It was something out of Mad Men. An attractive blonde sitting on a conference table crosses her legs, enjoying a glass fizz. As she holds her three suitably dressed men, a smoky sigh of smoke rises into the air.
The year 1972. The men involved were Charles Saatchi (later ex-husband Nigella Lawson), Tim Bell (ad exec and soon-to be ad agency proprietor) and Tim Bell (later Baron Bell), who was a close adviser to Margaret Thatcher.
Joyce Hopkirk, a former Sun journalist was the one who briefed these young Titans of the advertising world to design a seductive campaign for Cosmopolitan. It would go on to smash sexual taboos and spawn a generation of ‘Cosmo girls’.
Now, as Cosmopolitan celebrates its 50th birthday, I’m proud to say that not only did I witness this meeting from the far corner of the office — as a wide-eyed 20-year-old junior copy editor — but I also went on to become Cosmo’s editor for five years in the mid-1980s.
Linda Kelsey, Cosmopolitan’s 50th Birthday Celebrations Editor, reflects upon the magazine’s popularity throughout its history. Pictured: The magazine’s first cover in March 1972
In a world where so many magazines have closed, it’s quite a feat that reading Cosmo remains a rite of passage for so many women.
To say that this glossy magazine changed lives — mine included — might sound grandiose but half a century ago, there really was nothing like it. In the UK, it was still too early for Elle, Marie Claire, Red, Glamour — and there were no celebrity magazines at all. We had upmarket Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, the popular, not-at-all-glossy women’s weeklies, the sprightly Honey — nice but rarely naughty — and Nova, a supersmart, feminist magazine too rarefied to be mainstream.
The tagline for the TV ad that Saatchi and his crew came up with emphasised the defining preoccupation: ‘Cosmopolitan, the sensational new magazine for women who are interested in men, love, passion, food, men, travel, films, beauty, themselves . . . and men.’
Although sex was not mentioned, the implied meaning is clear. This image shows a bed-ridden couple, in satin sheets, in a beautiful bedroom.
This iconic image from 1970s glamour was on the cover of March 1972. It featured a bold, red-on-blue model, with long, straight, blonde hair, and maximum cleavage.
And the coverlines confirmed the rumours that sex-mad Cosmo, hot on our shores from America, where it was first published, was about to cause ‘morality’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse conniptions.
Take, for example, ‘I was a sleep around girl’. What young woman — or indeed man — could resist reading that? Or ‘How to turn a man on when he’s having problems in bed’. This is what I meant.
Then there was the celebrity exclusive: ‘Michael Parkinson talks about his vasectomy’, cheekily billed as ‘the most beautiful thing a man can do for a woman’.
Linda said if there is one person to thank for the worldwide phenomenon that Cosmopolitan became – it is infamous American editor Helen Gurley Brown (pictured)
Jilly Cooper (a popular columnist but not yet best-selling author) figured out why stars like Roy Jenkins and David Niven, the unattractive deputy leader of Labour at that time, have become great friends. Did she actually road test them? Or was that speculation? You’d have to read the magazine to find out.
Over the ensuing decades, Cosmo’s content broadened significantly — campaigning for more female representation in Parliament and the workplace, encouraging women to become tech savvy and calling for domestic violence to be taken more seriously by police and the Government. But it was its sexual exuberance that defined it — and without it, Cosmo would have run out of steam.
If there is one person to thank for the worldwide phenomenon that Cosmopolitan became — with editions everywhere from India to Kazakhstan — it is infamous American editor Helen Gurley Brown. Her 1962 scandalous bestseller Sex and The Single Girl was also written by her. Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood starred in the film.
Helen once told me that if you were single and having sex in the early 1960s and there was no marriage proposal in sight, conventional wisdom was that ‘you might as well put your head in the oven’. She wanted to change all that — and she did.
Sex was just as legal for women and men as it was for men
‘Marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life,’ she said. ‘During your best years you don’t need a husband.’ Given that she remained happily married to her one husband for 51 years, before he died aged 93, this might seem disingenuous. But I think she meant that if you marry too young, you’ll miss out and may regret it.
Helen was Helen the U.S. editor. We each chose our own route, but her philosophy permeated every page. One phrase she coined that you will know is ‘Having It All’. For Helen it meant ‘love, sex and money’ — the money courtesy of a career (and possibly a rich man, too) — but kids were never mentioned. She didn’t want them, and they barely featured in Cosmo.
When later generations misconstrued Helen’s original notion and began to see ‘Having It All’ as incorporating a relationship, a career and children — and unsurprisingly found it all rather overwhelming — Helen got a lot of flak. The 1970s proved to be a landmark decade for women — and Cosmo was at the centre of it all, reporting on such defining moments as the passing of the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts. We had Mrs Thatcher, our first female prime minister by the end of that decade.
At the same time the sexual revolution was hotting up with women huddling around mirrors at ‘getting to know your vagina’ classes. Ann Summers’ first sex shop was initially aimed at men but it quickly switched to a female-oriented market, making crotchless knickers a specialty.
The Hite Report, a ground-breaking survey on women’s sexuality, told the world what women already knew but were embarrassed to admit — that penetrative sex doesn’t always end in orgasm. Cosmo thought this important information was for men.
Linda (pictured), said that some of the best moments in her life were when the Cosmo formula was shaken up, such as when Bob Geldof got on the Christmas cover for the year of Live Aid.
Everything had a sensual slant, even when I was promoted as food and decorating editor. On one occasion I was sent to recreate Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in London’s Hyde Park, featuring two well-dressed men and a naked woman on a lunchtime picnic outing, recipes included. After the photographer had started to shoot, police showed up. Fortunately, they gave us the image that we requested.
Another new concept at the magazine was the naked male centrefold, a larky riposte to Playboy’s nude pin-ups. Burt Reynolds is probably Cosmo’s most famous male nude. Published in 1972, it was an image that was quintessential Burt: the moustache, the smile, the charm, a cigar — and a judicious use of shadow.
Paul du Feu from Wales, well-known for his marriage to Germaine Greer, became the first British male centrefold that year. He joked that by appearing in the magazine, he was ‘striking a blow for male servitude’.
As Cosmo light-heartedly declared to shocked moralists: ‘We think the real reason why many girls are annoyed at being considered “sex objects” is that they weren’t, until recently, permitted to return the compliment.’ It was hard work persuading men to strip off in those days and we were never convinced readers cared much about seeing boys in the buff. In a matter of years, the centerfolds had been dropped.
In order to increase awareness for testicular carcinoma, it was several decades before the two were reincarnated together with Everyman. As a result Princess Anne’s son-in-law Mike Tindall, Alex James of Blur, Strictly’s Bruno Tonioli and dozens more all dared to bare.
Cosmo did not encourage promiscuity, even though she was accused. What it said was that young women were as entitled to enjoy sex as young men, and say yes if they wanted to without being labelled a ‘slut’.
The female orgasm took centre stage with articles like ‘Orgasm — the most over-exposed sexual worry’, ‘Men fake orgasms, too’ and ‘Are those sex tips really necessary?’. As Aids was looming over me when I first became editor of the magazine in 1985, I decided to relax on my sexual freedom-for-all.
It changed lives — there was nothing like it
The controversial cover line I was most proud of was ‘Smart girls carry condoms’. The idea was to make young women sexually active realize that Pills might not be the best protection.
One of the best moments of my life was when the Cosmo formula got shaken up. I remember when Bob Geldof appeared on the Christmas cover in the year of Live Aid. He held his baby girl close to his chest. We called him Santa Bob. Helen did not like it, but by this time Cosmo’s UK success meant she mostly left us to get on with it.
Every successive editor was charged with helping young women navigate the changing sexual landscape. When Marcelle d’Argy Smith succeeded me as editor in 1990, by which time Aids appeared less of a threat to the straight and careful, she declared, on the cover: ‘We’re all at it — Sex is back!’ She also appointed a political editor, combining smart and sexy.
Cosmo magazine was an affordable glossy mag when I was growing up. Young women couldn’t wait for the latest edition — though often you’d discover your boyfriend had nicked it to read himself. This was how we (and men) learned about the importance of relationships.
Helen would most likely turn in her grave with the current form. Farrah Strorr created the cover for 2018, which featured an overweight, tattooed model of body inclusivity. Helen was a very overweight woman who ate little and exercised almost constantly.
Today’s world is quite different. Cosmo must adapt to new media like social media and dating apps.
Sales of glossy magazines are down in the meantime. I recognise that digital diversification is essential, but for me there’s nothing quite like curling up on the sofa with your brand new glossy magazine and a glass of wine.
That said, I can’t help wondering if it’s me who’s showing her age or if Cosmo has rather forgotten its mainstays — love, men and sex will always be topics we want to know more about.
For all the easily accessible info available on the internet, I think young women need as much — if not more — help navigating the tricky waters of relationships in 2022 as they did 50 years ago.