Woman incarnate Bardot hits 80

Woman incarnate Bardot hits 80

Carefree sensuality oozed from every pore as Brigitte Bardot, who turns 80 on Sunday, mamboed her way to fame, leaving men weak at the knees and drawing a generation of liberated young women in her wake.

Half a century on, the big wispy hair and hourglass silhouette immortalised by the 1950s sex symbol still inspire designers the world over, though the real-life Bardot has long abandoned the limelight in favour of animal rights activism.

"She was an idol for a generation of women," said Marie-Dominique Lelievre, author of a recent biography on "BB", as Bardot became known.

"She was monstrously famous, and the myth only grew bigger since she ended her career before she was even 40."

In 1956, Bardot set the screen alight in "And God Created Woman", shot by her then husband Roger Vadim and the best-known of the 50-odd movies -- many of them flops -- of her short career.

The classic scene in which she dances an impassioned Mambo in a flowing skirt slit to the waist brought onto the big screen a new level of unbridled sexual energy -- and quickly earned the wrath of US censors.

For defenders of the strict morals of the 1950s, Bardot, with her babydoll face, pouty lips, hourglass figure and liberated attitude, was a threat. "A girl of her time, free of any sense of guilt, of any social taboo," was how Vadim described her.

With age, Bardot has lurched to the far-right, increasingly prone to illiberal remarks on gays, Muslims and immigrants, but she was long an icon for a free-thinking, free-loving young generation.

Invited to meet then president Charles de Gaulle, she turned up in pants and a jacket -- unheard of in bourgeois French circles at the time.

Bardot herself was raised in a traditional Catholic household - but her good-girl upbringing gave way well before 1968 to a "Bohemian" lifestyle that was to include four husbands, assorted lovers, and a dress code far from the sophistication of Hollywood stars of the time.

Does what she wants

"She goes barefoot, and turns her back on elegant grooming, jewels, perfumes, make-up, on all these tricks," the French feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir noted with approval.

"She does what she wants, and that is what is so troubling."

Saint-Tropez, the quiet French fishing village that Bardot adored and where she still lives, mushroomed into a jet-set hub.

Bob Dylan is said to have written his very first song about Bardot as a teen, and John Lennon is said to have suffered so bad from jitters that he took LSD before meeting her.

Bardot's fame saw contemporaries adopt her style en masse, and the way she was hounded by paparazzi inspired Louis Malle's film "Private Life".

The Bardot style "remains widely copied," said her biographer, who believes Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Kylie Minogue and Madonna all borrowed from her seductive wiles at one point or another.

Bardot refused to allow Madonna to adapt her memoirs for the big screen however, because the star would not give up wearing fur. Her fashion legacy was on display again this month at Diane Von Furstenberg's show in New York, complete with blue-and-white striped fishermen's tops, ballerina shoes, checks and bee-hives.

Lurch to far-right

"A myth? That is a word I have been stuck with but which means nothing," Bardot told the magazine Marie-Claire in 2010. Two years later however, she was asked in an interview which French actress could play her in a film.

"No one. Not one could do it. What do they lack? My personality," was the stinging reply.

These days Bardot shuns the fashion and film worlds, and proudly refuses to resort to plastic surgery. But her animal rights activism has kept her firmly in the public eye, through high-profile campaigns to save seals, elephants or stray dogs.

As has her swing to the political far-right. As she turns 80, Bardot's reputation has some spots, notably her association with the far-right and controversial comments on gays, Muslims and immigration that have led to five convictions for inciting racial hatred.

"That damaged her image," said Lelievre.

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