19th century Paris prostitute

It is a common refrain in our Kardashian-besotted times: once our celebrities were famous for their talents, now they are only famous for being famous. A bit of sex appeal and a lack of shame are all it takes, we wail, to win adoring crowds and reams of press coverage. But there has always been more than one way to earn public renown - and in mid-19th Century Paris, the most famous celebrity of the age was renowned not for her brains or her power, but for something much less dignified.

One hundred and fifty years ago, as France passed from monarchy to republic to empire, the courtesan known as La Païva set out to conquer Parisian society - and pulled it off so grandly that even she was surprised. From a nearly penniless sex worker, she rose to massive fortune and major political influence, with Emperor Napoleon III himself among her many, many admirers.

La Païva, as her contemporaries understood, was more than just a courtesan, but an archetypical figure of the European 19th Century - when tectonic shifts in social organisation saw the old order give way, and a new class of capitalists and empire-builders set about remaking the world. Her waist was large, and her face was described by writers of the time as mannish. Yet La Païva had a virtue greater than beauty, and more enduring too: steely, total ambition.

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