Brigitte Bardot's crusade to save Canada's seals

Brigitte Bardot was famous as the original sex kitten, but since then she has devoted herself to animal rights. Now she is back in Canada, where she began the fight against seal culls. David Usborne reports

A A A

Famous people usually worry about their legacies. But not Brigitte Bardot, the erstwhile sex kitten of France. "It is not important how people remember me in the future. The most important thing is what happens today. When I am dead and gone I do not care what people think of me."

Bardot, who turns 72 this year, may or may not have been sincere. But what she could never deny is that in this life she has been talked about almost all the time. Hers has been a journey from sex icon to an animal rights champion and occasional socio-political provocateur who has attracted as many foes as friends.

Hers, in fact, has been a life in two acts. During the second, she has not only courted controversy with support for animals rights - not least this week when she returned to Canada to batter its government for allowing its annual cull of harp seals - but also veered close to political pariahdom, falling foul of the French courts two years ago for inciting racial hatred with a book that lamented the "Muslim over-running" of France and aired other explosive views, including about homosexuals.

Act One, - 'Lust' - is more affectionately remembered by most of us. The world first began to hear about blonde Bardot in the mid-1950s, when she began a modelling and acting career that saw her make 48 films, most of them fluffy enterprises that became vehicles for the camera to adore her curvaceous physical gifts.

Her heyday as a sex symbol came in the swinging 1960s, when she established St Tropez as the chosen resort of European sun-worshipers and hedonists. The South of France was about flesh and fun and Bardot epitomised the times.

Her career was peaking at roughly the same time. Propelled to the top rung of European starlets with her 1956 film 'And God Created Women', made by her then husband Roger Vadim, Bardot went on to ride the new wave cinema movement in France.

After a period of reclusion, she starred in a series of glossy 1960s crowd-pleasers while continuing to model and dabble in pop music, most notably with the saucy boy of French pop music, Serge Gainsbourg.

Bardot was, in those days, Europe's answer to Marilyn Monroe. Both became portraits painted by Andy Warhol. And both had timultuous private lives. After divorcing Vadim, Bardot went on to three other marriages, not to mention all the rumours of torrid affairs with the likes of Gainsbourg and another pop star Sacha Distel.

With husband number two, the actor Jacques Charrier (1959-62) she had her only child, Nicolas-Jacques Charrier, from whom she is estranged. (She once referred to him as a "tumour".) Her subsequent husbands were the German millionaire playboy Gunther Sachs (1966-69) and a French right-wing politician, Bernard D'Ormale, with whom she remains after their marriage in 1992.

Mention Bardot today, and for some, the image of those pouting come-hither years remains untarnished. The kitten of St Tropez may have become an ageing cat - one, by the way, that has publicly eschewed the lure of plastic surgery - but still we associate her with those burnished beach photographs in the now antique pages of Paris Match.

Bardot turned her back on cinema and everything else that created her bosom-heaving persona over 30 years ago. Her last film was in 1974. "I've made 48 films of which only five were good. The rest are not worth anything. I will not make another," she told one interviewer at the time.

With Act Two, Bardot has successfully parlayed her celebrity to become Europe's most indefatigable - and controversial - saviour of the animal kingdom, relentlessly campaigning for the end of mistreatment of animals. While the US-based PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is an organisation that repeatedly recruits film-stars and models as ambassadors to the causearound the globe, she has been a one-woman band.

And it has hardly been a flash-in-the-pan crusade. In 1986, the actress put up most of her worldly goods - from jewelry to her fancy spread in St Tropez - for auction. With the 3m French francs (£300,000) the sale raised, she moved her headquarters to Paris and called her organisation the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals.

With her new-found resources she set about launching legal challenges to strong-arm governments and other institutions to acknowledge the rights of animals. She took on the meat industry in France, demanding less cruel means of slaughter and pressuring her countrymen , with only limited success, to jettison their taste for horse meat. She has lobbied Vladimir Putin to end dog-fighting in Russia, campaigned for the end of bear-dancing in Bulgaria and fought to preserve families of wolves in Hungary.

"I have spent my entire life trying to make people respect all animal life," Bardot said in a recent interview. "The respect of their lives is as ours, essential to the ecological system as well. It has been my experience that almost everyone does not care about this issue and I cannot be everywhere. The human race makes me feel so upset. It is money that rules this world and leads to the worst possible atrocities."

Her sometimes incendiary political views can arguably be traced back to the 1992 marriage with Mr D'Ormale. It brought her into the orbit of the political right and led to associations with National Front leader and voice of the anti-immigration movement in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The link encouraged Bardot to lay bare some private thoughts on the policies of French governments that surely were better left unsaid.

The trouble she has generated has also proved an unfortunate distraction from her animal rights campaigning.

It first surfaced in 1998, when a court found her guilty of inciting racial hatred after making public comments about civilian massacres in Algeria. Only four months earlier, another court had fined her for claiming that France was being overrun by "sheep-slaughtering Muslims".

Such reprimands had little effect. In 2003, she published a book entitled 'A Scream in the Silence', that brought more accusations of both anti-Muslim and anti-gay bigotry. She denounced interracial marriage, called homosexuals "fairground freaks" and assaulted the government for being over-generous to the unemployed and to immigrants.

Fining her £4,000 this time, a court said that in her book, Bardot, "presents Muslims as barbaric and cruel invaders, responsible for terrorist acts and eager to dominate the French to the extent of wanting to exterminate them".

While not present for the verdict, she had tearfully defended herself to the court a few weeks before. "I was born in 1934; at that time interracial marriage wasn't approved. There are many new languages in the new Europe. Mediocrity is taking over from beauty and splendor. There are many people who are filthy, badly dressed and badly shaven."

She later made an attempt at social rehabilitation at least among the gay and lesbian community of France with a letter to a French gay magazine that may or may not have been well-advised. "Apart from my husband - who maybe will cross over one day as well - I am entirely surrounded by homos," she wrote. "For years, they have been my support, my friends, my adopted children, my confidants."

In Canada this week, however, Bardot has returned to her true calling for the past three decades by tackling the new conservative government of Stephen Harper over the imminent seal cull in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

It was in Canada, that it all started. The last time she travelled there was in 1977 and the cause, as now, was the protection of the harp seals. She was famously photographed embracing a seal pup, a blatant attempt to win over public sentiment against the eastern Canadian hunting industry.

"I am not crazy," a tearful Bardot told a packed press conference in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, earlier this week. "I am pleading with you. This will likely be my last visit to Canada before I die. I want to see this barbaric massacre stopped before I die." Her appeal followed a similar visit to Canada last month, also in the name of the harp seal, by Paul McCartney and his wife, Heather Mills McCartney.

The Bardot pilgrimage has already heated some normally cool Canadian tempers. She asked for a meeting with the newly elected Prime Minister Harper, who turned her down. That was after she delivered him an impassioned letter, wrapped in a photograph of a bloody seal after its killing. In it she implied he had a closed mind to the arguments of animal campaigners, asserting, with a striking lack of the courtesy due a head of government, "only idiots refuse to change their minds".

She has backing from animal rights campaigners in Canada and around the world - a demonstration in her support was planned for yesterday, for instance, outside the Canadian consulate in Dublin - but if she was hoping to melt hearts in the Canadian government, she appears to have failed. The Fisheries Department in Ottawa has raised the quota for this year's cull to 325,000 seals, an increase of 5,000 over last year. Officials insist the seals , who compete with fishermen for cod in Atlantic waters, have risen in number to at least five million, roughly three times higher than in the 1970s.

"It's the most legislated and regulated hunt in the world, and still these animal rights groups continue to use the beautiful seal to raise millions of dollars," insisted Edward Picco, Education Minister for the Nunavut aboriginal tribes that mostly hunt the animals. The only cruelty here is the cruelty being inflicted on aboriginal Canadians."

This time, Bardot will surely return to France disappointed. And, as she says, this was probably her last ever voyage to Canada and her last stand for the harp seals. With her foundation, however, she will continue to seek justice for animals. As for the epitaph she will one day earn, it is unlikely to be blank as she once suggested. Rather it will be crowded and complicated.

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionThe supermodel on her career, motherhood and Cara Delevingne
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
News
i100
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
tv
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# asp.net Developer - West Sussex - permanent - £40k - £50k

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments