She began to make changes, wore pearls, dressed up and even tried a girdle.
Little things suggested by Cornell began to make sense.
Before the “Popularity Guide,” Van Wagenen says she’d spend five minutes on her hair. Following the book, she began to put time into her appearance, and a classmate commented that she’d “finally dropped the stupid ponytail.”
Some reaction to her new habits was hurtful, but documenting it seemed to help.
“There were times people would say mean things and it would make me feel really bad,” confessed Van Wagenen, who was a 13-year-old eighth-grader in Brownsville, Texas, at the time. But writing about them turned them into “hilarious stories” where she was “able to laugh at these things that were genuinely hurtful at first.”
“These bullies became characters, and I became a character as well and that was really empowering,” Van Wagenen said, adding: “I would say, ‘Well, what would I want my character to be doing right now?’”
Besides changing her appearance, Cornell’s guide also encouraged Van Wagenen to reach out to others and be more outgoing.
As she made connections, kids began to gravitate to her. Soon she realized, “Everyone around you is like you, and they’re looking for friendship, and so it’s good to step up and to be that person, that kind person.”
As Van Wagenen’s experiment was working, her father went to work to track down Betty Cornell, now 79 and living in Audubon, Pa. The two met and Van Wagenen discovered that Cornell still follows the principles of the book herself.
“It was wonderful to share that connection. She said it was great to have her work validated,” Van Wagenen said.
Van Wagenen’s experiment has just been published in a memoir called “Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek” (Dutton Juvenile), geared to seventh graders and up. “Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide” has been re-issued as a companion book, and Cornell also wrote the forward to “Popular.”
Hollywood also likes Van Wagenen’s story: She’s optioned the movie rights to DreamWorks.
Van Wagenen, now in 10th grade and living with her family in Statesboro, Ga., speaks with a confidence and wisdom that seems beyond her years. She still breaks out the pearls on special occasions because they’re “empowering,” but there’s one thing she’s not keeping: the girdle.
“I definitely left the girdle in the drawer,” she said.