by MIA FREEDMAN
I was 24 years old and about to be crowned the new editor of Australian Cosmo – only the third in its 30-year history. However, before I could officially be presented with my sash and my tiara, I had to pass one important test. I had to meet Cosmo’s founder, the iconic Helen Gurley Brown.
Cosmopolitan has 64 international editions, is printed in 38 languages and is distributed in more than 100 countries. And like most of the international editions, Australian Cosmo is a joint venture between the brand’s owner and publisher, US media giant Hearst, and a local publisher, in this case Australian Consolidated Press (ACP).
Because we are voracious magazine readers, Australian Cosmo has the highest circulation per capita of any Cosmopolitan in the world and Hearst has always had an excellent relationship with its Australian publishing partners.
I came well recommended by ACP but I still had to be vetted by Hearst.
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 wasn’t a problem.
Next, I was taken to meet Helen. 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.
Helen Gurley Brown was born in Little Rock, Arkansas some time around 1922 (it’s hard to get a lock on her exact age…reports today say she was 90 years old but her inner circle knew she was a bit ‘creative’ with her age). Her father died suddenly in an elevator accident when she was 10 and with an older sister crippled by Polio and a mother who quickly sank into poverty and depression, Helen left home at 17 and fled to Los Angeles where she became the family breadwinner.
Between the ages of 18 and 33, she had 17 secretarial jobs, some paying as little as $6 a week. Eventually, one of these jobs led to a promotion and she started copywriting at an advertising agency. It wasn’t enough to sate her ambitions so she asked her new husband, movie producer David Brown (Jaws, The Sting), if he had any ideas for a book she could write.
“And he said, write a book on what it was like when you were single! You were never home, you never answered the phone!” she recalled in 1996. “He didn’t know that I’d put the phone in the refrigerator so that I wouldn’t hear it and he would think I was out!”