In the middle of a difficult week, I was asked to profile Brigitte Bardot because she'd written to a cat, albeit a famous one. Monsieur et Madame Salut are, in broad geographical terms, BB's neighbours, if a few miles apart and tending to keep ourselves to ourselves. This* is what I made of my subject, Bardot not Choupette ...
For those who sigh wearily whenever Brigitte Bardot does something that restores her to public gaze, her letter to the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s cat, Choupette, reinforces the suspicion that she is more than a little dotty.
But there is another interpretation of Bardot’s cri de coeur. When she urges the pet to have a disapproving word in her owner’s ear about the fur show for Fendi in the current Paris Fashion Week, is it not the mark of a driven woman, who, even at 80, knows precisely what she is doing? As publicity stunts go, it was timely and incisive, grabbing column inches and airtime.
More than 40 years have passed since Bardot, the face of a generation who walked away from the big screen to reinvent herself as an animal rights activist, last made a film. Yet still the media dances to her tune.
So the letter to Lagerfeld’s Birman cat was not a “bizarre move”, as some reports insisted, but entirely in character.
“Dear Choupette,” Bardot wrote, “I count on you to purr in the ears of your daddy Karl about the distress all your furry little brothers face when he makes a promotion of their remains. Those who, like you, ask for nothing but life; innocents sentenced to death because their skins are used as adornments by ‘inhumans’.”
Lagerfeld, creative director of both Fendi and Chanel – and no slouch in the publicity stakes himself – had already had his say before his famously pampered cat was dragged into the controversy. Castigated by the animal rights organisation Peta, he retorted: “For me, as long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don’t get the message.”
His response will have no impact on Bardot, a woman set firmly in her views. Since shunning the entertainment business that gave her superstardom and wealth, she has devoted time and much of her fortune to fighting on behalf of animals.
Buy Books and most other things at Salut!'s Amazon link. Choupette is at http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0500517746/salusund-21: navigate from there for other needs
Open letters are regularly dispatched, though politicians, officials and celebrities, rather than cats, are more usually the recipients. And the contents are fed to a hungry media, ensuring her re-appearance in the headlines.
Bardot was 38 when she announced her retirement from acting and singing. Later, she auctioned her jewellery, paintings and other valuables to raise money for the launch of the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals. She has campaigned against bullfighting, the forced feeding of geese for foie gras and seal hunting in Canada. She converted to vegetarianism, begged Danish royalty to ban dolphin-hunting in the North Sea and poured money into a sterilisaton and adoption project for stray dogs in Bucharest. She accused China of torturing bears and “killing the world’s last tigers and rhinos”.
Almost 60 years after she made her most-celebrated film, And God Created Woman, directed by Roger Vadim, then her husband, the Bardot of today is unrecognisable from the megastar it made her.
Vadim’s movie turned the blonde, impossibly beautiful and somewhat naïve Bardot into a household name. In return, she gave Saint-Tropez the renown it enjoys today as a chic, picturesque port on the French Riviera. “Bardot created Saint-Tropez” is a phrase often heard.
Beyond still living there, in her twin retreats – La Madrague and La Garrigue – she avoids the razzmatazz, disdainful of the fame her earlier life brought her, except when useful for advancing her causes.
And those causes range far beyond animal rights. She campaigns – understandably, after suffering so long from the intrusion of the paparazzi – on issues of privacy, and more controversially sometimes dips an elegant toe into the murky waters of far-right politics.
On the harbourside in Saint-Tropez, jostling for space with giant ocean-going yachts, smaller craft embark on guided tours of the celebrity homes dotted around the coast. Bardot’s, inescapably, is the one that fills the boats. Other tourists stop outside her villa on organised walks.
When, a few years ago, helicopters started dropping off well-heeled visitors to neighbouring properties, Bardot rattled off another of her indignant letters, this time to the mayor of Saint-Tropez. She complained of having her privacy invaded by land, sea and air, with guides “shouting my life out into microphones in six languages”.
Only a month ago, the target of her anger was a local artist, “Sasha of Saint-Tropez”, after he opened a shop selling objects with designs based on his paintings of Bardot.
Her husband, Bernard d’Ormale, threatened legal action, telling the local newspaper Var-Matin: “We’re used to seeing representations of BB everywhere but this is too much. In the boutique, there are candles, watches, flip flops, plates, all sorts of things. Soon they’ll be making cars with the name BB.” [NB: Since this article was published, it has been reported that the case has been settled on terms that seem heavily in BB's favour]
D’Ormale is the latest of four husbands. She had her only child, Nicolas, by the second, the actor Jacques Charrier, but displayed few maternal instincts, seeing the baby as the unwanted product of a nightmarish pregnancy.
Charrier claimed she once screamed at him: “I’d rather have given birth to a dog.” Later, Bardot would try to explain: “I wasn’t ready, I was lost, traumatised by fame.”
After the couple divorced, she had little to do with her son, or his own subsequent daughters, though a biography published in 2014 reported hints of reconciliation after one of them made her a great-grandmother.
Bardot was born in 1934 and had a strict Catholic, bourgeois girlhood in Paris. Her father, Louis, ran an engineering business. Believing herself unloved and even ugly by comparison with her younger sister Marie-Jeanne, she dreamed of being a ballerina. But her striking appearance led to modelling work; she was an Elle cover girl at 15. The director Marc Allégret spotted her and wanted to cast her in a film.
Her parents’ hostility was overcome only when her grandfather intervened, reasoning that she could be led astray with or without the cinema.
The audition, also attended by Vadim, went ahead. Though the project came to nothing, Bardot was on course to a career that would stretch to more than 40 movies with starring roles opposite leading men such as Sean Connery, James Stewart, Anthony Perkins and Alain Delon.
Parental anger flared again when Bardot fell for Vadim. Her father tried to whisk her off to study in England, but relented after the first of the suicide attempts that would punctuate her young adulthood. He agreed she could stay in Paris provided she did not marry Vadim before she reached 18. The wedding took place three months after her birthday.
A string of lightweight films followed until And God Created Woman propelled her to worldwide fame. This led to better scripts and roles, and Bardot’s fame and popularity seemed boundless.
“In the 1960s and early 70s, there was no better known – or more scandalous – movie star on Earth,” wrote another biographer, Peter J Evans. “Her amorous anarchy had become a public entertainment, even a kind of bloodsport; lovers brawled over her outside Paris nightclubs; husbands came and went with provocative proximity.”
Amid a trail of frivolity and fragility, and the later passion for animals, there is that darker side to Bardot. She supports France’s far-right Front National. Her present husband was once an adviser. Whatever self-cleansing the party has conducted under Marine Le Pen, it is still widely seen as racist.
In a 1999 book, she wrote: “My country, France, my homeland, my land is again invaded by an overpopulation of foreigners, especially Muslims.” She had already been fined for making similar remarks in a newspaper article and was fined again.
Such utterances cause incalculable damage to community relations, especially when made by someone glorified as a screen legend, cinema icon and – in the words of the French writer Simone de Beauvoir – the first and most-liberated woman of post-war France.
But perhaps they strengthen the impression of a woman who struggles to engage with people. Between five and seven million Muslims were born or have settled in her “homeland”. They represent France’s largest ethnic minority. She dislikes them just as, in the past, she discarded partners, treated her son as a nuisance and rejected a world of glamorous personalities.
With animals, it is different and she has admitted as much. In a ghosted article for Britain’s Sunday Times in 2006, Bardot spoke of running a haven for around 100 animals, including 60 or more cats.
“I know them all so well, I can tell instantly if one of them is not eating or is feeling poorly,” she said. “Frankly, I prefer to spend my time with animals than with people. Animals are truthful and spontaneous. If an animal doesn’t like you, he won’t come to you.”
* Reproduced with consent from the magazine and website of The National. See http://www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/newsmaker-brigitte-bardot