Maya Van Wagenen's Popular: Vintage Wisdom For A Modern Geek

Maya Van Wagenen is the 15-year-old author behind Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek. The book is a memoir based on her 8th grade social experiment, in which she followed the advice in a 1950s popularity manual for the entire school year.maya van wagenen popular interview

In a recent interview, Maya spoke with us about how she came to follow Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide, and how the experiment changed her life forever!

Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide was first published in 1953. Cornell, who was a teenage fashion model in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote the book to coach girls on confidence and poise, and dish out advice on dating, hosting get-togethers and more, with the goal of helping girls become popular.

Years before Maya's birth, her father had stumbled upon an old, used copy of the book at a thrift store.

"As a historian he saw it as a unique piece of vintage pop culture," Maya explained.

Her dad picked up the book and brought it home. It was forgotten for a while, until the summer before Maya began eighth grade, when Maya's parents found the book while cleaning out their home office.

"My mom handed it to me with the incredible idea to follow Betty's advice all through the nine months of the school year and keep a journal about what happened," Maya said.

Though she was a bit hesitant, Maya decided she'd take on the challenge. She'd never been one to make waves, and had been bullied when she was younger.

"Looking through the book, I definitely had my doubts as to whether or not it would have a positive effect," Maya admitted. "As far as I could see, drawing attention to myself would only make things worse. It was only when I realized I had nothing left to lose that I decided to give it a try. It was too wonderful an opportunity to pass up."

Maya, an avid writer, felt it was natural to document her experience following the Popularity Guide throughout the year. She didn't expect that the writing process would be play such a pivotal role in her transformation.

"One thing I was not prepared for was the profound shift in the way I looked at my life and myself," Maya said. "When I wrote, I became the hero of the story I was living. Being both author and protagonist in real time gave me courage on the days when I wanted to give up."

Maya didn't start following the Popularity Guide with any goals in particular. She simply aimed to document how her life would change over the course of the year. Over those months, Maya learned things she never expected.popular betty cornell monica van wagenen

"When I began the experiment, I didn't have a real definition of popularity," Maya explained. " Never having experienced it, my only picture of it was learned from books, movies, television shows, and watching those who I thought had already achieved that all-elusive status. What I saw tended to be shallow, superficial, exclusive, and mean."

But Betty Cornell's writing painted popularity as something entirely different.

"Then there was Betty Cornell's definition, something that was gained through overcoming shyness, building self-confidence, reaching out to others, and presenting yourself in a way that made you feel confident," Maya said. "I realized that she had tapped into something timeless and universal: the definition of true popularity."

Long after her experiment was completed, lessons from the Popularity Guide still stay with Maya.

"While I leave the girdle and pantyhose at home, I try to carry with me the most important piece of advice I learned from Betty Cornell wherever I go," she said. "Real popularity isn't based on bullying, peer pressure, or hierarchal structures. It comes from being kind, accepting, and inclusive."

After writing her book, Maya had the opportunity to meet Betty Cornell in person. She described the experience as "phenomenal."

"She and her family are so wonderful, supportive, and live the message of Betty's book," Maya said. "It has been so amazing to share this unique connection with them."

The publication of Popular even led to an unabridged republication of Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide in both the United States and the United Kingdom earlier this year!

A movie version of Popular is currently in the works with Dreamworks Studios. Maya was shocked when she heard someone was interesting in making a film out of her real-life story.

"I was blown away," she said. "I never dared to hope anyone would enjoy or even be able to relate to my journal, let alone be interested in making it into a film. Everything that's happened with Popular has been one amazing surprise after another."

Interested in Popular: Vintage Wisdom For A Modern Geek? Check it out on Amazon here!

If you're an aspiring writer, also be sure to join our community at Sweety High to share your thoughts and speak with other girls who love writing!