After five years and six series, the hit show Girls is coming to an end. Lena Dunham tells Jane Mulkerrins her plans for life after Hannah

If Sex and the City was the culture-defining series of the late 1990s and early 2000s - a glossy, glamorous portrayal of a rarified Manhattan existence - then Girls has been the millennial riposte. A younger, grittier, grimier take on life in the same city, it is produced by the same channel, HBO, and set only a decade later, but it depicts a generation whose prospects, properties and footwear collections have been dramatically diminished by a global financial crisis and recession.

Where SATC was an unapologetic paean to its era's avarice and excess, Girls - the sixth and final season - is more a darkly comedic La Boheme for the 21st century. Little about its 20-something characters' lives is enviable or aspirational, as they navigate mental illness, abortion, addiction and rehab, cyclical career struggles, and awkward sexual encounters.

It has, however, made a global star of its creator, director and leading actress, Lena Dunham, who celebrated her 30th birthday on set, last May.

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls.
Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls.

"There was a lot of symbolism in that. Girls has been my life, it's been my friends, it's been my identity,' she says. She began writing the show when she was 24 and a recent college graduate living at home with her parents, and it has since won her two Golden Globes.

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Aptly, we meet in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, the New York borough in which the show is set, and where Dunham shares a loft apartment with her boyfriend of almost five years, the musician Jack Antonoff, and their dog, Lamby. I arrive early and secure a large sofa at the far end of the cafe. When I head back to the counter, I find Dunham - who reportedly earned a $3.5 million advance for her first book in 2014, a collection of autobiographical essays entitled Not that Kind of Girl - having difficulty paying for her chai latte and the two macademia nut cookies she's ordered for us both; her second credit card has just been declined. In a flurry of hugs and apologies, she accepts my offer to pay in cash instead.

It is a month after the US election, and Dunham, like much of the left-leaning population, is still reeling from Hillary Clinton's shock defeat.

"It felt like a bereavement," she says. Dunham campaigned extensively for Hillary, making speeches in swing states across the northeast, and at the Democratic National Convention, urging young voters to support the former First Lady.

"I remember where I was when I found out that my grandma died; I remember where I was when I found out that Nora Ephron [the journalist and screenwriter who became Dunham's mentor after she wrote her a fan letter] had died. And I will always remember where I was when I found out the election result."

Lena Dunham and Allison Williams star in Girls.
Lena Dunham and Allison Williams star in Girls.

How much of a role does she believe misogyny played in the election? "A huge one," she replies.

"We have a problem with female leadership in this country. Hillary was held to a list of demands no person could ever meet: to be tough and strong, but also the sweet grandma; and to dress in a way that everybody likes, but not be too sexy; to look official, but not too official; to show her sense of humour, while also showing her intelligence."

The fact that she was the subject of a New Yorker profile, two years before most of the world learnt her name, reveals something of the nature of Dunham's background. Born and raised in downtown Manhattan, where her mother, Laurie Simmons, is an artist and photographer, and her father, Carroll Dunham, is a painter, Dunham and her sister Grace's young lives were ones of bourgeois bohemia.

"I always thought of myself as relatively unpopular," Dunham has said of her teenage years. But she was already exploring her precocious creative powers, "writing and directing these incredibly graphic, morbid high-school plays about abortion and incest at age 14".

She made a short film called The Fountain at just 21, while at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she had enrolled to study creative writing. The six-minute video shows Dunham stripping down to a bikini and performing her ablutions in one of campus's fountains; it received a million and a half hits on YouTube.

The cast of Girls when they began the series, six seasons ago.
The cast of Girls when they began the series, six seasons ago.

At 23, she wrote, directed and starred in Tiny Furniture, a semi-autobiographical story about a graduate returning home to her artist parents' loft (shot in her parents' loft in Tribeca, employing her mother, sister and Jemima Kirke as cast members).

"My big fantasy was that it would play in a small movie theatre for a week, and maybe I would get a new boyfriend out of it," she deadpans. The results were rather more fruitful. She was approached by HBO, who commissioned her to write four episodes of a show she had a rough idea for - Girls.

But with the show's success has come criticism: that its characters are too white, too entitled ("they're the parts of me that I find the most shameful, or the parts of me that I want to excise," Dunham has admitted).

She has endured a torrent of vicious commentary over her clothes, her words, and, in particular, her body, which she has, from the beginning, bared in all its rounded, fleshy glory on Girls.

In person, Dunham is infinitely more attractive and stylish than she ever allows herself to be as her character Hannah, whose entire on-screen wardrobe is, intentionally, a size too small.

Girls made Lena Dunham a global star.
Girls made Lena Dunham a global star.

There is also a great gulf between her dating disasters on screen and her very settled personal life off it, though she and Jack, 32, have no plans, as yet, to marry. "It's not that I am against marriage in any way, but I do like the fact that we have placed zero pressure on ourselves about it," she says.

Dunham has numerous new TV projects in the pipeline with A Casual Romance, the production company she runs with Girls executive producer Jenni Konner. And the success of her online newsletter Lenny Letter - set up to showcase young female writers - has led to a book imprint, under the umbrella of Random House, whose first release will be a book of short stories by Jenny Zhang.

A week after we meet, she is heading off on holiday to the Maldives with Jack - only their second real holiday in five years, she says. But even this is not your average idle beach break. "We both have projects that we are excited to work on: Jack is finishing his album and I am finishing my book.

"But for us, doing that in a beautiful place, and doing it alone together, is the greatest thing I can imagine," she enthuses. Her book is made up of 10 short stories and a novella, which she's been working on for three years.

Conversation turns back to the subject of her 30s. "I have such youthful parents, who are still so engaged with the work that they make, so I never see ageing as scary," she muses, hauling her silver bomber jacket back on. 'What stresses me out is not getting older; it's the idea of not developing, of being stuck."

That, somehow, seems the most unlikely idea of all.

• The final season of Girls premieres on Sky Soho, Wednesday at 8.30pm