Follies of a French First Lady
A narcissistic sexual huntress and calculating social climber who figures out whom to seduce and then pursues them until she achieves her goals -- that's how Carla Bruni is portrayed in an unauthorised biography which is rocking France with its allegations of the First Lady's famous string of lovers and her complicated relationship with Nicolas Sarkozy. Aoife Drew reports from Paris
Published 19/09/2010 | 05:00
Almost 20 years ago, the then Carla Bruni sat in her dressing room before a catwalk show when a fellow model burst in and surprised her. Carla's face was covered with tiny pieces of translucent Japanese paper.
When her colleague enquired as to what she was doing, Carla "explained she wanted to learn to control her face. She practised speaking in such a way that no morsel of paper would fall, moving only her mouth". Carla had begun a quest for "zero wrinkles" with characteristic determination, a trait which would take her far.
Despite the Elysee Palace's best efforts, and much to Carla's chagrin, a non-authorised biography of France's First Lady has just been released here in France, entitled Carla, A Secret Life, written by investigative journalist Besma Lahouri and published by the Flammarion Group. It portrays Carla as a female "Don Juan", ruthlessly seductive and far from the image of the "shy young woman" that Pierre Charon, her husband's aide and communications specialist, has tried to put forward. The book comes at a very bad time. The negative publicity is something which President Nicolas Sarkozy could do without -- his popularity has recently plummeted and he faces heavy criticism both for raising the retirement age and deporting Roma families.
So who is the real Carla Bruni-Sarkozy? Since her marriage to Sarkozy in February 2008, she has carefully carved out an image for herself as an "all-rounder". That of a beautiful woman, successful in her multiple careers as supermodel, singer, songwriter, musician, actress and philanthropist, not to mention mother to nine-year-old boy, Aurelien. It's an image patently at odds with her much-publicised past as a jet-setting seducer of rock stars, prone to turning up her perfect nose at boring, old-fashioned concepts such as monogamy.
The book spells it out clearly -- Carla is a chameleon. After all, she has changed career on numerous occasions. Interestingly though, her looks don't seem to have changed much since she was a teenager. Is this thanks to her aristocratic Italian genes, disciplined diet and exercise, or has she been getting extra help?
Lahouri claims that despite the consistent denials, including a threat of legal action against one magazine, Bruni has had extensive plastic surgery including, according to the book, Botox and possibly a nose job, and had a 20-year friendship with a plastic surgeon.
None the less, Carla had the intelligence early on to know that beauty alone was not enough to help her succeed. Sixteen years ago, she said to French magazine VSD, "At 13, I was like a rake, but I discovered that allure and seduction had nothing to do with beauty. I became aware that seduction had to be worked on." Cleverly combining her beauty and charm, the ambitious young model meticulously worked her way to the top.
Born into a very wealthy Italian family, Carla had no need to earn money (her father was heir to the CEAT Italian tyre manufacturing fortune). She was simply fascinated with the glamour of the fashion world. She worked hard, never complaining when photographers obliged her to pose in the freezing cold or hang around for hours. But it was a bit of old-fashioned brass neck that helped her charm top fashion designers and thus advance her career.
In 1996, designer Jean Paul Gaultier sought a redhead for his upcoming Pret-a-Porter catwalk show. Carla had never graced the catwalk for him, much to her dismay -- he had always dismissed her as "not being my type of woman". Undeterred, she donned a red wig, turned up at the casting and hit him with her killer charm, purring to him in Italian. "I was both flattered and embarrassed," he said, "I simply couldn't say no to her." The job was hers.
She similarly persuaded couturiers such as Christian Lacroix, Sonia Rykiel and Yves Saint Laurent to let her work for them. She confided to journalists "no one has ever stopped me in the street and asked me to model for them. In work, I want to go far. I don't attract Pygmalion characters, I Pygmalion myself." Her work ethic ensured she would do well.
Always polite and friendly with make-up artists, dressers and backstage staff, she had a certain class. More than this, she had a certain "je ne sais quoi". World-famous photographer Patrick Demarchelier (who has shot campaigns for Calvin Klein, Chanel and Versace, among others) adds "Carla was more of a personality than a model." It was this combination of looks and personality that would help her seduce some of the world's most famous rock stars.
As a teenager, Carla was a huge fan of the Rolling Stones. Aged 18, she said to her disbelieving boyfriend, "Later on, I'm going to go out with Mick Jagger." The story of her ascent into the milieu of rock 'n' roll is something of a fairytale. After a Dire Straits concert in Paris during which she made her way to the front row, she was invited backstage, having been spotted by the musicians. Mark Knopfler introduced her to Eric Clapton who was touring with them at the time. She began an affair with the already extremely famous artist, 23 years her senior. Unwittingly, Clapton would introduce her to his friend Mick Jagger.
For Jagger, then married to Jerry Hall, with whom he had two children, the attraction was intense and Clapton could see it. According to the book, Clapton, desperately in love with the beautiful young Carla, begged, "Please Mick, let me keep her." But his plea fell on deaf ears. Jagger had already been seduced and the two began an affair that would last eight years.
During this time, Carla kept Jagger at her beck and call. He would call her endlessly during photoshoots, while she played the game of refusing to take his phone calls and made him wait. Her professional entourage were well aware of the affair -- she would delight in telling her modelling friends about their sexy weekend escapades in his Loire Valley chateau. The romance was doomed to fail, however. Carla was too possessive to share him with Jerry Hall -- during the period of the liaison, he and his wife had another child. When Jerry Hall finally learned about the affair, she called Carla, who denied everything and hung up on her. "As cold as a snake," as an acquaintance once described her.
It wasn't to be the last time she would break hearts. A few years later, when living with French editor Jean-Paul Enthoven, she left him for his son, philosophy professor Raphael Enthoven, who was at the time in a relationship with author Justine Levy.
When it came to her love life, Carla had few scruples about pursuing who she wanted, no matter what the stakes. Justine Levy wrote a novel some years after her break-up with Enthoven, in which she makes a thinly veiled reference to Bruni as a "preying mantis".
Carla spent seven years with Raphael Enthoven, during which time they had a son, Aurelien. This was the period when her career as a singer and songwriter really took off -- she wanted to leave the modelling game before that world tired of her, now she had entered her early 30s. The music world seemed like a natural choice -- her mother was a concert pianist and her father a respected musician.
She worked on her voice and used industry connections (such as French musicians Julian Clerc and Louis Bertignac, with whom she also had affairs) to make a name for herself, culminating in the release of her album Quelqu'un m'a dit in 2002, which was a hit in Francophone countries and sold more than two million copies. Her boyfriend was her inspiration for song writing: during an interview with Paris Match in 2004, she said "without him I couldn't have done it". However, he tired of her flirtatious ways and left her in May 2007, because he felt their relationship "did not have a commitment". Her next famous conquest was to be President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Carla and Sarkozy had a whirlwind romance. Brought together in November 2007 at a dinner party organised by presidential aide Jacques Seguela (at which two of Carla's exes were present) to cheer Sarkozy up after his divorce with Cecilia Ciganer, it was apparently love at first sight. And for Sarkozy, a public union with the glamorous ex-supermodel had the added bonus of being an opportunity to save his ego after Cecilia left him for wealthy Richard Attias, former chairman of advertising group PublicisLive. After a few brief months of courtship, they married in February 2008, while Cecilia married Attias in March 2008 -- for months, it seemed both couples were trying to out-do each other with how many magazine covers they could notch up.
And, true to form, Carla got plenty of publicity. Which, given her past and turbulent love life, worried her. In March 2008 she confided to Sarkozy's PR aide Pierre Charon: "You maybe don't realise it yet, but journalists are going to say a lot about me, about my past. Things ... photos will come back out". In anticipation of this, Carla and Charon set about working on an image fitting for a First Lady.
It started out well. Carla used her modelling experience and charm to wow foreign dignitaries. Her first state visit to meet Queen Elizabeth was a huge hit. Dressed smartly in a grey Dior dress, she curtseyed and acted impeccably. Sarkozy could barely contain his pride. His Guignols (the French equivalent of Spitting Image) puppet portrayed him as a diminutive, vulgar man with a Rolex, boasting about his ex-supermodel "wife Carlita" to his entourage.
Carla took to her new role with aplomb, and set about strengthening her image as a serious philanthropist, via her charity The Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Foundation, which focuses on the causes of Aids/HIV prevention (her brother, Virginio, died of Aids in 2006) and illiteracy. In April 2009, she visited an Aids project in Burkina Faso, gaining positive publicity. It seemed that the chameleon was adapting well to her new environment.However, it now appears her fear that her past would come back to haunt her was not far off the mark. This year has been nothing short of an annus horribilus for the couple. Rumours of an affair with French award-winning musician Benjamin Biolay surfaced in March, while it was simultaneously alleged her husband was involved with ecology minister Chantal Jouanno. All parties denied the claims, but much media attention was provoked and Carla's past history as a man-eater was again brought to the fore.
Shortly afterwards, Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter recounted in a book entitled The Promise: President Obama, Year One how Carla confided to Michelle Obama that she and her husband had made heads of state wait for them while they had sex. The American First Lady was not impressed. Lahouri indicates that the Obamas are embarrassed by the Sarkozys' tumultuous pasts and have no interest in forming personal alliances with the couple beyond the strict requirement of positive diplomatic relations.
The First Ladies are very different and take opposing views on glamour -- while Michelle Obama fired her social secretary Desiree Rogers after she posed in designer clothes and jewellery for Vogue, fearing readers would find this frivolous given the current economic climate, Carla told Le Figaro that she loved going to a private island in Bora Bora, a destination which costs €20,000 a week.
And now Lahouri has claimed that Carla's charity is an empty shell, with only two staff members and no legal structure. The book also alleges that despite the cheery photos taken on her trip to Burkina Faso, Bruni behaved as the "anti-Lady Di", obsessed with germs and disinfectant wipes. While she spoke to Aids victims, she rarely took any children into her arms and complained at length of being "devoured" by mosquitoes.
The Foundation was also involved in the Bettencourt scandal -- in which it was alleged that France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, handed over "envelopes stuffed with cash" to Mr Sarkozy before he became president. But Bettencourt is also the L'Oreal heiress, and Carla's charity will reportedly receive €1.5m over three years from Lancome, part of the L'Oreal Group. Though there is no suggestion of anything illegal in the payments to the charity, speculation surrounding possible links have provided more ammunition to Sarkozy's critics.
Cracks are starting to form in her picture-perfect persona. Carla is trying to redeem her image with the publication of a biography which she and the Elysee Palace have approved: Carla and the Ambitious, by journalists Yves Derai and Michael Darmon. This book focuses on her life as First Lady but it has already been dubbed as "the nice book to chase away the nasty one" by media commentators, undermining its credibility.
Can the Bruni-Sarkozy union withstand the media onslaught? He is said to find her on-going relationships with her exes difficult to bear, for example when she invited three old paramours (Raphael Enthoven, the father of her child, the actor Vincent Perez and the singer Louis Bertignac) to her residence at Cap Negre on the French Riviera for holidays last year. Local residents were said to be stunned to see Sarkozy cycling with Perez or swimming with Bertignac, forced to pretend they were old buddies.
Worse, Carla may be a political liability for her husband. For years, she was very much part of the "gauche caviar" set and rejected right-wing policies Sarkozy supported, such as DNA-testing for immigrants. He later abandoned this project, allegedly under her influence. Francois Holland, a senior member of the Socialist Party, has confided to journalists that Carla "destabilises" her husband. She has already indicated she would be happy if her husband decided not to run for a second mandate.
For now, however, they seem determined to present a united front. Ms Bruni has finally met her match in her marriage to a "man even more unpredictable than her". Many have tried to tame her, but few have succeeded. Yet it's in the nature of a chameleon to change.