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A Tour of New York's Red Light District

Fans are thrilled to walk a mile in the Choos of the 'Sex and the City' women.

November 11, 2001|ERIN TEXEIRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — The women have come to try on $1,000 stilettos and sip potent fruity cocktails, pinky fingers extended. They've come to rub shoulders-and maybe more--with scrumptious, abundant single men. They have come, despite the tension and fear shrouding America's most glamorous city, for a taste of the fabulous life.

They want to live "Sex and the City."

At least for a few hours. From a bus. With a tour guide.

"I gave up tickets to 'Aida"'--a top-notch Broadway musical--"to come on this tour," said Sonia Cook, a 36-year-old court reporter visiting from Florida. "These are the places where [the characters] have been, so that's what's important."

Launched a few weeks ago, the three-hour tour travels the real-life haunts that help shape the hugely popular HBO show, which won an Emmy Award for best comedy series last week.

The excursions escort fans to Tiffany & Co., where one "Sex" character got her engagement ring, and to the quaint midcity church where another tried to seduce an attractive priest. It invites visitors to buy cosmopolitans--the characters' favorite drink--at O'Nieals, the SoHo bar often used as a show location. These are the backdrops for the romantic misadventures of the four main "Sex" characters, three persistently single New York City women and their newlywed girlfriend. Though Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha are disappointed in love, sex and life as often as they delight in it, countless real-life women--and more than a few men--crave their fanciful urban lives. Most of their time is spent shopping for trendy gear, dating oodles of eligible men and gossiping about both over brunches and cocktails at chic eateries. The women enjoy unwavering friendships and active, if turbulent, sex lives. They occasionally work at their jobs as a writer, lawyer, art gallery director and public relations executive. They rarely leave the city (why bother?). And they navigate the gritty streets of New York wearing three-inch, strappy heels and riding in taxicabs--no subways, please.

At a time when New York has never felt less whimsical, when fashionistas are declaring the death of impractical shoes that might hamper disaster escape, the tour provides visitors a respite. Rather than talk of war and anthrax, it invites tourgoers to imagine themselves as residents of the frenetic, big-money city built on dreams.

The tour is, most of all, a reminder that television shows such as "Sex and the City" offer the fantasy of safe, beautiful lives. "Now, more than ever, people need an escape," says Georgette Blau, 27, who created and hosts the tour. People need to feel they're "entering TV-land ... escaping into this world."

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Visitors have long arrived in New York aching for relief from real life. Last year, more than 37 million came, according to the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau. They are still coming, though in much smaller numbers.

The "Sex" tour is one of hundreds of narrowly focused New York excursions offered each month, ranging from the history of radical politics in Chelsea to a taste of Hasidic life in Brooklyn. One outing is led by a retired New York police officer who brings visitors to the Brooklyn Bridge and describes how he once talked potential suicides from the ledge. Lately, that tour has been accented with descriptions of the disaster site, where the officer has helped with relief efforts, says Ian Rowe, president of IMar.com, a tour company that offers more than 500 city tours and handles bookings for the "Sex" tour.

HBO, which will air six new episodes of "Sex" starting in January, is not affiliated with the tour, according to a network spokeswoman. But she acknowledged, "We know about the tour, and we know there's a cottage industry behind the show." Indeed, HBO itself sells full-season compilations of the show's episodes on DVD and sells show-inspired products such as T-shirts and cocktail glasses. This week, the online auction house EBay listed more than 250 "Sex"-related items for sale including jewelry, shoes and handbags inspired by the characters.

"I think the show is realistic," said Jeff Goldstein, 39, a computer consultant who lives in New Jersey and took the tour with his friend Ellen Garnes, 29. "It doesn't seem like a show. You could actually see people talking and acting like that."

Each week since the tours began in late September, at least a few dozen people have paid $25 to stand in the courtyard of the Plaza hotel and recall how Carrie, the show's star, portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker, bid a tearful farewell to her sometime-lover Mr. Big, played by Chris Noth.

Then they board a small bus, listen to rhythmic club music and are entertained by Blau, who dishes show trivia while en route to tour stops. From the Plaza in midtown Manhattan, they head south along 5th Avenue. Eventually they stop in the downtown neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, SoHo and the newly trendy meatpacking district in the West Village, covering about 30 sites in all.

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