A rendezvous with Carla

Singer Carla Bruni is photographed on April 1, 2013 in Paris, France.
PHOTO: China Daily/ANN

What can be said about Carla Bruni that hasn't already been put to paper?

The Italian-born epitome of elegance is a woman of many facets - international supermodel, acclaimed singer, wife of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and, recently, respected philanthropist.

During our talk in her recording studio, I encounter several members of Carla's family: her five-year-old daughter Giulia, her beloved little dog and, of course, the ex-president. In this exclusive interview, she candidly reveals her thoughts on the power of art and education.

Thank you for welcoming China Daily Lifestyle Premium. First, I'd like to discuss the Foundation Carla Bruni Sarkozy, which you created a few years ago.

The idea came from a desire to help others. My husband was the French president at the time and I discovered many issues that I didn't know many people had.

So I tried to help in my own way with a foundation that would focus on culture and education.

We did quite a lot of work in those five or six years - and a little less now, because it's not easy to raise funds. It's a full-time job.

You've said helping impoverished students meet artists wasn't only about entertaining, but also about giving them a sense of dignity. Could you expound on that?

Art, creation, music - every sort of art - gives children a different perspective on things.

We've discovered that little children with talent in music gain confidence and self-esteem as soon as they get opportunities to learn and practice.

Through an instrument, they become "someone" in the eyes of their parents, of society. It's not just about music, either.

With artistic improvement, they get better at mathematics, writing, everything - as if music gave them wings.

So it comes from self-esteem?

Mostly - and from believing in something, from having something in your life that matters more than anything else. Art gives you that.

Your foundation has worked in prisons, hospitals, and houses for the homeless and the elderly. Have you visited those places?

Yes, I've been there almost every time we have given concerts there. It has been incredibly successful.

We gather the very best artists and, for the people who aren't able to move, we also play music in their hospital rooms.

Music as medicine…

I'd like to think so. Music is not a primary need - it's obviously not like food or water - but it changes something in the air. It conveys instant pleasure and it creates bonds.

Back to your foundation, it also deals with the issues surrounding illiteracy. For many people, not being able to read is a shameful thing that they often keep secret.

There are three million people who suffer from illiteracy in France. Those people are not - as many would reckon - immigrants or people in the streets. In fact, most of them have jobs.

When you can't read, can't drive, can't go to the post office or talk with the staff, you're disabled.

So it is often kept secret and they do feel ashamed. But they're intelligent people. They just "missed the train" when they were young, because no one helped them.

Through my foundation, I've been working closely with the associations that deal with this prominent issue.

A few years later, illiteracy became a "national cause" - and I'm proud of that.

You've described education as the "indispensable superfluous" - could you explain that?

I used the word "superfluous" because we don't think of education as something to live or to die for, but it's indispensable because without it, we're animals.

You were raised in a very artistic family. Do you consider that life has been generous from the start and is that why you wanted to give something back with this foundation?

Oh yes, very much. I've been quite lucky. It's a very good experience to give things away - to give time, money if you can, to people in need. Even in a selfish way, it's a great satisfaction.

The couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier is an executive member of the foundation. What does he bring to it?

He brought so much. He helped us with the scholarships for fashion and he didn't only bring ideas - he was present all the time to talk and meet with students.

Gaultier famously said, "Modelling is the only activity where men are paid less than women."

Did you become a model because it was the only job where you would make more money than a man?

[laughs] Not really! But I noticed that when I was modelling, that statement is true. It's also because the cosmetics or jewellery markets are much smaller for men than they have been for women.

The trend of sophistication for men is quite recent, commercially speaking.

When and why did you become an artist? Was it because of your mother, who was a pianist?

Music was surely familiar to me - my father also loved it - and both of my parents were very encouraging.

I don't remember when it started, but I've always been creating; as a child, I would always write little songs.

But until much later, I didn't dare to think of myself as an artist, though I was singing, writing and performing for my friends on a daily basis.

I just didn't think something so pleasant could become a job, you know.

Why did you decide to become a singer?

I needed someone to sing my songs.

At the beginning, I thought that I would write music for other people, but I quickly understood that I was the only one who could sing my lyrics - they were too personal.

Have you kept those first songs you've written?

Yes - I even recorded some of them.

What were they about?

Always the same… Love, loss - and lust.

Your first album sold two million copies in France alone and received numerous awards worldwide. Did you ever imagine you would find such tremendous success with just your voice and a guitar?

I could never have imagined it. I was hoping that people would appreciate it, but I had incredible luck.

Great success is always a matter of good timing - and luck.

And talent.

And luck.

When you're not playing music or spending time with your family, what do you do at home?

I love gardening. I don't know if I have a "green thumb", as they say, but I get a lot of pleasure in taking care of my plants and flowers.

A neat garden is like a little slice of paradise.

I also like the fact that gardening is a mix of savoir faire, talent, timing and luck - a bit like making an album!

I'd like to turn to Asia, particularly China and Hong Kong. What do you know about this part of the world?

I know too little, regretfully. Regarding China, I've only been there twice. My first journey was an official state visit with my husband in 2011 - it was incredible.

We didn't have much time, but we had the chance to discover very special parts of the Great Wall, wander through the Forbidden City… it was a fantastic trip, four magical days from Beijing to Shanghai.

And as a model in the late '90s, I travelled to Hong Kong, an incredible city that astonished me from the very first moment.

Oh, I forgot to mention, I also love Chinese food.

A lot of people in Europe fear China as a threat to the Western world. What are your thoughts? Do you fear China?

No, but I can feel the power of this country and its clout, as well as the beauty of their youth.

I've seen incredibly beautiful women in China and Hong Kong. Men also, in their twenties, who are astonishingly beautiful.

When I was working for Bulgari, I met some of the most amazingly flawless Chinese models.

That's was when I realised another type of skin could wear jewellery even better than dark skin, which showcases jewellery perfectly.

Chinese skin is absolutely incredible, especially for jewellery, because it has something blue - so pale, so transparent. And their hair, their necks... it can be so sensual.

Asian women could be the most beautiful in the world… the men also, but their refinement, their grace and their finesse has something feminine to me.

Someday, would you like to sing in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland?

Very much - and all around China. It would be my greatest pleasure to share my vision of French music with the public.

Speaking about music, I'd like to carry on with an artistic "Proust questionnaire". What albums did you listen to most this year?

I would say a mix of old and new. I have a permanent base of Barbara [Streisand], [Serge] Gains-bourg, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen - I bought a vinyl record of Cohen just a few days ago.

But regarding the younger ones, I love this French girl named Christine and the Queens - she's so peculiar. I've also listened a lot to Tom Waits. And Antony and the Johnsons - he's celestial and seems to come from another planet.

What's your favourite pop song of all time?

Maybe God Only Knows by the Beach Boys. A true masterpiece - even if that's not an original answer.