'I'd never had that many men interested in me'
When 'Sex and the City' author Candace Bushnell went online dating in her fifties, she found the landscape of love had changed dramatically, writes Celia Walden
What Candace Bushnell, the author of 'Sex and the City', doesn't know about the peculiarly ritualistic two-step we break into as a prelude to love and sex probably isn't worth knowing.
Although back when she was writing the waspish 'New York Observer' columns that spawned the hit TV show and films, Bushnell couldn't have imagined a world in which, as she says, "people will actually pay for the chance of romance" - let alone conceive that, at 57, she would be one of them.
"Before I tried online dating for the first time, the big mystery was: 'Why is it so hard to find someone?'" says Bushnell, who has been single since 2012, when she and her husband of 10 years, ballet dancer Charles Askegard, divorced.
"Honestly, finding men in the Eighties just wasn't a problem. You could meet someone in the supermarket. You could walk out of your apartment and run into someone on the street. I mean, that whole beginning of 'Sex and the City', when Carrie meets Mr Big, that wasn't just a neat cue: that kind of thing happened back then. But now people seem to be adamant that online is the only way."
So what has changed? "Well, bars are still full of attractive, eligible men," she flings back in her gravelly voice - the voice of a woman who has spent decades shouting over the music in hip Manhattan hot spots, "but the problem is that nobody is looking at each other anymore. Because if you're going to hook up with someone, you've already made that arrangement online."
Bushnell wasn't looking to hook up with anyone when she found herself logging on earlier this year. Holed up in her Connecticut home, producing a bestseller every four years, the author of 'Killing Monica' and 'Lipstick Jungle' was happy as she was.
Asked by 'Cosmopolitan' magazine to write a piece about Tinder, the LA-born dating app popular for its simplicity (swipe right if you like a potential match, left if you don't), Bushnell found herself back in the dating cesspit for the first time in 14 years.
And, boy, had things changed.
At first, she was matched with "age-appropriate" men: "so there were literally about three grey-haired old gents" she chuckles, "but when I set the age to 22-38, I got hundreds of guys."
I've interviewed Bushnell on several occasions over the years, and she's not prone either to girlish excitement or bouts of insecurity.
She's sassy without being cynical and just as seductive now as she was when I first met her 20 years ago, but for a moment there, the writer admits to feeling dizzied by the "magical pink waves" of opportunity: "I couldn't believe all these guys were 'liking' me! I had never had that many men interested in me in my life.
"But it's a false positive," she clarifies. "Once you start filtering through it all, it's not real." As she quickly discovered when the messages started flying back and forth ("it's almost impossible to have text-message chemistry"), and she went on a series of dates with a 31-year-old hipster named Jude in Manhattan.
Just when the author had seriously started to believe that she had found the one and only digital dating "unicorn" - a man who was funny, polite, clever, good at making plans and not just after sex - Jude stood her up, eventually texting to say that he had done "too many drugs, got really drunk" and wound up in A&E the night before.
Bushnell's disappointment, when she was only online dating for a story, surprised her.
"But the excitement and the fantasy make people addicted.
"There's this continual hope that this person could be The One.
"And you do meet these women who have had boyfriends who maybe lasted for six months - or found a man who could have been right had he not had to move away."
Talk to any woman who has been online dating for a while, and "it seems like a hell of a lot of men are suddenly having to travel to foreign countries", she says wryly - before admitting that she found startling the series of half-truths and downright lies offered up from the outset.
"So instead of a relationship beginning with a meeting of eyes across a room and a spark, people are immediately starting a relationship on an untruthful foundation, which doesn't seem terribly healthy."
Both the biggest charm of online dating, and the biggest concern, says Bushnell, is the ease of it all.
"Because it's just so easy to move on to another person," she says.
"I got the feeling that people weren't willing to put that much effort into real life anymore. And it does seem like what's really missing now is romance - because there's none of that even at the start.
"Then again, if 50pc of people are now meeting their husbands and wives on dating apps ..." she shrugs. That means that 50pc of people are not?
"Exactly. And the best advice I've been able to glean from the experts is: do it for a few months online, and then take a break and do it IRL - in real life.
"Because if you become addicted to a dating app, you're not really looking for someone, you're looking for a high."
The most important thing for any online dating virgin to remember, cautions Bushnell, is that these platforms are predominantly designed by men.
So they're getting more out of them than women?
"Exactly. They're designed to capture the male brain and keep it engaged," she says, likening them to "judging beauty contests for men - and that's every guy's fantasy.
"You see a lot of them use it as a sort of dating training wheel, practising their game and their jokes on women online before doing it IRL - but never really getting much action while they're on there."
Not that it matters, Bushnell insists.
"For a lot of guys, just having a woman write back to them is as good as getting laid. He thinks she's interested in having sex, while she's thinking he's interested in having a relationship."
Bushnell doesn't seem in the least bit saddened to have emerged from her online dating experiment without a hint of either sex or a relationship.
"At this point in my life I'm not looking for a man," she assures me in the worn tones of someone who gets asked about this more than she'd like.
So no craving to fall in love again? "Not really. If there's one thing I've learnt it's that you can't force that anyway. When I met my ex-husband, it really was that thing where we locked eyes across a room and I thought: 'I'm going to marry that man.' So if that's the kind of experience you've had …"
Bushnell doesn't have to finish her sentence. Neither does she have to expand on why she won't be pursuing her dating experiment in real life.
"Anyway," she smiles, "my phone fell down the toilet. And there were all my friends saying 'you can get all the stuff on it back', and I thought about it and said: 'You know what? I think I'm good.'"
Killing Monica by Candace Bushnell is published in paperback by Little, Brown & Company (€10.99)