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Super sleuths

The awesome fearlessness of female undercover reporters

By Brigit Katz on June 3, 2015

Last week, The Guardian published a riveting account by a French journalist who posed as a young woman interested in joining ISIS. Anna Erelle—a pseudonym that the journalist adopted to protect her identity—had been writing about European jihadis and was researching teenagers who were pulled towards Islamic extremism. After establishing herself as a quiet presence on social media accounts devoted to the jihadist cause, Erelle was contacted by a militant who called himself Abu Bilel.

Almost immediately, Bilel began making plans for Erelle to join him in Syria and become his wife. But with each of their Skype conversations, Erelle was secretly sussing out and documenting information about the way ISIS operates. Once it became clear that Erelle would not travel to Syria to join Bilel, a fatwa was issued on her life.

Erelle’s covert research into the inner workings of ISIS catapults her into the league of other upstanding female reporters who have gone undercover—sometimes at great personal risk—to get to the heart of a story. Here are five you should know about.

1. Nellie Bly

The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, who later assumed the pen name Nellie Bly, was born in Cochrane Mills, Pennsylvania in 1864. She was hired to write a regular column for a Pittsburgh newspaper called the Quiet Observer after she penned a fiery response to an op-ed claiming that working women were a “monstrosity.” But when her editors insisted on confining her talents to the “women’s sections,” Bly quit her job and moved to New York. There, she was enlisted to write a story about mental institutions for a publication called the New York World. So Bly feigned insanity and had herself committed to a sprawling public asylum called Blackwell Island. Her piece about the experience, titled “Ten Days in a Mad House,” chronicled the abysmal conditions of the institution: meals were spoiled, the sleeping quarters were freezing, and inmates were subjected to a litany of abuse that included forced ice baths, beatings, chokings, and psychological torment. Bly is considered to be one of the pioneers of investigative journalism.

2. Eva Valesh

Eva Valesh

Eva Valesh was born in Maine in 1866. She launched her journalism career in 1888, with an exposé on the long hours, abysmal pay, and dangerous conditions endured by women who worked at a Minneapolis garment factory. Her article, which was published in the St. Paul Globe, is credited with inspiring the first woman’s strike in the history of Minneapolis. Writing under the pseudonym Eva Gay, Valesh began publishing a regular column with the Globe that saw her go undercover as various types of workers—including a factory worker, a domestic worker, and a store clerk—in order to unveil the working conditions of unskilled laborers across Minnesota.

3. Gloria Steinem

Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times

Gloria Steinem’s claim to journalism fame is her founding of the feminist publication Ms. magazine in 1971. But one of Steinem’s most iconic articles hails from her early days as a journalist. In 1963, Steinem posed as a Playboy bunny for an exposé on New York’s Playboy Club, one of the many Playboy franchises that made Hugh Hefner a wealthy man in the ’60s. The acerbically funny “A Bunny’s Tale” which appeared in Show magazine, dismantled the perception of Playboy Clubs as glamorous bastions of the “sexual revolution” that Hefner believed he had fathered. Steinem portrayed the many indignities leveled against Hef’s bunnies, the most shocking of which was the Club’s insistence that bunnies get pap smears and STD tests, on the grounds that such testing was required of all New York City waitresses (it was not). Years later, Steinem reflected that her piece exposed the Playboy Club as “profoundly tacky.”

4. Suki Kim

Suki Kim, who wrote a book about her experiences teaching at a North Korean university, in New York, Oct. 30, 2014. The memoir about teaching English to adolescent boys at a private university in Pyongyang has angered the authorities and her former colleagues. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

In 2011, American writer Suki Kim got a job teaching English at a private university in Pyongyang, North Korea. Throughout the duration of her employment, Kim secretly recorded her observations about the North Korean totalitarian regime, which was—and still is—shrouded in ominous mystery. Kim turned her notes into a memoir titled Without You There Is No Us, which chronicles the many restrictions and systemic fears that defined the lives of people living under Kim Jong-il (the so-called “Supreme Leader” died the day before Kim left North Korea). “One thing I kept thinking while I was there was that there was no mercy in their world,” Kim told NBC News. “[N]o one was spared except Kim Jong-il himself.”

5. Mimi Chakarova

Mimi Chakarova/Facebook
Mimi Chakarova/Facebook

Photojournalist Mimi Chakarova spent a decade documenting the plights of impoverished young women from Eastern European countries, who were lured into forced prostitution with promises of waitressing jobs. Chakarova interviewed many of these victims about their experiences in the red light districts of Turkey and Dubai, and found their stories so horrifically incredible that she felt the need to verify them firsthand. So Chakarova went undercover as a prostitute in a Turkish brothel, enlisting regular clients to help her secretly film what happened in the sex club. Watch Chakarova describe her reporting process for the Vice documentary series “Correspondent Confidential.”