Helen Gurley Brown held up a copy of Mademoiselle and read one of the cover’s teasers: “How to get the look that made Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez famous.” She glanced up toward her mostly-female, mostly-undergraduate audience in the Morse College Master’s House and rolled her eyes.
Without pausing, she said, “Well that’s bullshit. Their hair didn’t make them famous.”
“[Cosmopolitan] tells the truth. We don’t muck around,” she added.
Like the magazine she headed for more than three decades, the 80-year-old former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan did not “muck around” at a Master’s Tea Tuesday. Wearing fishnets, a short black skirt, two-inch heels and six gold bracelets, Brown, now the editor of the international editions of Cosmopolitan, mixed personal anecdotes with no-holds-barred business and life advice as she discussed her climb up the corporate ladder.
Brown started working at 18 — after a “teeny tiny semester at some cockamamie women’s school” — and went through 17 different secretarial jobs before her writing skills landed her a position in an advertising firm. At her husband’s suggestion, she began her first book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” soon after. She received so much mail in response that she decided to take over a magazine to answer it. She ended up with the then-struggling Cosmopolitan and was given a year to turn it around.
“From the first issue, [my format] worked,” Brown said. “It works because it predated the feminist movement and said women don’t want to get their identity from being the honor student’s mommy or the rock star’s girlfriend. [It said] they don’t want to be an appendage. They want their own identity.”
Brown said Cosmopolitan’s basic format — which she described as “one big sex article, one big man-woman relationship article, one big health article, one big career article and one big celebrity profile” — remained the same throughout her 32-year tenure.
She attributed the magazine’s success to this format, as well as to its “inspirational message,” “a little thing called writing,” and of course, telling it like it is.
“We tell the truth. Tom Cruise, Bill Gates, they’re not waiting for you to get off the elevator, but we’ll still find you someone good and decent and when he’s gone, we’ll find you someone else,” Brown said.
Brown said she has faced criticism from both feminists and the religious right for the often-provocative content of her magazine. But she said that Cosmopolitan is in no way anti-feminist, and that she has always considered herself a feminist — albeit one in lipstick.
“Wearing boring, monochromatic clothes and looking like an overstuffed couch is just not necessary,” Brown said. “You can be sexy and like men and still be a feminist.”
“Even Gloria Steinem streaks her hair, for God’s sake,” she said.
Though students at the tea seemed to agree, some still questioned Cosmopolitan’s emphasis on external beauty.
“How can you look at the women on the cover and expect a reader to feel good about herself?” one student asked.
Brown replied that the idea behind the magazine is to “get the best out of you,” and “do the best with what you’ve got,” but that it is still acceptable to have a pretty girl on the cover because beauty sells.
“It’s always treacherous the way a woman is judged by her looks,” she said. “It’s terrible, but it’s true.”
Jennifer Walk ’04 said she found Brown adorable and admired her straightforwardness.
“There weren’t really any tricks to how she was able to do well,” Walk said. “She doesn’t take herself seriously. That’s why everyone loved her — she’s not pretentious.”
Walk is Editor in Chief of the Yale Daily News Course Critique.
Mark Aziz ’05 said Brown was “scandalously funny,” something she proved at the end of her talk when she prompted her audience to ask her how she had “acquired” her husband.
The answer: “Blackmail — and it worked, because I’ve kept him for 43 years.”