NEW YORK – Candace Bushnell (search) has traded in her cosmos for Cristal, and swapped the bedroom for the boardroom.
In her new novel, the "Sex and the City" author presents the swanky, jet-setting lives of three super-successful fortysomething New York women at the white-hot peak of their careers.
There's fashion designer Victory Ford, who heads her own global conglomerate. There's movie executive Wendy Healy, clawing her way to the top of a Miramax-like corporation. And finally, magazine editor Nico O'Neilly, who is close to becoming the first female CEO of her multinational parent.
Mr. Big? Not here. These women are Ms. Bigs.
"Women with money and women in power are two uncomfortable ideas in our society," Bushnell says during an interview at what seems a very Carrie Bradshaw location: Pool-side atop the roof deck of Soho House, a private club and hotel in the ultrachic Meatpacking District (where Samantha Jones had an apartment).
"We're comfortable with movie stars having money. We're comfortable with a woman marrying a rich guy and having money. We're not so comfortable with a woman independently working in business and making a lot of money," she says.
Bushnell began crafting "Lipstick Jungle" (search) after watching clumps of professional women share intimacies and lunch at the same swanky Manhattan restaurants that were once the bastions only of pinstriped men.
"These are women who've been working for 20 years and now they're becoming really successful in their 40s. They have a different kind of outlook on life, a different spirit," she says.
"These aren't women who are competing with each other. They're woman who are part of a club, and certainly a club that welcomes new members. It's something I've noticed about New York for a long time but didn't really pinpoint until now."
At 46, she is as rail-thin as she was while dancing the night away at Studio 54. She wears white trousers and a beaded tank top that likely cost the price of a tank. Her hair is straight and her wide-set eyes lend her an unusual beauty.
Her latest characters are certainly not the man-obsessed foursome we fell in love with in the pages of "Sex and the City." They're all grown up, hungry for success — and don't need any man. Hear them roar.
As one character asks: "How could a woman really be content unless she knew that she'd lived up to her true potential, or at least given it her best shot?" Another concludes: "Success and self-actualization was what really made women glow — they shone with the fullness of life."
Of course, this being Bushnell, there's still plenty of glitz. Her characters wear Jimmy Choo slingbacks and Baume & Mercier diamond watches, they use black American Express cards and go cigarette boating in the Bahamas.
Two of the trio are married with kids, though one has a steamy affair with an underwear model and the other's union is a lackluster affair. The sole single character is being wooed — poorly — by a Ron Perelman-like billionaire.
Count Vogue contributing editor Joan Juliet Buck among the admirers of Bushnell's book. "She's really clever and subversive," Buck says. "It's very difficult to describe glittery people and she does it very well."
Bushnell uses her characters to plumb familiar ground — female bonding and sex, of course — but also some new territory: How do women act at the top? Do women have to sacrifice their careers for home life? Should they?
"I think what I'm really trying to say is people should do what works best for them and shouldn't be constrained by gender. If there are women who want to go out and work and be the breadwinner, that's great," she says.
"It's really about having a passion for what you do and about having some control and direction over your life. It's really about being a CEO of your own life. God, that sounds really cliched!."
Women don't need men to provide "self-esteem, self worth, a sense of purpose," she says. "If I were a man, and a woman was looking at me for those things, it's too much pressure! No wonder men freak out. It's too much pressure."
Wait a minute. What was that? Did we detect a change from Bushnell's "Sex and the City" days? Are men now to be considered a little less evil and quixotic?
"To me, now being in my 40s and a bit more successful, it makes you feel a little bit more generous towards other people," Bushnell responds coyly. "You don't have to male-bash."
Yes, gentlemen, you can stop cowering from behind the sofa.
Bushnell grew up in a middle-class Connecticut family, arriving in New York in 1978 as a waitress, aspiring actress and freelancer. Despite her interest in glitz, she isn't obsessed with wealth. She drives a PT Cruiser, not the Mercedes S600 sedan driven by one of her characters.
"There's a real practical New England side to me. I hate the idea of buying something that's really expensive and then it loses 50 percent of its value as soon as you drive it off the lot," she says.
While she has always enjoyed giving her readers a thrill out of putting their noses up against the window of elite New York lives, Bushnell's relationship with the world of wealth is more complex.
"That perspective comes from not having any money for so long," she says. "One year I made $10,000 and I think I was 33. That was just horrifying — to be 33 and people are looking at you like you're such a loser.
"Having money isn't the answer but it makes your life a hell of a lot nicer. If you have the choice to have money or not have money, pick having money," she says. "That's why I'm still so appreciative that I can take a taxi!"
By the mid-90s, Bushnell started writing her New York Observer column called "Sex and the City," drawing on her considerable knowledge as a young woman in the single scene.
The columns became a book, and the book became a TV phenomenon. Bushnell was called everything from the Dorothy Parker for the millennium to a "martini-wielding Jane Austen."
"Here was someone who had a very true and affecting voice, who really did seem to be reporting from the front lines and doing it with the sort of guileless intensity of the talented innocent," says Vogue's Buck.
Bushnell penned two other best-selling books — "Four Blondes" and "Trading Up" — and married New York City Ballet principal dancer Charles Askegard on July 4, 2002, after a seven-week romance.
Once a fixture on the New York social scene, Bushnell doesn't party much these days, finding the nightlife a little too corporate. She laughs that even though her phone rings, she can't always answer it: Her sleek handheld PDA/phone device leaves her flummoxed.
While Carrie Bradshaw was her alter-ego years ago, Bushnell's latest book offers a clue of the author today — a woman less interested in the gender wars and more concerned with women taking their place in the world.
"What my friends have said to me is that this book is really the most me," she says. "I think the characters in 'Lipstick Jungle' have found more of their identity — just because they're older and more things have happened to them."
And what about her book's go-for-it, seize-the-day attitude?
"I am very much like that," she says. "Of course, I say I'm like that, but believe me, I'll just as soon sit at home and watch 'Dr. Phil.'"