bogged down, but it was moving through those phases – and moving through them well – that got me promotions.

What do you want people to know about your industry/your role? 

It’s full of very nice people! It can sometimes be a temptation to think about people in the fashion industry as being vapid or mean or snooty – thanks to all of those fun outside perceptions – but in my experience, most people are kind and hardworking.

Another thing is that fashion and lifestyle journalism can be important and valuable just like politics and ‘hard news’ can. I remember being in the middle of my Master’s degree, and hearing my classmates talk about how they wanted to be war correspondents on the Gaza Strip or White House reporters, and thinking my interest in fashion and beauty was less significant because of that. And while, yeah, in most scenarios, policy breakdown from the White House is more important than handbag trends (only just), thoughtful takes about diversity, accessibility, visibility, sustainability and the myriad of other topics fashion and lifestyle journalists tackle are meaningful as well.

What’s the best part about your role?

Working with wonderful people. You don’t get through any career – especially, unfortunately, as a woman of colour – without a few uncomfortable run-ins, but for the most part, I’ve worked with incredible teams throughout the years and under amazing managers.

Working with young writers, and especially other writers of colour, to amplify their voices and give them a foot in the door is another amazing thing I get to do.

What would surprise people about your role? 

There’s quite a bit of admin involved. I would say the hardest thing about my job is keeping so many plates spinning at the same time. There are a lot of different elements and quite a bit to stay on top of day-to-day.

What skills have served you well in your industry?

Because of the above, organisation (even though I’m not that great at it, just look at my ungodly inbox). But also being able to write quick, clean copy (for publishing breaking royal baby news in the middle of the night without leaving bed). Knowing instantly the difference between an okay image and a great image that’s going to cut-through for your audience, engage and – most importantly – look good on an Instagram grid.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day? 

Be open to (sometimes scary) opportunities, back yourself in, learn how to craft the perfect polite-but-firm PR rejection, show up on time, always offer a solution if you don’t agree with the suggestion, trust your instincts, don’t buy into gossiping or bitching about colleagues.

What about a practical tip? 

Digital is a 24-hour role, it is really easy to burn yourself out. I know when I was younger, I was so eager to prove myself, I ended up working myself down to the bone. I’ve overworked myself into a couple of breakdowns over the years. It’s not fun or worth it! Teach yourself how to say no, how to take a step back and invest in yourself as an asset.

Oh, and before you go into any meeting with a fancy luxury fashion label with a French name, Google how to pronounce it. Trust me.

@mahaliachang

Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.

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