If there is a straight and sometimes-high-five-throwing male out there who can claim more influence on their life from Helen Gurley Brown, I’d love to meet him. Until then — when counting this subsect of the population — I’m proclaiming myself as her absolute number one fan.
It’s no secret though, as displayed by the number of texts, condolences, and well-wishings I received this week from friends. I guess when you’ve been talking about someone for the better part of 17 years, people notice. Even with my often outpouring love for HGB and her writing, I was still surprised by the sadness I felt when hearing of her passing.
I first stumbled upon Helen Gurley Brown in the mid-nineties. I was living in Seattle at the time and was mostly engrossed by rare historical crime books. I’d scour the dusty shelves of local bookstores regularly for new arrivals. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to find myself wandering towards the out-of-date self-help section to pass a rainy day.
It was probably the stylish pink cover of Sex and the Single Girl that first drew me in, but it was the words between the covers that kept me interested. After a few readings of this $1 purchase, I became slightly obsessed with the book, often cornering anyone who showed even the mildest interest about my excitement for her writing and pertinant-yet-outdated advice.
If I had to say what I loved most about Helen Gurley Brown, it would have to have been her unwavering honesty; the way she approached advice from the realization that we all suck a little bit inside, and so success was had through simple manipulation of the factors in your life you have control over. All the while, she wrote in a language that reflected an innocence that — until Mad Men — we barely ever caught a glimpse of. As the times changed, so did her delivery, but the basic ideas were always the same.
Over the years she has had her share of critics, many of whom believe she promoted the idea that woman should pander to man’s expectations of them. To reduce her vision so simply would be missing the whole point. Her strength was her ability to focus on individual empowerment instead of stepping into the traps of stereotypical rhetoric. She wasn’t interested in what women should do; instead focusing her energy on what an individual woman should do. In our hyper-polarized times, I found her one-at-a-time approach to change refreshing, and ultimately more effective.
Not only did the book’s advice influence me personally in small ways, but my interest in it has changed the entire trajectory of my life. After I had read that first copy until the binding had fallen to pieces, I stepped up to a Cosmopolitan subscription to further dive into her world of useful-yet-entertaining pop-vice. As I became more interested, I began realizing that this is what I truly enjoyed. Like a crossdresser admitting to themselves they prefer the glide of a sexy pair of Louboutins regardless of what others thought, I came to accept the idea that woman’s advice just plain interested me.
Five years ago I choose to pursue writing more seriously, but quickly realized that I seriously needed more practice writing. At the same time — and because of my years of reading woman’s magazines — I had become the default advice person for my friends, and eventually their friends. It made perfect sense to combine the two into a website that would help others, while at the same time help myself. When choosing a name, I knew it had to tip a nod towards the person who inspired me to follow such an unlikely pursuit, and so I called it Sex and the Single Ape, seeing ape as a fitting pronoun that collectively included all of us.
Since then I’ve answered almost a thousand questions, while always being aware to carry a voice that I felt she would have agreed with and enjoyed. A voice dripping with honesty — and a splash of brutality — but never at the expense of encouragement and humanity. Through writing advice, I’ve helped others while using their answers to help myself. Most importantly though, through writing advice I met a girl who I would have previously dubbed the fantasy of a high-expectations dreamer, which — being one myself — I could state authoritatively.
As I started this article, I wasn’t sure where I was going with it. But seeing it all written down, it’s become obvious that not only is this a personal ‘thank you’ to a person who greatly influenced my life, but also a testament to the power of her words and their ability to jump barriers. They may have been written for woman, but the themes are all completely human, and the ripple effect from her ideas continue to touch corners of our society in positive ways that are impossible to quantify — an inspiring conclusion we should all strive for in our short lives, because that is the backbone of real change.