How one 15-year-old girl stood up to bullies
Two years ago Maya Van Wagenen was a social outcast. After picking up a 1950's guide to popularity, everything changed.
Published 11/06/2014 | 02:30
Maya Van Wagenen is one popular girl. Time magazine has hailed her as one of the world's 16 most influential teenagers, along with the Taliban-defying Malala Yousafzai.
Dreamworks has bought the movie rights for her first, bestselling book, making her the youngest non-actor ever to make a feature deal with a film studio. She has more than a thousand Twitter followers, including Willow Shields, aka Primrose Everdeen of The Hunger Games. The other day, she introduced herself to Morgan Freeman when they were both appearing on the Today show. "That was fun," she says. What was he like? "He was very impressed."
Who wouldn't be? By any standards Maya (15) is remarkably successful and self-possessed. But what makes it all the more surprising is that two years ago she was a social outcast at school: shy, unstylish, overweight, bullied by her classmates and all but friendless.
In desperation, her mother suggested she follow the tips in a 1950s popularity guide and keep a diary of the results. Not only did the experiment transform the way Maya was viewed at school, but the memoir she wrote, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, won her a two-book deal from Penguin with a reported $300,000 (€220,000) advance.
When we meet, Maya is composed and friendly. She sits very straight, and both looks and speaks like someone much older than her years.
While she finishes off a radio interview, I talk to her mother Monica (42), who seems understandably rather bewildered by the publicity whirlwind surrounding her daughter: "I just wanted to give her something else to focus on. Did I have any idea it would come to this? Not in a million years!"
Not only has the experiment transformed the lives and fortunes of the Van Wagenen family – Monica is now Maya's full-time manager, for one thing – you suspect it may also have a long-term positive impact on the way teenagers relate to one another. For, in an era of online bullying and acute status anxiety, Maya offers a radical reinterpretation of what it means to be popular.
"The definition of popularity so often portrayed in the media is that you have to be mean to the people lower down," she says. "But I don't think that is popularity. I think it's about being kind and being aware of other people and smiling."
The story begins 20 years ago, when Maya's father Michael, now a history professor, picked up Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide in a thrift store and bought it as a vintage curio. Written by a 20-something model and published in 1953, it offered often hilarious advice on make-up (Vaseline on the lids), hair ("your hair can make you or break you"), clothes (girdles are a must) and behaviour. For years, it mouldered on a shelf while he and Monica, formerly a social anthropologist, got on with raising their family – Maya, and her younger brother Brodie and sister Natalia, who is autistic.
Despite growing up in a warm family environment, Maya always had problems relating to her contemporaries. "I didn't know how to get along with little kids, so I just hung out with adults. I was very outgoing," she says.
But when Maya was six years old, her baby sister Ariana died of heart problems at just 99 days old. "My expectations of the world completely changed," she says, matter-of-factly. "Things I thought were permanent, weren't. I noticed the shift in pictures of myself pre-Ari and post-Ari. There's a completely different little girl."
At elementary school, she never fitted in: "I really struggled. There were days when I'd sit on the edge of the playground, waiting for recess to end, waiting to go back inside, where I wouldn't have to be so alone."
When she was 11, her father was offered a job by the University of Texas and moved his family from Utah to the border town of Brownsville. It was quite an upheaval. Across the Mexican border, the military and the drug cartels waged war, while at Maya's new school the police regularly carried out drug sweeps with sniffer dogs, and pupils had to carry mesh backpacks to ensure they weren't bringing weapons to school. Even in Maya's witty memoir it sounds a pretty terrifying place. For the target of the school's nastiest bullies, it must have been hell.
She skates lightly over what happened to her in her 6th and 7th grade, but there's a telling episode when she goes on a sleepover and is delighted when she wakes to find a moustache hasn't been drawn on her face.
Her survival strategy was to "fly beneath everybody's radar – stay quiet, keep that book in front of your face so that nobody can see you and hope it works". And does it? "No," she says. "If you hide, people make fun of you for hiding."
It was at this point that she rediscovered Betty Cornell's popularity guide, and her mother had the brilliant idea of challenging her to follow it. Maya recalls: "My first thought was: 'There is no way this is going to work. It's too outdated and I'm beyond help.' But then I thought: 'This can't get any worse.' Even if it just made things different, that might be something I could better cope with."
So every month, she slavishly obeyed a different chapter of Cornell's dated diktats on popularity – dieting, changing her hairdo. She came to school in long skirts, pearls ("a girl's best friend") and buckled shoes, and wore a hat and gloves to church.
Almost immediately, things started to change, not so much because she looked different, but because the experiment gave her the detachment to stop being afraid. Effectively, she made herself bully-proof.
"Suddenly I was a character, and it's okay if bad things happen to a character because that makes for funny stories," she explains.
"They knew they couldn't damage me any more, so the relationships changed. I think that's very impressive. The change that can happen in that relationship with the bully and the bullied is very powerful."
She took copious notes of her classmates' reactions. "I'd write them all down really tiny on the sides of my planner." At weekends, she wrote for "hours and hours" to keep up-to-date.
Her experiment really took off when she started trying to implement the behavioural rules defining polite 1950s society. Maya defines, hilariously, the rigid social hierarchy that ruled her school, from the Volleyball Girls at the top, going down via the Band Geeks, the Goth Art Chicks and the Library Nerds, past Maya and her fellow Social Outcasts all the way to the substitute teachers at the bottom, and no fraternisation allowed.
Betty Cornell, on the other hand, preached a message of polite friendliness to all. So Maya spent an agonising month trying to make friends with each discrete gang in turn. Her lunchtime efforts at fraternisation met with many rebuffs; but one day, walking down the hall, she realised that she knew the names of half of the people she passed: "And they all knew me. That blew my mind."
Towards the end of her experiment, she asked her classmates which of them considered themselves popular and was startled to discover that not even those at the top of the social ladder were confident they were liked.
She, on the other hand, was now perceived as popular. It was an eye-opening moment to realise that the Mean Girls model (back-stabbing your way to the apex of the social pyramid) doesn't actually work.
"You don't get picked on at the top of the hierarchy, but you don't feel good about yourself either. The confidence comes from breaking down the barriers and reaching out to other people," she says.
These days, the Van Wagenens live in the more salubrious environs of Statesboro, Georgia. Maya is at a new school where she has lots of friends as unashamedly "geeky" as she is. "It's a badge of honour to be a geek," she insists, revealing that she is a proud Trekkie and had a wonderful dream the other night about going dancing with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "And he said he fancied me. Mmm!" On Facebook, she lists Charles Dickens as her significant other. No wonder she has become a guru for other unconfident and picked-on teens who contact her to ask for her help.
She tells them to smile, to look approachable and to try to remember people's names. Which is not rocket science, but perhaps needs to be said in an era when teen socialising is mostly done on-screen.
Perhaps the strangest spin-off from the experiment is that Maya has become friends with Betty Cornell herself, now 86; indeed, Cornell's book has been reissued on the back of Maya's memoir. Whenever Maya has to tackle a difficult situation, she dons her pearls the better to channel what she calls her "Betty self".
"I get a lot of messages about pearls. They've become a symbol of the book, which is kind of neat," she says. "When I put them on, I remember to be that confident person, reach out to someone I don't know and remember to smile."
For the past century, girls in pearls have been associated with conformity; it seems clear that this image is due a radical revamp.