November 23, 2008

Carla Bruni was on television the other morning promoting her album. She said that even though she's first lady she still needs to focus on her work. Then she added, demurely, "Not that I'm a feminist."

What does that mean? Is being a feminist antithetical to being a former supermodel who now writes songs and married the President of France? And she said it like it was such a bad thing. Maybe she's concerned someone might mistake her for Simone DeBeauvoir.

That she had written her album before meeting President Sarkozy was the point. Because it made her a person (an artist) before she knew him, and it was important not to give that up.

Where's the dividing line between what we do and who we are? It's never more of an issue than when I'm in New York. People there are obsessed with work. Your job is your identity. The first question anyone asks is 'What do you do?' And it's not just what you do for a living that matters but where you do it. If you call someone at an office the secretary will ask for your name and as soon as you give it the next question will be: "From?"

I freeze when this happens. Will my response get me through to the next level? My friend Jamie always replies, "Texas." For those of us who don't work for a company, there aren't a lot of choices. Where am I from? The Ariel Leve Foundation. We're based in my apartment. It's a small operation.

The other day I had to call someone in publishing. "From?" the assistant asked.

"Nowhere."

That did wonders for my self-esteem.

In Los Angeles, everyone wants to be in show business so it's a given the day job is temporary. You know your waitress is waiting to be an actress, the postman is writing a screenplay and the dry cleaner is also a producer. It's understood.

But in New York, it's far more aggressive and people are scrupulously judged by what they do. If you say you're a writer, you'd better be prepared for the next question: "Who do you write for?" Or if you're an artist: "Which gallery?" Or a musician: "Who are you signed with?"

If you don't have an answer then you're made to feel as though you have no right to claim this as your profession. People at parties in New York are like the IRS. Slip up and you'll get audited.

And don't bother starting a sentence with "I used to work for…" because unless the story ends with "And now I own…" whoever you're talking to has stopped listening and moved on.

Here's the difference between New York and London. If I tell someone in London I have a book coming out, they say, "That's great. Congratulations." In New York the response is: "When's your pub date?"

My what? At first I thought it was a mistake. I don't date at pubs. Then it was explained: the publication date - when the book hits the shelves. This was explained to me by a housewife who I met in the laundry room. As in the actual laundry room, not the name of a hot new club.

Another thing I've noticed is that writers in Manhattan who have been published can sometimes be stingy about allowing unpublished writers to claim 'writer' status. As though there are a limited number of slots. My favorite distinction is, "She is a published author." Without the word published in front of it, it means: wishful thinker.

I've decided that in the future I should introduce myself as "A published author who feels like an unpublished one."

I understand Carla Bruni's desire to assert her identity. Flying on private planes, waving and looking great in Dior isn't who she is. She was singing and songwriting long before she married. So maybe the dividing line comes down to what we feel is most familiar and how we see ourselves.

In which case, I should just refer to myself as a worrier.