Creative Lives — gal-dem’s deputy editor Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff: “You become a journalist when you write your first story”
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff always knew she wanted to be a writer. Growing up in Scotland with musician parents, The Guardian Weekend Magazine was her go-to choice of reading. Fast-forward a few years and in August, she found herself working on that very title – and launching a widely-appraised takeover of the publication with her co-founded magazine, gal-dem. “I’m proud that we were able to highlight and represent everyone,” Charlie says of the edition, which demonstrated much of her own aims in highlighting issues surrounding diversity and helping other people of colour enter industry. As a freelance writer and editor, we speak to Charlie about her own career path, her vision for the future of the creative industries and her plans for gal-dem.
Deputy Editor, gal-dem (2015–present)
Contributing Editor, Dazed Beauty (2018–present)
Columnist, iPaper (2018–present)
Freelance News, Feature and Comment Reporter, Guardian News and Media (2016–present)
Intern, Weekend Magazine, Financial Times (2016)
Features and Property Writer, Archant (2015)
MA Newspaper Journalism, City University London (2015–2016)
BA English Literature, Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011–2014)
Charlie at Peckham Levels, where gal-dem is currently based
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a journalist and an editor. I’m the deputy editor of gal-dem and a freelancer on a few other publications including Dazed, where I'm a contributing editor, the i newspaper, where I have a monthly column, and The Guardian, for whom I write quite regularly. I also recently wrote a book on the Windrush generation [entitled Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children].
What does a typical working day look like?
It really varies. I could be anywhere: a café or an office. I’m at Dazed every Monday, and I work from home a fair amount, but essentially, I live the life of a freelancer. gal-dem is a voluntary project for me, the girls and non-binary people, so at the moment, we do that in our spare time. Our gal-dem offices are based in a small space (it’s the size of a car parking space) in Peckham Levels, and we try and get in there at least three times a week. We’ll be moving to Somerset House in January.
I’ve also done a lot of travelling this year with work. I was in St. Kitts, doing a little report on the St. Kitts Music Festival for British Airways’ High Life magazine. I went to Jamaica for The Guardian, and I’ve been to Brooklyn with gal-dem.
“We started out when we were students, with no idea of what was to come.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part is the stories I get to hear from different people, and all the people I get to meet. I was shy when I was younger, but I wanted to challenge that; it forced me out of my comfort zone in a variety of really positive ways. The negative side is being busy all the time. I pretty much work seven days a week.
Can you tell us what your work with gal-dem looks like?
At the moment, it’s just me and Liv [Little] who freelance out of the team, so it’s generally us who are in there. Sometimes I’m alone, and sometimes Daisy [Ifama], our head of video, Niellah [Arboine], our lifestyle editor – or Mariel [Richards], who does marketing and is our former arts and culture editor comes in, but it really varies.
It’s very classically operated. For the print issue, we take pains to think about editorial strategy and what we would like to get out of the theme that we chose. This year was ‘secrets’, last year was ‘home’, the year prior to that was ‘girlhood’ and ‘growing up’.
On the day-to-day running of the online site, it’s just about making sure that the staff and editors are doing their jobs which they pretty much always are. The other is that the content is in as good a place as it can be when it goes live.
We’re working on an investment plan at the moment. We started out when we were students, with no idea of what was to come. But the past few years have helped us decide to make it into a business. It’s been really beautiful to watch, but now we’re ready to take it to the next level and follow it.
Inside gal-dem magazine
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The Guardian takeover was definitely my fave. It just came together in such an organic way, and there were so many things within it that I was really pleased with. I’m proud that we were able to highlight and represent everyone, it was super-intersectional and a really positive thing to have a hand in.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed when juggling so many projects? If so, how do you manage stress?
Oh I’m awful at managing stress. I’m really bad at it. I don't have any strategies. I operate in quite a manic way; I’m constantly on emails, constantly moving with my work. Thankfully I have a very forgiving boyfriend who helps when I’m particularly stressed, but other than that, no quick-fixes.
I’m not a person who gets easily stressed, but my lifestyle is particularly stressful at the moment. I think a lot of people would maybe freak out at having so many emails to answer or things to do. Generally I’m not too bad with that, but this year has been pretty wild in terms of the increase in work that I've had to juggle. I don’t know if I’m getting better at it, but I’m thankful that I’m not too overwhelmed most of the time.
gal-dem’s takeover of The Guardian Weekend
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a creative writer. The Guardian Weekend Magazine was pretty much the only magazine I read growing up, weirdly. I remember holding onto a copy and my dad saying, “Why don’t you become a journalist?” I thought it would be too hard, that I could never do that kind of thing and that I wasn’t that good. But I think it sparked something, because I was reading back over my UCAS application, and I did write that I wanted to be a journalist. Then, when I was at uni, I got into the world of student journalism and it went from there.
I didn’t know any journalists, so I had no one to look up to in that respect, but my parents are musicians, so I never considered doing anything that wasn’t creative. Science or maths wasn’t something I thought about. I grew up in Scotland, and both my parents are from working class backgrounds, so I didn’t have an economically wealthy upbringing. But culturally, they expected me to do a lot of different things and that was really cool.
An article of Charlie’s for Dazed
How useful have your studies been in your career?
I went to Goldsmiths, but I barely engaged with my degree, doing the bare minimum. I was much more invested in what was going on culturally and socially than I was with my actual English literature studies. I don’t think you need a degree to become a journalist, personally.
After graduating what were your first steps?
I did the classic work-at-a-pub thing. I had already started getting work experience when I was at uni, so I just continued on that trajectory. I felt quite lucky, because a lot of my friends didn’t know what they wanted to do after they left. But it felt very natural for me to continue pursuing this. I made pains to meet as many people as I could and pushed myself to talk to senior journalists.
“You don't need a degree to become a journalist. You become a journalist as soon as you write your first story.”
The last thing I attended at Goldsmiths was a careers fair, and the charity Creative Access were there, who help people with minority backgrounds get into the creative industries. I talked to them for a while and they invited me to an event. I made it my mission at the event to get some work experience at the BBC, so I found the right person to ask about that, and made that happen.
But at the same time I had also just finished uni, I didn’t have any money, I was working at a pub, and I was living in a rat-infested property guardianship, which was awful. But then I got some funding to go on an NCTJ [National Council for the Training of Journalists] course, and I went from there.
Have you ever had a lucky break?
I’ve had multiple lucky breaks. I’ve never had a full-time job in journalism, I sort of fell into freelancing, so I wouldn’t say there’s been one defining thing that has led to the career path that I’m on now.
I was never seeking out to be a freelancer, I was just looking to be a journalist. In my opinion, you become a journalist as soon as you write your first story. I had a lot of support from positive action schemes, I had brilliant mentors and I’ve worked with a lot of very kind people. I’m very grateful.
Work for The Guardian
What would you like to do next?
I want gal-dem to become a successful media outlet that continues to disrupt and challenge the mainstream media on its lack of diversity. That’s my mission for next year. I’ve already got a couple of mentees, (even though I don’t feel old enough to be mentoring!) and I really want to help other young people of colour get into the industry.
I remember when I got that first bit of funding to do my NCTJ, they asked me why I thought I deserved the funding and what I would do if I managed to get a job in a newsroom. I told them that I would want to bring other people up – even as a 20-year-old, that was still a priority for me. Whenever I went into my work experience I could see how far and few between we were. I knew the only way that would change would be through people like myself recognising it.
“I can see movements in the right direction. gal-dem is being invited into conversations now which we weren’t at the beginning.”
What is your vision of the future of the creative industry?
The way things are looking at the moment, with influencer culture, scares me – particularly the reliance that creatives have on brands that they do not share ethics with, to be successful. There are very few global brands that operate in a way that helps marginalised people in a global sense – even if they’re doing really cool stuff at home.
But to be creative, obviously you need to survive so, what else are you going to do but cooperate? When you’re operating within that framework? It’s a half-formed argument, but in the same breath, I can see movements in the right direction.
There is a heightened awareness of the lack of diversity, the lack of women of colour, non-binary people of colour, who are in these spaces. And the same with the BAME pay-gap figures. gal-dem is being invited into conversations now which we weren’t at the beginning. Awareness is the first step, so I’d be really pleased if, in the future, all companies were making up quotas, and taking active steps to rectify a very, very long-standing issue.
Inside gal-dem magazine
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to someone wanting to move into the same line of work as you?
The first step is sending that first pitch. Know that there is nothing to be afraid of. I remember when I first wrote a pitch in high school – I was so scared of writing it in the ‘wrong’ way, I thought there was a magical format that you needed in order to be published by major publications. But an email is an email. My name is a little bit more well-known now, so someone might pay more attention to an email I send, but that subject line is all you need. Crack out a bunch of pitches to the places you really want to write for, and just see what their response is. And if you don’t get a response, just keep going.
There are internship schemes out there, they can be quite competitive, but that’s what really helped me in my career. Beyond that, search out the people who you think might be able to help you in your career. Email them, meet them and keep on grinding.