Gorgeous, Stylish, Occasionally Nude … Does Mrs. Sarkozy Matter? France’s 21st-Century Lady of State, Merger of Sex, Power, Art; ‘She Arouses Envy,’ Says Tony Judt, ‘Let ’em Eat Cheesecake!’
Until last Thursday, when a nude photograph of Carla Bruni, the 40-year-old model-turned-pop-star-turned-first lady of France, sold at Christie’s for $91,000, more than 20 times its expected price, Ms. Bruni hadn’t been the subject of much conversation among New Yorkers. But over the last week, her name popped out of pursed lips at cocktail lounges and long lunches across the city, as men and women started to catch on that a new icon of fashion, sex and sensibility—a 21st-century amalgam of Jackie O, Lady Di and J-Lo—was emerging across the Atlantic. News of the photo sale even made it onto Saturday Night Live’s weekend update.
Thanks to the Internet, the photograph—taken by Michael Comte in 1993, when Ms. Bruni was working as a model—made the rounds. Her face all wide planes, her small breasts pointing off in two directions, she stands with her hands forming a diamond over her nether regions, a sort of ironic Eve pose, but she doesn’t seem to be covering up for her own sake. Her expression—her lips are parted in a parody of innocence, her eyes are semi-frozen—says she had little need for shelter. Her skin is just the outfit she’s put on for the picture, as easy to model as a Dior suit or an Yves Saint Laurent gown. This woman has nothing to hide.
Indeed, in our own political season, when concealment, attack and counterattack are so rife, there was something Edenic about the photo of a first lady standing naked, unapologetic, challenging the viewer to choose between arousal and admiration. Because frankly, she looks great. The fact that the photo was taken 15 years ago is irrelevant, because Ms. Bruni has continued her full-frontal, forward surge of sex and power to this current day.
And while our own politicians seem to regard carnal passion as a dangerous third rail of politics—which, after all, it’s proved itself to be in the cases of men such as Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer—there is something invigorating about a first lady who told French magazine L’Express last year, “I’m monogamous occasionally, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry.” Just look at any photo of her with her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy—looking at his dumbstruck, grinning, subservient mug, you can tell he can’t believe his luck. Just last October he divorced his second wife, Cécilia, after rumors of affairs on both sides, and immediately he finds himself cheek to cheek with Carla Bruni.
It’s taken the rest of us a bit longer to catch on. The widely circulated paparazzi shots last Christmas of the happy couple cavorting on an Egyptian beach were notable for the contrast of her physical perfection against his tubby, furry tummy. Their quiet February wedding made our papers without much fanfare. But even as Europe has been electrified—the British fell so deeply in love with Ms. Bruni during a recent state visit with her husband that The Daily Mail ran some 17 pictures of her, including close-ups of her hands and feet that, for some, were more erotic than the Comte photo—we’ve remained grounded, inoculated against her charms. Carla Bruni? Wasn’t she a model, a pop singer? Did she date Mick Jagger? Do a Guess campaign?
But while we were distracted by our own former first lady’s vigorous lunge for a return to the White House, Ms. Bruni stealthily installed herself as the most compelling, glamorous and refreshingly bold first lady in many a year. She’s let us know she looks great naked and looks great in clothes. She’s stayed young without chasing youth; she’s stayed sexy without shedding her dignity or her position of power. And that’s what many women, particularly New York women, want.
ON HER RECENT trip to England, much was made over Ms. Bruni’s choice of attire. Dressed head to toe in Dior by John Galliano, Ms. Bruni was described in The Guardian as “two parts Jackie O, one part Lycée girl.” Commenting on the importance of the French couple’s visit to Britain, Andrew Gimson wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “Many of us decided at once that if we were going to be seduced by anyone, we would rather be seduced by her.” Hungry for a woman who could brighten up dowdy, rainy, grannyish England, male and female members of the press swooned, comparing her also to Diana, the last woman to bring glamour to the U.K.
Former French Vogue editor-in-chief Joan Juliet Buck sees Ms. Bruni as little more than an extention of high-end, French consumer products that everyone wants. “Versailles was conceived as a magnificent showroom for French goods, because around 1678, Colbert said to Louis XIV: We have to prove the French do things better than anybody,’” said Ms. Buck. “In 2008, at last, a model is married to the president, which is great PR for the further global extension of French luxury brands.”
Of course, New York women posess their own kind of glamour (and plenty of Louis Vuitton handbags!). But Ms. Bruni, at 40, has more to offer us than the promise of good taste. She’s a popular sophisticate, and an intellectual exhibitionist.
As a powerful woman operating on the international stage as one half of the first family of France, Ms. Bruni begs to be compared to that other first lady, who is hoping to become our president, Hillary Clinton. This isn’t about looks; that contest would be unfair, given Ms. Bruni’s outrageous genetic gifts. The question is which of them stands as a more useful—even more modern—model of feminism, and femininity.
In America, we like our powerful women to be not too beautiful, not too brash, not too brilliant, even. They must be mothers—make that proud mothers—who wear gold jewelry, makeup done just so, and appropriate suits. (Something in red, or cobalt, is as daring a style choice as is made.) They also must admit their vulnerability as women, even if they are tough as nails. Ms. Clinton, who is whip-smart and confident in her debates with Barack Obama, has had some of her most affecting campaign moments when teary, or sentimental. These moments “humanized” her, said the press. But what is it about tears that make a woman a woman? And for some women, those tears seemed as false as so much political posturing that’s come from all sides of this presidential race. We’re constantly being manipulated.
Now, Ms. Bruni is a masterful manipulator, too. Even her ankles will seduce you! But what makes her different is her power to be both masculine and feminine in the perfect proportion, to be beautiful and bold, to lack shame completely—about her body (naturally), her intellect (she was educated at fine Swiss boarding schools), her sexuality. This woman decided she wanted to be a pop star, and became one. She’s a mom, but she’s other stuff, too. Then she decided to be the first lady of France—and she’s Italian!
Ms. Bruni proves that Americans haven’t cornered the marked on reinventing themselves. She’s done it again and again, from college girl intellectual to model to singer-songwriter to first lady. She’s powerful, and she knows it and likes it. It’s not just her sex that seduced the president (the story goes that she met him at an evening music dinner event, and spent the night singing sweet nothings into his ear) but also her brains and her lack of fear when it comes to showing off any part of herself. She makes it all look effortless; she wants everyone to know that being Carla Bruni is easy.
It’s a contrast to the current female role models we have at our disposal. There’s Senator Clinton, who reminds us at every turn what a treacherous road it’s been for her on the way to the 2008 primaries. There are the women of Lipstick Jungle—accomplished, gorgeous—who want you to know just how hard it is to be powerful women. (The jobs! The kids! The husband!) We wear our battle armor around the way Ms. Bruni wears her nakedness in the photo.
But wouldn’t it be nice to be free of that, to depoliticize things just for a moment, to be free to wing it?
Carla Bruni’s got a career, a kid, a husband, and now duties as France’s first lady—and it’s a snap. It’s a fantasy, too. But couldn’t we all use a little dreaming, instead of constantly having to confront better-looking versions of ourselves, or searching for common ground with celebrities? Wouldn’t it be nice to fall in love?
ABOUT THAT FANTASY … If ever there has been a charmed life, it may be Ms. Bruni’s. She was born rich, an heiress to an Italian tire company. She moved to Paris from Turin when she was 5 (her family reportedly left Italy to escape kidnapping by the Red Brigades) and was educated in Switzerland. She began to model at 19, at the suggestion of a friend, and worked for high-end designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Lacroix, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent. In the mid-’90s, Ms. Bruni was making more than $7 million a year.
But for Carla Bruni, modeling was just the simplest runway onto to the world’s stage. Her work introduced her to Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, with whom she was linked romantically; later, she lived with the French writer Jean-Paul Enthoven but fell in love with his son Raphael—who was not only 10 years her junior, but also married to Justine Lévy, daughter of rakish philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy. (Yes, she broke up the marriage—the affair produced her son, Aurelien, who is 7.) Later, she was linked to the French prime minister.
As an adult, all of Ms. Bruni’s privileges served her well; her Italian beauty led to her modeling career; her French wiles led to an exciting and high-profile series of romances; and her European education led to suitability as France’s first lady. And then there’s the music. Music runs in Ms. Bruni’s family. Her mother is a classical pianist and her stepfather is a composer. This explains the pop star.
Don’t roll your eyes. Ms. Bruni’s songs are … très bien. Her 2003 debut, Quelqu’un m’a dit, was a collection of simple ballads and plucky tunes all sung in a husky half-whisper, the words spilling out on the infectious title track as fast as she can form them. (And yes, Ms. Bruni wrote her own songs—lost love, end of the affair, etc.—and plays the guitar charmingly.) She’s sold more than two million copies.
For her 2007 follow-up, No Promises, Ms. Bruni chose her favorite American and English poems and set them to music: Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, W. H. Auden. … It’s a schoolgirl’s assignment—you have to listen to this poem! I’ll sing it to my guitar. Rossetti’s “Promises Like Pie-Crust,” however, could be the soundtrack to Ms. Bruni’s life: “Promise me no promises/ So will I not promise you;/ Keep we both our liberties/ Never false and never true. … You, so warm, may once have been/ Warmer toward another one;/ I, so cold, may once have seen/ Sunlight, once have felt the sun.”
And this is another thing about Carla Bruni: Has there ever been a spouse in a political couple so honest, so frank, about her desires? Ms. Bruni says that because she is “Italian by culture,” she would not like to divorce and that she will be Mr. Sarkozy’s “wife until death.” For his part, Mr. Sarkozy seems like a puppy in love. Yet something about this arrangement works. She gets to be first lady; he gets to have one of the most beautiful women in the world.
“This characteristically Sarkozist lack of restraint makes Carla Bruni a neat encapsulation of his presidency: eye-catching, over-compensatory and more than a little lacking in taste,” wrote Tony Judt, Erich Maria Remarque professor of European Studies at N.Y.U., in an email. “Closer, in other words, to Lady Di than to Jackie Kennedy—but Diana was far too canny to take her clothes off.
“The short-run plus for Sarkozy is that the disappointment and disdain he was beginning to arouse in the French public will (for a while) be replaced with a sort of prurient envy (by both sexes): to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, ‘Let them eat cheesecake…,’” wrote Mr. Judt.
This is a power union, but not in the sense that we think about it in America, where our high-profile marriages seem more like mergers than matches. These two may be reaching their individual goals, but they’re also having sex at night. And probably during the day.
Will America ever have a first lady who says “sex” instead of “cheese” when she’s having a photo taken? It doesn’t seem likely.
But we can dream, yes? Please Carla, come visit!