Carla Bruni on fashion, feminism, and being a political first lady

In a wide-ranging Q&A, the French singer, model and former first lady of France discusses her activism and the complexities of being a political wife

Content image

Carla Bruni, photographiée à Paris le 13 avril 2017 par Mathieu Zazzo

Carla Bruni is photographed in Paris on April 13, 2017. (Mathieu Zazzo/Universal Music)
Carla Bruni is photographed in Paris on April 13, 2017. (Mathieu Zazzo/Universal Music)

Supermodel. Pop singer. First lady of France. It may seem bizarre, but these careers have more in common in than one might think. Just ask Carla Bruni—the only person in the world to have experienced the highs and lows of all three job titles.

In the late 1980s, Bruni was a muse for clothing designers such as Gianni Versace. Her most memorable fashion campaigns had her depicting a glamorous Amazon of sorts, sporting looks which reflected a very 1980s socio-economical mindset—one that pushed the idea of power dressing for working women in an era of excess. After walking the runway for nearly a decade, the Italian-born talent left modelling behind to make music. Bruni’s 2003 debut album—Quelqu’un m’a dit—pushed her own left-leaning agenda; on the song “Tout le monde,” she considers the value of socialism.

After marrying former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, Bruni used her voice to criticize Pope Benedict XVI’s stance on HIV/AIDS and publicly denounced Iran’s decision to sentence Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was charged with adultery, to death by stoning.

At age 49, Bruni has returned to her second career—and the recording studio—with a new album called French Touch, which features 11 stripped-down, folk-flavoured songs performed in English. During a recent visit to Montreal, Bruni spoke to Maclean’s about her musical projects and her views on the ever-changing role of a country’s first lady.

Q: You walked the runway for Versace at a time when Depeche Mode was played regularly on catwalks. What was it about the group that made you want to sing a folksy version of “Enjoy the Silence”?

A: Their melodies and lyrics were just so strong and modern. They still are, somehow. I need contrast in a song. I like when a song is contradictory—that’s very Depeche Mode, and you find that in Lou Reed songs as well. Most of Lou’s songs have light instrumentation but very dark lyrics.

Q: Lou Reed is an artist you also cover on the album. What was it about the way he approached his work that resonated for you?

A: This is a man who talked about transgender people, gay people, black people … when no one else would. He also stood up for it. To me, the most poetic and intelligent way to bring up a subject is by showing very simply who you are and what you believe in. He also didn’t like people who were into the establishment.

Q: Your duet with Willie Nelson on the song “Crazy” reminded me of an old Patsy Cline quote: “I’ve become a captive of my own ambitions.” Can you relate?

A: Public people are definitely captives. It wasn’t really my ambition, but that’s what happened. If I could find another word that would be more precise, I’d tell you that I’m captive of my need for acknowledgement. People ask me, “Isn’t it terrible to be famous?” Not for me! I sort of need it. To be honest, I always enjoyed it. It’s as if it gave me some structure. It’s as if I needed someone else’s eyes to look at myself.

Q: Artists often need an audience to feel the full extent of their expression. Do you consider yourself one?

A: Yes. Everyone needs acknowledgement. When we’re kids, we need it from our parents. If you don’t get love from your family, you’re destroyed inside.

Q: It is interesting that you decided to cover “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones. Did you learn anything from your romantic relationship with Mick Jagger—and did he learn anything from you?

A: I don’t think he learned much from me. I was very young when we became friends but I feel I should have been more interested in his [work] at the time because he’s a genius. He has too much talent for me to compare myself to. Besides, I always thought I was a folk songwriter. I never had any projection of myself as a musician.

Q: Has that changed? This is, after all, your fifth album.

A: I can hardly believe it. I can never find a way to describe myself. I’m quite confident but I don’t have a precise impression of what I am or who I am. I try to make the best music I can. I try to work as much as I can. The first reaction when one hears his or her own voice is like seeing an old picture of yourself…you get very critical.

Q: You were recently quoted as saying “I am a feminist, but not from wearing a T-shirt.” Is this because you feel that the fashion industry is using this human rights movement to make money?

A: It’s sad, but it is the world of today. Everything is sold for an image. At the same time, maybe this type of awareness brings something to the cause—no matter how artificial it is. Maybe a young girl that doesn’t know about feminism because she was born in a place where women are not free will go on to realize feminism if she sees it on a runway or an image. What I mean is that feminism is just like HIV awareness: It’s not something we don’t need anymore, it’s something that is just as important as it was a few decades ago. It is a very important fight.

Q: In 2012, you told Vogue that “this generation does not need feminism.” What changed?

A: I realized that women are still not seen as equal [to men]. We had a big wave of feminism just before my generation was born. We’re still sitting on this wave. There are very militant people and very aggressive women at the top of that wave but I think we have a new version of it now.

Q: Speaking of fashion, your return to the Versace runway was one of the most reported and posted moments of Milan Fashion Week. Do you think current artistic director Donatella’s vision of Versace reflects the zeitgeist as her brother Gianni’s did back in the 80s?

A: I think they’re both feminists. They’re doing a feminist’s job without going onto the streets and screaming. The image Gianni and Donatella gave and now give of the woman is powerful. It’s so far from the victim. Gianni gave us models strength to be super. He treated us like his children. My Versus ads with him were like pieces of art.

Q: If you had to choose an image that really captured the height of that time with Gianni, what would that be?

A: One day we did a show at the Ritz in Paris. It was after his couture show and we went into an apartment suite. I remember Gianni and Donatella said, “Okay girls, sit wherever you want.” Michel Comte came in and shot us in our natural state. Each one of us had so much strength. I love those group pictures. We didn’t really do them unless there was a mass of us at the end of a show. Those were posed but this shot was the one that made me realize how lucky we were to be in that time of fashion.

Q: You once said that Charlotte Rampling had it right when she talked about how a marriage should be seen as “a garden and a gardener who constantly swap roles.” Why?

A: I do think it’s smart. You really have to switch from one to another. Being the gardener would be the more active role in the situation. Being a garden would be more passive. You’ve got to be both the one who gets help and the one that’s helping. That’s the circulation in a couple. You should switch from one position to another. It works for me because I think it’s good to be always aware that love can fade. There’s something I really like about that sentence. It’s as if love should be seen as work…because it is.

Q: You once said that “the artistic world has no link with the political world” in a BBC documentary about your life. Does that still apply today?

A: People can have political opinions and put them into songs. I’d never deliberately do that, but that’s a personal choice I’m inspired by my man but not by his previous position. Like Lou, I’m more inspired by people that are left out by society.

Q: There are a few interviews that you’ve done where reporters have asked you awkward questions. One [TV interview with] Barbara Walters —where she asked you to count out lovers you had—comes to mind.

A: I know, it was tacky. There are so many of these “lovers” brought up that I haven’t met. I was like, “Will you stop giving me this list or at least introduce me to this person so I can shake his hand?” At least I can say “Hi, we’re supposed to have been lovers for 20 years, but I’ve never met you.” People are crazy about power, sex, and money. That’s what appeals to them. They talk about the wrong obsessions.

Q: Do you find that line of questioning excruciating?

A: There’s nothing you can do to control it. I can easily bear it. When I get certain questions, I feel sorry for the person that asked the question more than for myself.

Q: Before you recorded “Stand By Your Man,” you read Tammy Wynette’s biography. What could you relate to the most?

A: I felt connected to her. I was surprised by the contrast between her perfect image—she looked like such a kind and classic woman—and then discovered she had many husbands and many love affairs. She never found that guy to stand by. She also had a very strong drug addiction. She struggled with that all her life and died quite young. The other thing that moved me and gave me a lot of emotion is that she had a very poor, difficult childhood. She confirms the fact that elegance doesn’t come from money.

Carla Bruni is photographed in Paris on April 13, 2017. (Mathieu Zazzo/Universal Music)
Carla Bruni is photographed in Paris on April 13, 2017. (Mathieu Zazzo/Universal Music)

Q: One of the most important things you did as the first lady of France was getting your husband involved with the fight against HIV/AIDS. How did your personal connection to the pandemic push you to ask for his help?

A: Let’s face it, fashion was destroyed by HIV. People would just die like flies in the eighties. And that was just my workplace we are talking about! Then, my brother died of HIV, so I was shaken by it in a way that you cannot imagine. It has sadly been in my life ever since and affected it for such a long time. It won’t let go. To me, it’s a fight that’s not finished. Of course, there are medicines that help, but half the world has no access to them.

Q: Do you think people have forgotten what people like you have lived through with regards to HIV/AIDS?

A: So many younger people, yes. They just don’t know. They’re not having safe sex because they think medicines will make everything okay. The thing about these medicines is that you often have to take them your whole life. They can be very aggressive chemicals for your body. Just because you don’t hear of as many people around you dying from HIV/AIDS—just like how it was in the ’80s and ’90s—you can still die. I’d say to someone who’s very young to protect themselves and protect their lives. There’s nothing safer than not catching this virus. This is not like catching the flu. It’s having something that never goes out of your system. It makes you vulnerable.

In France, a whole new generation is catching HIV again and it’s ridiculous. When I went to India and Africa and when my husband was still the president of France, I think I made [strides]. People would listen then. That’s what would happen when he was the president. People would listen to me more.

Q: You’ve been asked to give Brigitte Macron and Melania Trump job advice. Do you think it would benefit them to focus on a purpose that helps them differentiate themselves from what is going on politically with their husbands?

A: Yes. Music helped me a lot. I was coming from another world and that world was like a shelter to me. Most men who are reaching that position, work closely with their wife. Let’s say Jacques Chirac: He had Bernadette Chirac by his side his whole life. She was a political figure, too, and finally got elected. Cherie Blair never stopped being a lawyer and I think that helped both of them. In America, Michelle Obama was a great lawyer but during the years her husband was president, she stopped to take on a real health problem in America: obesity and food awareness. These are women to learn from because I think the important thing is to know who you are and find a cause that corresponds to you. The truth is, it’s hard to keep a job in that position. I kept playing music because no one could stop me from playing music at night.

Q: What was the best advice you received while taking on the role?

Princess Rania of Jordan is a very bright, intelligent, beautiful woman…although she’s a queen. One day, we were talking and I told her that I always need a little poetry or music in my daily routine. She said, “You’ll probably need it even more now.” She was right.