Getting to know Amy 

Between the Lines

You may think you know Amy Alkon, simply from reading her irreverent Advice Goddess column in the Independent. But you might be surprised.

You'll nod knowingly to learn Alkon lives in the shadow of Hollywood, surrounded by jet-setters. Of course she'd want to be at the epicenter of pop culture — until she says she can't stand how many stars live in their own dream world and are unapproachable.

You wouldn't be shocked to hear that Alkon loves designer clothes, given how she's minutes from the super-elite shopping mecca of Rodeo Drive. Yet she brags about her top-end skirt costing only $10 and her designer jacket just $25, saying she buys almost everything on eBay or at consignment stores.

You'd assume Alkon must be addicted to the beach, since she lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Venice, steps from the Pacific sand and beautiful people. But then you see how light-skinned she is, and you can't argue when she says, "I'm obviously never out in the sun." She also drives a 2004 Honda compact hybrid, boasting that "it still gets 65 miles a gallon, and the gas cost me only $227 for all of last year."

In other words, don't assume anything about Amy Alkon. You'd most likely be wrong.

During the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention last weekend in Tucson, Ariz., my idea was to talk with Amy and share it here, knowing she has a loyal Indy following. Men say to me, "My (wife, girlfriend, partner) doesn't know it, but I always read the Advice Goddess." Women also say they look for it every week but don't tell their significant others.

Almost any subject can make it into Alkon's often-racy columns, starting with sex but including all kinds of relationship issues. You never know what kind of blistering, peppery responses Amy will come up with next, one reason she appears in about 100 newspapers, mostly alternatives like us.

In reality, though, Alkon's comments aren't just spontaneous quips. She describes most of her philosophy as "science-based" and often checks with experts for input. She receives about 400 letters a week, goes through them rapidly and responds to all that have contact information. She says it's easy "picking the best ones" for each column, covering a variety of topics and problems. If someone has abuse issues, Alkon directly provides instant options for help.

She's been doing this in some form for two decades. After growing up outside Detroit (another surprise) and going to the University of Michigan, she graduated from New York University. Drawn to journalism and writing, she interned for United Press International in Washington, working with legendary political reporter Helen Thomas. But news wasn't her passion.

Alkon's life changed after she and two women friends began setting up shop (an actual sofa and chairs) every Saturday afternoon on a busy Manhattan street corner, offering free advice.

"If we charged anything, nobody would look at us," she says. "But it was free, so they lined up around the corner."

They were "discovered" via a feature in the New York Times, and in the mid-1990s she started an advice column in the New York Daily News. That led to syndication and success; now her papers are hanging on to her despite the bad economy. Alkon's self-esteem is high, but her ego stays in check. (Example: Her wardrobe and appearance are stylish, yet she mocks her gangly frame and red hair, saying, "I've been called Carrot Top in Drag.")

And the constant letters supply her motivation. Some are useless: "I hate it when guys say they want to have sex with somebody, but how can they tell her? It's not what they say, it's what they do." She has more patience with those facing battles for acceptance, "like cross-dressers and trannies." She likes the ones that make it easy to "show how absurd their behavior is," as readers know well.

She also prefers altweekly papers, "because it's a well-educated audience but also because I like vulgarity. ... I try to lay it all out in my columns. I don't like room temperature."

We could have talked longer, but she had to work on her next column (see Advice Goddess here). She actually plans on visiting Colorado Springs this fall to promote her upcoming book, I See Rude People.

We'll keep you posted, so you can see what Amy Alkon's like for yourself.



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