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The HBO post-Emmys bash is in full swing at L.A.'s posh nosh spot Spago, and so is Sex and the City's Sarah Jessica Parker. Not one to let a little thing like not taking home her own Emmy ruffle her feathers, the diminutive actress is fixating instead on the pink plumage of her Oscar de la Renta gown. "Did you get a shot of this dress?" she asks photographers, spinning around to make her skirt twirl. "This is my first experience with real couture! Each feather was sewn on one at a time!"

One should forgive Parker for sounding like a giddy Cinderella, but if the glass slipper—or the Jimmy Choo sandal—fits...After 25 years of playing second banana to everyone from Lori Singer in Footloose to Steve Martin in L.A. Story, the former child actress, once so poor she qualified for free school lunches, is living out her belle epoque. Emmy or not. As Sex and the City's sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, Parker, 35, has provided countless women with an excuse for Sunday-night slumber parties—and caused grown men to beg.

"I'm always calling the producers and saying, 'Let me play someone,' " says actor Alec Baldwin, the show's self-appointed First Fan. "I want to show Carrie fabulous restaurants and have blinding sex with her. I want her to have a life-changing experience with me."

Sounds like someone Carrie might label Spooky Obsessive Man over brunch with her single and cynical gal pals, played by Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis and Kim Cattrall (see page 124). Those ribald rap sessions on everything from "faking it" to the finer points of foreplay are a huge drawing card for the 10.6 million fans—huge numbers for cable TV—who tune in each week. (Still the show curiously lost in all nine Emmy categories in which it was nominated, including best comedy series and best actress in a comedy [Parker].)

But even Candace Bushnell—whose racy book, based on her columns in The New York Observer, inspired the series—concedes that the bed-hopping and barbs would be too much were it not for Parker's "saucy but sympathetic" style. "She makes her character likable," explains New York Times TV critic Caryn James, "and that's crucial to the show's success." Baldwin, who costars with Parker in the forthcoming David Mamet movie State and Main (a comedy due in December), couldn't agree more. "Everybody loves her," he says, "and she remains as unaffected as you could imagine."

Lately though, Parker, a subway-riding New Yorker, has felt the effects of fame. It's one thing to cozy up in a corner of L.A.'s Peninsula Hotel bar in the wee hours following the Emmys with such A-listers as Bruce Willis and The Sopranos' James Gandolfini, but it's quite another to be trailed by fans with shopping carts. "She was recognized before, but now people are starting to follow her," says Parker's longtime friend, movie director Adam Shankman, who noticed other shoppers prowling after them when he picked up groceries with Parker in Laguna Beach, Calif., last year. "People feel they know her."

The truth is, they don't. The actress, who uses the word "grace" as a screen saver on her cell phone (to remind her "to be good to people," she told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY), is nothing like Carrie, and not just because she has girlfriends in New Jersey whom she actually visits. For starters, Parker never swears (she gave up the F-word as a New Year's resolution in January and has also quit smoking), won't do nudity ("I've never felt comfortable with it," she said recently) and is far more likely to be found downing M&Ms at an Off-Broadway show with husband and fellow theater junkie Matthew Broderick than sipping cosmopolitans at the latest hot spot.

Married since 1997, Parker has found what Carrie and her clique seem to have been seeking since the series began in 1998: a partner for flea-market jaunts and bike rides through Central Park who also shares her devotion to the Yankees and makes her laugh. Broderick, she told PEOPLE last-year, "is so smart and so funny and such an honorable person, and I think that's very, very sexy. He's the best of both worlds—a great lover and friend." They are "madly in love," says Sex and the City executive producer Michael Patrick King. "There's really a private-cottage feel to them, almost like they have a little place in the woods that's only for them."

In fact, home for Parker, Broderick and their mixed-breed Border collie Sally is a townhouse in Greenwich Village. That's where Parker's "perfect evening," says her sister-in-law Kim Parker, "would be to cook a good dinner and watch TV or a movie with Matthew."

Next morning, when a designer-clad Carrie might be doing the Walk of Shame across town, early riser Parker is already on-set gearing up for a 16-hour day. "When I wake up I can see the newspapers spread out everywhere, and an empty coffee cup, so I know she was there," Broderick, 38, told PEOPLE in 1999. The actor sometimes stops by the set for lunch—a bold step, considering what he might find on any given day. As David Eigenberg, who recently played Cynthia Nixon's bartender boyfriend, explains, "There'll be times where I'll see John Corbett [who played Carrie's recent squeeze Aidan] in a bathrobe, I'll be in a bathrobe, and then I'll see Chris Noth [Mr. Big] coming down the hall, and he'll be in a bathrobe too. We'll be like, 'Oh, so you're in bed today, huh? Yeah, me too.' We're like the bimbos."

Is the former Ferris Bueller bothered by any of this? "I don't think so," says Parker's brother Timothy Britten Parker, also an actor. "It's perfectly clear that it's just part of the job."

For Parker, the show's self-appointed den mother, so is taking care of the cast and crew. "If she feels they're overworked," says the show's creator and executive producer Darren Star, "she'll call me and say, 'Is there any way we can shut down for the day so these guys can sleep?' " More important, adds producer King, "she shows up on time and knows about dinner breaks." Wouldn't miss 'em, in fact. "That woman eats," Chris Noth says of the 5'4" size-0 star. "She'll put down a T-bone, no problem. She's got that energy that just burns it off."

Burning disposable cash comes just as easily to Parker. If there's one thing she shares with her onscreen alter ego, it's a passion for Manolo Blahniks (she reportedly has a closet full of the costly Italian shoes) and Fendi Baguettes, the superexpensive handbags of which she owns at least two. Yet even on Madison Avenue, memories of her "Dickensian" childhood, as Parker once called it, are never distant. On a recent shopping trip, recalls Sex and the City first assistant director Bettiann Fishman, "she saw something she liked and she stopped and said, 'Oh, a little pricey.' I asked, 'Why did that even come into your head?' And she said, 'Well, you know what, let me take it, and if it doesn't work I can always return it.' She doesn't forget."

Parker's recollections reach back to Nelsonville, the coalmining town in southeastern Ohio where she was born. Her parents—Barbara, then an elementary school teacher and Stephen Parker, an aspiring writer—divorced when Sarah Jessica, the youngest of their four children (Pippin, now 39, Timothy, 38, and Rachel, 37, came before), was a toddler. Two years later, in 1969, Barbara married and had a child with Paul Forste, who moved the family to Cincinnati, where he worked as a truck driver and they added three more to their brood. Forste was in and out of work, and the family fell on hard times. "We didn't have electricity sometimes. We didn't have Christmases sometimes, or we didn't have birthdays sometimes," Parker told The New York Times in July. "The phone company would call and say, 'We're shutting your phones off.' "

But there was no shutting down the dauntless Barbara Forste, now 62 and running a nursery school she founded in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband. Determined that her children should be steeped in the arts and politically active, she carted them off to scholarship-funded ballet and music classes, the theater and Democratic party rallies in the family's beat-up VW van. At 5:30 each morning, the old farmhouse they lived in was transformed into a junior arts colony. "We'd all do a 20-minute ballet class," recalls Timothy. "Then Sarah would practice her violin, Pippin would practice his flute, and I would go to the piano. This was on top of all the usual household dramas of 'Where are my shoes? Where's my lunch? Get out of the bathroom.' "

Ballet teacher David Blackburn, who taught Parker from age 8 to 12, remembers "an extremely focused young girl." Cast as a mouse in The Nutcracker, which required her to stand on her head and kick her legs when the clock struck 12, she practiced devotedly at home—on the hour, every hour. "Her mother called me up and said, 'Mr. Blackburn, this child is driving me crazy,' " he recalls. " 'Don't you think something is going to happen to her?' "

Something did. In 1976, Paul Forste spotted a casting call in a local paper for a Broadway production of The Innocents and took the kids to New York City to audition. Parker and Timothy both won roles. "Within a year the entire family moved to Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to be close to the theaters of Manhattan. Forste started a moving company for traveling Broadway productions, and Parker enrolled at Manhattan's Professional Children's School, where she was a good student but a better actress. Impressed by her "extraordinary talent and intelligence," composer Charles Strouse cast her in a 1978 musical revue that led to a plum role as Broadway's third little orphan Annie.

When actress Amy Linker met her on the set of the 1982 CBS comedy Square Pegs, the Laura Ashley-clad teen seemed perfectly suited to her role as the nerdy freshman Patty Greene. Still, adds Linker, "she grew out of her preppy phase really quickly."

A more grown-up part as high school senior Lori Singer's best friend in the 1984 movie hit Footloose helped. So did the ordeal of coping with her drug-addled boyfriend, actor Robert Downey Jr., with whom Parker lived for seven years before they broke up in early 1991. "She [helped him] with interventions, you name it," says Jill Matson, who worked for the pair as an assistant. "But you go through a lot with that, the lies, deceit, mistrust."

Subsequent romances—with Nicolas Cage, her costar in 1992's Honeymoon in Vegas, for one—were short-lived. Yet Parker was rarely jaded by the dating game. "I remember when John Kennedy Jr. asked her out on a date," says her old friend Shankman. "She called me, screaming, 'You're not going to believe who asked me out!' " Though the pair dated for only a matter of months in 1991, Shankman says Parker was devastated by Kennedy's death.

By then, of course, she had Broderick to console her. They met in 1991 when Broderick directed Timothy in a play. The couple, both half-Jewish, wed in a civil ceremony performed by Broderick's sister, an Episcopal minister, in a former synagogue downtown—but not before Parker had spent considerable time cooling her 4-in. heels waiting for a proposal. And she wasn't alone. Says Shankman: "It's as if all her friends were standing beside her, their arms crossed, thinking, 'What are you gonna do, bud?' "

If friends are correct, she and Broderick won't delay long before having a baby. "I know they both want children very much," friend Iva Rifkin says of Parker and Broderick. "Her friends have children, and she's just in love with them, talks about them all the time and carries their pictures with her."

For now, though, Parker is happy to make do by indulging the family she already has. After wrapping up this season's final Sex and the City episode at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday last month, Parker didn't hesitate to call sister-in-law Kim, who is married to Parker's brother Pippin. "Other people might stay in and unwind and retreat from the world," says Kim. "She's like, 'I'm back! Come on over. I'm cooking.' " Is she ever.

Anne-Marie O'Neill
Natasha Stoynoff, Sue Miller and Fannie Weinstein in New York City and Pamela Warrick and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Natasha Stoynoff,
  • Sue Miller,
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • Paula Yoo.