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Monica Takes Manhattan

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Let her critics snicker: Being Monica has its benefits, among them her new line of eponymous handbags. As she told Barbara Walters, she survived her ordeal in part by knitting, and she's since turned her hobby into a business that she says is doing "really well," though she won't disclose sales figures. In her role as designer of the Real Monica bags, she flies frequently to check on her Louisiana manufacturers and spends days crisscrossing the garment district, hunting for the perfect tassel, the right leather button, and assorted other "thingamabobbies." Currently sold at Henri Bendel, Fred Segal, and London's the Cross as well as on realmonica.com, her hippie-ish, reversible totes (now including men's messenger bags) are christened by Monica herself with names like Bohemian Ruby Tote and Notting Hill Carryall. She also writes the Website copy for the purses, like this blurb for the Midnight Storm Camoufler Purse: "Glistening like a midnight comet, this blackout is a welcome one, unlike your hard drive crashing prior to deadline or at twelve a.m."

The bag business is based in her apartment, a nondescript one-bedroom duplex near Christopher Street. It's a good size but not a great size, with a small bedroom loft on the second floor (sometimes she pretends to spit on you from up there). She's decorated it all with large country-cute furniture, like a red damask couch and a white vanity so tall that a hole had to be cut in her ceiling to make it fit. Hulking in a corner as well is her gym-size elliptical trainer, which she says she uses three times a week.

The most notable thing about Monica's quarters, however, is the roses, which are everywhere. About two dozen paintings of roses hang on her walls; she's got rose tea sets, rose mugs, rose doormats, even plates with pictures of roses on little wooden stands. "This is the Rose Collection," says Monica, with a sweep of her hand. "It's kind of an eclectic mix of rose things. Because I love roses. I always have, the way they smell . . . I just -- I love them!"

From the aromatic candles to the video of Breakfast at Tiffany's, Monica's apartment is no different from those of many other single girls newly moved to the big city, the kind of women educated enough to hold their own at cocktail parties but also able to calibrate the attractiveness of the guys on Friends in terms of "totally cute" and "obtainable cute." Her high-culture tastes run to T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and Shakespeare, whose plays grace her coffee table; her low ones include chick flicks, women's magazines, and Bridget Jones's Diary, which she considers "a culturally revolutionizing" book. Her CD collection features Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Edie Brickell, Natalie Merchant, the Indigo Girls -- and a copy of Bill Clinton Jam Sessions: The Pres Blows, given to her by a friend as a joke and immediately thrown away when this reporter noticed it.

After all, this is the first time Monica's had a working reporter in her home, and as she leads me on a tour, she's very nervous, trying hard to seem self-possessed and mature but also given to using words like whatchamacallit and acting out her thoughts: "After living for a while in L.A., you're like, 'Hello, I'd like some snow, please.' " Though she always reads the Times and prides herself on keeping up with cultural trends, there is something in Monica that seems younger than her 27 years -- "Maybe it's because I was a 21-year-old intern for five years," she says.

She no longer drinks as of last summer -- during her troubles, she had a tendency to overdo it -- but it is, after all, Saturday night, so she makes cranberry-and-seltzers in fancy green glass goblets. "Cheers," she says with a wan smile. Then she gets down to it.

"What's difficult for me is that people have formed opinions of me based on a year during which I wasn't able to define myself," she says, perched stiffly on her couch. "And that's not a true reflection of who I am. So, while I don't do much press, because I don't want to become sound-bite city -- see, sound-bite city? -- it's important to get across that most interesting people are multifaceted, that they're sarcastic and sweet and caring and naïve and lots of other things at the same time."

What becomes clear after the most perfunctory tour of Monica's apartment, however, is her passion for projects. She seems to have a new one each day, like sewing a string of cloth roses onto a new tank top just for fun, or seeing what she can do with her BeDazzler, a staple gun that attaches rhinestones to jean jackets. When I asked if there was an activity she'd like to do together, she suggested a glaze-your-own-mug place, Our Name Is Mud.

With colored construction paper and pinking shears, Monica handmade dozens of invitations to her first party after the impeachment. Unfortunately, before she had mailed them, the independent counsel warned her not to make any plans she couldn't break because she might be needed in Washington if Clinton was indicted. So Monica put away all of these invitations and made a batch of cancellation cards, sending them out to all her guests just in case they thought she had actually gone on with her party and left them off the list.

It's her friends from Los Angeles and Portland's Lewis & Clark College with whom Monica remains closest, though she's made a bunch of new ones in New York who are both supportive and protective. In fact, last night, some of them came over for dinner, though someone else cooked: "I was sous-chef," says Monica. "Which means I chopped. Which is very, very hard." Afterward, she put on Guys and Dolls and led everyone in a rendition of the whole show. "Then we all played Monopoly and a game called Taboo," which she'd just bought and which was extremely hard to find. "Did you ever notice that none of the toy stores in this city carry board games?" she says.

But while Monica may have made some new pals, it hasn't always been easy to find a boyfriend. She's had one serious relationship since she's been in the city, with filmmaker Mick Reed, but as of right now, she's available -- "very available," she says, laughing. A self-described "romantic at heart," Monica even wrote a Valentine's Day poem at the behest of a British magazine, "To My Darling Prufrock":

See you at the Oyster Bar at 9 o'clock

(don't forget your handkerchief you know how the sawdust gets to you)

the white flannel trousers will be fine

(the Dolce & Gabbana ones)

. . . and yes, rolled cuffs are still "in."

Wearing the bracelet and shawl you gave me
And my mermaid dress

. . . and I may just sing to you!

In the real world, Monica mostly meets guys at parties or, a couple of times a month, gets set up by friends, who screen out the curiosity-seekers and weirdos. "I guess you could call them blind dates," she says. "But they're really only half blind." She may be playing the field at the moment, but Monica is adamant it won't be for long. "I want to get married and have kids -- soon," she says. "That's probably the most important thing to me."


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