Candace Bushnell Still Wants You to Be Your Own Mr. Big

The self-described 'social anthropologist' and former Observer columnist's “True Tales of Sex, Success and Sex and the City” is coming for a limited run to the Café Carlyle.

Candace Bushnell is still showing women a different way to think about themselves. Courtesy Candace Bushnell

More than once, Observer has called Candace Bushnell the ‘real Carrie Bradshaw,’ but by now everyone should know that her Sex and the City alter ego is only a small part of the ‘real Candace Bushnell.’ The fiercely feminist Bushnell is, in no particular order, an international best-selling author, celebrated novelist and successful producer. Her critically acclaimed one-woman stage memoir, “True Tales of Sex, Success and Sex and the City” opens at the Café Carlyle tomorrow (April 23) for a limited run after stints at the Daryl Roth Theater and in theaters around the world.

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Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” column, of course, originated in 1994 at this very publication (then the storied New York Observer broadsheet) before quickly morphing into a book, an HBO hit starring Sarah Jessica Parker, the first of two motion pictures and, eventually, an unstoppable cultural phenomenon.

Candace Bushnell Performs At Richmond Hill Centre For The Performing Arts
Bushnell in her one-woman show, “True Tales of Sex, Success and Sex and the City.” Photo by Jeremychanphotography/Getty Images

On a warm day in April, I met Bushnell off Madison Avenue for tea at the Carlyle’s Gallery. So much talent and so many stars have moved through its art deco halls, it seemed like the perfect spot to chat with the glamorous and witty OG Carrie Bradshaw. Bushnell, true to fashion form, was sporting a black blouse with elegant shoulder ruffles, black leather pants with silver zippers, yellow heels and a hot pink handbag. Not only was it thrilling to interview one of my feminist heroes, but as a former sex columnist for the Observer myself, I’d always felt I had big stilettos to fill. (Yes, she still wears Manolos.) And just like that…after actually meeting Bushnell, those shoes felt even bigger.

How did you end up with your iconic column in the New York Observer?

When I first came to New York at 19, I wrote a children’s book. I wrote for anybody and everybody I could write for. This is all part of my show, “True Tales of Sex, Success and Sex and the City.” Then I wrote for women’s magazines, which was the precursor to “Sex and the City.” I was already writing about my Samantha, my Miranda, probably back in the eighties, but I always wanted to write a column. I had a column in Mademoiselle for probably a month or two months, and then the editor left or got fired or something, which was always happening. I started writing for the New York Observer and doing profiles for them, and the profiles were really, really popular. Everybody was talking about them. Then the editor-in-chief asked if I wanted to have my own column, which just put a frame around work that I’d already developed. I’d already developed my voice, and I’d already been writing professionally for 15 years when I got the “Sex and the City” column.

What was it like working with Peter Kaplan, the legendary editor-in-chief of the New York Observer?

It was a very male-oriented, Ivy-League-mentality kind of place. There was a lot of hazing and people were tough—they threw phones. Kaplan didn’t do that, but other people did. Publishing was a slightly violent business. But Peter was brilliant, and he would just say these things that you just realize, “Wow, that’s really it.” In those days, being an editor was a creative job. He felt like it was his job to somehow get the story out of the writer. It was a different mentality.

A woman wearing a tight black dress made of feathers smiles for the camera
It wasn’t long before Bushnell’s New York Observer column became a book. Fadil Berisha

How quickly did your column “Sex and the City” take off? You became a star.

It happened right away. Again, I talk about that in the show. I think after I’d written five columns, I sold it to Morgan Entrekin [publisher of Grove Atlantic] as a book. Then the column was really like a serial book, which was obviously what I’d been wanting to write my whole life—a book. People faxed [the columns] to their friends in LA, so from the beginning I had Hollywood calling. ABC wanted it, HBO wanted it, Fine Line, New Line, some other probably movie company that doesn’t exist, and I flew out to LA. It was exciting.

What was it like navigating that?

I didn’t know anything about that business at all. It took me a while to sell it to Darren Star. They say publishing is or used to be a little bit of a gentleman’s business. There’s not that much money to be made. But in TV and entertainment, there’s a lot of money. When there’s a lot of money to be made, people are not, in general, equitable. Nobody gives you a good deal out of the kindness of their heart. The goal is to give as bad a deal as you can get away with, and that’s business. If you’re in it, you understand it, you know how to negotiate it, and you have power. Otherwise, if you’re an outsider, you don’t have that kind of insider access.

And it was sexist.

Back in 1995, women did not have the same kind of power that they have now in Hollywood. It was very different, and there’s a bit of an attitude of—I mean, the whole world was like that, right?

I read that you consulted on the HBO series “Sex and the City” up until Mr. Big got married, and then you felt you no longer related to Carrie. Why is that?

I tell that story in the show, too. At the end of the second season, Carrie and Mr. Big have a bumpy relationship. They break up, they get back together again, and then Mr. Big dumps Carrie and marries somebody else. Somebody he thinks is marriage material—meaning more conventional and less trouble, which is exactly the same thing that happened in my real life. I thought that that was maybe the end of the series, and it fit with my thesis that guys like Big come and go, but your girlfriends are always there for you. But then it’s not over, and they want to make another season, so they have Carrie have an affair with her now-married ex-boyfriend, Mr. Big. And as I say, that’s when a part of me “un” became Carrie Bradshaw because to me it wasn’t feminist. I’m sort of the opposite of that.

Let’s talk about “True Tales of Sex, Success and Sex and the City.” How did the show come about?

I met David Foster and his manager, Mark Johnson, and then we had a meeting. Mark said, “Why don’t you try to do a one-woman show?” I was like, “Why not? What do I have to lose?” I wrote it at the beginning of  2020, and then I started working with [director and choreographer] Lorin Latarro. He found there were Broadway people who were interested, they raised money, and we ended up workshopping it at Bucks County Playhouse. And then we brought it Off-Broadway to the Daryl Roth Theatre, which seems crazy to me. Like what?! Then it closed because of Covid.

Have you always had an interest in acting?

I had some interest in it, but it was kind of brief, and it was a long time ago. When I first started doing [the show], it was more like doing a dressage test than writing a book or an article. It’s performative. It’s choreographed, you say this here and say that there, but then there’s another aspect of being creative within that medium, which is an interesting thing to explore and figure out. There are timing aspects, certain ways that you say certain lines, and it’s very physical. It’s not just me standing up with a microphone. There’s a set. There are little props. There are little tiny skits. I fall off the couch, and it’s fun to do. I actually love doing it.

Sex and the City just came out on Netflix. How do you think it resonates with today’s 20-something audience?

I can only speak from my experience, which is that I have so many young women come up to me as they have been doing for the last twenty-five years saying that Sex and the City saved them, inspired them and changed them, but mostly gave them a different way to look at their lives. And I’ve had women from all over the world say this to me. For a lot of young women, it’s like a rite of passage to watch it when they go to college. These 20-somethings are watching it on Netflix, but there was a whole generation before them of 20-somethings that watched the DVDs with their new friends in college.

A woman in a voluminous white shirt and tight black pants smiles powerfully for the camera
Fans tell Bushnell SATC saved them, inspired them and changed them, but mostly gave them a different way to look at their lives. Courtesy Candace Bushnell

I feel like Sex and the City made talking and writing about sex less taboo and more mainstream. 

I didn’t write about very much sex at all. There were some things in there like threesomes, but it wasn’t graphic in any way. I always felt like I was writing about power structures between men and women and heterosexual relationships. I thought I was really being much more of a social anthropologist.

On a panel, you said that Sex and the City is feminist because it’s like, “Hey, you know what society? We are single women in our thirties and guess what, we’re getting on with it, we’ve got our friends, we made a different kind of family… there isn’t something wrong with us because we don’t want to follow the narrow prescriptive life of what society tells women they can and should do.”   

The women were pretty courageous [back then], I have to say. I knew a lot of single women, and there was a real camaraderie. We had to look out for each other. It was a man’s world, but also New York City was a place where—and here’s why I wrote Lipstick Jungle which I always thought was the next step after Sex and the City—ambitious women make it. There are a lot of really successful women here, and that to me is the most interesting thing. That was what was edgy. Now there are more successful women, there’s a freedom and you’re allowed to be ambitious. Whereas before you couldn’t. It was like Martha Stewart and Anna Wintour and Tina Brown, but people wrote horrible things about them all the time. If you were a woman and you were successful, you were also going to be punished.

Why do you and SO MANY people today still love talking about Sex and the City?

I don’t talk about it, but a lot of other people want to talk about it, and that’s great. I talk about my new work, the show that I’m doing, feminism, being your own Mr. Big and all the things that drive me as a writer, performer and a creative person in the world to do what I set out to do from the beginning, which was to try to show women a different way to think about themselves and their lives outside of the patriarchy. That’s been my mission since I was a kid. It still is.

I think that we’ve all been sold the fairytale of the knight in shining armor, and that’s problematic.

It’s problematic because being with a man can be physically dangerous for women. There are some really unpleasant truths about heterosexual relationships that we don’t acknowledge. And I think going for the guy who’s going to take care of you or the rich guy—this guy who’s going to be in love with you—can happen if you have the right circumstances, but if you don’t have a lot of the right circumstances, it’s maybe not going to happen. And so instead of spending your time investing in something that ultimately you can’t control because you can’t control how somebody feels about you or what they’re going to do for you, but you can control, hopefully, who you are in the world and, hopefully, the ability to make money and look after yourself. There’s a lot of pride in that.

But then there’s also the pay gap. The system is rigged against women.

If you look numerically at the 1%, only 3.5% of the 1% are women who made their own money. And to be in the 1%, you need to have a net worth of $11 million. Think about how many billions [that is]—think about all of the men who have more than $11 billion. Okay, so 96.5% of the women in the 1% are married to a rich man or inherited the money. That is wrong to me.

A woman in a black leather biker jacket and blue bead necklace turns for the camera, swinging her blonde hair around
The writer and producer considers herself a social anthropologist. Harold Mindel, courtesy Candace Bushnell

You’ve chronicled NYC’s rich and powerful. I get the sense that you have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the rich. I certainly do. 

New York is filled with rich people. There’s huge income disparity. I feel like it’s a problem. And it’s certain business practices that have been allowed in the last thirty years. I mean, there have been legal changes to how you can do business, and I think as a journalist you’re supposed to turn a little bit of a questioning eye towards the rich. You’re not really supposed to be one of them.

Like Truman Capote.

Truman Capote, Dominick Dunne, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. These are classic topics for journalists. Of course, now we live in a different time. That was a time when people kind of revered the written word. There was a real status to that. Now there’s a real status to being an influencer. Our value system has changed. We live in an attention economy where it’s really all about getting attention. I mean, Carrie Bradshaw today would be Emily in Paris.

It’s not easy being an artist in the City.

It really isn’t. I mean, that’s sort of the tricky thing about New York. It needs to be a place where if you have a lot of creativity and artistic ability, you can still live here and you don’t need a zillion dollars. When I moved here in the late seventies, it felt really expensive, but somehow you believed you could inch up the ladder and kind of get there. Now it feels like a lot of these places are way out of reach. It’s a big difference if something is $2 million and something is $20 million. So many people came to New York in the late seventies and early eighties—like Cynthia Rowley. She was like, “I just made clothes out of my tiny studio apartment downtown.” She sewed clothes, and then a store said they wanted them. When I first moved here, you had to be creative and interesting, but you didn’t feel like, “Oh, I need to live in the best place” because everybody lived in a crappy place.

Finally, tell me about performing at the iconic Café Carlyle.

So many legendary people have done shows here; it’s incredible. Also, it’s just a very, very New York thing to do. I’ve been on stage and also in the audience, and it’s a super intimate experience—one that you really can’t get anywhere else. It’s just a really special room, and it has the original wallpaper. It has a really, really small stage, and people are right here. You feel like you’re in somebody’s living room. That’s kind of what New York is all about, isn’t it? These one-of-a-kind, one-time experiences.

Candace Bushnell Still Wants You to Be Your Own Mr. Big