This Is Still Candace Bushnell’s City

And just like that … she’s back! For ten weeks.

Photo: Josh Lehrer
Photo: Josh Lehrer
Photo: Josh Lehrer

I idolized Candace Bushnell without knowing the facts. I grew up watching Sex and the City, and really, that was enough for me. She was the “real” Carrie Bradshaw, the writer behind the ’90s New York Observer columns who’d accidentally struck print oil (those columns made up the 1997 best-selling essay collection) and reaped HBO gold. Then finally, after 94 episodes (multiplied by at least seven rewatches), I sought out a first edition of her original Sex book (easier than you’d think) — inspired by the news of her upcoming one-woman show, Is There Still Sex in the City?, opening Tuesday — and devoured it. It was gritty, darkly humorous, and keenly anthropological. Unlike Carrie, who floated from brunch to brunch without much attention to deadlines or finances, Bushnell was a hardworking freelancer with an eye on the bottom line. Watching the stage show during previews, I was struck by the 62-year-old’s impressive career: a life made up of leveraging the natural talent and right-place-right-time fortune that got her writing gigs at 19 into a lasting aesthetic empire of up-front sexuality and social acuity.

Her 2019 book (also titled Is There Still Sex in the CIty?) detailed Bushnell’s return to dating after her divorce from New York City Ballet principal Charles Askegard and saw her leave the Manhattan shuffle, at least partly, for the tranquility of Sag Harbor. And, well, just like that … (sorry) she’s back. It’s not quite the Hello, Dolly! return to “the lights of 14th Street,” but it’s close enough: eight times a week, for the next ten weeks, she’s inviting close to 500 people into a variation of her living room remounted at the Daryl Roth Theatre on 15th Street (and Park Avenue, of course).

At a nearby brasserie, between rehearsals and her 7 p.m. preview performance, we meet for a “quick bite,” as her publicist put it, that turns into a leisurely meal. The two of us take up a table for four alongside the restaurant’s mirrored walls, her arm slung around the empty seat next to her, practically cradling an invisible cigarette. She looks stunning with her sleek legs crossed delicately to her side, though she complains — not fishing but not accurately — about the flatness of her hair. It’s easy to see exactly why and how she hypnotized her way to the top following her arrival to the city in the late ’70s. When she listens, she has a look: It’s piercing, knowing, and somewhat skeptical. The sort of look that makes people continue speaking until they say something she would hopefully deem important or impressive.

It’s what she used to get all of the gory and glorious insight into the sex lives of New Yorkers for that now-iconic column, the on-the-ground hookup reporting we all do for free on Twitter now. Whenever her answers to my questions turn into queries about my own life — “Everyone used to be at restaurants, but now it’s clubs?”” — it’s hard to resist indulging her sparkling curiosity. She seems disappointed that the gash on my forehead I’d sustained from walking into the steam-room door at the gym earlier did not involve any loose-toweled friskiness. She’s also visibly concerned I might have a concussion. I told her I wasn’t sure.

That active inquisitiveness may be part of the strategy. On the one hand, Bushnell is refreshingly open and self-aware — at one point she tells me point-blank, “Darling. Babe. I’ve written 150,000-word novels. This show is less than 10,000 words. I can write 10,000 words in two days.” (In the years since her 1997 literary debut, Bushnell has published nine novels including The Carrie Diaries and Lipstick Jungle, which were also adapted for television.) Still, she’s wary of questions that appear to her like traps despite my reassurances of the opposite. Some variation of “There’s no hidden meaning” made its way into the conversation no fewer than four times during our dinner.

I tell her there’s a line from the show that has stuck with me in the week since I first heard it: “We all know there are more than just four types of women,” Bushnell says onstage, referencing the now-landmark prototypes of the Carrie, the Miranda, the Charlotte, and the Samantha that the HBO adaptation created. “But it’s easy to organize in case there’s a war.”

It’s the kind of incisive, funny remark that shoots naturally from her, but I wanted to know if there was some stinging societal disappointment behind it. “At one time,” she tells me, “there were only two types of women: the Madonna and the Whore. Now there are four.” Beat. “This is an improvement.” She doesn’t sound weathered by this observation but almost contradicts herself when discussing the impulse to categorize. Echoing another onstage line that “all women on TV are written by men,” she informs me, “The first thing men do is categorize women into types. That’s how you sell things — you put it in a package.” I ask about her own system of classification, especially in her column’s mentions of “modelizers” and “toxic bachelors,” which contributes to so much of her writing’s sociological wit. “You go out with different types—there’s that word again—of men: the banker, the artist,” she says between bites of her steak frites. “Of course, I put people into categories, too, because that’s what I do as a writer.”

The HBO series, like Bushnell’s book and column before it, are products of their time, a post-Reagan ’90s still clenched by the rule of H.W., when bisexuality and (groan) metrosexuality were news to many. Media coverage unsurprisingly went through the usual cycles of backlash and appreciation, so we’ve gotten just as many endless think pieces on why actually the series’ portrayal of women’s friendship is feminist as we have on why Carrie’s vanilla tendencies are anti-feminist. If the discourse is exhausting enough online, it is perhaps draining for Bushnell to see her work — as reimagined through showrunner Michael Patrick King’s glitzy eye for Manolos and cosmos — recycled by tired culture wars.

“I expect people to be flawed, and not a lot fazes me,” she tells me. I ask if this is a hard-won lesson, but she assures me she has always been this way. In fact, it’s that steely determination that drove her from a quiet Connecticut suburb into a New York that, according to her, was “full of characters” people came to see and among whom she felt seen. “New York City was one of the few places probably in the world where you could see women who were genuinely successful,” she says. “And it made you feel like you could do it. People were saying, ‘Hey, if this person can do it, how come I can’t?’ And, well, that’s the internet now.”

She’s puzzled at her perception so many people can have 20 million followers on TikTok and laments the transition from physical to online persona-building. “There used to be so much posturing. Now there’s a lot of posturing online, but there used to be a lot of posturing in person.” Isn’t being online at the club just another way of documenting social scenes, much as she was doing with her column? No, she explains (correctly) because now the cameras are turned inward instead of out, and she questions what it’s like going out in the age of Instagram.

At this point, I couldn’t help but wonder (again, sorry): For many of us — especially the youngs whose public horniness this summer has been chronicled by just about every single publication — sex is definitely still in the city, but is there room for a Candace Bushnell type? Is there room for Candace Bushnell herself? Both her book and her one-woman show make a strong case on her behalf, even if only as the chronicler of how her zippy generation has grown into the older crowd they once dated. She may not be tearing up the downtown scene as she once did, but she remains the blueprint for anyone seeking to find a dash of glamour to their narratives. Glitzy costume changes and behind-the-scenes deets aside, the strongest part of her show is her own story; she asserts as much onstage, and doubles down at dinner: “When I say Sex and the City is my life’s work, that’s the reality.”

That life-spanning work is now our own reality as we eagerly call our no-nonsense friends the Miranda of the group or use a Samantha sexcapade as a vivid point of reference — my own go-tos are the two times in the series her orgasmic moans are paralleled with opera singers. As the world quite literally (and not at all glamorously) comes to an end, who wouldn’t want to instead reimagine a bathroom-stall encounter that left you locked out of your apartment because the toilet swallowed your keys through a cosmo-colored lens — i.e., as just another fabulous tale of city life gone hilariously, beautifully wrong? (Yes, this is a true story; no, I did not tell Candace any more of it — I have to have some respect!)

Filling her in on some of my nightlife adventures, I begin to realize I have no idea who Bushnell would be at the party. The sharp insights imply a wallflower, but the vitality and immediacy of the stories suggest an active, if almost chaotic, agent. “I’ve always been able to be a participant and an observer,” she tells me, and I believe her. It would be ungrateful of me not to as a young gay on the go whose love of partying is matched by a love of talking about it. “But if I do end up in the corner watching,” she says, “just to watch people is endlessly fascinating.”

This Is Still Candace Bushnell’s City