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Helen Gurley Brown leaves behind lusty, busty legacy

August 13, 2012|By Booth Moore
  • Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press
Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press (m8pnxepd20120813145717/600 )

Before there was Carrie Bradshaw, Joan Holloway and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” there was Helen Gurley Brown.

The legendary author and Cosmopolitan magazine editor from 1965 to 1997 who died on Monday emboldened a generation of women with her controversial views about female sexuality, and laid the groundwork for today’s sexualized fashion and celebrity culture, which is digested by men and women alike.

Before she took over at Cosmopolitan, she wrote the 1962 advice book “Sex and the Single Girl,” which taught women to forget about marriage, and worry about sexual and financial independence instead. The book spawned several sequels and a film adaptation.

“What she did was combine feminism with this sexy package and kittenish style,” says Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure magazine.  “It seemed anti-feminist but it was ahead of its time. Her influence was felt in the frankness with which she approached sexuality, in the way she thought women should own it. And there was no one flirtier. She would flirt with men, she would flirt with me!”

Born in Arkansas, Brown moved with her family to L.A. as a kid. After graduating from Woodbury Business College and working several secretarial jobs, she was hired as an executive assistant at the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding. She eventually became a copywriter (her story is said to have inspired the story line of Joan Holloway, who rises from secretary to executive at a 1960s-era ad agency in the TV show “Mad Men.”)

“She personally showed what she could achieve in terms of her own destiny,” Wells says. “She described herself as ‘mouseburger,’ but she became the mouse that roared, purred and growled.”

Brown was meticulous about her appearance. “She lived on lettuce leaves. I once saw her eating them with her fingers,” Wells says. “She had this fragile looking body but was such a powerhouse. And I so admired those contradictions that embodied her.”

Contradictions abounded in her work at Cosmopolitan too, where she preached female independence, while running features about how to  enhance your cleavage and please your man. Brown, along with the late photographer Francesco Scavullo and stylist Sean Byrnes, created the magazine’s famous lusty, busty covers using scantily clad models and celebrities.

The images, combined with the sex quizzes and how-to-land-a-man articles, had a far-reaching cultural influence, resulting in everything from Miracle bras, to the explosion in popularity of plastic surgery, to HBO's "Sex and the City."

During a 2004 interview after Scavullo died, Brown told me, "We discussed what we wanted, which was the most gorgeous girl in the world, ravishing, sensual and sexy, but in good taste and friendly, because at the time girls were looking very snippy and haute.”

The girl next door became the sexy girl next door, an archetype now embodied by celebrity cover girls like Kim Kardashian, Mila Kunis and Sofia Vergara, and used to sell everything from Carl’s Jr. hamburgers to perfume to Kmart.

"I wanted to show bosom," Brown said. "I knew women wanted to look at bosom as much as men did, to see how they compared. This was before the times of breast augmentation, and Francesco and Sean always showed bosom. They used bobby socks, breast tape, baseballs, whatever they had to."

“The Cosmo cover is so recognized throughout world,” Wells says. “The people change, the language changes, but the mission at heart, the identity is still recognizable. [Brown] made sexy women something that could appeal to women, and that wasn’t the case before her. Sexy women were for men and housewives or clean-cut college types like Ali MacGraw were for women. That was subversive and powerful.”

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