6 Life Lessons from Legendary Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown


As the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1997, Helen Gurley Brown was famous—and famously criticized by feminists—for doling out endless advice on how to lose weight and how to catch a man. And while she often deserved the flak, she also dispensed gems of wisdom on countless other subjects, from balancing a budget to becoming an individual, at a time when most women’s magazines taught housewives how to whip up the perfect pot roast and wax the floors before their husbands got home. Here are some of the best life lessons, both big and small, I discovered while writing a new biography of HGB, Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman ($29; amazon.com).

Take your pleasure seriously

“What is a sexy woman? Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex,” Helen wrote in her 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. It was a shocking message at the time (nice girls weren’t supposed to have sex before marriage, let alone enjoy it), and it’s one that she continued to deliver for the rest of her career: The more pleasure you get, the more pleasure you give.

Work hard and pay your dues

As a young woman, Helen worked 17 secretarial jobs before she became a high-powered and high-paid ad copywriter à la Peggy Olson. In Sex and the Single Girl, she shared what she learned along the way. Rule Number 1: “DON’T DEMAND INSTANT GLAMOUR.” “Give yourself time to get useful before you get difficult,” she advised.

Pack your lunch

I know it’s not the sexiest advice, but it is sound. When I worked at a magazine in Manhattan, I easily dropped $20 on an average meal, spending up to $100 a week! In Sex and the Office, Helen provides two Brown Paper Bag Plans designed to fill up the working girl without draining her wallet. “Home-lunch can be delicious glamor-girl fodder instead of junk,” she wrote, adding that you can even “save enough money to spend Christmas in Jamaica.”

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Listen to people

“Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody,” Helen wrote in her 1982 book, Having It All. A conversation should be two-sided. Sometimes it’s better to listen and learn.

Sit up straight

Helen gave a lot of nutty beauty advice over the years (she advocated wigs, plastic surgery, and lots of makeup), but this tip is timeless: “Sit up straight, stand up straight, posture, posture, posture!” she wrote in her 2000 book I’m Wild Again. “Good posture can make more difference in how you look than virtually anything else”—and the best part is, it’s free.

Let your problems be your fuel

A self-described “mouseburger” from Arkansas, Helen told and retold the tale of her childhood: Her father died young, her mother sunk into depression, her sister contracted polio, and the family fell on hard times. But those hard times also fueled Helen’s need to succeed. “Early-in-life problems can be the yeast that makes you rise into bread!” she once wrote. In other words, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Take it from HGB—or Beyoncé.