Icon who spawned a cohort of pillow-lipped blondes in Breton shirts reaches a milestone, with no care for signs of age, writes Lori Anderson
Interest rose and jaws dropped in 1956 when the 19-year-old, sultry-lipped Brigitte Bardot danced the mambo in the bar of the Hotel de la Ponche in the film And God Created Woman. As she sensually undulated in a simple A-line French navy skirt, unbuttoned to the waist and fastened over a second-skin black leotard, her eye-widening vital statistics of 36-20-35 were mesmeric. She erupted on the screen, at once both sex kitten and young innocent. She was sexual, free and scandalous.
She not only launched a cohort of pillow-lipped blondes clad in Breton shirts – think Debbie Harry and Courtney Love – but a travel industry too, transforming the fishing village of St Tropez, where the film was set, into what is now a haven for half-naked Eurotrash, mega yachts and champagne excess.
Club 55, the haunt of everyone from Kate Moss to Joan Collins, started out as a simple fishermen’s hangout on Pampelonne Beach until the director Roger Vadim asked the staff to cook for his cast and crew. This simple, sun-kissed swath of the south of France was transformed in an instant with the gyrations of a girl on the verge of womanhood.
Fairy tales, of course, don’t last for ever and now the maiden has become the crone. Last week, Brigitte Bardot celebrated her 80th birthday, and age has withered her, for, unlike many of her celluloid peers, she has chosen to let nature run its course.
Not for Bardot the regular assignations with cosmetic surgeons or the infiltration of Botox and fillers. Instead, she turned away from the looking glass, as she said when she surprised the film world by taking early retirement at just 39. “I gave my beauty and my youth to men,” she said. “I am going to give my wisdom and experience to animals.”
For the past 40 years, the health and happiness of all creatures great and small has been her primary concern. Today, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation protects and cares for countless abused and ill-treated animals and the actress certainly hasn’t shirked from using her celebrity and position within French society to further her aims. She threatened to leave France unless the government stepped in to prevent the euthanasia of two sick circus elephants. The grey men in suits blinked first, before the woman who helped popularise the bikini. How could they not step in when faced with the loss of Marianne? For Bardot was the first celebrity model to pose as the emblem of the French Republic.
Yet there is a dark and rather ugly side to one of the nation’s most celebrated beauties. In recent years, the former actress has attracted publicity as much for her strident racist views as for either her celluloid past or her animal rights work. On four separate occasions – in 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2008 – Bardot was convicted under French law of “incitement of racial hatred”, paying fines totalling more than £12,000, for statements that have appeared in newspaper articles, in two volumes of autobiography and even in a private letter to Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister for interior, which was leaked to the press.
In her book Pluto’s Square, she wrote: “My country, France, my homeland is again invaded by an over population of foreign, especially Muslims.” To judge by the disturbing rise of Front National across France, there are plenty of fellow citizens who share her views, regardless of the court’s censure.
Yet Bardot has never appeared to care what the public thought, either of her body or her toxic political views. Born the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she was raised in the affluent Parisian suburb of Passy and throughout her life has always carried a sense of entitlement and confidence, one which made her brazen sexuality so appealing to women such as Simone de Beauvoir who, in 1960, wrote an essay entitled Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome.
While contemporary actresses such as Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve viewed themselves as artists carrying out a vocation, Bardot viewed film as an extension of her early modelling career and as a lucrative career, but she had little regard for the 50 films she made over a 20-year period. “I started out as a lousy actress and I remained one,” she once said. I’ll leave that to film critics to judge but she certainly took a stunning photograph. As I type, I can look over to her framed portrait by Terry O’Neill, taken on the set of the western Shalako, in which she starred with Sean Connery. The wind is blowing strands of hair across her face and a cheroot is insouciantly clamped between her teeth; she ignites the frame.
Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships, but Manolo Blahnik named his best-selling vertiginous BB shoes after Bardot. Prosaic? Yes, but apt. In fairytales, shoes are spellbinding and symbolise transition. We have seen Bardot journeying from fair maiden to the old woman who lives in the wood. At 80, she is playing a role that is more relevant than ever, showing women that in this tampering day and age, it’s OK to let go of beauty.