Brigitte Bardot & the Scandal That Made Saint-Tropez Famous
“The most beautiful woman in the world” may have chosen to leave the limelight in 1973, at the peak of her fame and beauty, to dedicate her life to animals, yet Brigitte Bardot has never ceased to be an iconic figure on the French Riviera.
Unlike other screen goddesses of the time such as Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot was not a working-class lass. She came from a very bourgeois, pious Catholic family, living in a seven-bedroom apartment in the plush 16th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower.
Having studied ballet for three years from the age of 13 at the Paris Conservatory (her fellow dance mate, Leslie Caron, would later be picked up by Gene Kelly to star alongside him in the Technicolor masterpiece An American in Paris), she developed the elegant poise and gait which would soon fascinate the world.
In March 1950, at age 15, Brigitte Bardot appeared on the cover of Elle magazine, and the Earth’s axis shifted. Here was the epitome of grace and style. She was demure, she was a Catholic, she was all curves, and yet her body was toned and strong; an athlete’s build sculpted by intense sessions of entrechats. She wore uncorseted cotton dresses with no elaborate lining and bright-coloured pattern bikinis.
With Françoise Sagan, who penned the bestseller Bonjour Tristesse at 18, she shared an impudent smile, an intelligent gaze and barefoot summers in St Tropez. They were France’s bright prodigies. After Bardot’s early “retirement” from cinema, Sagan wrote a book about her in 1975, both a celebration and a eulogy: “Bardot didn’t apologize for her absolute triumph whereas so many others apologized for their half-victories.”
The innocent jeune fille grew, in just a few years, into a sex symbol. In 1957, age 23, she made cinematic history in And God Created Woman, her husband Roger Vadim’s seminal film, where her exploding sensuality is as graceful as ever, and never lewd. In a famous scene, she dances as if in a trance, barefoot, her skin glowing with sweat, her body toned and tan, and her hair wild and loose.
She was so far from the neat and constructed image of Hollywood stars of the time that, when the film was released in America, it provoked outrage on a continental scale. When they saw those pearls of sweat, American men went wild. Movie managers daring to show such a film were prosecuted, the film was banned in some states and newspaper articles denounced the depravity of it all. As a result, the film proved an even greater box-office success and the furore traveled back to Europe.
“Ban Bardot!” advocated the morality leagues as if she were some kind of illegal drug. Bardot’s appeal is, in fact, unlike any other. Based on her great beauty, a combination of ravenous sensuality and great style, she also fascinated at least two generations because of her lifestyle. For Bardot behaved in her private life just like a man. She had no restraints; she felt alien to convention. She was no wife and no mother. She tried both, was married four times and had a child, and decided she was not cut out for it.
She was not acting out any kind of rebellion, she was just being herself. In the 50s, 15 years before les événements of May 1968, such behavior was both a scandal and a secret aspiration for many other women. In a study of Bardot published in 1959, the other French woman who lived her life outside bourgeois conventions, Simone de Beauvoir, had recognized in Bardot “absolute freedom”. Her lifestyle, for many admirers, amounted to a philosophical manifesto.
John Lennon, mad about the girl, had a giant poster of Bardot pinned on the ceiling of his bedroom. Gainsbourg wrote her a song after they broke up in 1968 called Initials BB in which he sings: “All the way to her thighs, she is booted, and it’s like a chalice to her beauty; she wears nothing other than some essence of Guerlain in her hair.”
Serial biographer Marie-Dominique Lelièvre says of all the stars she turned her attention to, from Yves Saint Laurent to Coco Chanel by way of Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Sagan, Bardot is the most complex personality she has encountered, her celebrity having worked as a smokescreen.
“She is the first woman to have publicly displayed her sexual freedom,” said Lelièvre. “Before Bardot, a woman who changed lover at the slightest whim was called a bitch, a salope. After Bardot, such a woman was simply seen as libérée. Unlike Hollywood actresses who played by the rules, Bardot set her own. She attracted women who wanted to do like her, and men who simply wanted her.”
Sadly, Brigitte Bardot has had a tumultuous personal life of failed marriages, depression, and suicide attempts. She hated the limelight and, after being mobbed by fans whenever shopping in a St Tropez, she stepped back from the public eye at the height of her career, no longer wanting to be famous. Despite that, Bardot is still an icon today.
Her parents had a house in St Tropez, and in 1958 Brigitte Bardot bought an estate adjoining farm where she still lives today: the Madrague. Since then she became a relative recluse, only coming out to speak for animal rights.
Although she still lives here, Bardot is rarely spotted in Saint Tropez these days, but many celebrities have taken her place, enjoying wild, champagne-spraying parties and sunbathing on the beach where a young Brigitte Bardot once posed for the cameras and changed the Riviera forever.