Against Type

We all have ideas about the L.A. Woman. And most of them are wrong

When you tell people that you grew up in L.A., they tend to have certain expectations. Unfortunately my friends and I rarely lived up to them. We were not stoners, surfer chicks, or Less Than Zero party zombies. We came from various income brackets (an advantage to our attending a magnet school) and ethnic backgrounds (I learned about global cuisine from their lunch boxes). My father wasn’t from here, but my mother, born at Hollywood Presbyterian in 1930, was an L.A. woman through and through. That my great-grandmother had come here so early—from Evanston, Illinois, in 1918—made me unusual, perhaps, but no more authentic an L.A. kid than my first-generation girlfriends. The city was our shared adventure, and we embraced it, even when it could be too big and a bit scary, because we never felt hemmed in by our gender. It wasn’t until I briefly attended college in the Midwest that I realized plenty of girls out there did. We looked out the windows of the RTD bus onto an urban landscape that we guessed would take a lifetime to figure out (two decades and counting after high school graduation, and I’m still working on it). We loved watching movies and TV together but were struck by how seldom we saw anyone onscreen who looked like our moms or ourselves. Where were the normal L.A. women, not the trophy wives, the vapid rich girls, or the flighty granola crunchers?

Suffice it to say that debunking those stereotypes and others about the city has been a goal of mine as editor of this magazine, and it influenced my decision to devote this issue to the reality of the L.A. woman: who she is, who she isn’t, what she struggles with, what makes her laugh, what stirs her sympathy or her ire, and how she tries to keep her life in balance. The seed was planted last year at a story meeting, when our Open City columnist, Anne Taylor Fleming, suggested a piece about great women in L.A. Not famous ones, necessarily, just ordinary women doing extraordinary things. The city is full of them, Anne said. Let’s seek them out.

From this simple premise blossomed an entire issue. There were just too many stories to tell. We would hit on some clichés—plastic surgery, the boob obsession, hot moms. But we’d use this issue to introduce a variety of experiences because no L.A. woman fits into any one category. We are a city of hyphenates, as Anne writes in her introductory essay, of lawyer-scuba diver-gourmet chefs. Me? I’m an editor-writer-wife-mother-book lover-Amtrak enthusiast-history buff-Howard Stern listener-Broadway devotee. I’m just as comfy parading around in my faded Levi’s, vintage riding boots, and cowboy hat as I am pairing my favorite Issey Miyake pleated blouse with a raw silk skirt made in the Himalayas and heels that could spear a fish.

Before we knew it we had some 20 stories in the works by and about all kinds of women who weren’t easy to categorize. The big question facing us was, Who goes on the cover? In a city this diverse, would it be wrong to focus solely on one person? Maybe one recognizable face could represent the essential L.A. woman—intelligent and resilient and as invested in the city as she is in other women. The person who came to mind a year ago—and the person who comes to mind today—is Maria Shriver. A quintessential hyphenate, she’d put a successful career in broadcasting on hold to serve as the state’s first lady. Like her mother, who started the Special Olympics, and her father, who was founding director of the Peace Corps, she had a cause to champion: other women. For the past several years she did so tirelessly and emphatically at her Women’s Conference, held in October in Long Beach. Like so many people here, she wasn’t born an Angeleno but has become strongly identified with her adopted city. We’re proud to have her on our cover.

In this issue Shriver returns to something she loves—journalism. She sat down for an exclusive interview with one of her favorite women, the preeminent philanthropist Wallis Annenberg. Like Shriver, Annenberg is a transplant to Los Angeles who felt empowered and emboldened by the city’s openness and opportunities, much as I did as a teenager riding the bus. I’m glad they decided to stick around.

Photo: Mary Melton with the first L.A. woman she ever knew, her mom, Ruthe