Kerry Potter (English 1993) is a freelance features journalist. She tells how she swapped Fitzwilliam for music, fashion and the mainstream media.
How did you first come to Fitzwilliam?
I went to a comprehensive school at which there wasn’t a strong tradition of sending people to Oxford or Cambridge. I didn’t know anyone who had been and no-one in my family had been to university at that point so it wasn’t something that was at the forefront of my mind. I liked the fact that Fitzwilliam had a relatively high proportion of state school intakes – it was a better than a lot of the other colleges. I also noticed that it had more female students than many other colleges. I had a great head of sixth form who was very encouraging so I gave it a whirl.
What were your first impressions of Fitz?
I was really puzzled by the rituals, which I saw as being quite archaic. I had never seen people wearing gowns or drinking port. But I very quickly made some really great friends – I had a few glasses of wine with the girls on my corridor and settled in.
Why did you choose to study English?
I always, always wanted to be a journalist and a writer. I was always going to study English somewhere; it just felt a very natural thing.
Did you start to be involved with journalism during your time in Cambridge?
I’m quite embarrassed to admit I didn’t really do any journalism at College! Any spare time we were at the cinema, out clubbing, watching bands, and we spent a lot of time in London and at music festivals. My first job was being a music journalist, and if you are going to write about pop culture you have to be properly passionate about it and immersed in it.
What really fires me up are social and cultural trends, zeitgeist-y stuff: what are we talking about in the pub with friends, what are we concerned about, what are we passionate about?
Given where your career was leading you into features journalism, do you feel it was beneficial being a woman?
I moved on to Q magazine, the monthly music title, and I was the only woman in the office at a senior level. It was a good learning experience for me, and I got very good at standing up for myself, speaking out, and not letting people take my ideas and pass them off as their own.
My next job was at ELLE and that was completely different. The Devil Wears Prada comparison is totally true, and fashion magazines are very hierarchical. There were ridiculous things, like staff throwing hissy fits about having to go on fashion shoots to the Bahamas for two weeks. Working there was incredibly glamorous at times – I remember once being dispatched to New York simply to show my face at a party.
But I met some fabulously clever, funny, ambitious women on those magazines, people who have mentored me, and people I’m still friends with. Contrary to popular opinion, women’s magazines are run by incredibly smart people. Pay-wise, there is parity because it’s nearly all women so there is no issue about pay gaps; women are promoted, so you have female role models above you.
In Fitzwilliam’s 150th anniversary year, we are focusing on access and widening participation. How do you think diversity could be fostered among the young people who would like to pursue a career as a journalist?
This is the key problem although I think there has been a lot of progress recently in terms of actually paying interns properly. I feel really strongly about this. That is one thing that responsible publishers need to be doing and legally now have to do. It is a major step forward because otherwise you end up with all the same voices.
Once you’re in, as a young journalist, it’s about making sure you include all those different voices, because journalism is all about stories and telling other people’s stories. That for me is the key joy of the job. Looking beyond your own experience and looking for other people’s.
Who are your role models and why?
There are various unofficial mentors who have been more senior than me at the magazines I've worked on. When you are working somewhere, always look a few rungs higher up the ladder and try to find an ally!
Tina Brown is a magazine journalist, and was the editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. She is full of energy, and all about social observation, like a Jane Austen of 1980s New York. Much lesser known is Robin Green. She was the woman on the masthead at Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s and recently wrote a brilliant memoir about her experiences – she must be a really tough cookie.
The other person is my mother, who didn’t go to university and left school at 16. She fostered a love of reading in me, and not a snooty one at that! We’d read anything and everything and that is so key. She’s tenacious and straight talking; I owe a lot to her. Obviously I read English at Cambridge so have read all the classic texts but I also love reading quite trashy things as well, and there’s room for both. A lot of that snobbery often stems from misogyny – it’s always aimed at women’s commercial fiction.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Never be afraid to ask for money. Really negotiate hard. When you’re in my industry it’s tricky, because you’re meant to be all cool and laid-back and the focus is on being creative, but actually you need to make sure you’re being paid well for what you’re doing.
The other one? Don’t drink tequila!