TODAY   |  April 15, 2014

Teen finds confidence with 1950s book advice

A teenager who followed the advice from a 1950s guide on how to be popular has now written her own book, “Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek,” and tells TODAY that some tips from the past remain relevant today.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> with a great story. a teenager who found confidence with help from a book that might surprise you. at the suggestion of her mom, maya van wagenen followed advice from a 1950s guide on how to be popular. this is a decision that pushed her comfort zone to the limit. take a look.

>> i am in the opinion that almost every teen needs a girdle. like everyone else on this planet, you want to be liked. you want to be popular. turn yourself inside-out as you would an old pocketbook. shake out the dust and tidy up the contents. the summer before my eighth grade year, we found " betty cornell 's teen-age popularity guide." my dad had bought the book over 20 years before thinking it was an interesting piece of vintage pop culture .

>> i can't even begin to tell you how many times i nearly threw that book away. i thought, i think i'll just give it to mya. she might be interested.

>> so my mom came up with the idea to follow the advice during eighth grade. i'd always wanted to be a writer, so she told me, you know, this is a great writing project.

>> mya's always struggled in school socially.

>> i had always struggled to make friends and i had always struggled to find confidence, so she'd hoped maybe this 1950s guide could have an effect on how i felt about myself.

>> it was not a book project as much as it was a survival project.

>> in betty cornell 's popularity guide, she basically gives advice on a series of different chapters and themes, and those include everything from figure problems to good grooming, dieting, going to a dance, all of that.

>> but as it kept going, i saw the things that she was doing. i saw the clothes that she was going to wear, the skirts, the gloves, the hats, that she was going to wear a girdle.

>> this is my girdle that i wore.

>> that's when i got really nervous.

>> it's not comfortable at all.

>> i worried that things were going to get worse for her and not better.

>> as my heels were, like, clicking on the sidewalk, it reminded me of, like, the drum beats of an execution. and so i was -- i was really nervous.

>> i would sit down with her and i would say maya , you have a lot of nerve, you have a lot of guts.

>> they would ask various questions about what i was doing and i always responded, well, it's for fun. that made it easier. so my dad, he was able to find betty cornell . i knew the face so well and i said oh, my gosh, it's betty ! you found betty !

>> this is the real you.

>> she went from sort of being this imaginary friend in my head who's like maya , you need to sit up straight. she was a real person and she's standing right there. this whole " betty cornell 's teen-age popularity guide" experiment truly did change her life.

>> but it's up to you when you read the book to decide whether or not it made me popular.

>> and maya van wagenen is with us now as the author of her own book fou. it's called "popular." " betty cornell 's teen-age popularity guide" has recently been republished. good morning to both of you.

>> good morning.

>> mii love this story. when i first read it, i thought this girl's got moxy, she's got courage. how did you work up the courage to do this?

>> a lot of it, i would fake it, hoping that a little bit of that confidence would, you know, spread. and so there were days when i would just be like hiding, shaking hands under the table and saying i've done other stuff, and so i worked up from like the least challenging to the most challenging things, and so that definitely helped.

>> all right, so we know you wore a girdle. you had the gloves, the hat. you dressed up. you didn't tell any of your friends at school that this was an experiment.

>> i did not.

>> so did they think you were off your rocker?

>> my friend would approach me and she's like, maya , this is really weird. this is really weird. what's going on? and it's like, well, it's for fun. they go no, this is really weird. you look like a substitute teacher. and so that was always, you know -- because you want to tell. because it makes sense. if only you understood what was going on. but it was -- definitely i didn't want to jeopardize any of the reactions.

>> i was going to say, middle school , i think we can all agree, is the worst.

>> definitely.

>> and the hardest. and to be different at all is so difficult. how were people's reactions? i mean, were they nice about it or not really?

>> there were both. i think in the beginning, it was really hard because, you know, people were like -- i had been very quiet for sixth and seventh grade, and then all of a sudden i'm wearing these outfits. so they were pretty shocked. and towards the end, they would approach me and they would go wow, you're really gutsy. you've got a lot of -- basically you've got a lot of courage to be doing that i really respect that.

>> let me get betsy in here. your mom betty cornell wrote this book. we saw her in the piece. she looks fabulous. she's 87 years old. what did she think when she finds out a young girl from across the country is not only reading her book, but taking it to heart?

>> well, i was able to give her the same e-mail that miaya sent me. she absolutely filled up. i think for her, she just couldn't believe that her advice was still helping somebody else.

>> well, it's true, because we laugh about some of the advice might be a little outdated, like putting vaseline on your eyelids instead of eye shadow . but you say it well, maya , in the book. some of it is truly timeless. what advice in your mind really stands the test of time?

>> i think the core of betty 's book is so much based on it's not as much about how you look and what you wear, although she says that's a key factor. mostly it's about the person you are and how you treat others. and i think that's the timeless message that i gained from the book and that can be gained from reading betty 's book.

>> and now you have a relationship. betty and betsy both. you know maya . you're following her career.

>> i am, i am.

>> i know you leave it in the book to find out if it worked, if you're popular. can i just say this? "time" magazine put you on their list of most influential teens in 2013 . and you've got a movie deal from this book from dreamworks, so i say, my dear, it worked. congratulations to you and give your mom