Donna Summer sang about them.
Thelma and Louise embodied them.
But Cameron Tuttle turned the idea of Bad Girls into a movement.
She wrote her first pink vinyl-covered Bad Girl’s Guide in the 90s. It’s now close to 8 years later, and what started as a “lark” is now a profitable franchise that includes several more books, an array of branded products, a successful on-line community and even a briefly-lived TV sitcom.
Cameron took some time from her badness to talk with me about being vaulted unexpectedly into the role of Bad Girl #1, her perspective on power and the responsibility that comes with it.
This is the complete transcript of our conversation.
Cameron Tuttle: I think the word power can be very dangerous actually. I think … except when you’re talking about personal power. And to me personal power is having the freedom to live the kind of life that you really want to live on a daily basis. But it always worries me when people starting talking about power because I don’t think it’s something that … I think if you’re focusing on the power part then you’re missing what’s really supporting that and …
I guess I would really have to break power down into sort of two categories. It’s really a combination of opportunity and responsibility. And whether you’re in politics or the arts or if you’re a teacher and you’ve got a classroom of you know, 35 twelve-year-olds or whatever it is … If you have a voice and access to aspire or influence people there’s a certain responsibility that goes with that and I think people often people focus on the power the power the power and that’s really missing the opportunity in my view. I certainly encountered a lot of those power hungry people in Hollywood I have to say. Whew!
Cathy Brooks: Let’s talk a little bit about your experience of the Bad Girl Guides … the cult favorites … being taken to the television screen. What was that experience like for you?
Cameron Tuttle: … It was the best of times … it was the worst of times … (chuckles). I had the opportunity to work with some people in developing a TV show, a 30 minute sitcom based on my books – The Bad Girl Guides – sort of capturing the lifestyle, the attitude, the sense of humor that the books convey. And, it was a really great learning experience for me in many ways. And it was a horrible personal experience.
I learned about writing (for) television, shot a pilot and learned a tremendous amount, but I encountered some people who I think have a real misunderstanding of the word power. I had never seen anybody who was truly drunk with power before I had this experience. So it was a little bizarre. I had to sort of put on my emotional flak jacket and on one level feel excited and proud that the books actually were turned into a TV show. We taped six episodes that did, in fact, air on UPN. And you know that was a major accomplishment. Most authors never get that far. But then I also really had to desensitize myself, and let go and realize that there were some power hungry emotionally unstable people who had a hell of a lot more power in the room than I did and made sure that I knew that on a daily basis. It’s funny, when people get involved in television, you have the ability to reach so many people through broadcast television and it can be a very intoxicating experience for some people and that’s not always a positive thing.
I think some people are aware of that voice and what power they have and what, I think, responsibility goes with that power, and some people just get high on their own … it’s like they’re drinking their own Kool-Aid … it’s scary.
Cathy Brooks: I know that you’ve been doing a lot of other writing since you’ve gotten back from Los Angeles. What’s that been like for you?
Cameron Tuttle: It’s been really freeing. It’s been really nice for me to be able to sit down and write some essays in my own voice, and not necessarily write in the Bad Girl voice and as we were talking about before, the whole success of the Bad Girl’s Guides really took me by surprise. The first one, the Bad Girl’s Guide to the Open Road, was a book that I really just sort of wrote on a lark after seeing the movie Thelma and Louise and really felt inspired by something at the core of that movie. The way that those two characters Thelma and Louise grew and blossomed once they allowed themselves, once they gave themselves permission to break the rules. They got stronger and more gutsy, and there was something really exciting to me about that.
And yet I realized there’s got to be a way to tap into this without killing someone or killing yourself. And so I tried to put my own sort of humorous spin on that. And I did a couple of cross-country road trips and just happened to combine the idea of freedom and celebration of like great American past-time … this road trip and the notion that women really and truly need a time and a place to be bad, to break their own rules – whatever that may mean to them – in order to be happy … and that a road trip is a perfect place to do it. You’re driving through a new town every day, every hour there are no witnesses, at least none that you’re likely to see again, so if you do something really crazy, who cares. So it was really just kind of a very personal book for me, and I had no idea that it would resonate with so many women. I had no idea that there was a secret bad girl inside so many women longing to be set free. I never imagined that seven, eight years after the first, after I first started writing the first book, I’d still be doing anything related to, remotely related to bad girls.
Cathy Brooks: Now there’s also the Bad Girl Swirl Web site, which, I remember when that first launched, created a real groundswell of community.
Cameron Tuttle: Yeah. It was another sort of ‘who knew’ kind of surprise for me. I’d worked in advertising before I’d started writing full time so I knew a little bit about marketing. Also, living in San Francisco around 1999 and 2000 when everybody, including your dog and your cat had their own Web site, it was just the obvious thing to do. So I paid some people to design a Web site and as part of marketing the second book, The Bad Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want, and it turned into this incredibly active, crazy, online community. Kind of this online clubhouse for bad girls, where we have message boards, what we call the Bad Boards, and we probably get about 2 million, almost 2 million hits a month on those and it’s completely unmoderated … it’s probably an accident waiting to happen (laughs) but I think that’s part of what makes it work. They could be plotting, you know, all sorts of devious things but it’s just a place for women of all ages, including teenagers, to come together and share their stories, share their experiences, ask one another for advice on different things and it’s been an incredibly popular, thriving community.
It immediately became much much bigger than my books and much bigger than anything I could have envisioned in the Web site.
Yeah, it’s been a really interesting phenomenon that so many people immediately respond and reach out and help out with ideas and answers to difficult life questions. It’s this really great, supportive, kind of girl power kind of space. They’re really responsive not only to me if I have a question about what book I should write next or what kind of products would you guys like to see or what do you think about Jenny McCarthy starring in the Bad Girl’s Guide TV show they immediately get back. There are hundreds of responses in an hour or two … but everybody on the Bad Boards gets that same type of response if their question is compelling and interesting.
It always just kind of warms my heart when I just read these things. I’m like ‘I love you guys. I love you guys. You’re so cool.’ I’ve met very few of the women who hang out on the Web site. I don’t know them personally but I know them sort of by name and sort of attitude of their comments and they never cease to amaze me and impress me with the quality of their input and ideas. It’s cool. It’s a really cool thing.
Cathy Brooks: Your own private focus group.
Cameron Tuttle: My own private out of focus group (laughs). Yeah.
Cathy Brooks: So you were in advertising prior to the Bad Girl Guide happening so this wasn’t exactly your career path of choice necessarily.
Cameron Tuttle: Well, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I guess I envisioned myself you know being more of a serious literary novelist or something, but thank God I didn’t go there. You know I was working on a cancer novel … and everybody loves a good cancer novel right? (slightly sarcastic chuckle). So, I just happened to sort of do this one summer, write the first Bad Girl’s Guide and … I think I heard Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues, among other things, interviewed on the radio and she was talking about The Vagina Monologues and that sometimes you don’t even realize when you’re doing your best work that you are, in fact, doing your best work. That you may be thinking that your serious work is this big project X, and then you kind of do this other little thing on the side, and that turns out to have this unexpected impact on people, and it’s really sort of important. That was very much my experience with the Bad Girl’s Guides. I thought I was going to be writing serious literary fiction, and I may get around to that at some point, but I may not.
You know I think writing something like the Bad Girl’s Guides is … it’s very accessible to people and people like to laugh. They like to learn things, they like to be inspired but I think they also like to laugh. God, if you can’t laugh your way through life you’re in big trouble … BIG trouble.
Cathy Brooks: So what’s given you your biggest laugh … so far?
Cameron Tuttle: That’s a tough question.
Cathy Brooks: Maybe I should say today … or maybe in the last hour (laugh).
Cameron Tuttle: That’s a tough question. My biggest laugh. Oh God … Well, I got together with my editor Jay Schaffer last night and we were catching up on a few things and I was talking to him about another one of the unexpected things that’s happened as being the author of the Bad Girl’s Guides is that people will come up to me with these strange personal confessions. For example my dentist for some reason … so there I am … I’m in the chair … my head is back … I’ve got (imitates suction and drill sounds) … you know suction and I’m helpless with my mouth open and these tools, these high speed tools in my mouth and my dentist, who is a wonderful, lovely woman, for some reason feels compelled to share with me her intimate personal details. And I’m like ‘NO NO, no please don’t. I don’t want to hear how good or bad your husband is in bed. I don’t want to know about this that. I don’t want to hear about the affair you did or maybe didn’t have.’
And she’s not the only person. I’ve had strangers … You know I may write something called Confessions to a Bad Girl because for some reason all of these people or many people seem to think that I’m this safe repository for their bad behavior and I’m like ‘No, no, no. That’s not what it’s about. And by the way I’m not a bad girl all the time it’s just like acting on paper for me.’
I had a friend from high school who was at one of the Bad Girl parties who apparently had a boob job. And she’s like, ‘Hey, wanna see my new boobs?’ And I was like, ‘Um, not really.’ And so, she didn’t really seem to care what I thought, so midway through the dance floor she literally lifted up her top and flashed her boobs. And I was like ‘Oh, yikes no! Yikes, no, please stop, nooooooooo!’
Those are just a couple of the strange things that have happened after … You know people definitely think that they know you after you write a book and they have a perception of who you are and what you’re like. Boy oh boy. People must think I’m a crazy loon! But we had a good laugh about this last night (my editor and I) because it’s unbelievable what some people will say when they think you’re much badder than they would ever be, and that they couldn’t possibly shock you.
Cathy Brooks: So you do get shocked (chuckle).
Cameron Tuttle: Gosh yes I get shocked. Yeah. Yeah.
Cathy Brooks: So how about role models for you?
Cameron Tuttle: Oh, that’s a great question. I wish there were more personal role models (in my life). As you know, my mom died of breast cancer when she was 40 and I was just 14. She was a terrific role model but you know she wasn’t around long enough. And I was, unfortunately, really good at pretending like I had it all together. So I don’t think I inspired many other women to sort of come into my life to help out and become some sort of surrogate female role model. But women in public … I really admire Oprah Winfrey, and I realize that’s not the most original to say, but I respect her so much for using her power in such a positive way. I mean inspiring women to read books that they might not otherwise even know existed. Just sharing her passion for life and her search for how to be a happier healthier human being. Sharing what she’s learned from her search with so many of her viewers. I think she’s really cool. Unlike … well, I probably shouldn’t go there, but there are other powerful women in the media who I think it’s more about what they’re etting out of it. I won’t name names but I’m pretty sure you can guess who I’m talking about. And while they have the same access to millions and millions of viewers and readers I don’t get that same sense of this person is here giving back to people and using her power in a positive way. I get the feeling like she’s jjust using her power to just make more money and get more …
Cathy Brooks: … stuff.
Cameron Tuttle: Yeah, more stuff. Which is too bad. It’s a bummer. I think Ellen Degeneres is terrific. I mean she’s got this quirky, zany sense of humor and she’s gone through her ups and downs in her career path like most people but I love the fact that she has found such a wonderful platform in her talk show for her just to be herself. And she’s got this great great sense of humor that’s not the least bit mean spirited. And I really admire her for sticking with it. You know it’s got to be terrifying to live your personal life out in such a public arena. But I think she got through that and has really thrived.
I can’t imagine doing something in film or television where every single person would, you know who isn’t iving in a cave, would recognize you, I think that would be terrifying and a terrible loss of freedom. So as an author I feel really happy to have a fair amount of anonymity. I mean every now and then if I’m paying at a restaurant for dinner and using a credit card someone, you know the waiter, waitress or hostess will come back and say something. And I’m like, ‘Oh gosh …’ And they’re like, ‘I love your books,’ or ‘I dumped my boyfriend and moved to Seattle because of you,’ or whatever strange story it may be but it’s nice for me … I’m very comfortable with being an author and not … I don’t need to be recognized. In fact, that’s sort of the … That’s one of the things that I’m not that comfortable about with the unexpected success of my books. It never occurred to me that I would mean anything to anybody other than close friends and family. So it’s an unexpected pleasure and as I said it comes with some responsibility.
That reminds me of a woman named Mary Buzz who lived up in the Pacific Northwest. She and her friends were really, really connected to my books and they started their own Bad Girl’s Club. And Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the things that she and her friends would get together … They’d put on their pink Bad Girl vests and they’d go out and just be … be naughty in their own way. And it was a way for them to build on their friendship. It gave them a reason to laugh at a time when I think Mary probably wasn’t feeling like laughing. And I exchanged emails with them and really felt like a part of their small community and it was wonderful and beautiful and an unexpected thing to come from the Bad Girl’s Guides, you know these pink vinyl books.
I had a chance to talk to Mary just a couple days before she died, unfortunately. It was … it was … it was … hard for me to know what to say and … because I had been there – as I said my mom died of breast cancer so I … I know that sort of … the trivial nature of life is so fluffy and meaningless at that point. But I felt honored that she would even want to talk to me in the last few days of her life. A woman that I’ve never even met only talked to by phone and traded emails with but somehow what I had written in my books spoke to her that she felt like she knew me. It was wonderful and sad and one of the rich … one of the many rich and unexpected experiences that I’ve had a result of writing these books.
Cathy Brooks: If you had an opportunity to hand your books to certain individuals who you thought it might change their perspective on the world are there any people you might put the books in the hands of …
Cameron Tuttle: Well, I think (President) George Bush could definitely use a little Bad Girl attitude. You know he’s taking himself very seriously and that’s (laughs) making all of our lives a little difficult. Let’s see …
Cathy Brooks: What do you think about Condaleeza Rice?
Cameron Tuttle: Oh man, I think she may have a Bad Girl’s Guide up her butt. Oops, I probably shouldn’t say that (laughs). Yeah, Condaleeza Rice should definitely spend a few hours at least, if not a few weeks, curled up with a Bad Girl’s Guide. She’s great. She’s very smart. She’s very accomplished, but boy I’d ike to see her laugh about something. And again, not take herself too seriously.