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When I joined Cosmopolitan magazine in 1999, I entered a world of women who wouldn’t settle for anything less than a multiple orgasm (effort, planning and strong PC muscles are key, in case you still believe the MO is an urban legend). They knew exactly where to locate their partner’s perineum and how to rock clitoris against pelvis. Every once in a while, they would confidently slip into their string bikinis and grill burgers for their men.

photoYes we were all born in the land of Kama Sutra, but we have grown up in a country that even in 2012 doesn’t allow its women any sexual freedom. Imagine the revolution Cosmopolitan fuelled in Indian bedrooms in the 1990s. Suddenly, access to a step-by-step guide to finding your G-spot was just a subscription away (plus you got a free fuchsia bag or its equivalent). In those days my key brief was to sex up the magazine’s Indian edition (sounds almost surreal, doesn’t it?).

My favourite article is still a first-person account, from the UK edition, of a woman who had sex every day for a month and chronicled the effect it had on her relationship and her skin (both improved dramatically, of course).

Everybody knows that men have always loved Cosmopolitan as much as women, thanks to its touchy-feely attitude. But the magazine was more than a sex manual. It was your guide to acquiring skills at work and nurturing your relationships with friends; it had ideas/suggestions to face any googly life flung your way. At least one article addressed your inner, emotional anxieties. Every month, Cosmopolitan’s writers hunted down new ways to beat your body issues. Self-confidence, the magazine believed, was as important as sex drive. Be your Fun, Fearless, Female self, and to hell with the naysayers. It was a message that will always be relevant to women. It was also an attitude I developed there and one that still serves me well after all these years.

Cosmopolitan’s defined-to-the-last-detail, successful global formula was all thanks to its legendary editor Helen Gurley Brown, who died earlier this week. Mad Men’s two key female characters Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway were part-inspired by her.

Indian women could learn a lot from Brown’s sexual appetite, her work ethic, her ability to hit life’s hardships for a six and her belief that while it is fun to have men around us (and they are not the enemy), we must always be self-reliant. “Don’t use men to get what you want in life. Get it yourself," she famously said.

At 90, Brown still came to her Eighth Avenue office (more pink and animal-print boudoir than office), all dressed up in blingy jewellery, stockings, short dresses or skirts that matched her eye-popping bright lipstick, almost every day. Until her husband of 51 years, the successful movie producer David Brown, died in 2010, he picked her up from work every evening. Yes for all that talk of sex, Brown was monogamous for the biggest part of her life.

photoWhether or not Brown’s brand of bad-girl/subversive feminism actually helped improve women’s lives has been debated for decades (critics inevitably drew comparisons between her cult 1962 book Sex And the Single Girl and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique published the year after). The obituaries written this week have been similarly divided. For me, Brown will always be a rock star who made it to the top with hard work, brilliant ideas, and a cool man by her side. She was definitely an inspiration for my young professional self.

By the time I met Brown, she was a cheerleader for Cosmopolitan’s international editors (the magazine now has 64 editions, up from 47 when I worked there). She wrote me, and every other Cosmopolitan editor, a personal note every month sprinkled liberally with words such as “sensational", “super", “bravo!" and “terrific". Her October 2000 letter to me, after the magazine’s local edition finally featured its first Indian (Malaika Arora) on the cover, simply ended with: “Priya, you are a good editor." (I still can’t stop smiling when I read that).

Brown referred to all her female colleagues as Pussycat. Megan Tully, who worked in Hearst Corp.’s international office from 1999-2001, recalls how Brown would always come up to her when she was at the copy machine. “She would always say the same thing... ‘Pussycat, you are such a pretty girl but you would be so much prettier if you would stand up straight.’ Whenever I find myself slouching, I always think of her saying that. I was just 22 at the time," says Tully in an email. That is vintage Helen Gurley Brown.

Write to me at lounge@livemint.com

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