Literary festival: Agony Aunt Irma Kurtz reveals what it takes for millions to trust your advice

Irma Kurtz

Irma Kurtz - Credit: Archant

Irma Kurtz, the doyenne of agony aunts, with more than 40 years’ experience, is recalling just some of the letters she has read.

“I have read millions of letters, literally, and you get “fakes” usually written by men [posing as a woman],” says Kurtz, speaking from her holiday home in north-west France.

“I’ve got to be a good graphologist – I could read anyone’s handwriting after a while – but I could recognise the fakes because often the men would start out by talking about what they were wearing.”

Kurtz, though, has forged a career out of putting legitimate women at ease over their woes for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Earlier this year, her views, though, landed her in hot water with anti-rape campaigners when she declared that women should protect themselves “by not getting drunk with the boys” in case it put them at risk of being raped.

She says the increase in choices available to women has lengthened her work-to-do list.

“Now women have so many choices.

Most Read

“Anything that is chosen means that there is something not chosen.

“Women are more worried about work, whether to have a baby or a career – countless things. These were not choices in the past.”


So how is she is qualified to deal with this growing expectation from her readership? Well, in truth, she isn’t or at least not by way of any qualification.

“Very few agony aunts have any training,” concedes the mother-of-one. “A school of thought is something that you never graduate from.

“You try to get to know the person the best you can, but it is not easy in the era of emails, which are less forthcoming than letters used to be.

“They are not just shortened but they are written in a different frame of mind.”

To digest each letter or, these days, email, Kurtz will go for a stroll outside. “Walking is my way of thinking,” she says. “I then read it again before replying. I never just do it off the cuff.”

She believes experience and observation are the key qualities for any agony aunt to have.

“Experience does not have to be personal experience; it can be watching what happens to others,” says the New Jersey-born writer, who covered the Vietnam War as a reporter before becoming an agony aunt.

“That is why we, the agony aunts, are all older than the people who consult us.”


Candidly, she reveals that in person people will often answer their own concerns themselves by just thinking out aloud.

“If you listen quietly, without giving a response, they will say more than they expected to say. They even come up with things they had not realised they were thinking.”

One thing she can be sure of: as one of the most revered listeners in the business, she has made her own right choice.

Irma Kurtz will be talking about her book My Life In Agony: Confessions Of A Professional Agony Aunt on Sunday, September 14 at 6.30pm. Tickets are £10.