Melissa Singer, The Age’s fashion and lifestyle editor

Melissa Singer, The Age Fashion and Lifestyle editor. Photo by Cleona Mirdin.
“It may not change the world or bring down a government but you need someone to take the time, cultivate relationships and find good stories and not treat it as a throwaway area.” The Age's fashion and lifestyle editor Melissa Singer talks to Cleona Mirdin.

Did you choose journalism? Did you always want to be a journalist?

In year 10 I had to do work experience. My neighbour worked for a magazine, New Idea, and I did a week worth’s of experience. I was hooked. The excitement and conversation, it’s a world where I felt I belonged. After school, I decided to study law. But after a year of law the desire to live that journalistic life just took over and I didn’t want to continue law. I transferred to a media and communications degree. My earlier project was developing an interactive multimedia program. It’s funny, back then it was ahead of its time and now it’s what we do daily. It’s interesting to be a part of journalism’s evolution. I guess that’s why I want to be a journalist. Another reason is inherent curiosity about the world. I read anything that interests me.

 What inspired you to write about fashion and lifestyle?

I grew up as the daughter of a fashion designer. Not a well-known fashion designer, a backroom designer in the 70s and 80s. He was always sketching and a good drawer but I’m horrible at drawing! I was into clothes and magazines. I used to read Dolly and graduated to Cosmo and when I was in uni, it was Marie Claire. I love what fashion represents and how you can express a mood, a political statement and complete frivolity all through this one amazing medium. I love to write about positive stories. There’s a lot of negativity in this world and I write about people who are passionate, succeeding in business and trying to make positive changes.

What were the challenges you faced and how did you cope with it?

When I came into this role people raised their eyebrows. I was a senior editor and I could have had a senior management position. But I decided I wanted to do writing again and meet people because I felt locked in. I had to convince the editors that we needed a fashion and lifestyle editor. I believed it deserves the same respect as health, science and politics. It may not change the world or bring down a government but you need someone to take the time, cultivate relationships, find good stories and not treat it as a throwaway. After they agreed, it was challenging to rebuild something that was dormant and incorporate the changes in journalism, media and fashion. So I try to find the best stories I can to win ‘the battle’ for my place in this newsroom.

What was your most unforgettable experience as a journalist?  

I was the chief of staff on the Sunday paper in Sydney. Saturday was our big day and it was Derby Day in Melbourne. Everything was going okay and suddenly we heard from the head of a union … that aircraft engineers were on strike. The boss of Qantas was going to shut down the airline. We quickly had to assemble a team, work out the ramifications, have a crisis meeting and work out the things we needed to disclose. I was working for 19 hours! But I’m grateful for the experience, it showed me the importance of teamwork and my capabilities.

The other memorable experience was in March I interviewed Cynthia Rowley, a well-known New York designer. We did the interview in the shop’s fitting room so we could have privacy. It’s an unusual interview setting but it was gratifying because at the end she turned to me and said that was the most interesting interview she’s ever done in 40 years of business. I believed she meant it and was not just being nice.

 You wrote about your wedding dress in the H&M article. Why did you decide to include your personal experience in the article?

There’s a broader question here – Is it okay for a journalist to insert themselves into a piece? There are times it’s inappropriate. There are times I thought, ‘Is that making the story better?’ and sometimes I’ve deleted it because it’s gratuitous. I already get my face in papers and I have a column. The beauty about having a column is you have a voice and you can bring a bit of your expertise and experience. I could have just written a story about H&M launching wedding dresses but I’ve had the time to reflect on my wedding and being divorced did make me look at the day in a new light. Maybe in hindsight I got swept up with the bridal thing. I’m 10 years older now and I can say it was an amazing experience but I wouldn’t do it again. Using that H&M story as a hook to talk about those reflections made it a good discussion piece – people still talk about it and it was years ago!

What advice would you give to journalism students who want to get into the industry?

Persevere. You won’t get your dream job the first time but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there for you. Doing internships and getting experience is important. You may not get paid in the beginning but people see when you’re serious, making connections and joining media organisations where you can meet the people you admire. Moving is not a death sentence. I had to move to Brisbane when I was offered a job at Fairfax. I had to leave my family and friends and I didn’t know the city at all. Have an open mind, you will never know what opportunities will eventually take you.