Carla Bruni-Sarkozy brought a touch of glamour to French politics that hadn’t been seen since the days of Marie Antoinette.
“Every piece of jewellery a woman wears,” Carla Bruni-Sarkozy informs me, “tells its own little story. Who has given it to them? For what reason? Was it a special celebration or did they buy it themselves? Jewels are like memories, you know, they’re pieces of your past…” We are in a suite on the fifth floor of the Bulgari Hotel in west London. Bruni – dressed in a white silk shirt, high-waisted black trousers and ballet pumps – is draped across a quite preposterous cream leather sofa, looking like a modern-day Cleopatra. She seems to have only slightly fewer staff, too, the majority of whom are flitting here and there in preparation for tonight’s opening of Bulgari’s new flagship store on Bond Street. Bruni, an ambassador for the luxury Italian brand since 2013 and loyal customer for many years more, will be the guest of honour.
“I have stories about new and old jewels, given to me by people I love very much,” she powers on, admirably unperturbed by the hubbub around her. “But I don’t wear much each day. I just like to add a little shine sometimes.” I’ve scarcely finished asking for an example when Bruni leaps toward me, cat-like, raising her left hand aloft and fluttering her fingers in a sort of backwards wave. A slim diamond-studded band glints in the light. “This is my wedding ring, the most significant piece I’ve been given,” she says, staring at it as if it were put on her finger only yesterday. “There’s nothing more meaningful. It’s just a simple design, with our names engraved on the inside, but a wedding ring is more than jewellery, it’s a commitment. And anyway, what’s the point of getting married if it’s not for the ring, right?”
Heiress, model, socialite, musician, philanthropist. For many years Carla Bruni could be defined in any number of ways, yet over the last decade it is the story attached to that very ring – of her wedding to French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace in 2008 after a frantic two-month courtship, and of her subsequent four-year stint as First Lady of her adopted nation – that has made her one of the most recognisable women in the world. In person Bruni, 48, has none of the frosty aloofness one might expect of somebody blessed with such extreme helpings of wealth, beauty and (temporarily, at least) power. Wearing minimal make-up, she’s utterly natural: unguarded, gracious, thoughtful and as quick with a joke as she is with a song – which, for better or worse, is very quick indeed.
After more than 15 years away from modelling, appearing in recent campaigns for Bulgari – a brand she says she admires for its “patient and old-fashioned savoir faire that shows traditions can last even when life is fast” – has seen Bruni back where she started. Happily, the atmosphere on a fashion shoot now, she says, is just as she’d left it. “It was all the same, which was so nice for me. I like designers, I like models, make-up artists, hairdressers, photographers,’ she says, her staccato accent lending itself particularly well to lists. “Fashion is like a big funny family. Days are full of chat, and I’m Italian so I just talk, talk, talk. Music is a lonely job, but as a model you are always in the middle of a group. I like that.”
The daughter of Alberto Bruni Tedeschi, a wealthy tyre industrialist and composer, and Marisa Borini, a concert pianist, Bruni was born in Turin. At seven she left for Paris with her brother, Virginio, who died of complications from HIV in 2006 aged just 46, and her sister, Valeria, an actress, in a move reportedly prompted by the threat of kidnapping by the Brigate Rossa, a far-left gang targeting the children of rich Italians in the 1970s. Heiress to the family fortune, Bruni then attended the prestigious Château Mont-Choisi finishing school in Lausanne, where, as well as learning fluent English, she remembers developing a talent for gentle disobedience.
“I used to like being the one elected by my friends to ask the teachers questions at school,” she says, giggling. “Oh I asked the most deadful questions, like, ‘Sir, can we please smoke in the courtyard? Because it’s dangerous to be outside school and we want to smoke… I loved being young. Now the young people in France are going out in the street against the law, but they don’t even know what they’re fighting against! I was the same – just angry. At that age you think rebellion is sexy, which it is, but then you realise it’s also quite useless.”
At 19 she abandoned further education in art and architecture in Paris and quickly established herself as one of the most in-demand models of the ’90s, working with every major fashion house and, at one point, earning over $7 million a year. It was also a decade in which she became a world-class heartbreaker, having a relationship with Eric Clapton and a seven-year affair with Mick Jagger. At one point she was even linked to Donald Trump, then merely a harmless property tycoon. (Confronted with this particular rumour, proudly stoked by Trump himself, an exasperated Bruni said the billionaire was ‘obviously a lunatic’.)
Bruni left fashion in 1997, a year after Alberto Bruni Tedeschi died. While seriously ill, he revealed to Bruni that her biological father was in fact a guitarist and grocery magnate named Maurizio Remmert, with whom she now has a close relationship.
Bruni misses the fun of her modelling years, she says, but has no desire to relive anything, or even talk about those days. In fact, when I ask her what advice she might give her carefree 25-year-old self now, she responds cryptically in song, with a committed and lengthy two choruses of Guy Lombardo’s Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).”…that’s the only thing I would say to anybody young. Enjoy yourself, because it is always later than you think, non?”
Trailing off, she pauses to light a Vogue super-slim cigarette, her trademark, and carefully places an ashtray on the cushion beside her. Bruni’s singing voice is breathy and ethereal, to the extent that listening to her music is like having a particularly catchy secret whispered into your ear. She says she writes constantly, scribbling French rhymes down in a notebook she keeps in her handbag, and is never happier than when performing on stage, an adrenalin rush she can compare only to “the superior excitement of the first two months of love”.
Her debut album, 2002’s Quelqu’un m’a dit, an acoustic, jazzy collection of chansons, which sold two million copies, was written during her relationship with the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, whose father she previously dated, and with whom she had a son, Aurélien, in 2001. Four more acclaimed records followed over the next 13 years, the latter few’s lyrics mined for potential gossip by hungry French tabloids.
Looking back, the shock caused in France when Bruni and Sarkozy’s relationship went public seems almost quaint. At the time the press renounced the unlikely coupling as nothing more than a fling. She, they pointed out, was the bohemian femme fatale who had once declared that ‘monogamy bores me’ and had albums to sell. He was the diminutive, teetotal, workaholic career politician, 12 years her senior and father to three sons from two previous marriages.
As it happened, though, Bruni turned out an exemplary First Lady, employing her good humour and the graces of her education to wow Britain (especially Prince Philip, so they say) on her first state visit in 2008, then throwing herself into philanthropic endeavours, among them an educational foundation, all the while continuing a respected career in music.
In 2011, while Sarkozy was still president, Bruni gave birth to her second child, a girl named Giulia. At 43, she hadn’t expected to become a mother again. “Having a daughter changed everything,’ she says, her clear blue eyes lighting up as she stubs out a cigarette. ‘I was not [at] an age where you have children, so it was like a miracle. My husband and I have four boys, basically a small football team, but now I have another girl around the house and it’s fantastic.”
Despite Giulia growing up in the full glare of the media, Bruni, who also became a step-grandmother six years ago when Sarkozy’s eldest, Jean, had a son, has no fears for her daughter’s independence. “Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and I know her strength as I know my strength,” she says. “But for some reason I always thought that men were much more fragile, so I get more worried for Aurélien, who is 14, than for my daughter, who is four. You have to always protect them, of course.” Protect them from what? “From life! From death. From sorrow. From humiliation. From despair. From depression. You have to give them a good life; you hope they’ll have a good life,” she splutters.
Four years after moving out of the Elysée, Bruni’s life is again in a state of happy flux. She will continue as the face of Bulgari, helping to preserve what she calls its ‘preciously made, classically modern pieces’. “This sort of work may not exist in 50 years,” she warns. “One day these jewels could end up in museums.” There are also constant charity commitments, and her sixth studio album is nearing completion. The release of that record and all other plans, however, may yet be put on hold if Sarkozy makes good on rumours he’ll run for a second term as president in next year’s general election. “I’ll see what my husband does with all this political thing,” she says, slapping the question away with a nonchalant wave. “I just want to play my music in front of people, but I also like the quiet family life. It’s the complete end of freedom [when you have children], but it’s so nice. You get something else instead.”
Upheaval and reinvention, though, have never appeared to bother Carla Bruni. In fact, I think she rather likes them. “I passed from one country to another when I was seven, then I changed fathers when I was 28. When I was 30 I changed my career, then I had a child – the biggest change of all – then I got married while my husband was the president. I’m used to change, but it doesn’t affect the bottom of my life, just the surface,” she says, throwing her hands up. “Visually it may appear completely different, but inside it’s the same me. I’m always the same person.”