EVERY story about Helen Gurley Brown eventually makes a pun on her name. So let's get them over with; she is a girlie who made good, a Gurley who can't help it, a golden Gurley. The last is probably the most appropriate because 30 years as editor of America's Cosmopolitan magazine has made her a wealthy woman and also because, like television's Golden Girls, she is no longer young. She is 75, but she rages against the dying of the light - not vocally (she is singularly soft-spoken) but physically. Her pinched face bears the tell-tale trail of the surgeon's knife; her skeletal frame is the living denial of the Duchess of Windsor's edict that one can never be too thin. One can and HGB, as she likes to sign her editorial pronouncements, appallingly is.
In the Barbara Cartland suite at The Oriental in Bangkok, where she has come to help launch Cosmopolitan in Thailand, she is perched on the sofa like a spindly pink wraith. The Oriental's room allocation holds a certain irony; a preference for looking pretty in pink is possibly all that Barbara Cartland, champion of the virginal heroine, and Gurley Brown, author of Sex And The Single Girl, have in common. Back in 1965, when she revamped an insipid, faintly intellectual Hearst title which had been limping along since 1886, Gurley Brown changed the face of women's magazines forever with her emphasis on sex and foreplay.
The magazine's coverlines have always been famously lurid so it's perhaps worth noting that every one of them has been written by a man - HGB's husband, David Brown, Hollywood producer of The Sting and Jaws, and a dead ringer for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He hovers solicitously about his wife who gives off an air of extreme fragility, much at odds with the feisty, go-get-'em image of Cosmo womanhood.
In fact, Gurley Brown's position is no longer as strong as it was. Last year, Hearst decided to create a new position for her which moved her out of the hands-on arena of the magazine and into the world of international Cosmopolitans of which, by the end of this year, there will be 34. Southeast Asia is keeping her busy - following Thailand, there was a launch in the Philippines on April 25, in Poland on April 15 and there will be one in Indonesia in August. If the thought of an Islamic country filling its news-stands with stories about orgasm, infidelity and How To Get Your Man seems incongruous, Gurley Brown is unabashed. That is 'The Formula', she says and as Cosmopolitan is a genuine world-wide publishing phenomenon, it clearly works.
She anticipates obvious criticisms before they are voiced; The Formula, indeed, extends to her interview technique which is friendly (many game attempts at the journalist's name, no matter how difficult), doe-eyed in the Nancy Reagan mode and, if you've read the press cuttings, entirely word perfect. She tells how hardship - a widowed mother and a sister in a wheelchair - forced her to 'hit the deck running' at 18 when her face was still encrusted with acne. She has spent her life writing about how beauty passed her by, which must be why she has gone to such pains, literally, to distance herself from what Nature intended. She refers to herself as a 'mouseburger', a plain woman who made a success of the little parings life handed her from the feast. 'I don't know what my IQ is but I'd say it isn't very high,' she states. 'But I do have common sense.' WHEN SHE wrote Sex And The Single Girl in 1962, she received hundreds of letters from women who were relieved Gurley Brown was absolving them from sexual guilt. 'They figured they all had a new best friend,' she remarks. Cosmopolitan was intended to fill that role every month and when it proved to be a massive success she, in her turn, figured that she had millions of best friends whose experiences she could relate to. But how well can she know, say, the Thai women queuing for a river-boat, 10 floors beneath her suite? 'This is my fifth trip to Bangkok,' she says. 'and I've not settled down long enough for an intimate relationship. But I have common sense and I have enough contacts in Taiwan, Tokyo, Seoul, Venezuela, Istanbul, Spain, France, Brazil and some other places I've forgotten to know that women have the same emotions all over the world. So the format never changes. It's a magazine for women who love men, who love children and motherhood and who have a choice of doing work. Now, that doesn't sound so heinous or reprehensible, does it?' No, but what about the concept of globalisation? 'People have very flatteringly said that Cosmo is like Coca-Cola or McDonald's and I say 'Glory Hallelujah!' There is nothing bad about Coca-Cola - unless you drink too much of it - and McDonald's make delicious hamburgers. We are exporting what people want, just as China exports beautiful chinoiserie into our country. I mean, are you going to live in a tree? We're not trying to change Asian culture. Each edition is indigenous to that country and the editor decides what is in the magazine.' While this is true, the head office in New York oversees the training of the international editors and makes instantly available so much material, especially artwork, that it is easy to repackage The Formula at great speed. The Turkish first edition came out in three weeks, the Russian was put together in 45 days between Hearst handshake and news-stand appearance. In Bangkok, the launch team was actually replaced at the last minute by the local publisher who appointed a new managing editor - his sister - in the middle of January. She chose a blonde Western model for the first cover who smoulders amid the cover lines, all of which are in Thai script. Apart, that is, from the one which contains the words 'Melrose Place.' Hearst executives themselves admit surprise that Thai Cosmo has opted to be so overwhelmingly American. Hong Kong Cosmo, for instance, which was launched 12 years ago and now the market leader in the territory with a 40,000-strong monthly circulation, tends to favour local covers. 'This is a new one for me,' agrees Kim St Clair Bodden who is responsible for the international editions. 'But we have to rely on the local publishers to make it a success. We never impose. They come to us and we indoctrinate them, if I can use that word without sounding like Waco, Texas. We give them a wonderful jigsaw puzzle for them to create in their own country'.
'There is an homogenising impact that I'm not totally in agreement with,' admits George Green, president of Hearst Magazines International. 'But I think the key is to allow the culture to evolve and we're not the culprit. It'll come out of the sky into your website anyway.' The wooing of Hearst by foreign publishers - and vice versa - is itself worthy of a Cosmo how-to guide. 'You do it the same way you get into bed with anyone else,' muses Green. 'You meet, there's some foreplay, then you consummate. Publishing is a relationship business. I can tell you how I feel about a partner in my stomach. It's personal, emotional, arbitrary - like love. And if you get the wrong partner and you end up divorced, you're not coming back for 10 years.' This scenario happened in post-Franco Spain in 1978, where Cosmo, relying heavily on source material from the Mexican edition, lasted an ignominious four months. The market simply wasn't ready. It took 12 years to break back in, a lesson the company bears in mind as it eyes up China the most desirable hunk of all, as one of David Brown's cover lines might put it, and carefully searches for the right partner. Singapore, meanwhile, has resolutely refused to be courted, apparently finding its suitor's style too brash to be endured. India, which is normally fairly resistant to overseas blandishments, tied the knot last October and has been, as Cosmopolitan invariably is, a huge success. The magazine's pass-along factor among Indian women is, at 11, exceptionally high.
Flicking through the Indian version, which is in English, is an experience akin to traversing a time warp of about 20 years. The photographs (the January issue has a memorable one of an Indian woman lolling in bed with boyfriend and cigarette under the headline, 'Overcoming Sexual Shyness'), the layout and text are all vintage Cosmo, the hand of Helen Gurley Brown in her prime being clearly visible. In fact, any edition which might wish to recreate exactly the Cosmopolitans of two decades ago is welcome to borrow a wealth of archive material from the New York office.
This is what the Indian editorial team has decided will suit their market and perhaps they have a point. 'Not every country is at the same speed,' Green observes of the sexual revolution. At the same time, however, there are also editions of Cosmopolitan which have raced ahead and outgrown their mother's lengthy embrace. Gurley Brown has no children - she never wanted them, she says - and it does not please her to see her print offspring become too independent. 'Occasionally we get a new young editor who wants to make her mark,' she says. 'You don't need a Baby Jane to go in and re-invent the wheel . . .' One of the offenders is British Cosmopolitan, which is much harder-edged than its American sister. 'We're talking tabloid journalism,' says Gurley Brown with some feeling. 'I wasn't happy with that. They wanted to do something a little more exploitation-like. I'm a very sensible girl and if that's the way they want to retain readership, that's fine. But Kim and I are exhorting our editions not to go that route.' HONG KONG Cosmopolitan, for one, can hardly be accused of racing ahead like its British stablemate. Its 12-year history is more akin to a cautious canter considering Asian sensibilities with sex. 'You couldn't call us conservative ... we are an elegant magazine, very feminine,' says Hong Kong Cosmo chief editor Ruqi Yah Law. 'You know Hong Kong culture is different from the West so we run fewer sex stories. Sex is one of Cosmo's signature topics so we still run it. But we generally use sex material from the US. Occasionally, if the topic isn't right for HK, we'll add in some local stuff, advice, that sort of thing. Sometimes the pictures can be too explicit or the words too explicit when translated into Chinese.' That hasn't stopped the local Cosmo from starting up its own signature topics like the much sought-after annual sex guide in August. The local edition goes for a 50-50 split between Hong Kong and US material, rather than the usual 70-30 cut. Last year's guide ran articles on how to enjoy sex more, sex-related questions and answers - health, sexual positions, condoms, safe sex, different examples of how your environment can make sex even more perfect and more romantic, exercises you can do to make sex better and so on. Such topics may not sound like rigid deference to Asian sensibilities but for Law it is a question of advcie.
'Women look to Cosmo for information about sex. There are so few women's magazines in Hong Kong that tackle this subject that the women who want to know more about sex will read us.' And what women is that? 'Twenty to 35-year-old, educated, working women,' says Law. 'Actually I haven't seen the readership profiles of overseas Cosmos but it should be pretty much the same - young, educated, working women ...' As for interference from the New York mothership, Law says she enjoys a lot of freedom. 'I think because we've been set up for about 13 years now we're quite free to do what we want. Every two years we have an international conference where editors from all the Cosmos get together and talk about each individual magazine's difficulties, which areas we've done well in etc ... Then every month we tell them what we did the previous month. They dont interfere much ... I think its because we're a little different from all the other Cosmos. The others feature a lot of sex but the US office knows Hong Kong's culture is different. They wouldn't criticise us or tell us to add more sex. Usually it's really simple comments, like 'hey, you can't really see the clothes in those pictures,' ... very minor comments.' THOSE who view Cosmopolitan as a shocking, naughty publication may be surprised to learn that Gurley Brown herself exhibits a certain prudishness about what is and is not acceptable content. 'I'm horrified that Cosmo is sometimes seen as a sexy, dirty magazine,' she cries with genuine feeling. 'It appals me that people don't recognise that it's helpful and honourable. Other magazines use the 'f' word and the 'c' word, but we don't.' And yet, didn't she make it possible for those other magazines to exist by crashing the barriers of what was acceptable back in the 1960s? 'They can do what they like,' she says firmly. 'We've gone as far as I want to go.' For Thailand, however, the lessons are just beginning. At the launch party, Tipyavadi Pramoj, the new managing editor of Cosmopolitan, explains why she chose the American way. 'We want to open the window for Thai women to look at how American women think,' she explains. 'Basically, I think all women are the same: what we like is men.' (What about women who like women? Pramoj looks confused. 'You mean working with women?' she asks.) In the weeks before publication, she confesses, she faced a delicate problem. 'We had to set up a committee to make up words which hadn't existed before. Words for sexuality, female genitals, group sex, that sort of thing. In English, these sound fine but, in Thai, it could be very, very crude and we're not going to be a cheap magazine. I consulted my cousin - she's an avant-garde writer here and we made these words up. So, you see, we have created words which never existed before. We are going to be the new dictionary for Thailand.' Additional reporting by Tinja Tsang