Paradis found: The charmed life of Mrs Johnny Depp

As Johnny Depp's other half, the chanteuse Vanessa Paradis is the envy of millions. But with an acclaimed new album, can she finally lay to rest the ghost of 'Joe Le Taxi'? Hermione Eyre finds out
Click to follow

Things have turned out nicely for Vanessa Paradis.

This is, frankly, something of a miracle given the way she started off, a precocious 14-year-old pop star, crooning "Joe Le Taxi" and wiggling her hips as if desperately trying to keep aloft an invisible hula-hoop. She looked like any young teen trying to do sexy dancing in her bedroom mirror, except, unaccountably, she was on Top of the Pops. Or perhaps, all-too-accountably, as France has a tradition of pubescent pop performers think of France Gall's "Lollipops" or Charlotte Gainsbourg's "Lemon Incest" though of them all, "Joe Le Taxi" prends le biscuit.

Vanessa was entrancing, vogueing about in her Naf Naf tracksuit, pouting bravely at the camera, but you couldn't help wondering where it was all going to end. Trash magazines are littered with the wrecks of former pop nymphets, after all.

It hasn't been easy, she tells me ("If I say it was a kind of torture, that's exactly what it was, in fact"), but there is steel in this butterfly's wings. At 34, she has a hot new album (Divinidylle, number one in France) and an even hotter husband (Johnny Depp). They have two children, Jack and Lily Rose. They're not actually married she refers to him as "my boyfriend" because, she says, who needs a certificate? But there is more than a little triumph in her possession of him, as she later lets slip.

Here she is, then, in a hotel on the Place des Vosges. A tiny hand and a purposeful handshake; long, wavy mousy hair and the high forehead of a medieval beauty, maybe a Van Eyck Madonna. Or should that be Tweety Pie? The one-time creative director of Chanel's advertising, Jean-Paul Goude, said that she reminded him of the cartoon character so much he dreamt up a TV advert for her in 1991 in which she rocked on a perch in a gilded cage, squawking and splashing and basically taking a bird bath in a bottle of Coco Chanel. The effect was more alluring than it sounds.

She still models for Chanel, and Karl Lagerfeld dresses her for the Oscars, but today she is wearing practical, dark, layered clothes, purple on black, like an exceptionally glamorous stagehand.

Building a rapport with her comes slowly. She doesn't exactly love the press. "It's necessary to attack without end, otherwise they win," she once said of the paparazzi, who chased her and her one-time partner Lenny Kravitz everywhere. A shot of her with Johnny Depp used to be "unsaleable" in France, according to a paparazzi agency, because they would systematically sue.

Asking how she got into the mood for recording her album draws a bit of a blank. "Sometimes I shut my eyes as I sing, sometimes I keep them open." The new album has a retro, nouvelle vague feel and an under-produced sound: hands clapping, stripped-back instrumentals, a sense of relaxation. "Usually in front of the microphone, fright comes up and steals a bit of your performance, you know?" (No, but we'll take your word for it.) "This time though, I knew everyone I was working with, and I was at ease."

The late Serge Gainsbourg was her friend and collaborator (was there any French nymphet he didn't mentor?) does she think he'd like the album? "I hope so!" His influence shows up in her phrasing, she says, in the way she "swims in the melody".

And surely he'd like the sultry lyrics. On one track, "Ds Que Je Te Vois", I keep thinking I can hear something suggestive. Even though the album sleeve claims she is only singing "Je sais que c'est toi", she slides the words together so it comes out sounding like (please don't take this the wrong way, Vanessa!) "Je sexe toi". "That's meant to be!" she laughs, showing those gappy teeth, the imperfection that makes her perfection bearable. "Actually I didn't realise it at first, when Matthieu [Chedid, her producer/ composer] sang it to me on the phone. He said, 'Is this too much?' I said, 'No, why?' Because I hadn't noticed it yet! Then when I did I thought: it's no big deal. It's just a fun song, a tease. Desire, it's a beautiful thing."

Indeed, and the song seems to describe love at first sight. She and Johnny Depp met four years before they got together but they have both described it as a coup de foudre (love at first sight). Depp has said, "the moment I set eyes on her, I fell." For her part, she has said that she shook hands with someone in the dark, didn't even know it was him, but felt a tingle in her fingers, her arm, her whole body. Is there an element of autobiography in the song? "I don't know, I just sing the song, and I like it." Vanessa Paradis gives me a wink. I'm not even a man and still I practically need resuscitating. If you could bottle that wink you could sell it for a lot of money. I think Chanel has already thought of this one.

She folds a knee supply beneath her. She reminds me of Kate Moss, but because Moss was Depp's last girlfriend before Paradis, I dismiss that thought as unchivalrous. A female interviewer wants to be chivalrous to her that's the reach of her femininity.

Even now Vanessa still has something of the nymphet about her. (Nabokov could have had a lot of fun with her name alone: "Vanessa, light of the Paris-Match, fire of the French loins. Va. Ness. Aaaah." The syllables trip off the tongue and into a phone-pest exhalation. Incredible to believe that this is her born name: Vanessa Chantal Paradis on the dotted line.) It is perhaps for the best, all things considered, that Vanessa has never read Lolita.

Looking at her performance on "Joe Le Taxi" (it's on YouTube if you can bear to watch it), there's nothing shocking about the words, or the singing, or even the fact that she's on TV; it's the movement that makes you worry, the endless shifting from one leg to the other, a bit like a young dancing bear. Had someone taught her how to do it? "No, it was all me. I wish someone had advised me. You know, I've seen quite recently some clips from when I was 14 and I'm not proud of it. I look at the way I was dressed and made up and the way I would dance and I just want to say, 'Euugh. Stop it!' "

Paradis is clearly still working through the after-effects of her early fame. "It was a very strange period, a very extreme period," she says. "I was going at school ... " quickly correcting herself ... "going to school and I had the 'Joe Le Taxi' song out that was making me trouble all over the world. It's not easy to grow up, but to grow up famous, it's worse." Near the family home in Val-de-Marne she saw "Vanessa Paradis is a whore" scrawled on a wall. People spat at her in the street.

"I think it was easier to spit on a kid than a woman," she says with the urgency of someone who is still trying to rationalise behaviour that has hurt her deeply. "In France it became a really big phenomenon and it was very casual, this torturing of a child. It was happening to me every day relentless."

So this is where her strength kicked in. She showed what she was made of one night in 1988 at the Midem awards in Cannes (the French Grammys). She got up to sing "Joe Le Taxi", but the audience of music-industry insiders made ironic catcalls, whistles and boos. They threatened to drown out her voice completely.

"Tears were ready to pour," she has said. "But no way was I going to give them that pleasure." She impressed plenty of people that night.

One of them was director Jean-Claude Brisseau, who saw the footage from the awards that night and thought she had the right quality for the lead role in his film Noce Blanche [White Wedding]. "For me there was no doubt. It was a hard role, but considering what she'd already lived [through], I knew Vanessa Paradis could take it," he told L'Express. The film, about a schoolgirl in love with her teacher, was a big break she won a Csar for Most Promising Actress and paved the way for her film work with Patrice Leconte, Terry Gilliam and others. But it was also, perhaps, a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

In 2005 Jean-Claude Brisseau went on trial, accused of sexually harassing 15 young actresses by asking them to masturbate on camera. He insisted it was all part of a "minutely prepared" artistic project; they alleged it was for personal pleasure. Although Vanessa Paradis was not involved in the case her mother told investigators that he had made a similarly improper suggestion to her daughter in 1989.

It doesn't seem appropriate to drag it all out with her here in a hotel room (our entire interview is a carefully patrolled half an hour), but knowing what she's been through gives her words about the torture of her teenage years resonance. Women gave you a hard time, I say "Oh, but men too," she says quickly, wryly.

These days she feels she has converted the animosity, the abuse, into something positive. "I guess, you know, today there are more people that agree that I have a bit of a talent and a reason for being in this business. So I get a little respect." The breakthrough came, perhaps, when she went away to America and came back with an international bestselling album written for her by Lenny Kravitz. There's nothing like being appreciated abroad for helping your home reputation.

Paradis enjoys her longevity. She doesn't mind being called "the French Kylie Minogue", because "both of us started really young, and we're both still here. There's not much subtlety in that conversation, but if you want to put people in baskets ..." I think she means boxes, but the point is clear.

Over the years, everyone who has worked with her has commented on what a survivor she is. "She's a fighter," said the late Etienne Roda-Gil, who composed "Joe Le Taxi". "Vanessa seems fragile," observed her agent, Marceline Lenoir. "To detect her strength, you need to look in her eyes."

The cover of her new album is a portrait of Paradis in which her eyes are particularly aflame. A portrait can say a lot about what its painter thinks of a sitter, and this one was painted by Johnny Depp. When I tell her that it makes her look a bit fierce, she laughs, a little surprised. "It's a serious look, yes. He painted it from a photograph. He put in some Klimt, something of a Russian icon, a biblical icon. It's not religious at all, it's just a bunch of things I love."

Has she returned the compliment? "I have drawn him, yes, but I'm not as gifted as him." Oh, the mutual reinforcement of all power couples.

There's a lot of creative play in the Depp home or rather, homes: Saint Tropez, the Hollywood Hills and, for quiet times, an island in the Bahamas (which they joke is called Fuck Off Island). Together, they do lots of art "your fingers are covered in paint way more than you'd wish ...". They put on made-up plays "it's always better when it's made-up" and dress up as pirates? "Yes, that happens." Jack, her son, makes a gurgling cameo on her new album, singing a snatch of "Popeye the Sailor Man". He wasn't named for Jack Sparrow, though, but Jack Kerouac, one of his father's favourites.

Their daughter, Lily-Rose, is eight. She's a "girlie girl" who already has her own pink handbag Chanel, of course. She loves music, but Vanessa would rather she waited a little longer than she did before launching a career. "I'd love to keep my kids as long as I can, but there's a lot of compromises to make because they are their own person. I hope we all choose wisely."

Their family life, she says, is "very boring for your readers ... We don't have an army of people. Just one nanny." A lot of organisation is required to manage their careers.

It's very normal, she stresses. And yet rather special too. "Yes, OK," she concedes, betraying more than a little satisfaction. "Half the world would like to be with my boyfriend."

She reassesses that with a smile.

"More than half the world, in fact."

'Divinidylle' is out now on Wrasse

Listen to the opening track from the album: