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MIA FREEDMAN: 'Before I became the editor of Cosmo I had to pass one important test.'

Today, publisher Bauer Media announced the closure of Cosmopolitan Australia. After 45 years on the shelves, the iconic women’s magazine will shut its doors following the release of the December issue.

In this extract from her book, Mama Mia, former Cosmo editor Mia Freedman reflects on picking up a baton forged by the title’s matriarch, the incomparable Helen Gurley Brown.

I was about to be crowned the new editor of Australian Cosmopolitan – the third in its 30-year history. However before I could officially be presented with my sash and my staff, I had to pass one important test. I had to meet Cosmo‘s founder, the iconic Helen Gurley Brown.

The brand’s owner and publisher, US media giant Hearst, had complete trust in my predecessor, Pat [Ingram], and since she had chosen me as her replacement, I came well recommended. But I still had to be vetted.

This meant flying to New York for two important interviews. The first was with the Vice President of Hearst International who quizzed me on what I thought about Cosmopolitan as a brand and where I might take it in Australia. I could talk about magazines under wet cement, so that part was no problem.

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Next I was taken to meet Helen Gurley Brown. As the editor of US Cosmo, Helen didn’t have direct control over editorial appointments on the international editions, but in every other way she was Cosmopolitan. She had literally invented it.

She was born some time around 1922 (it was always hard to get a lock on her exact age) and started her working life as a a secretary but shot to fame upon the release of her first book, the controversial Sex and the Single Girl. Helen was about 40 years old when it was published in 1962 and the book became an in instant bestseller. Full of advice for single girls, its most sensational premise was that a woman didn’t need to be married to enjoy sex. In fact, she didn’t need to be married at all.

Helen. Image: Getty.
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It wasn't just the sex part that readers could relate to. They also identified with the idea of the 'Mouseburger', as Helen called herself; a woman who had not been born rich or well connected, particularly clever or especially beautiful, but who had made it anyway, via hard work and determination.

Soon afterwards, Helen pitched the idea of a magazine for women to US publishers based on the messages of Sex and the Single Girl and was invited by Hearst to take over their ailing title Cosmopolitan. Her first issue appeared in July 1965, and Helen's philosophy for Cosmo was the same one she applied to her own life: self-improvement. What woman doesn't want a better relationship? Better sex? Better hair? A better job? A better wardrobe? Cosmo was the original self-help manual, decades before the genre would spawn Mars & Venus and Dr Phil. The Cosmo girl, as created by Helen, saw no conflict between loving men and being ambitious. She wanted to please men and herself. Deep-cleavage feminism, some called it. The formula worked.

Helen's Cosmopolitan would go on to become the most successful magazine in the world.

I knew virtually nothing of this impressive legacy as I waited outside Helen's office. My knowledge of Helen Hurley Brown was based on her more recent press, which had been equally controversial - and not for pushing socio-sexual boundaries in a good way.

Around the 1980s, Helen had begun to be seen by some as not a feminist pioneer but as someone worryingly retro in many of her views.

In particular, that straight women couldn't contract HIV and that sexual harassment in the workplace was harmless fun.

There was also disquiet from some of Helen's contemporaries about the man-pleasing aspects of her Cosmo philosophy. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem told The New York Times in 1996: "She deserves credit for having introduced sexuality into women's magazines - Cosmo was the first. But then it became the unliberated woman's survival kit, with advice on how to please a man, lover or boss in any circumstances, and also - in a metaphysical sense - how to smile all the time. The Cosmo girl needs to become a woman."

There was some truth to this. The flip side to the empowerment message of self-improvement is that a women's magazines like Cosmo are essentially sold on angst. The idea is that the mag tells you that you have a problem, and then helps you fix it. By perpetuating feelings of inadequacy, it cements its role in making you feel better. Helen had invented the formula and used it with wild success. Now it was my turn to take the Cosmo baton in Australia.

Me and Helen dancing at an International Cosmo Editors’ conference in the Bahamas in 2000. Image: Supplied.
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I was ushered into Helen's office, which could only be described as teenage girl's bedroom meets bordello. It was wall-to-wall leopard-print carpet with gilt-edged antiquey-looking furniture and a sofa decking in chintzy rose fabric. There was a stuffed lion, a teddy bear wearing a pearl necklace, and an embroidered cushion that said, 'Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.'

While I was trying to take all of it in, a tiny bird-like creature stood up behind a small desk where she'd been obscured by a large typewriter. Helen. As she skipped towards me - actually skipped - I felt my eyes widen. It was a visual riot.

Helen was wearing a black micro miniskirt and black fishnet stockings with black patent kitten heels. Her shirt was hot-pink satin with unbuttoned flashes of black lace bra underneath. And cleavage. She was wearing lots of fancy, gold jewellery and she was the size of my little finger.

I'd never met an icon before and I had no idea what to expect.

Helen was the most charming and flirtatious person I'd ever encountered. Her coquettish manner was instantly disarming as she shone the full light of her attention on me, and I quickly understood it was merely the window-dressing for an extremely sharp business brain. She was familiar with the Australian magazine market and asked me about Cleo and my time working there. She knew who Lisa Wilkinson was. She also wanted to know all about my personal life. Did I have a boyfriend? How long had we been together? And then she called me Pussycat.

"I don't have any children so you can be like my daughter, Pussycat," she said as she gently steered me out of her office after about twenty minutes. I wasn't sure of the correct response. Should I purr? Rub myself against her legs? Clearly I'd made a good impression if she wanted to adopt me. Later, I'd learn that it was one of the standard lines she used with an editor under fifty. Still, I was chuffed. And, it seemed, anointed.

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