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I Was A Cosmo Girl

Once upon a time, towards the end of Helen Gurley Brown’s reign at the end of the 1990’s, I was a writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine. It wasn’t my intention, it just happened. I had written a book for Doubleday and my editor had moved to Cosmo. She called and asked if I’d like an assignment. I thought about the offer for a millisecond and then I made an appointment to go into the office to go through the blue books, at least that’s what I think they were called. I was directed to a special room with a long conference table upon which sat, like an altar, two large binders with blue pages. The room was austere and quiet; I was the only writer there. One binder was for long articles, the other for short articles. All the ideas had been generated by the editorial staff and Helen Gurley Brown herself. The pages were printed, but most had marginalia by various editors, including HGB, and suggestions for the writers—where and how to begin the research, and so on. This definitely was a winning wicket, I thought to myself. By selecting a page out of the book and unpinning it from the binder, every freelance writer in Cosmo’s stable was assured of money in the bank.

Needless to say, I was a happy writer during my stint working for Cosmo. I can’t remember for how long I lasted—a year or two or three. When my editor left, I left, but not before I’d published some long features in the back of the book—women in politics, women friendly corporations, that sort of thing. And then, one day, I went into the office and couldn’t find anything in either of the binders that appealed to me, so I returned to the short piece binder and found a page with the heading “skin and aging.” I thought, well, I have skin, I am aging, I can write about skin. I unpinned the blue page and skipped to my editor’s office. “Are you sure you want this assignment?” she asked me. And I said, “Yes, absolutely yes,” and off I went.

All I had seen was the $ signs, money in the bank. I hadn’t looked at the marginalia. Scrawled at the bottom of the page was a note from HGB and the phone number of her dermatologist. She’d just had silicone injections in her face and wanted the writer to mention him in the piece.

I called my editor. “I think HGB has forgotten that these injections are illegal,” I said.

“I’ll get back to you,” my editor said. I knew her well enough to catch the tone. She was new at Cosmo and didn’t want to challenge the culture of the magazine. I had to let her handle this.

Then I got a call from the advertising department. They’d heard I was doing a piece about skin. Please, I should mention—a very famous cosmetic company—in the body of the piece so that they could sell them ad space opposite the article. Please.

“Please or I must.”

“You must, please.”

I had heard that the firewall between advertising and editorial was breaking down; this was my first experience of it.

So I called my editor and told her I wanted to get off the story, or she told me, or we told each other, that I was off the story. Parenthetically, I’d found out that Vaseline was the best moisturizer, as opposed to the potions of the very famous cosmetic company I must please should mention, potions I’d savored in HGB’s marble layered private bathroom when I’d mistakenly wandered in during one of my first visits to the Cosmo office.

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