Original 'Cosmo' girl calls it a day

Trend-setting queen: The woman who put sex and orgasms into women's magazines, encouraging a have-it-all culture, is giving up her crown
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The Independent Online

Helen Gurley Brown, the founder of Cosmopolitan and the woman who will be forever remembered for putting the orgasm into women's magazines, is finally to retire.

Ms Brown, 73, brought the have-it-all Cosmo girl - with her shockingly strident sexual and career demands - to London in 1972, seven years after she took over and resurrected the ailing Cosmopolitan title in New York.

With a revolutionary but hardly complicated mix of sex, sex and more sex she shattered forever the knitting and recipe mould that had previously dominated the market. Instead there was a series of nude male centrefolds, including Vidal Sassoon and Paul de Feu, Germaine Greer's former husband, and ground-breaking cover page headlines like "Who Me? VD", which led to an advertisement ban on the London Underground.

Her simple and timely formula, was eventually adopted by Cosmo staff in 34 countries and became de rigueur for a host of British magazines which followed in Cosmo's steps

Today many would see Ms Gurley Brown - X-ray thin, with tight uplifted face, false eyelashes and an enduring attachment to red mini-skirts - as a curious advertisement for female power or feminism. Ms Gurley Brown, who insists she still epitomises the Cosmo girl, is seen by some as the setter of a trend which has since made magazines sex-obsessed to the point of obscenity and the exclusion of all other subjects.

But yesterday British magazine editors lined up to praise the woman they say revolutionised magazines and women's self-image and the way men saw them.

They argue it is hard to fully appreciate the impact Ms Gurley Brown made more than two decades ago.

The endless orgasm articles seem unremarkable today. But Deidre McSharry, an early editor of Cosmo, said yesterday: "When Cosmo started lots of people did not know how to pronounce orgasm."

Jane Proctor, editor of Tatler, remembers the power of initial impact. On the day it launched it sold 365,000 copies and was sold on the top shelf because some newsagents thought it belonged with the soft porn.

"I was 16 and at school in Harley Street and my friends and I thought it was fab," she said. "Orgasms - we had never seen stuff like that before. The end of the 1960s was permissive for the Marianne Faithfulls of this world. What Cosmo did was to take the revolution beyond the London elite."

Ms Proctor's other recollection of Cosmo, illustrating how hard it played the sex card, involved a search for a 92lb penis puffed as an article on the magazine front. As a junior, she and two senior executives at Tatler scoured the magazine or ages looking for the article. They found it in a story on whales near the back.

"Before Cosmo, sex never entered into magazines," said Sally O' Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Ideal Home. "It became the backbone of Cosmo. I wouldn't necessarily call her a feminist but she was so pro-women. She began a process which is still continuing. The idea that women gain self-confidence and be able to decide the direction of their lives."

Important though the new sexual openness was, the intimate relationship between reader and magazine opened up a new genre in publishing, she said.

At Cosmo Mandi Norwood, the new London editor and a fan of Ms Gurley Brown, argues that Cosmo girl is essentially the same as the one dreamed up by the magazine's founder. She says the go-for-it Cosmo girl was born out of Ms Gurley Brown's personal experience.

The little girl from Little Rock, Arkansas, in the tradition of the American dream, slaved for years as a secretary and worked her way up, becoming a copywriter and novelist before - at the then matronly age of 37 - marrying David Brown, one of Hollywood's most successful producers.

She was 41 when the giant publishing house Hearst gave her the Cosmo title.

She first aired her idea of modern womanhood in1962 in her book Sex and the Single Girl, which dared to suggest that single women could not only have sex - and even insist upon it - but anything less carnal they set their sights on.

Sally O'Sullivan said: "Have-it-all has moved on from the original Cosmo girl. Women are now intrinsically tied up in balancing family and career."

But Ms Norwood said the message was still that you had to have confidence and live your life the way you wanted to. The original Cosmo girl, like Ms Gurley Brown, did not have children. Ms Norwood has one and another on the way. Despite the modern focus on the strains between home and career Ms Norwood maintains Cosmo women can still have it all. "It is not about sacrifice and compromise but prioritising." She says that talk about compromising career for children, or sex life for career is too negative.

Ms Gurley Brown she says is an inspiration. "She came in a couple of months ago wearing a navy body and a mini skirt. She had amazing breasts and a fantastic body."