The chief qualification of an advice columnist has always been experience, no more and no less. An early advice columnist, or agony aunt, wrote in a 1789 issue of The New Lady’s Magazine that her qualifications were founded in “having been deeply engaged in numberless scenes,vareigated and opposite, serious and comic, cheerful and afflicting.” Pauline Phillips, the original Dear Abby, had a happy marriage and no professional writing experience to recommend her to the job, while her twin sister Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers in print) had worked only on a gossip column for the Morningside College’s Collegian Reporter. Dr. Laura’s doctorate is in physiology, not psychology. In short, the job of professional advice-giver has never required accreditation.
In “A Magazine of Her Own?” Margaret Beetham describes the early advice columnist as “a female figure who was mature but not ‘old’, and who treated her correspondents’ problems with the attention due to equals.” The agony aunt’s authority was as firm as it was delicate—like the female relation for whom she was named, the columnist offered moral guidance from a familiar but removed perspective. Readers could trust her. She gave them the straight dope.
Which words bring us to Ashley Dupre, Eliot Spitzer’s former ladypal and author of “Ask Ashley”, an advice column published in the New York Post. The column launched on December 13th with a debut set of correspondence and a promo video of Dupre wearing a skirt suit and glasses. “Take it from me,” she says over a pulsing hip-hop beat. “There’s nothing better than learning from someone else’s experiences.”
Except, possibly, learning from your own. Born Ashley Youmans, Dupre grew up in an upper middle-class family on the Jersey Shore. By most accounts she led a happy-ish childhood and moved to New York at 19 hoping to develop a singing career. She did not plan on becoming an escort, nor was she aware that Client 9 was the governor of New York (Spitzer used the pseudonym “George Fox” to book hotel rooms.)
From the moment she was outed Dupre has come across as well as she possibly could in the circumstances. The Times described her as soft-spoken and good-humored; she is articulate and likable in television appearances. She also turned down $1 million to appear in Hustler magazine. These are all demonstrable virtues. The question of who Dupre is and how she wound up a prostitute does not, in the end, seem difficult to answer: She was a resourceful babe who wanted money and was capable of making cruddy decisions. This describes a lot of people.
The outrage at Dupre’s reinvention seems to stem from disgust at the fact that a former escort is being granted any kind of public forum beyond MySpace blogs. (Let us not forget that Spitzer kicked off his post-governor career by signing on to write a column for Slate.) And when we talk about an advice column we are talking about the persona of its author, and in Dupre’s case, the persona is weirdly likable. The tone of her advice is positive and sensible, she occasionally dishes out tough love (“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Katie, but he’s not going to choose you”) and her decrees—size doesn’t matter, wine is romantic, don’t fix what isn’t broken—are as sound as they are trite, as is appropriate to the format. Specificity — the idea of doling out real help to flailing individuals—is only the nominal concern of an advice column; the imperative has always been to maintain alevel of universality that allows every reader to take home something from each question (and its response). In their insistent vagueness, advice columns are not unlike horoscopes.
The content of Dupre’s advice is less important than its provenance. One is banal, the other fascinating. When Brian N., 39, asks Dupre to name a no-fail gift he can purchase for his wife,she responds that there is no such thing. “Women are really not as complicated as men think. If we love you, it doesn’t take much.” To Meredith, 40, who worries that her daughter may be getting into trouble, Dupre advises good communication. To a guy whose girlfriend thinks he’s cheating, Dupre notes that “Trust is earned.” If her advice is solid, it’s also boring. But Dupre herself is not.
Are there haters? There are always haters. “There is NOTHING in life this a$$ can teach me,”wrote commenter didn’tneedtoseethat on Perez Hilton, while mteach23 asked “Who in the world would give this slut the opportunity to write for the NY post? are you guys seriously??” Both pundits miss the point. There’s nothing anyone can teach anyone in the context of an advice column. The appeal of Dupre lies in the implied scope and salacity of her wisdom. Readers will see in her suggestions mostly what they want to see, along with a pinch of what stings. This has always been the agony aunt formula. “Esteem alone will not make a happy marriage,” advised a”Letter of Advice to a Lady” in a November 1770 issue of The Ladies Magazine. “Passion must also be kept alive…”
As Dupre reframes it for the twenty-first century, “Sometimes it’s good to be a bad girl.”