Candace Bushnell had originally thought of becoming an actress, but a few things put her off. Notably, the extent to which any woman is judged on her looks. “I just didn’t want to end up with some random guy out there, who’s the head of the studio, telling people: ‘She looks like the girl who wouldn’t have sex with me in high school. I don’t want to see her on screen’.”
In the soft-furnished office of her Connecticut home – where her poodle, Pepper, snoozes on a daybed in the background – the Sex and the City author lets a beat pass before leaning into her Zoom screen and deadpanning: “I should say that actually happened to me. I was on a reality show on VH1 in the 1990s and this new guy comes in and apparently says: ‘Oh, she’s the type of girl that wouldn’t have sex with me in high school.’ So the decision-making is often rudimentary – and usually somehow related to the guy’s penis.”
Behind her, Pepper opens one eye. Sixty-four-year-old Bushnell gives a gravelly laugh and shakes her head: “I can’t believe I just told you that story!” I can. I’ve interviewed the writer and TV producer three times over the past 15 years and this woman has a delicious lack of boundaries and an endless stream of personal anecdotes.
The Connecticut-born daughter of a scientist (who invented the air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell used in the first Apollo space mission) is whip-smart – and a natural-born entertainer. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, it was Bushnell’s dry one-liners and pithy delivery that got her a weekly column in the New York Observer in the mid-1990s, where she detailed her wild Manhattan dating adventures (she famously dated the New York playboy and publisher of Vogue Ron Galotti, who was the inspiration for Sex and the City’s Mr Big) and made Cosmos and Manolos part of young women’s lexicons across the globe.
The column led to a Sex and the City book deal and hit HBO series that ran from 1999 to 2004. Then came the prequel, The Carrie Diaries, the blockbuster film franchise and the reboot, And Just Like That… which Bushnell didn’t write the script for – and seems to have mixed feelings about. “I mean, Carrie Bradshaw ended up being a quirky woman who married a really rich guy,” she told the New Yorker last year. “And that’s not my story, or any of my friends’ stories. But TV has its own logic.” The revival may have “startled” Bushnell, but it also prompted legions of first-generation Sex and the City-ites to go back to the original series – this time, with their daughters in tow.
Writers don’t tend to be as large in life as they are on the page, and very few would have the confidence to tell their stories to packed theatres from New York to Cape Town and cities across the UK, where Bushnell is bringing her one-woman show, Candace Bushnell: True Tales of Sex, Success, and Sex and the City in February.
At the risk of sounding like the TV executive with a penis for a brain and bringing it back to looks, it also has to be said that very few writers are as physically appealing as Bushnell: a bombshell blonde with a tousled Carrie Bradshaw-style mane, fine features and the honed, honeyed limbs of a model. Although it’s just past 9am in Sag Harbour – where she seeks refuge from her “tiny” Manhattan apartment – Bushnell is as perfectly groomed as her SATC heroines, in a fine-knit black turtleneck, and oozing the kind of high energy levels unique to New Yorkers as she tells me how gratifying she’s found doing the show.
“It’s so different to writing books,” rasps the author of Lipstick Jungle, Killing Monica and Is There Still Sex In The City? “Every time you publish a book, you have no idea what the response will be – and it’s rarely what you intended. Whereas when I’m onstage telling people the real origin story for Sex and the City, how hard I worked to get there and what happened to me afterwards, I’ll get the feedback right there. And honestly? A thousand people cheering and giving you a standing ovation is better than Prozac. Not that I’m even on Prozac!”
Writing may have been Bushnell’s childhood dream – even prompting her, aged 19, to ditch a place at Houston University in order to move to New York and start working for a series of underground publications – but maybe she should have been an actress? It’s not too late to start a whole new career.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to hire a woman of over 60,” she flings back. “At that point you’re either a mother or a character actress. That’s why Meryl Streep keeps working. She’s beautiful, but that was never her shtick.” But shouldn’t 60 be destigmatised in the way 40 and 50 have been? It’s pretty unavoidable, for one thing. “Listen, being an older woman is very different now to what it was a hundred or even 50 years ago. At one time we were seen as being on a down slope at 50, but now we live longer, healthier and more vibrant lives.”
If she were to promote being in your 60s to younger women, what would she say? “That there’s a real feeling of ‘what have I got to lose?’” She flashes a bright white smile. “Those things that held you back in the past? You let go of them. Yes, there’s still a lot of sexism in the entertainment business, for example, but less than before and in your 60s, you’re not afraid to ‘speak truth to power’. You have a bit more courage, across the board.”
I’m about to move on, but Bushnell’s on a roll. “Also, one of the things that nobody tells you is how much more accepting you are of your body at this age. When you’re in your 20s, you criticise every part of it so much; you go on about every little flaw: blah, blah, blah… But when you get to be 60,” she says. “I mean, I feel OK about my body. I don’t know why, but I do.”
Beauty innovations have been helpful in this respect, we agree. Although it often feels like trying to walk up a downward-moving escalator, these things can at least give you the illusion of slowing down time. “I mean, I don’t know if any of it really works,” she says. “Except Botox. Botox works – in fact it may be the one thing that works in life. Twenty-five-year-olds now get Botox, and 35-year-olds now look the way 25-year-olds used to look. Everybody looks younger than they are these days.” Really, it’s about people taking better care of themselves as they age, says Bushnell, which is unarguably a positive. “And certainly, once you’re in your 60s, when most women aren’t taking care of kids anymore, there is more time to do that.”
Despite a 10-year marriage to Charles Askegard – the New York City Ballet principal – between 2002-2012, Bushnell never had children herself, and has spoken openly about the impact this has had on her life. “When I was in my 30s and 40s, I didn’t think about it,” she told the Sunday Times in 2019. “Then when I got divorced and I was in my 50s, I started to see the impact of not having children and of truly being alone.”
For a few years after the divorce Bushnell “wasn’t interested in meeting anyone new” she told me back in 2015, but when US Cosmopolitan magazine asked her to write a piece about Tinder – the LA-born dating app popular for its simplicity – in 2016, she threw herself back into the dating scene. Only this scene turned out to be more like a cesspool, she admitted when we spoke about the piece, and despite initially feeling dizzied with excitement by the young on her phone, she found the overall experience “disappointing” – not least because at first, all the “matches” the app came up with were lamentably age-appropriate. “So there were literally about three grey-haired old gents – but when I set the age to 22-38, I got hundreds of guys.”
Since then online dating seems to have grown on her, and Bushnell admits she is “on a couple of apps now, including Raya,” a VIP, membership-based community populated by actors, influencers and famous reality stars. “I go out with men of all different ages, which is something I would never have expected. There’s a 21-year-old out there, there’s the 90-year-old. So now my dating age-range is 70 years.” She chuckles. “What I have noticed, though, is how difficult it is to get any sort of momentum. People seem to have so many other things to do. I don’t know what they’re doing, and whether these guys are playing video games or watching Netflix, but everyone’s big relationship now seems to be with their screen.”
As a lifelong chronicler of our dating and mating rituals, she’s observed other key differences. “A lot of guys in their 30s and 40s will complain about how many women want things from them.” Material things? Bushnell nods vigorously. “The sugar daddy thing is absolutely huge! These men will tell me that women want to be bought $8,000 Chanel handbags – and that they can’t afford it. I mean, I can’t afford to buy myself an $8,000 Chanel handbag!”
For younger generations the rise of pornography has also dramatically changed the dating landscape. “It seems to be the best form of birth control,” she says in a wry reference to the sexual dysfunction porn-addicted men are said to suffer from. “I say that in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, but the facts do seem to bear it out. I’ve not had any personal experience with this, but people do say that guys now have a hard time getting an erection and want women to do certain things they would never have expected before.” We touch on the rise of the “choking” phenomenon, which Bushnell finds “absolutely horrendous”. “There are things that people see in pornography and want to translate to real-life sex, and my advice to young women is: don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.”
It’s easy to see why any middle-aged single woman might find this newly warped world of dating too alienating. But Bushnell strikes me as a fundamental optimist? “Despite my cynicism, I am still a huge fan of love – of romance and of marriage. I’m a real sucker for it.” So much so that she’s working on “a dating reality show for the over-50s,” she tells me. “Because there is an audience for that.”
Would she ever marry again? “Absolutely! I really enjoyed being married. And the reality now is that most of us are going to have times in our lives when we’re married and times when we’re single, so we have to be able to manage both of those states.” She pauses, and, remembering something, gives a small, close-lipped smile. “The other day someone asked me what I was looking for, and I said: ‘You know, I don’t have very high expectations. I’m just looking for someone I have a connection with.’ But that, for some reason, is very hard to find.” Because of this lack of “momentum”? “Partly. I went on a date yesterday with a guy I’ve been talking to [online] for three months. And, you know, he’s too young – but it’s always great to have friends, right?”
One of the most seductive things about Sex and the City was this idea of a circle of friends – specifically female – there to sustain and support you throughout life’s ups and downs. Beyond the improbable fashion choices, the glamour of Manhattan nightlife and the stream of boyfriends, that was what most of Bushnell’s fans aspired to: a world in which, instead of retreating into ourselves and a tub of Häagen-Dazs, we could don five-inch platforms and brunch-it-out with those girlfriends until life once again seemed rosy. For Bushnell, that was never a fantasy, and remains true-to-life today.
“I have a lot of girlfriends, and we still have brunch,” she tells me, her face lighting up. They’re not celebrities, she’s quick to assure me – “I don’t hang out with a lot of celebrities” – and although she’s kept in touch with the SATC gang, “I might chat with Sarah Jessica Parker on the phone every five years or so, and I’ll see her or Kim [Cattrall] or Cynthia [Nixon] sometimes at events, but it’s really more of a social thing.” Her real female friendship group, however, isn’t something she could ever imagine living without. “Certainly in a city like New York,” says Bushnell, “a woman really can’t survive without those friends.”
Our time is almost up, but before she takes the dogs for their walk along the beach and gets on with her day, I’m curious to know whether she believes in the broader notion of “a sisterhood”: that as women, we should have an inbuilt allegiance to the whole of our sex? I only ask because I’ll often see women attacking one another now for being “disloya”’ in their views. “But women have always attacked other women,” she counters. “They’ve always tried to control and monitor other women.”
She doesn’t think today’s brand of feminism is more censorious than before? “I think femininity might tell us we all have to think and behave a certain way, but it’s important not to mix that up with feminism. Femininity is looking pretty, being a mother and getting your value from being a mother. Feminism is getting your value out in the world, from being a well-rounded person, and making your own money. I really think the most important thing for feminism is making your own money.”
Bushnell breaks off to tell me one of the key reasons she became a writer: “Growing up in the 1960s, I saw rampant sexism everywhere. I remember women being told what they should and shouldn’t do. So my message has been the same since I was eight years old – that you don’t have to buy into what society tells you to be.” You couldn’t find a better poster girl for that way of thinking than Bushnell.
Candace Bushnell: True Tales of Sex, Success and Sex And The City tours the UK from 2 February. Click here for more information about dates and tickets