Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek

BOOK: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek
11.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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A Penguin Random House Company


Copyright © 2014 by Maya Van Wagenen

Introduction copyright © 2014 by Betty Cornell Huston


Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.


CIP Data is available


ISBN 978-0-698-15341-7


The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their contents.


With the exception of the author’s siblings, the names of the children and most adults, as well as physical details, mentioned in the book have been changed in order to respect their privacy.


To all those who’ve sat alone at the edge of the playground.
This book is for you.



(or how this whole thing came to be)

Figure Problems


Modeling Tricks

Skin Problems & Makeup

Clothes & What to Wear Where

Good Grooming & Away From Home

Money (How to Earn Extra) & On the Job

Popular Attitude: Look Pretty–Be Pretty,
Are You Shy? & Personality

It’s a Date & Be a Hostess



I’m Betty Cornell!

I wrote Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide in 1951. I was twenty-four. Pedal pushers were the hottest fashion trend. They hit just below the knee and were the shortest shorts around. Pleated skirts had hemlines that often fell to the ankle, and many girls knit crewneck sweaters themselves, which were all the rage. Miniskirts were still more than a decade away, and skinny jeans and crop tops were unheard of.

If you wanted a change for your hair, you got a reverse perm at the beauty salon. (There were no boxes of hair color at the drugstore, because no one dyed their hair!) To style my hair, each evening I would pin it up in rag curlers, stuffed with Kleenex to give more volume, go to bed, and wake up in the morning with the perfect pageboy hairstyle.

But today, things have changed. I walk around town and see hair in hues of blues and pinks and the fashions are more revealing. While I have witnessed many fashion trends that were considerably less modest than what I wore growing up, I have been around long enough to recognize that a huge part of fashion is pushing the limits of the past. The more things have changed, it is interesting that the core motivation to outdo the previous generation clearly remains the same, just as it was when I wrote my book. It is comforting for me to know that even though I am no longer a prominent part of the fashion world, the end goal is still the same even if the product is not.

My most vivid memories of publishing my Teen-Age Popularity Guide are of how flattered I felt whenever I received letters from teenagers telling me how much they had learned by reading my book. They told me about their clothes, their hair, and their parties—I loved hearing from them.

However, I was surprised many years later by another letter my book brought me. And this time, it was by e-mail and turned out to be the most heartwarming and profound. It came from Maya Van Wagenen in April of 2012, and she told me that I had changed her life! She had used my book for tips and hints on how to deal with the challenges she was facing in school. Remarkably she used advice I wrote decades ago and applied it in today’s world. I was so delighted to know that my book had withstood the test of time and was still providing help to teenagers.

When I finished reading Maya’s book—this book you are about to read, too—I felt a cascade of feelings: pride, love, satisfaction, and happy memories. It amazed me to see Maya tell her tale with such knowledge, poise, and grace. Over the years, I have seen many good grooming and fashion trends come and go and, on rare occasion, return years later with modifications to fit the new generation’s taste. But I never thought when I was writing my book that the advice I offered would be made relevant sixty years later through the eyes of a new, young writer.

I began my career as a model and then found great success as an author. Maya is starting her career as an author, but she is already a model of courage and confidence for her generation and generations to come.


(or how this whole thing came to be)


“School is the armpit of life,” my best friend Kenzie once told me. Amen. My school is no exception. Walk through the scratched glass doors on that first day and your life becomes a series of brutal and painful encounters: being called a dick by the football player who sits near you in science, standing in a bra and granny panties in front of your gym locker that you can’t open while the girls around you giggle and point, crying in the bathroom because you didn’t know it was possible for your heart to hurt this much. There is one thing, though, that can help you navigate this sweaty, smelly underarm, and that is a careful understanding of how the social food chain is organized.


(From patricians to plebeians)

10 Volleyball Girls

9 Football Faction

8 Rich Gang Members (including More-Popular Girls Who Dress Seductively)

7 Band Geeks

6 Choir Geeks

5 Goth Art Chicks

4 Less-Popular Girls Who Dress Seductively

3 Pregnant Teens (We have two right now, a seventh and an eighth grader.)

2 Computer Geeks (There are hardly any.)

1 Library Nerds (who read constantly and love Japanese comics)

0 The Ignored (sixth graders)

-1 Social Outcasts

-2 Teachers

-3 Substitute Teachers

You are categorized by where you spend your time and with whom you do, and do not, associate. I fall into the Social Outcast group, the lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be there. I’m joined in my lowly negative-digit station by my close friend and confidant Kenzie. For the most part, it’s a quiet, monotonous, invisible existence. That is, until you get noticed and preyed upon by someone in any of the tiers above you.

So how do those at the top work the class system to their advantage?

There are magazine articles and self-help books about what to wear, what to say, how to behave, and who to be friends with. In fact, long before I was even born, my father picked up a book at a thrift store. The faded cover was old and torn, but “There was something about it,” he told me. He thumbed through the pages until he came upon the title:
Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide
. It was written in 1951, and was full of tips and advice on how to achieve what seemed to be the unachievable: improving one’s social status. My dad said he found himself laughing right there in the store at some of the outdated ideas. It being an interesting piece of vintage pop culture, and he being my father, he bought it right away.

For a long time the book sat in his office (the “chamber of curiosities”) at our house in Brownsville, Texas. It was gathering dust in a cardboard box sandwiched between a World War I helmet and a carved stone skull from some tribe in Mexico.

It was waiting to be discovered.

 . . . . . . .

As luck would have it, the book did not want to remain hidden. When my parents decided to clean out Dad’s office (personally, I believe they made the whole mess angrier) Mom opened the box and rediscovered Betty Cornell’s book. She wasn’t sure what to do with it, so she handed it off to me, Maya, “Caretaker of All Stuff No One Wants, but Won’t Get Rid Of.”

I saw
Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide
as nothing more than a quirky book with advice along the lines of “Don’t wear makeup on your eyes, instead use Vaseline,” and “Close your pores with ice cubes,” and “All girls should wear a girdle.”

It was written by a former teen model who promised that, with a little hard work, poise, polish, and popularity were easily attainable for anyone.


I almost laughed.

That was when my mom had the idea—an amazing, terrifying, once-in-a-lifetime idea. “Maya, you should follow the advice this year, in eighth grade, and write about what happens.”

My immediate answer was no. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrifying. Since when had I (outwardly) cared about being popular anyway? But my mom planted a seed that day. Her comment was like one of those zits that starts out small, then gets really big and seems to never go away, no matter how many times you pop it.

A few days later, flipping through the book (yet again), I discovered this:

You will only make the situation worse if you take a negative attitude, if you shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, after all, who cares?” Basically somebody does care. You care. You care, because like everyone else on this planet you want to be liked, you want to be popular, you want to be a girl who gets around. You want to have a crowd to pal around with, a few exciting dates, and at least one boy who thinks you are about the most terrific female ever. If you say that you don’t, you are really only fooling yourself. You are certainly not fooling others.

The whole universe stood at attention.

Betty Cornell’s book was published over sixty years ago, but somehow through the vast stretch of time and space, she saw what I secretly, desperately yearned for. More than that, she promised to help me get it.

I knew my life would never be the same.

 . . . . . . .

And so, I embark on my grand experiment. Every month of this school year I will follow Betty Cornell’s advice on one of the topics in her book: dieting, hair, makeup, posture, and attitude, among others—no matter how embarrassing or complicated. I’ll start with the easiest chapters first, the challenges that people won’t notice right away. And then, month by month, I’ll step it up, until I’m light-years away from my comfort zone.

I will take notes during the school day about reactions, thoughts, and anything else that happens. Upon returning home I will use those notes to help me remember the details and write about them in the most accurate way I possibly can. This is a fantastic literary exercise, and maybe it will help me to achieve my dreams of someday being an author. Hopefully journaling about the positive and negative things that happen will be empowering, showing that they are all part of a story that has begun to write itself. Maybe it will make it less scary.

I definitely have my work cut out for me. That is, if I’m not already beyond help. I am 5’2” with light brown skin that breaks out on a regular basis. I am gawky, slouchy, and just a little bit lumpy. I have nonexistent hips and a chest almost as flat as the cover of Betty Cornell’s book. I wear glasses and braces. I do all my clothes shopping at Walmart and second-hand stores. I spend more time on algebra than I do on my hair.

My messy notes in Betty Cornell’s Book

. . . . . . .

I should probably take a moment to define what the word
means as best I can. It’s a complicated word. I know what it’s not. It’s not sitting alone, or being made fun of. It’s not feeling ashamed of how you look and constantly wanting to hide in corners, wishing you could disappear. It’s not what I feel right now.

Hopefully by the end of eighth grade, I will know what popularity is. But not only will I be able to define it, I will have experienced it.

Maybe things will change. Can popularity advice from more than half a century ago still be relevant? I’ll find out. Crazier things have happened, right? Men have walked on the moon, and scientists have found a way to grow square watermelons.

For now, Betty Cornell has become my new soul mate, and I am married to her every word. For better or worse.

B.C. (Before Cornell)

BOOK: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek
11.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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