PT: You always make money for your publisher?
HGB: Tina Brown, the editor of The New Yorker and former editor of Vanity Fair, is possibly the most brilliant editor in the world. I couldn't begin to do what she does. She couldn't do what I do either, but she wouldn't want to. She's just formidable. But there's something I do that she doesn't, which is make money for her publisher. I don't think Vanity Fair ever got into the black. Maybe a tiny touch. The New Yorker loses millions of dollars a year.
That doesn't mean she's a bad editor, but when you're toting up the qualifications of a successful editor, that would be one of them, and Cosmo's a little gold mine. I think that's just super. Cosmo makes money because it's good.
PT: What would you describe as your biggest success and your biggest failure?
HGB: The biggest success in my professional life, of course, is Cosmo because it's been carrying on like this for 29 years. The next biggest success is my first book, Sex and the Single Girl (Avon; 1962), from which Cosmo stemmed. There wouldn't be any new Cosmo if it hadn't been for that book. I've written three other books. I consider them very satisfactory. All but my last book, The Late Show (William Morrow; 1993), which is about how I hate getting older, have been on best-seller lists.
My biggest failure is that I really can't assimilate all this and be as grateful for it as I should be. All I can do is be very fearful that it's going to disappear pretty soon, which it will because of how old I am. Isn't it a shame that I can't just be thrilled and happy that I have had this wonderful magazine and a terrific husband? We're both healthy; we've done okay financially. Why can't I be happy about that? I really can't.
PT: You're not happy?
HGB: I wouldn't call myself a happy person. I would call myself a realized person, a very grateful person for all the wonderful things that have happened to me. I have moments of great pleasure. I know how to have fun. I enjoy sensual pleasures. I can think of people who are day-to-day more tranquil than I. Happy is a very strong word.
PT: Women's magazines are an important socializing force among young women. Men, perhaps, are the poorer for not having them. These magazines create a community among women, and you certainly help foster that sense of intimacy by inviting women to "step into my parlor" 12 times a year. What messages do you try to give women through Cosmo.
HGB: Work and love. These are the most important things in life. They always have been; they always will be. I believe Sigmund Freud said that. The readers of Cosmopolitan are young women 18 to 34, and it is important for them to know that they can love men and love their kids and have their own identity. These facts haven't changed in the 29 years that I have been editing Cosmopolitan. These are the things that make us who we are.
PT: You get criticized for calling the female sex "girls" in Cosmo. But there are some who insist the reference be to Cosmo "women."
HGB: I absolutely have not changed on that and I don't plan to. By the time you reach the age of 23, you're a grown-up. You can think seriously about men, about having children. But at the same time it is important to retain the qualities of being a girl-- remain enthusiastic, playful, have fun. I don't think that side of a woman ever stops. A woman can enjoy being a girl and can enjoy the power being a woman also.
PT: Do you feel like one of the girls, or like their mother? What chronological age do you see yourself as?
HGB: I just don't have a chronological age. I do feel that I'm one of the girls. I feel that a woman is both girlish and womanly as long as she lives, and I'm not that different from the girl hanging out with her girlfriends in Little Rock, Arkansas, or at high school in Los Angeles.
There is just no way that I can believe I'm the real age that I am. It doesn't work. It's not acceptable. I think older age is just the pits, but you have to be some kind of nut case to assume that you're escaping it. So I escape it as best I can, through my work.
PT: You never mention anything a out women and aging in Cosmo.
HGB: That's because the women who read this magazine are 18 to 34. They are not yet concerned with that. But I don't have a kind word to say about age. It's awful.
PT: How do you think women have changed in the past 30 years?
HGB: Women now lead a lot more than a one-dimensional life. They are wives and lovers and mothers and workers. They know they can be executives and wear mascara. One thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other. They don't cancel each other out.
I'm fond of remembering that I used to have sex all to myself. That was wonderful because other women's magazines wouldn't go near the subject.
PT: Do you like sharing it?
PT: Cosmo has been accused of being "fluffy."
HGB: It absolutely is not. Women are interested in hearing about what's going on in their lives. It helps a woman to have more power in the workplace. What you have to do to get ahead is hard work. You can't sleep your way up in the workplace. You can't charm your way up. A woman has to earn it.
PT: You provoke strong reactions among women. Why?
HGB: I'm very level and try to report what's really happening. I deal in reality, and that's very unacceptable to some people. Things that I say, for some reason, are controversial. What I just said about old age being the pits, maybe people don't want to hear that.
Older women assume that Cosmo and I are leading their daughters astray. We aren't, but the people who are the most critical never read Cosmo. They don't know what's going inside. Cosmo is a very honorable magazine. We say do your own work, don't live off of anybody else, don't be a parasite, make your own money, use your talent, live up to your potential. That, to me, is a very moral message, and that's in every page of Cosmo.
I have always said married men can be a viable part of a single woman's life. Well, that goes over like a boulder. It isn't the end of the world if you have an affair with a married man. There are a lot of married women who don't want to hear that. But I think most married men cheat, and I don't think people cheat on each other because they fall out of love. People don't want to hear that either.
I just try to say the truth, and it's unpalatable to some people. On the other hand, that doesn't make me not say it. I'm not reporting what's supposed to be out there. I'm talking about what's really going on, so let's deal with it.
PT: We know that women have changed in the past 30 years. How have men changed. Or have they not?
HGB: Men have been influenced by women because they're the only other sex; they are very vulnerable in terms of how they feel about us. Gradually, we have worn men down a bit as we have gotten good jobs and supported ourselves and no longer have had to put up with very much. We can get out.
I never understood Lorena Bobbitt. Why didn't she just leave, for God's sake? I have no sympathy for her. She was getting beaten black and blue. They don't have children. Why didn't she just leave?
Back to the point, men now have to be more attentive to what women tell them. Women used to stay married because men were the meal ticket. We had no choice except to stay. Now we don't have to.
If you can leave a man, and he knows it and wants to keep you, he has to shape up. Men have come a long way in absorbing the feminist message. There's not enough housework being done by men, not enough child raising, but we'll get around to it.
PT: Do you envy young women of today? Do you think their life is easier than it was 30 years ago?
HGB: No. In many ways it's tougher. In my world, plunked down just before the Great Depression, you had to get a job. You couldn't fool around and wonder who you were or if this was what you really wanted to do. You had to get some kind of work to support yourself. I think that was very fortunate.
The least fortunate young women are the ones who have wealthy parents, because they're not going to starve. I feel sorry for them because they don't have the discipline. It isn't necessary for them to do what I had to do, and, therefore, they can screw around forever before they get on with their jobs.
It's hard, but one must be totally realistic about the age that one is. It's not ever going to go back in the other direction. You can do everything there is possibly to do in terms of cosmetic surgery and teeth fixing and exercising, but it's not going to make you Cindy Crawford.
So I don't envy young women professionals, and I try to be a grown-up and not envy young women their youth. It doesn't do you any good, so you just have to not let it enter your brain.
PT: How well do you think you deal with being grown up?
HGB: What is a grown-up? Somebody who accepts responsibility and fits into her life, fits in with her contemporaries, her peers? I think I'm terrifically grown up, but I have a few emotional problems, not having to do with accepting my age but, as I said, waking up scared every morning. That's not so wonderful.
PT: As an editor, you've focused on the concept of service--that is, articles with detailed practical information telling what to do and how to do it. A lot of folks think these articles are for women or the uneducated. What do you think?
HGB: We try to be of service to our reader. That's what we are all about. We try to make her life better. I make no apologies that we don't do a great deal else. We don't talk about politics or the world situation. We just focus on her life. Others can do other things for her.
There's a suggestion that the women who read the women's service magazines are really not up to par intellectually. Total nonsense, of course. They read such magazines for what they get out of them. The same women are probably reading The Atlantic Monthly and Time and Forbes and Newsweek and lots of other publications. One publication cannot possibly be everything to everybody.
If there is a denigration of the word "service," it is at the peril of those doing the denigrating, not at women getting the service they need from magazines.
PT: You consider yourself a feminist. Why do you think you've irked some members of the feminist community?
HGB: They feel that Cosmo panders to men, that we try to make life comfortable for men, and you can't do that and be a feminist. I say you absolutely can.
The premise for me is that sex is wonderful. Being a heterosexual woman, I think sex with a man is probably what you're after, and being a sex object is a very good thing. If you're not a sex object, you're in trouble. You want to be known for your brain, but to have somebody want you sexually is the best thing there is. You can still look pretty and smell pretty and achieve. You can't get anybody to bed unless you are the object of sexual desire. So there is nothing wrong with being a sex object. He is your sex object. It works both ways.
The feminist movement for a long time, perhaps with reason, denigrated men. They were the enemy. It's mostly men who have kept women from achieving and getting parity in work and pay. I acknowledge that, but since sex is terrific and it comes from men, you can't rule men out of this world and say they're all terrible and rotten--because you're going to need one of them for your own purposes. Besides, not all men are terrible and rotten. Most men can be taught, encouraged, helped along.
The feminist movement has come more to my viewpoint, I believe. They have acknowledged that men are necessary. You can be a feminist and still like men. You don't have to like all men, but you need one for you.
Cosmo is big on what used to be called self-determination. Though men have been a real pain in the neck in terms of job progress, you can get beyond them. What you do yourself is more important than what they do to you and what they prevent you from doing. If you use your brains and guts and whatever modest talent you have, you can get everywhere.
PT: You being a good example?
HGB: I am messianic on the subject. If I can do it, other people can do it. I held 17 secretarial jobs before I got into advertising copywriting. And it wasn't until the age of 43 that I found out what I like doing--editing. What you can do is get your nose to the glass and look in there and see what they've got that you don't, and do your best to get it. That's a message that pervades Cosmo: Use your own guts and energy to improve yourself, your job, your intellect, and every other possible thing. You can't sleep your way to the top or even to the middle, and there is no free lunch. You have to do it yourself, so you might as well get started.
PT: Young woman today, say age 25, are part of the generation that is now coming into your prime demographic zone. They have pretty much equal footing in that men are their friends now as well as their bosses. But their job prospects are dim. They are also the children of divorce.
HGB: I would hope that there would be more opportunities for this generation to take advantage of, and I hope that the job situation improves. But this generation has to get off its ass and it has to stop blaming parents for everything. You have to pull yourselves together and be confident and strong.
PT: What do you think is the most interesting thing about yourself?
HGB: I'm a killer listener, particularly with important people but even with so-called civilians. I know everything by the time the conversation's finished. They know little about me. So I am thought to be an interesting person because everybody wants to talk. I don't think there's anything interesting about me.
PHOTO: Ensconced in her "parlor" at Cosmo, editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown prides herself on being girlish--fun-loving and enthusiastic.
PHOTO: Helen Gurley Brown
PHOTOS: Issues of Cosmopolitan Magazine