Born into wealth and privilege in her native Italy, Carla Bruni went on to become a supermodel, chart-topping singer and the First Lady of France. Now she is taking her musical act back on the road with a trio of North American concerts—even if she would prefer to be curled up at home with a book.
Author Chris Wright Illustration Kasia Blanchard
It’s been almost two years since her husband left the office of president of France, but Carla Bruni is still very much in the public eye. After all, the 46-year-old heiress was famous well before she met Nicolas Sarkozy. She was a supermodel in her 20s and continues to have a vibrant career as a singer-songwriter. This month, she will embark on a tour of North America (with stops in Montreal, New York and Los Angeles), aiming to drum up the kind of success she has enjoyed in Europe.
On paper, Bruni’s life looks like a tween girl’s daydream: Born into a wealthy and cultured Italian family, she studied at the Sorbonne, traveled the world doing shoots for Dior, Chanel and Givenchy, had romantic liaisons with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, became a chart-topping musician, met and married one of the world’s most powerful men and settled down in Paris to raise a family and live happily ever after.
The only hitch, as Bruni describes it, is that she never quite clicked with the world she made for herself. Her relationship with Sarkozy, certainly, has an air of incongruity about it. He is an assured, flamboyant, confrontational figure. She is a singer whose work has tended toward wistful French ballads, an introspective and fretful person with no real appetite for the personal and political intrigue she faced after her 2008 marriage. She and Sarkozy, she says, have “different natures.”
That said, Bruni is not short on charm. She is quirky, candid and unabashedly romantic, perfectly comfortable with phrases like “Being in love makes you warm, makes you high, makes you alive.” Hemispheres reached Bruni by phone at her Paris home, where she talked about the pitfalls of fame, scolded us for suggesting her husband might not like her music and sang us a little song.
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Hemispheres: I wanted to start by asking you about your latest album, Little French Songs, which came out last year. Is that OK, or are you getting fed up with talking about it?
Bruni: No. I like to talk about my work, but how do you describe mystery, desire, love? I never get tired of talking about my music, but I don’t really know what to say.
Hemispheres: Maybe you can pick a song and describe the story it’s telling.
Bruni: Well, the first song from the album is called “J’Arrive à Toi.” It means “I get to you.” It’s a song about how someone finally finds their love; that’s the happy part. But it’s also about someone who’s not a kid anymore. No one who’s 20 years old would write “J’Arrive à Toi.” So it’s a song about growing up, and there’s something sad in that, the road being behind you.
Hemispheres: As we get older, we’re not pulled apart by emotion the way we used to be, which is the lifeblood of songwriting, isn’t it? Nobody wants to hear a song about, “Oh, I forgot to get bread this morning, but that’s okay; I can pick up a loaf this afternoon.” How do you deal with that as a songwriter?
Bruni: The emotion is there, but it changes. For me, I don’t feel it is getting flatter or lower. You reach your 40s, and you can smell that life is going to get easier. But then, of course, people start dying. I’ve seen people go under the earth—my brother, my father. I am a nostalgic, melancholic type, and I haven’t lost that. I don’t get used to the people I love going away. [Pause] Do you
Hemispheres:A little girl named Molly.
Bruni: I have two children—a boy and a girl. They’re very different. He likes to stay home; his favorite things are reading and writing and drawing. She’s very social. I’m shy, I’m a loner, and I was born that way. I think that’s the way it is with people.
Hemispheres: The implication is that your son is more like you and your daughter more like your husband. I imagine he’s not the retiring type.
Bruni: [Laughs] No.
Hemispheres: Your music, meanwhile, is introspective, quiet. Does he like it?
Bruni: He does.
Hemispheres: But then, he probably wouldn’t tell you if he didn’t.
Bruni: Oh! Maybe he hates it and I don’t know. Maybe he’s thinking, “Why can’t you make dance music? Why can’t you be more like Daft Punk? Why do you have to be so melancholy all the time?” We could break up. People will say, “What happened?” And I’ll tell them I talked to some journalist. Because you’ve given me doubts.
Hemispheres: While we’re on the subject: You get married to one of Europe’s most powerful men and suddenly you’re in this spotlight. You’re attending functions, shaking hands with the Pope and the Obamas. How did you ever find time to be quiet, to reflect, to do all those things you’re supposed to do as a songwriter?
Bruni: The shaking hands part wasn’t so hard. It was an adventure. But even in a room full of people, I tend to isolate myself psychologically. I don’t need to be physically isolated to be like that. But I felt protected by Nicolas, by his love—it really was like in the movies. I didn’t know that existed.
Hemispheres: No, me neither.
Bruni: I felt it right away. We were both free, both wanting to build something again. There were no games, no manipulation. We met on November 13 , and by the 15th we were together. We’re good for each other. I calm him down. He gives me protection. It was the first time I’d met someone like that, and it makes me feel very feminine. By the 20th he’d asked me to marry him. I was saying, “We just met!” But I knew.
Hemispheres: All the same, Nicolas Sarkozy—that must be a distraction.
Bruni: A little bit, but I felt that I had to pay that price to get my man. And now I have him, all for myself. Mwah-ha-haaa!
Hemispheres: The feelings you’re describing here seem very recognizable. Your life has this fairy-tale sheen to it, so it’s easy to forget that you go through the same stuff that everybody else does.
Bruni: The basics are the same in any life. A health situation, a love situation—there’s no difference. But, of course, people look at my public image and they see me in a strange way, they imagine … Sorry, can I call you right back?
Hemispheres: [15 minutes later] Phew. For a moment there I thought you’d had enough and were just trying to get rid of me.
Bruni: Ha ha. Just popping out to get some cigarettes! No, my husband is leaving on a trip and I wanted to say goodbye. I’m like a teenager. [Sings] Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you. … Where were we?
Hemispheres: We were talking about being normal. You do seem like a down-to-earth person. Is this something you have to work at?
Bruni: You try to be as natural as you can. You know the legend of Narcissus. He sees his reflection in some water, and his problem is that he starts to prefer his reflection to himself. You can’t give priority to your image. You know, very few public figures are there by accident; most famous people are there because they chose it.
Hemispheres: And so many celebrities do fall into that trap. They can become entitled, difficult, even cruel.
Bruni: I realized that early on. I was a model in my early 20s, and I knew I had to find a way through the celebrity. I also understood that you cannot control your public image, and that’s not so bad. It’s different now with the Internet—it’s like, whoa! You take a lighter from someone’s living room when you’re 14 and it follows you your whole life.
Hemispheres: You talk about staying grounded when you were a model, but you were flying around the world, dating rock stars. That’s not most people’s lives.
Bruni: You have to compare that with the reality. It was a lot of hard work. To tell you the truth, I was never a party girl—the other girls used to call me boring. I’m a little bourgeois. I like to be at home. Of course, in this world you’re not going to be meeting bankers. But for me it was never: “Ooh, let’s go date some rock stars.”
Hemispheres: You grew up amid privilege and wealth. Again, not what most people would describe as normal.
Bruni: But it was normal, in terms of day-to-day life. My parents were Italian. They came from another time, so in that regard my childhood was a bit strange. My father was born in 1917. He didn’t cuddle the kids. He would tell us a nice, loving story, but from afar. It was different then.
Hemispheres: You spoke earlier about love being a kind of shelter.
Hemispheres: Does it work both ways? Is it hard for you when, say, your husband takes a beating in the press?
Bruni: Maybe when it’s really bad, but it doesn’t last long. It’s a game, and you cannot take it too seriously or personally. And, you know, there are people out there with real problems. There are people who can’t give to their kids. It can take three hours to get to work in the morning for a terrible job and you come home exhausted. That’s not the same as, “Oh, that magazine wasn’t very nice to us!”
Hemispheres: You do a fair amount of charity work. You started a foundation that provides education to disadvantaged people. You’ve spoken about this almost as if you’re making amends for your own good fortune.
Bruni: For me, education is the heart of life. Everyone has the right to the same education. And, yes, the foundation came to seem like a third road I could take. It was wonderful to have made music, to have met and married a man and to have had kids, but being able to help people feels really good.
Hemispheres: You were speaking in the past tense for a moment there. I’m assuming you have ambitions for the future.
Bruni: Well—and I’m touching wood as I say this to you—I would like the children to remain happy and healthy. We have five children between us. He has two grandchildren now, so there are two more reasons to worry. My hope for the rest of our lives is that we don’t have any drama. You know the Woody Allen thing—life can be miserable or horrible. Horrible is when you have no legs or no money or you’re in the final stages of cancer; miserable is the rest of us. I’m happy with that right now.
Hemispheres: When I asked about ambitions, I expected you to say you wanted to grow as an artist, something like that. I wasn’t prepared for the no-legs thing.
Bruni: I had my little girl when I was 44; I feel incredibly blessed that she was completely healthy. I remember being in a hospital once and seeing this baby who was so sick. So, no, right now I don’t worry so much about my career—unless we got poor, then I’d have to think about it. Success and power are an illusion for young people. At my age, they’re the cherry on the cake—and what good is a cherry if there is no cake?
Hemispheres: So nothing about the music? No plans to build on your European success in America?
Bruni: I have an intimate audience there. I sing in French, so there are limits. I’m hoping people will find a little room for my music, but I’m not Beyoncé, right? When I get a letter from someone saying I’ve made them happy, that makes me feel good. It doesn’t have to be a million people. My music relies very much on tenderness. I want it to be like I’m singing in your ear.
Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright learned French by watching dubbed episodes of “The Sopranos” and reading the subtitles. He can now threaten someone’s life quite fluently but is not so good at asking where the bathroom is.