Amy Alkon: Interview with the Advice Goddess
Turning psychology into comedy with a dash of old-fashioned common sense is literally a labor of love for Amy Alkon the Advice Goddess, whose weekly column on relationships is one of the most popular features in alternative news weeklies.
Few would seem better suited for the task: In person, Amy is as witty, sexy and energetic as she appears in print. The fact that she also has a deep streak of insight into the nature of romance and relationships makes her "Ask the Advice Goddess" an indispensable feature in 71 newspapers across the nation.
A native of Farmington Hills, Michigan, "the buckle of the rust belt," Alkon got her start writing an advice column for her high school paper. She attended the University of Michigan for three years, going on to attend New York University where she received a BFA degree in film and television.
Today, in addition to her weekly column, Alkon, 36, is a frequent guest on television shows such as Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect." She also working on the pilot of her own television show, with hopes of a debut next fall.
In a telephone interview from her home in Santa Monica, Amy offers her insights on writing, romance, the single life and why men shouldn't mention the size of their -- you know -- in a personal ad.
Downes: Many readers comment on how your column is so well-written. How did you develop as a writer?
Alkon: I've been writing my whole life. I feel like I have a weird outlook on life because I was a loser as a child and had no friends -- I just read and read and read. Then I started writing and it's been continous since then.
Downes: You use a lot of vivid images, humor and great metaphors. Do you spend a lot of time sharpening your column?
Alkon: Oh yeah. The funny thing is, some paper in Canada will contact me and say they need a column two weeks early for Christmas, but I'm lucky if I make my deadline! I'm completely into sharpening the words and metaphors, making sure it's funny and there's nothing clunky -- it's really important to me.
But I think like that in real life too -- people ask me if I think visually. Maybe I had too much "outcastness" as a child, but my head just seems to work that way.
Downes: Don't you think that a lot of people who are very successful feel...
Alkon: Feel that they were losers as a child? I think that's a lot of people's perspective. I never felt that I could blend with the rest of the world so I sort went "outside" where I was calm. I think if I had been cool and popular, I'd be married to some guy who owns a 7-11 now and be living in house like my parents'. I had a harder path, but now it's really fun doing what I do.
Downes: How did your column get its start?
Alkon: The way this all started was giving free advice with two girlfriends as kind of a joke in 1988 on a street corner in Soho in New York City. We wrote a book called "Free Advice." The three of us wrote it as the Advice Ladies and there were categories, "Love and Marriage," "Also Dating," and "Getting Rid of Your Jerk" -- and jerks can include both men and women.
I'm not a male-basher and that's what differentiates me from other people who write about relationships. Whatever the writers are -- male or female -- a lot of what's written involves hating the opposite sex. I feel more like, "can't we all get along?" Personally, I've always loved men.
(Amy notes later that after five years of street performance, a New York Times reporter did a story on the Advice Ladies which led to television shows and a book deal. Ultimately, Orla Healy, a features editor at the New York Daily News offered her a column. She then began "Ask the Advice Goddess" for the alternative press.)
Downes: But you're not afraid to step on peoples' toes in your column either...
Alkon: (Laughs) Or any other body part that comes to mind.
Downes: What do you strive for as a romance columnist? Do you have any central belief or philosophy of relationships?
Alkon: I think that there are two things that make a successful relationship. One, if there is something bothering you, talk to the other person right away, which means that you should articulate the problem to yourself first. And always speak to and treat the other person with love.
If you do those two things, you'll never have one of those horrible, naggy, play-toy relationships, unless of course you get the idea that you should tell the other person how to change. Women are usually more guilty of that than men.
Downes: You also, to quote Ann Landers, are good at telling people to "smell the coffee."
Alkon: Oh yeah, although I'd never say it that way. People write me and some of them are so dense! A lot of these problems are self-esteem problems. A lot of women have self-esteem problems and I attribute this to the fact that in the back of your mind, there's always this cultural notion that, hey, if it gets hard in the work world, you can always marry some guy and sit back and become a mom. But men don't think that they can marry someone and sit back and wear an apron. So men tend to think "who am I?" while too many women tend to think, "who am I with?"
But all you really have is yourself, and if you aren't evolved and interesting, then you're not going to be evolved and interesting to anyone else.
Downes: That's very astute. One thing I noticed in your column though, is that you seem to have a lot of timid men writing in who don't know how to approach the opposite sex.
Alkon: (laughs) It's partly the fault of the so-called feminists or Andrea Dworkins of the world who said, "we want men who aren't really men." So all these guys thought that they had to be Alan Alda. Yeah, maybe there are some of these horrible women who want that, but you're not a full person who acts on what you want, then you're not going to attract anybody as a man.
I believe also that you should proceed with courage (in courtship). But if someone doesn't like who you are, there's nothing you can do to sell them. So my philosophy in dating is just to be as much "me" as I can. Either they want who you are or they don't, and to try to change is silly and ultimately a losing proposition.
Downes: Sort of the "faint heart never won fair maiden" thing.
Downes: Was it hard selling your column at first?
Alkon: It was crawling around at all of these alternative newspaper conventions, begging people to look at my work. Yeah (laughs) it was horrible. But I really believed in it and realized I had to do it myself. It was rejected by all the major syndicators, not because they didn't like my work, but because the old, moldy, helmet-hair sisters, Ann Landers and Dear Abby, have all the real estate in all the mainstream papers. So the syndicators would tell me, "your work is good, but there's not enough room for two advice columns, let alone three, so forget it."
So, I just said I can do this, I can sell it, because I believe in myself. And I believe that's one of the secrets of getting things done -- having confidence even if something seems impossible. I had a friend who made a movie who told me that if he'd known how hard it was, he never would have even tried. So sometimes it pays to be naive.
Downes: Are there certain key things that men need to know as opposed to what women need to know to have a good relationship?
Alkon: I look at how men approach women sometimes and they use (inappropriate) sexual words, like putting the size of their -- you know -- in a personal ad. No woman's going to respond to that. It's not the first thing about a guy you want to talk about. It's not a good thing when a man wants to talk like that right off the bat.
In a bar, if some guy comes up with some line, it comes off as being pretty phony, like he's some kind of player, picking up different women every week. Even if you are that kind of guy, you don't want to come off that way. It's better just to walk over and say hi to someone and start a conversation.
Women who want to change men can be a big problem. Little things about men can bother us. For instance, I once had a boyfriend who dressed really badly. But to tell him that would have hurt his feelings and wouldn't have made him dress any better. So, what I did was buy him some clothes and tell him how fabulously sexy he looked in them. Or we'd see someone with nice shoes and I'd say "wouldn't those look great on you?" It was a way of being subtle and not horribly manipulative.
Women can only expect to influence the smallest things about a person, and sometimes not even that. But if you want to change more than that -- like if you aren't happy that he likes to watch football on the weekend -- you might as well just get a new guy, because you're going to make him unhappy, not doing what he likes to do. If you really care about someone, you don't want to bend him to your will. You want them to be happier because you're in their life.
Downes: What do women do that's a faux pas?
Alkon: Make-up abuse. You know, these women who look like they walked out of their house with an entire drug store on their face. I'm all for self-improvement, but if someone can touch your face and it crumbles, you've gone too far.
Downes: It's hard to imagine that you would be single for very long. Are you single by choice?
Alkon: Oh, I just broke up with my boyfriend. I'm newly single.
Downes: So are you going to look real hard for someone new, or take a break for awhile?
Alkon: Oh, I'm on the warpath. I'm trying to date heavily. It's hard though to find someone who's right for me because I'm not snobby, but I sit around and think about all of these life issues and I'm not going to be interested in going out with someone whose idea of conversation is "how about the Mets?" or whatever. I'm not interested in discussing Nietzsche either, but I want to be around someone who's relatively evolved in the way they behave in a relationship. I'm not looking for the over-40 market. But I would like someone who's tall -- over 6'1". I guy can have a face like a shoe as long as he's tall.
Downes: What about celebrities? You've been on TV a number of times...
Alkon: Actors are to be avoided. I'd rather shake hands with the plague first. Not all of them, but they're not the sort of ego in search of a landing place. A lot of actors are not very interesting. I'd much rather talk to the squirrelly guy who wrote the film than the actor who's out front and center.
Celebrities are a dime a dozen here in L.A. I just sat next to Rene Russo at lunch. If a star's sitting next to you, you might give a sideways glance, but you'd never ask for their autograph or anything like that.
Downes: What's the perfect person to have a relationship with?
Alkon: What do you mean?
Downes: What qualities are important? Is it humor or looks or communication?
Alkon: For me, what I asked for in my own personal ad was for a tall, evolved man of character who sits around thinking for a living and cares about making a difference in the world. I think that whatever it is that matters to you -- whatever your values are -- their values should resonate with you.