Chic, unique: Why Brigitte Bardot is back in vogue

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As she approaches her 75th birthday, the original sex kitten is back in fashion

Everybody fancied BB. Every man deliquesced into a lather of sweat at just the thought of being in the same room as her. Every woman dreamed of having BB teach her to cha-cha-cha. Little girls (in the movies anyway) loved being picked up and swung about by this perfect older sister. Every dog, cat, rabbit or horse that she ever kissed in her films (a popular device for showing off her pout without any inconvenient male lips in the way) grew wild with excitement at the honour the human race was bestowing on it. Waiters fawned, musicians swooned and gendarmes blushed as Brigitte Bardot drove through the capital in her little sports car in Une Parisienne.

In real life, she was globally adored, the first Continental actress to achieve Hollywood-size fame. From the mid-1950s, her face, her generous mouth, her long slender legs and her fabulous shape became a fixture on magazine covers, newspaper diary columns and the new phenomenon of television sets in Europe and the USA. "She is the princess of pout, the countess of come-hither," breathed Time magazine. "Brigitte Bardot exuded a carefree, naïve sexuality that brought a whole new audience to French films." It wasn't just her screen image. On a visit to London in the Fifties, she appeared on BBC TV, where she explained the trouble her little dog was causing: "E make, uh, pee-pee wherev' 'e go," she said, with a little moue of concern that she'd gone too far. Viewers, especially men, were enchanted.

She was so clearly a face from the future, just as Ursula Andress and Twiggy would be in 1962 and 1966. Bardot was curvaceous in the approved Hollywood style (though her 18-inch waist was freakish) but what set her apart was the combination of eyes, pout and attitude. You could tie her hair in a chignon or in Pollyanna pigtails, squeeze her into Capri slacks or a ruched ballgown but you could do nothing to lessen the impact of her cool, sidelong glance, or the sublime wiggle with which she ambled down the street. By 1960 she and Marilyn Monroe (that other great wiggler) were the most celebrated pin-ups of their day. Whereas Monroe looked grown-up but acted like a little girl, Bardot looked young but acted like a girl who knew far too much already. She was beautiful, sassy, impatient with Fifties pomposity and ever-so-slightly melancholy. At least, men everywhere hoped she was, so they might "look after her". ......... 

Musicians and singers felt a special affinity with her. She made several hit records in the 1960s with Serge Gainsbourg, who became a lover. His famous No 1 collaboration with Jane Birkin, "Je t'aime ... moi non plus", was originally recorded with Bardot doing all the orgasmic groaning, but she persuaded him not to release it. She had affairs with the French singers Gilbert Becaud and Sasha Distel.

Her love of harmony and melody wasn't confined to France. Bob Dylan claimed that he dedicated the first song he ever wrote to Bardot, though, frustratingly, he never mentioned its name. A rumour has long persisted that she and Jimi Hendrix had sex at Heathrow Airport shortly after their first meeting. George Harrison reportedly married Patti Boyd because he liked her resemblance to Brigitte, and the rest of the Beatles were equally smitten. John Lennon had the band's press agent arrange a face-to-face meeting with her at the Mayfair Hotel in 1968, when he was 29 and she was 34. Lennon was so nervous about meeting the goddess that he dropped LSD beforehand, to give him some Dutch courage. The encounter wasn't a great success. "I was on acid," he recalled ungallantly in Skywriting by Word of Mouth, "and she was on her way out."

It's true that her movie career of 50 or so films ran out of steam in the early 1970s, and her singing hardly survived the Sixties, but Brigitte Bardot never disappeared from the world stage. She announced her retirement from bombshell duties in 1973 and turned instead to (highly visible) political activism. But her fans' and her nation's adoration of the original Sex Kitten means that her less appealing beliefs and pronouncements will be temporarily forgotten next month, when she celebrates her 75th birthday on 28 September. Photographic exhibitions from her pouty heyday will be launched on both sides of the Channel. A special birthday tribute is mooted for London Fashion Week, and even Jean-Paul Gaultier's new collection is inspired by her look (see panel, right). It's no surprise that the hottest model of the moment, Lara Stone, is a wanna-BB. So many women have been over the last half-century.

She was born in Paris in 1934 into a comfortable, Catholic, middle-class milieu. Her father Louis ran the family engineering business. Her mother Anne-Marie encouraged Brigitte and her younger sister Mijanou to take up dancing. The former discovered she had a natural talent and seemed headed for a ballet career, enrolling at the National Superior Conservatory of Paris for Music and Dance in 1947, when she was 13: one of her classmates was Leslie Caron, later to star in Gigi. Two years later, Brigitte made her modelling debut in a fashion magazine, and made the cover of Elle in 1950. The cover shot came to the wolfish gaze of her svengali, Roger Vadim, an indifferent film director with an eye for a pretty girl. He showed Elle to a friend called Marc Allégret, who asked her to audition for his new film, Les Lauriers Sont Coupés. She got the part, though the film project was cancelled. But a seed had been sown, Brigitte gave up dance for acting and Vadim became determined to get his new protegée (whom he married when she was 18) on celluloid.

Her debut wasn't brilliant. It was Le Trou Normand, a feeble comedy vehicle for a Gallic Norman Wisdom called Bourvil. In her scene, Bardot is discovered standing before a mirror buttoning a dress, a 17-year-old ingénue of luminous beauty (and some vestigial puppy-fat). Seeing her, poor young Nadine Basile, the teenage heroine, sobs to her father, "Papa, am I ugly?" Other films – she made 17 in the first four years – were cutie-pie fluff: in Doctor at Sea, she was the love interest for Dr Simon Sparrow, played by Dirk Bogarde, whose screen attitude was that of a sexless young uncle. Vadim was unhappy with the way her career was going. So in 1956, when she was 22, he directed her himself, for maximum sexualité, in Et Dieu ... Créa La Femme (And God Created Woman).

Though it launched her career, it's hard today to see what all the fuss was about. There is nudity, but it's almost entirely off-screen, shot from behind, hidden by props or occluded by gauze. The plot is sliver-thin. Juliette (Bardot) is a young, restless teenage orphan living in St Tropez, working, after a bolshy, je-m'en-fou fashion, in the local bookshop. Among her hobbies are topless sunbathing and flirting with chaps: with rich, yacht-owning Curd Jurgens, with poor, boatyard-owning Christian Marquand and with his brothers, one of whom she marries, apparently on a whim – Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was to star in several movies of the French nouvelle vague, and who lived with BB for two years.

Juliette leads them a merry dance, alternately petulant and passionate, sulking and snogging (she's an impressively enthusiastic screen kisser), posing in a series of vivid outfits, including a tight-fitting top with bare shoulders which became her signature garment. Fights break out when she's around, guns are discharged, families break apart and the town is scandalised by her behaviour: on her wedding-day, she retires to bed with the recently bashed-up groom, while the reception lunch proceeds without them – until she does come down in a peignoir to fill a couple of plates with chicken, grab some wine, and take them back upstairs. Friendless and torn between two lovers, she seeks solace in brandy and mambo jazz – to which she dances on a table with whorish abandon, until brought to her senses by some husbandly slaps across the face.

After Et Dieu, nothing was the same. It previewed at Cannes, where Bardot, predictably, caused a sensation on the beach: she seemed to popularise the bikini all by herself. She became an international star, and the embodiment of French minxiness for a generation. It was said that Sam Levin's postcard photograph of BB, shot from the rear wearing a white corset, outsold postcards of the Eiffel Tower in 1960. She made a few good movies – Le Mépris (Contempt) with Jean-Luc Godard and Vie Privée (A Very Private Affair) with Louis Malle, in whose later film Viva Maria! she and Jeanne Moreau co-starred as two chorus girls who start a South American revolution and, almost by accident, invent striptease. But although she embraced ambitious films with talented directors, Bardot found herself stuck in a typecast life: she was the timeless sex kitten, the chronic horizontale, the bed-hopping chanteuse, the much-married lapsed Catholic with the pout that brought men to destruction.

In a striking act of defiance, she announced her retirement from the movies in 1973, just shy of her 40th birthday – which she celebrated with a naked photo-shoot in Playboy – and, still living in St Tropez, became a strident supporter of animal rights. She campaigned against the serving of horsemeat in French restaurants. She established the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals, and funded it to the tune of three million francs by selling off her jewellery at auction.

In the last decade, she has shown alarming signs of racial intolerance, and the expression of her views has landed her in l'eau chaud many times. Her fourth husband, Bernard d'Ormale, is an ex-adviser to Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, and Bardot has spoken out intemperately against France's 5m Muslim immigrants. She's been fined and convicted of "inciting racial hatred" – especially the part in her 2003 book, A Scream in the Silence, when she talks about previous generations of French people who've "given their lives to push out the invaders". Last June, a judge said she was sick of charging Bardot with racial offences. Much of France is sick of hearing the same sentiments from her famous lips.

It's sad to think that the woman who, from 1970 to 1980, was the face of Marianne de France – the evolving female sculpture which represents France's dedication to liberty and republicanism – has come to despise modern France and to symbolise race hatred and bigoted suspicion. But for a while, at the end of next month, all the focus will be on the time when Brigitte Bardot – that hair, that mouth, that bosom, those Kohl-rimmed eyes – represented something quite different: the insolence of youth, the siren call of freedom, the triumph of sexiness sans frontières.

An exhibition, Bardot & the Original Paparazzi, opens at the James Hyman Gallery, London W1, on 3 September

... and why Bardot is back in vogue

Those eyes, that gap between the front teeth and, of course, those sunbleached tresses. Anyone glancing at the cover of August's 'W' magazine would be forgiven for confusing the model with Brigitte Bardot. In fact it's face-of-the-moment Lara Stone, whose pillowy pout and décolletage make her a dead ringer for BB.

Jean Paul Gaultier capitalised on the resemblance when he opened his autumn/winter 2009 couture show with Stone sporting a Bardot-esque beehive and black belted mac. He named the look 'Le Mépris' after the Jean-Luc Godard film starring the Frenchwoman.

Stone's soaring popularity is just one example of the Bardot revival, however. The Breton-top frenzy that swept the nation this summer (and is still as hot as Antibes in August) recalls her early days on La Croisette. In fact, the default wardrobe of almost every girl about town this summer consists of pedal-pushers or cropped jeans, a stripy top and ballet pumps – just like the ones Bardot sported in 'And God Created Woman'.

And what about this season's thigh-high kinky boots, as seen at Gucci, Stella McCartney and Hussein Chalayan? Bardot spent much of 1968 in over-the-knee black boots, teamed with lacy blouse, A-line skirt and floppy hat, or leather trench and cap.

Bardot's wardrobe was only half of her sex-kitten style, however. Her seductive flicked eyeliner and messy beehive are still inspiring contemporary looks too. The artfully dishevelled blonde up-dos at the Louis Vuitton show recalled Bardot's own hair – which always looked as if a rakish French film director had run his hands through it.

Carola Long

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