August 26, 2008

What’s Your Story?: Amy Alkon

By: Cheryl Miller

Amy Alkon doesn’t care if she hurts your feelings. Every week in “Ask the Advice Goddess,” a column syndicated in over 100 papers across America, Alkon delivers hilariously hard-nosed counsel to thousands of clueless souls. “For a man, it’s the size of a woman’s heart that counts—until her thighs approach the size of small Volkswagens,” she tells one housewife who worries her husband no longer finds her attractive. To a guy who keeps dating the “wrong” girl, Alkon opines: “Mistakes do happen. If you make one, admit it, don’t take it to the movies every Saturday night.”

So naturally, I’m more than a little intimidated when Alkon leans across the table and asks sweetly if I have “love problems.”

Alkon and I are at Hal’s, a laid-back bar and grill in Venice, California. With her long, curly red hair and dramatic, ruffled sweater, Alkon looks out of place among her fellow Californians, who are dressed almost to a man in comfy, if trendy sweats. But Alkon, who has an intense love affair with everything French—especially the fashion—still feels dowdy. She is a bit under the weather today, hence the jeans. “Normally, I wear an evening dress and a leather jacket everywhere,” she explains, half-apologetic. “Otherwise, I would just feel like I was dumpster diving.”

For an advice columnist, a judgmental streak is a necessity, so I ask Alkon what she thinks of her competitors in the field. “Boring” is her verdict, though she does confess a fondness for the outrageous Dan Savage and the decidedly more prim Judith Martin, a.k.a., Miss Manners. If the pairing seems strange, it makes a certain amount of sense when you talk to Alkon, a “live-and-let-live” libertarian with something of a potty mouth, who also happens to be a stickler for good, old-fashioned courtesy.

Alkon describes her peculiar political orientation as “personal responsibilitarian:” She’s fine with anything consenting adults are up for, so long as they accept the full consequences of their actions. She is fond of quoting her friend and mentor, the late Albert Ellis, the grandfather of cognitive therapy: “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.”

If that sounds slightly New Age-y, Alkon means it, with a vengeance—hence her often merciless advice. Quit whining about your needy girlfriend and man up! Lay off the Cheetos if you want guys to find you attractive, she rebukes her readers. Oh, and pay your own damn health insurance!

Alkon prides herself as an exemplar of “personal action.” When she wants something, she goes out and gets it. “I’m very driven at what I do,” she says. After finishing up at New York University’s “worthless undergraduate film school” in 1988, Alkon found herself unable to afford graduate school. So she went job-hunting, but she didn’t just send in résumés and wait for calls. Instead, she stalked the offices of New York advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, waiting for someone important to leave so she could hand him hand her résumé. The gambit worked, and she got work as a commercial producer.

Her job as an advice columnist came about similarly. As a prank—a kind of “visual joke,” as Alkon calls it—she and two friends from Ogilvy set up shop one Saturday afternoon on a street corner in SoHo. Dressed in black, they set up some folding chairs from the Salvation Army and a hand-made sign that read, “Free Advice From A Panel Of Experts.” People lined up around the block to tell the trio their problems. Soon the New York Times and NPR came calling, along with a deal for a column at the New York Daily News and a book. In 1994, Alkon and her friends published a collection of their columns, Free Advice: The Advice Ladies on Love, Dating, Sex, and Relationships. The other two members eventually quit, but Alkon kept on, and started her current column.

When she’s not solving the relationship problems of the hopelessly neurotic, Alkon is working on her second book, Revengerella: One Woman’s Battle to Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society (McGraw Hill, 2009). As the title suggests, the book has only a passing relation to the genteel etiquette guides of yesteryear. Alkon takes a more hands-on approach than Miss Manners or Emily Post would think proper. “It’s not just, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ but pieces where I go after people who are rude,” she explains. Alkon honed her pedagogical technique on her personal website, where she routinely metes out justice—in the form of “blogslappings”—to the uncivilized. Bad drivers get their pictures snapped with her ever-handy camera phone; “cell squawkers” have their numbers and personal business posted for all to see. She even tracked down her pink 1960 Nash Rambler with the help of friends and readers when it was stolen in 1999.

“You’re not allowed to steal my car!” Alkon cries when I ask her what on earth moved her to moonlight as a private detective. “I have a strong sense of justice,” she explains, which she attributes to her lonely childhood in Farmington Hills, a Detroit suburb. As the daughter of the only Jewish family in the neighborhood, Alkon was teased and shunned: “I was a small persecuted Jewish child. No one talked to me.”

The experience made her eager to prove herself, and Alkon found refuge in books. Now a life-long bookworm, she devours volumes on ethics, psychology, and neuroscience as research for her column. Her “outsider” status too, she believes, has made her more receptive to unpopular truths: “You go through a horrible time, and it gives you a different way of approaching the world than a nice, hunky-dory childhood.”

As opinionated as Alkon is, she refuses to be pigeonholed when it comes to politics: “I’m not Left or Right…I find both parties creepy.” When I ask if she voted in the recent primaries, Alkon hesitates, and then admits she voted for Barack Obama, but only because she wanted to vote “against Hillary Clinton.” She also cops to a brief Ayn Rand phase—“I was mostly insufferable during my college days,” she laughs—though she’s not entirely sure about the “libertarian” label. Still, she counts herself as a big fan of Reason and its editor, Matt Welch, a former Angeleno. She’s found the Right more welcoming than the Left, but, as a self-professed “godless harlot,” doesn’t care for the religious bent of the Republican party.

At times, Alkon’s “passion” for truth-telling has gotten her in trouble. In her one-on-one encounters, she takes some precautions: “I check first to see if they look armed. I’m in your face, but I’m not out of control.” In her column, however, she pulls no punches. “I try not to get gratuitously fired,” she says, but sometimes it can’t be helped. A handful of papers discontinued her column after she pronounced that “Sex isn’t special. Monkeys have it, and not because somebody gave them flowers and expensive jewelry.” “America, the puritanical,” she sighs. She’s also been unofficially “banned” from the features pages of the Los Angeles Times after rubbing some female editors the wrong way: “They’re very prissy.”

Whatever people might think, Alkon says, all that matters at the end of the day is that she’s “dug up the truth” and done the best writing she can. One of her favorite all-purpose rejoinders is “It’s called ‘self-esteem,’ not ‘what other people think of me esteem.’” And Alkon is not one to let her detractors slow her down. “I got the genes that said, ‘Run, run with the wind!’”

-Cheryl Miller is editor of Doublethink and a 2007 Phillips Foundation Journalism fellow.