Ross Perlin on Charlie Sheen and 'The Most Competitive Internship Ever'
Each year, some 6,000 young people apply to intern in the White House, where only a few hundred positions are on offer. Many famous media outlets, high-flying finance firms, and Hollywood studios now take fewer than 1% of their internship applicants-such is the crazed demand even for illegal, unpaid roles heavy on grunt work. But all this pales in comparison with the endlessly-"liked" and much-Tweeted "Tiger Blood internship" brought to you by Charlie Sheen and Internships.com: your chances of landing that were about .0012%.
That's right: 82,148 people from around the world applied for a single spot to help "The Machine" "leverage his social network", i.e. to serve a self-immolating celebrity known for bizarre tirades, cocaine and alcohol addiction, threesomes with porn stars, and domestic violence. Okay, at least it's paid-although probably not generously enough, considering a TV star who was making nearly $2 million per episode and whined about being "underpaid".
Interns, meet celebrity culture.
It's happened before, but never in such spectacular and appalling fashion. Playboy started a miniseries called "Interns", betting that it would sell better than porn. The exploitative world of grueling, unpaid internships in the fashion industry got a hip whitewashing thanks to Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port on The Hills. "Lyle the Intern," a sketch on Letterman, and "Ross the Intern" on Leno scored a few laughs on late-night TV. Beyond their supposed buffoonery ("Look, she can't even staple a report correctly!"), interns are entertaining because they're (often) young, upper-middle class, desperate to fit in, and bidding for the long shot of fame and fortune in a winner-take-all economy.
More chilling still, interns are seen as sexual prey. According to one study, largely because of the industries involved, 77% of unpaid internships in the U.S are filled by women. From unreported incidents and local scandals to the national news coverage of Monica Lewinsky, Chandra Levy, or David Letterman's intern flings, the sexual power dynamic faced by interns is depressingly familiar. Hopefully it'll be different for the Tiger Blood intern, but surely at least some of the media titillation here has to do with internship raunch culture. Team Sheen's initial selection round didn't do much to dispel this: among the 50 finalists, reportedly selected by a software program using keywords, was a well-known actress from the world of adult film.
"We always encourage candidates to research the company and position they're applying for," says a representative of Internships.com, a California company seeking to become the world's biggest internship marketplace, responding to worries that the TigerBlood intern might end up facing threats of violence or gunshot wounds (in classic Sheen fashion). The company might also mention that unpaid internships (tens of thousands of which are currently being offered on their site) lack standard protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. Courts have repeatedly refused to hear their cases, holding that even full-time interns don't count as real employees if unpaid. It's no wonder that interns are preyed upon.
The TigerBlood internship is classic tabloid fodder, of course, and would almost be funny, if it didn't take the whole internship racket to new heights of absurdity, along with the auctioning off of positions, multi-million dollar internship companies serving the well-heeled, and students paying schools to work (because of academic credit requirements). Internships.com reportedly paid at least $100,000 for Sheen's TigerBlood tweet (which he did not write himself, of course-some intern, probably). The result was a PR bonanza: over 1 million unique visitors on Internships.com and lots of breathless press coverage (with more undoubtedly to come). So there you have it: a company pays a loose-cannon, abusive celebrity six figures to hire an intern, probably for peanuts, to manage his tweets and status updates, and it becomes the most sought-after internship in history. Some call it Winning. Others call it a ridiculous internship system gone off the rails.
Ross Perlin is the author of Intern Nation.