Carla Bruni interview
Supermodel, singer, and former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni, opens up about her many lives…
Carla Bruni is playing a guitar down the phone from Paris. “Can you hear that?!” she asks, with glee in her voice. “Michelle Obama gave me this guitar when we met for NATO. It’s a fantastic Gibson guitar and I have it here in my studio. Then I invited her for lunch at the Élysée Palace and I played a Beatles song for her on the guitar. I loved her. She was so kind, so open, so cool.”
Carla’s sense of wonder at having been given such a thoughtful and generous gift by America’s First Lady reveals a lot about her. She is, after all, a former First Lady herself—her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, was President of France from 2007-12. But there’s no sense of self-importance from her. On the contrary, Carla comes across as endearingly shy, with a down-to-earth vibe that belies her own status as a public figure: one who’s already lived through several successful incarnations—as supermodel, singer-songwriter and politician’s wife.
It’s Carla’s singing career that brings us together today. She’s just released her sixth album, Carla Bruni. She writes or co-writes her own material, a collection of tunes that showcase her smoky nightclub voice and place her in the great tradition of the French chanteuse.
Carla says COVID-19 gave her ample time to finish the album in the south of France after the family decamped to their summer home there for several months of lockdown. Bruni has a 19-year-old son, Aurélien, from a relationship with French philosopher and TV host, Raphaël Enthoven, and daughter Giulia, aged nine, with Sarkozy, who also has three sons from previous marriages.
The lockdown summer house was almost overflowing. “The children were around all the time, and my sister [actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi], my mother, who’s 91, and my aunt, who’s 95, were there, too, so we were very much in quarantine because of being with very old people who could be in danger.”
“There were people everywhere, but I found myself a room and basically I would work at night. I did a little exercise and cooking and then life became so strange. Writers and songwriters are naturally confined because we have to do our job alone, but this was a very anxious type of confinement. Writing was a release and a sort of a shelter and also a pleasure. It was good to be able to work.”
Bruni surprised everyone in 2002 when, after more than a decade as a supermodel, she released her first album, Quelqu’un m’a dit [Someone Told Me] which reached number one in the French charts. It’s a success by any standards, but in keeping with her self-deprecating character, Bruni is modest about her singing skills.
“I don’t think I have such a good voice,” she says, with what sounds like a Gallic shrug in her voice. “I was doubtful about my voice for a very long time. Billie Holiday, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin—they are the singers. Even now you have Lady Gaga, Adele and Beyoncé with these big, fantastic voices.
"The important thing is to have your own voice"
“I thought you had to be Celine Dion, but then I discovered many women who sing with different voices, like Francoise Hardy, the bossa nova artists, people with sweet and tender voices like Dusty Springfield. So I thought the important thing is to have your own voice. It took me a while to feel legitimate.”
Born in Turin to an industrialist and music composer father and concert pianist mother, Bruni had music in her veins. The family moved to France when Carla was eight and she was educated in Switzerland and Paris. As a child she sang and wrote songs, but with no intention of becoming a singer.
Instead, her lithe stature, feline eyes and to-die-for cheekbones landed Carla a modelling career and she became one of the Nineties’ gang of supermodels alongside Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. A jet-set lifestyle ensued and she had relationships with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.
"I didn’t feel that I was quitting modelling—modelling was quitting me"
“It was loads of fun,” says Carla of that era. “Now that I look back, maybe time gives a shadow of sweetness and everything looks good. We did so much travelling and so much work. It’s such a lucky job. You don’t have to study, you get to travel and you become celebrities. Doors opened for us.” Carla remains very close to Campbell and stays in touch with many of her former catwalk buddies. “I did a song for Christy Turlington’s charity, Every Mother Counts, and Linda Evangelista came to my show in New York City. All these people are in my heart like a family.”
Yet even when busy on the catwalk, behind the scenes she was composing music. “Naomi told me the other day, ‘I remember you singing songs on a bed in your house in the south of France,’” says Bruni. “I sang my songs to all my friends and my sister and my mother. They were my audience. Then I stopped judging myself. I was already 28 years old, maybe 30 and I thought, Well, let’s try to record some songs. Let’s do it.”
She says modestly that her career switch was born of necessity. “I was nearly 30 and fashion needs new faces. I didn’t really feel like I was quitting modelling, but it felt modelling was quitting me. It’s a very fulfilling job, modelling, in that there’s a lot of travelling and running around. When that stopped, I had some empty time and I thought, Let’s not have a nervous breakdown—let’s make an album.”
Carla freely admits that despite a certain natural shyness, she craves the limelight. “It’s not that I really like celebrity, but there’s something inside myself that feels good about being acknowledged by people,” she says with refreshing candour. “I believe people like me that choose these kinds of jobs do have something inside that needs to be loved or considered by as many people as possible.”
“So I find it really strange when people complain about being famous, because you can’t become famous without wanting it a little bit.” Advice from Mick Jagger to invent a stage persona worked in helping Bruni to overcome stage fright: “Now I adore singing in front of an audience.”
Carla has said her husband is totally supportive of her career, but she doesn’t mention him in our interview, even when I ask pointedly whether her new song “Un Grande Amour” was inspired by her own life. Instead Bruni offers that she was “thinking about all forms of love. It’s a song that reminds us that love is the most important thing.”
"I hope to one day have a woman in charge over here"
Bruni and Sarkozy’s romance stunned everyone when after a whirlwind three-month romance they married in February 2008, Sarkozy newly divorced and less than a year into his stint as President of France. Though accustomed to the spotlight, Bruni didn’t find the role of First Lady plain sailing.
“It was fantastic, extraordinary and very stressful,” she says. “You’re always afraid you’re going to make some sort of mistake. As a singer or even as a model it can be bad, but now you’re representing a whole country. France is not like the USA, though; it’s not a couple that is elected, it’s a person, so the wife or husband— I hope one day to have a woman in charge over here—has to be very much behind [the President].”
The only relic of her political life is the guitar that she’s playing down the phone. I venture a question about ageing as a pop star—she’s 52. “You know what? I think it’s so unfair. I think we’re having more power as women and that women are so much stronger. Look at cosmetics—big companies use women from 40 to 80 now, like Julia Roberts, Julianne Moore, Jane Fonda. But, still, it’s difficult to age with a public image. Even without a public image it’s boring and annoying; it’s not nice even if you’re just at home with your own body! I hope that they find a pill against ageing… and COVID.”
Bruni seems to have found her groove later in life. She found her true calling of music at the age of 30, got married for the first time at 40 and had a child at 43.
“It’s so true,” she says with a chuckle, adding: “I work and it takes me a while to find what I want to do. Then it gives me great pleasure.” She laughs: “I hope that death will come late, too!”
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