Helen Gurley Brown’s legendary impact on the women’s magazine industry

Shine On

Legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown died this Monday in a New York City hospital. She was 90. Brown spent a whopping 32 years at the helm of the trailblazing magazine, transforming the fledgling glossy from a financial liability into the sex-crazed tome of empowerment and self-improvement that it remains today. Along the way, Brown's influence shaped the entire magazine industry, not only in the United States, but here in Canada and around the world.

A former ad copy writer, Brown's 1962 tell-all instructional pocket book, Sex and the Single Girl, catapulted her into the limelight. When she approached Hearst Publishing with an idea for a new magazine, they turned her down, instead offering her the top position at Cosmopolitan.

The stick-thin editor was an early champion of self-improvement, and how-to articles peppered her pages. Brown coined the term "mouseburger," first to describe herself, and then to more broadly define any woman who is plain and ordinary and must hustle and work hard to make an impact and get noticed. In Brown's mind, it was entirely possible to get noticed through hard work, and anyone could eventually transition from "mouseburger" to "Cosmo girl" -- youthful, sassy, successful and smart.

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Though today it is the modus operandi for women's magazines, Brown's frank approach to sexuality was controversial in the sixties. Brown believed magazines could and should dispense public health information, but in a compelling and provocative way. As writer Caitlin Flanagan points out in a 2009 article in The Atlantic, Brown made reproductive health sexy, so much so that "the line between a medical explanation and an essentially obscene exploitation can be reduced to nothing at all."

As an editor, Brown knew what women wanted, and she gave it to them.

"Her winning editorial formula was to use sexy models and lots of enticing cover lines, which drew readers into the magazine,"  says Canadian magazine writer and industry expert David Hayes. "But there had to be a payoff, and there was — the content was often provocative, too. The whole idea that young women can get whatever they want — including sex — on their own terms, if they set their mind to it, was completely in tune with the sixties."

The approach was wildly successful. Brown took the magazine from a circulation of 800,000 to a peak of three million in 1983. Yet Cosmopolitan's tone wasn't clear-cut feminism, and the emphasis on pleasuring men and constantly playing the sex kitten troubled many women of her generation, who were fighting tooth-and-nail for equal rights.

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In fact, Sex and the Single Girl is frequently juxtaposed against Betty Friedan's seminal The Feminist Mystique. According to the CBC, Friedan once described Cosmopolitan as "immature teenage-level sexual fantasy", but with time, she eventually changed her tune saying Brown, "in her editorship, has been a rather spirited and gutsy example in the revolution of women."

Former editor-in-chief of Chatelaine Rona Maynard was at the helm of Chatelaine for a transformative ten years, and describes the enduring influence of Brown.

"Her focus on being your partner's ever-willing geisha really riled quite a few feminists and I remember cringing myself," says Maynard. "But now I look at Men's Health and I see her influence in story lines like '5 ways to cook for more sex' and 'Your ultimate guide to oral sex: Blow her mind with NEW positions!' Hugh Hefner never talked to his readers like that."

Interestingly enough, Brown was actually married when Sex and the Single Girl first hit shelves in 1962. She had tied the knot with John Brown three years earlier at the age of 37. He eventually became a successful movie producer, with film credits like Jaws, Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy. Though they never had any children — reportedly by choice — the couple would remain together for more than 50 years until his death in 2010.

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When she was finally ousted from the magazine's top spot in 1997 — by Canadian editor Bonnie Fuller — Cosmopolitan was raking in revenues of $159 million, according to The Globe and Mail. She remained on as editor of the magazine's foreign editions until her death.

Today, Brown's reach remains inescapable.

"She was one of those extraordinary editors whose impact on popular culture is so pervasive, you owe them something whether you're aware of it or not," says Maynard. "The true innovators don't come along very often, and I have to wonder whether any magazine will ever again give an editor that kind of transformative power."

Watch the news video below about the death of Helen Gurley Brown.