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Bringing Sexy Back

Bringing Sexy Back


In this summer's Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall is back for more. But the woman who symbolizes sex with no strings isn't anything like her screen persona--except of course when she is.

"Oh, my God, look at these prices!" gasps Kim Cattrall, her eyes bugging in horror at the Four Seasons' continental breakfast menu. And she's right -- $30 for lox on a bagel is insane.

But still: Samantha Jones? Wringing her hands over menu prices? Shouldn't she be ordering mimosas with impunity and fearlessly flirting with our waiter, a Hugo Boss model with Crest Whitestrips teeth?

Actors encounter this delusion all the time: the expectation that they are the character they're known for -- in Cattrall's case, a brazen practitioner of sexual immoderation. It's a common enough problem that using it to open a magazine profile feels a little cliched. But for Cattrall, who for six seasons played a role that is now inked indelibly on the American consciousness, it's a bigger issue than for most. Even I'm a little shocked when our server turns out not to be a statuesque Hugo Boss model but a small Asian woman who cries out, "Anything for you!" when Cattrall asks for some salt.

"Some people have that lifestyle," she says of Samantha's "appetite," as she calls it. "I don't. I never have." She'll reassert this fact several times during our chat -- you get the sense it's the one point she really wants to make sure ends up in the article. For our interview, she's not even wearing much makeup, and her shoes look suspiciously comfortable. Her carefully chosen words are spoken almost sotto voce, nothing like Samantha's voice, so sassy-kitten it's almost vaudevillian.

"People book me on jobs and expect Samantha to show up," which can be exasperating. Why me? Cattrall must think. No one expects Kristin Davis to arrive at an event as a relentlessly sunny type-A husband hunter. For some reason, Samantha's personality stubbornly adheres to its vessel, possibly because it represents an ideal, the kind of person we like to imagine there'd be more of, if the world were a different place. It's such a powerful persona that Cattrall refers to Samantha in the third person without even seeming to notice she's doing so. "She has a tremendous fan base," she says of her character, as if talking up a colleague.

By "fan base," of course, one can deduce to whom she's referring. Could Samantha Jones be any gayer? Saucy, witty, usually single, sexually unabashed, and on the far side of 40, she's also the oldest of the four Sex and the City women by nearly 10 years. "And definitely the most theatrical," Cattrall says. "I think [the producers] wanted her a little bit older because when she speaks there's a life experience there that weighs in."

In other words, she's the very definition of a diva, and as such she brings a certain wisdom that validates the lifestyle she's chosen -- which in turn validates gay men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s with lifestyles similar to hers: not settled down, too flamboyant for their age. In an era where being 40, gay, and not partnered in a civil union is considered vaguely shameful -- even "bad for the cause" -- Samantha makes it seem hip and fantastic.

I ask Cattrall if she'd recommend marriage to the gays, now that it's nominally possible. "You know, marriage doesn't work for me. Never did. I've done it a few times" -- three, to be exact -- "and I didn't do very well at it. But I've found that for a lot of my friends who are gay who have gotten married, it means so much to them to have a marriage that's an open celebration. It's not just an exchange of rings."

Samantha's age and for that matter Cattrall's lends her another appealing attribute: a memory of an era of sexual decadence.

"I'm a child of the '60s and '70s," Cattrall says. "It was before the plague, and sexuality wasn't thought of as a scary thing. Samantha was like a voice from the recent past saying, 'If it feels good, go with it. Protect yourself, but go with it.' "

"Go with it" was something a lot of gay men were ready to hear when the show debuted in 1998. Two years earlier Bill Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining gay unions as less important than straight ones in the eyes of the federal government. In 1997, thanks to the new "cocktail" antiretroviral therapies, AIDS deaths began falling for the first time since the syndrome was first publicly recognized 16 years earlier. Had the show existed just a few years before, when AIDS was a still the very definition of fear, the character of Samantha would have been a very different role model -- she might have been glamorous, but her feral sexuality would have had a tragic lining. By the late '90s, however, we were embracing a new wave of sexual liberation, and Samantha's rejection of conventional relationships made her the perfect icon for the era.

"It was about getting away from the fear-based," says Cattrall. "Samantha's fear base is not about disease; it's about intimacy. And a lot of people" -- she doesn't mention us specifically -- "have many sexual partners because they're scared of intimacy." With her three-ways and her dabbling in same-sex experiences, Samantha was the show's most celebratory character. But she was "also coming to terms with being kind of a dinosaur," says Cattrall. When she finally accepted the role (after turning it down three times), she wondered, Are people going to believe that a woman in her 40s has this amount of choice?

For the answer, one need only look at Cattrall herself, who four years ago started dating a striking Canadian chef, now 29, who'd never heard of her when they first met. They're still together today. The 51-year-old recently blasted a journalist who called him her boy toy: "If he was a toy, I would have put him away a long time ago," she says.

For all her desire to put some distance between herself and Samantha, there are undeniable parallels. "I'm a woman of a certain age who doesn't have kids and never really settled down," she says. When she talks about children, she's refreshingly unapologetic about brooking no quarter for them. "I enjoy kids but not for long periods. I think they're adorable and funny and sweet, and then I have a headache." And she once told a journalist she thinks marriage is antithetical to sexual passion. "My perception is, the times I've been in long-term relationships and not taken care, there's been a price to pay, and we start looking somewhere else because the person next to you in bed is pissed off."

But the decision not to settle down comes with a price of its own, one many of us are familiar with. "I miss my girlfriends," says Cattrall, who laments the nights out on the town lost to feedings, tantrums, and early bedtimes. "There's always an excuse: Somebody's tired, somebody hasn't eaten, somebody didn't sleep well, or somebody's not feeling well."

When her third marriage came apart in 2003, the last season of Sex and the City had just wrapped. Cattrall was one of the highest-profile actors on television. (Of the four stars, she also turned out to be the second highest in market value, according to a recent article in Portfolio, due to lucrative deals with Liz Claiborne and Bacardi, among others.) She'd just written a book with her husband, Mark Levinson, the audio equipment magnate, called Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm. She says the book, ironically, was meant to separate her from Samantha in the public's mind. "Samantha has this great sex life where she's in charge, and I would say that 99% of women don't have great sex lives," she says. "I was playing these strong-minded women who know what they want and ask for it...but I wasn't having orgasms in real life, and I thought that would be an interesting book to write, to reveal that that was not who I was." But the press didn't see the nuance. "It was so titillating to so many people. There was news that there were nude photographs of my husband and me in sexual positions, but none of that happened," she says. "It wasn't about my husband and me doing it. It kind of backfired."

The media frenzy created by the book and Sex and the City's conclusion ensured Cattrall's divorce would be front-page tabloid fodder, an ordeal she still bridles about. "When you read about your divorce in Cindy Adams's column and it's between you and maybe three friends, you feel betrayed," she says. (Adams, the New York Post gossip columnist, had written in the months before the divorce that Levinson had fallen for "Kim Cattrall the actress, not necessarily for Kim Levinson the real woman.") "It doesn't matter whether it's one person's point of view against another's as to why you're getting divorced," Cattrall says. "It's nobody's fucking business."

But the tabloids kept coming. When the show ended, rumors swirled about an ongoing catfight between Cattrall and the other three women, particularly Sarah Jessica Parker. People wanted to know why she didn't seem friendlier with them. "Do you get along with your colleagues all the time?" she asks me. "If you're spending 18 hours a day [at work], the last thing you want to do is go and have a drink with the people who you just -- you just need to get away."

"I think people had a vested interest in this scenario," she continues, referring to the tabloid press. "That on the show we were best friends, but in reality there was all this going on. And I think specifically they wanted to pit Sarah and me against each other because those characters are so strong. My character was such a fabulous diva. She's flamboyant, and she doesn't keep her mouth shut."

Cattrall was reported to have held up production of the film after the three other actresses signed on, and she reiterates a number of reasons for doing so: Her father was diagnosed with dementia; she couldn't see the script before signing; when she did see the script, she didn't like it. "I didn't think it was that great," she says. "I'm glad we waited four years for a much better story line for all four characters." And of course, the money. Cattrall doesn't dispute that she held out for more, but she says it wasn't out of jealousy over Parker's higher salary, as was widely reported. "I never expected to be paid what Sarah was being paid," she says. "Sarah's a producer. But I felt that the offer was not worthy of what the three of us had contributed, and I spoke up about it. You know, my dad was a big union guy. He felt that the workers should get a part of it."

She insists that reports she was only doing the movie for the money took her words out of context. Still, she's candid about the fact that this is her nest egg, and she's not getting any younger. "I'm a woman in my 50s. I'm not living with some multimillionaire. I'm it. Negotiation is about getting more money, and I think, Would they have a problem with this if I were a man? You look at James Gandolfini. He stood up and said, 'Hey, I'm worth it.' " Her hard line appears to have worked. In March the Post reported that not only had Cattrall gotten a raise, but so had Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon, thanks to her bargaining efforts. "Enough said" is all she'll say in response to that. "It's like, 'Oh, don't make any waves. Just be a good girl and take it.' And you know, I'm happy with my deal, ultimately. I feel like I stuck my neck out. I fought. I don't ever want to be on a set where I feel undervalued."

As if we needed another reason to love her. These sorts of conflicts may gin up the rumor mill, but Cattrall seems willing to sacrifice the sash of Miss Congeniality. Her life is about being a walking misconception -- people assume she's a bitch because she held out for more money, or a nympho because of her character's sex drive. She thinks maybe this is one more way she's like a gay man. "There's a preconception that people have when they meet me, and I think a lot of gay people have to deal with that on a daily basis," she says. "You see a beautiful actress on TV, and you immediately think, Oh, she's just a dumb blond. You see someone sexual and you think, She's a slut; she's a whore. People like these kinds of labels."

But Cattrall is an example of the contradiction in all actors -- and of how inescapable playing those roles is in shaping one's own life. In fact, she has one more story that best sums up how Kim is never really that far from Samantha.

"You know, when you're at the fish counter at Citarella and a man comes up to you and says, 'I really have to thank you. You made it easier for me and my daughter to have a conversation about oral sex,' you don't really want to be at the fish counter anymore. It's not the kind of conversation you normally want to have. It kind of takes you out of your day."

I tell her I can't believe someone would walk up to a stranger and start discussing oral sex, and Kim Cattrall shares my indignation. "Yes! He did!" she cries, affronted.

And then Samantha says, "And you know what? He was kind of cute."

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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