In many ways, 2017 has been Carla Bruni's comeback year.
Born in Turin, Italy, Bruni, the daughter of a concert pianist and classical composer and the heiress to a major tyre manufacturing company, was raised in France from the age of seven. Long before she became the country's First Lady, she embarked on a career as a singer and songwriter as a teenager. At 19, she signed with a modelling agency and over the next few years became one of the 1990s’ top-paid models — and most gossiped-about, thanks to romances with Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger.
Three decades later — and one month before the release of her first-ever English language album, The French Touch — Bruni returned to the runway to pay tribute to the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace's death. Over lunch at New York restaurant Gemma this past week, she recounts the moment she got a call from Donatella Versace, asking if she would like to join an homage to her brother in the spring 2018 show with fellow '90s supermodels Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. Naturally, she didn't think twice.
“Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, Azzedine Alaïa, and a few American designers were really responsible for turning us models from bodies and faces that displayed clothing to actual names," Bruni says, adding that Campbell has remained a close friend, as has Christensen. “When Gianni died so horribly — I still remember learning of the news on television and how surreal it was to be at his funeral — I don't think the fashion industry ever quite recovered. It was the end of an era for fashion. I've always remained grateful to him, so it was an honour when Donatella called me."
Unlike some other models of her time, though, Bruni has never taken any issue with the new generation of supermodels, names like Kendall Jenner and the Hadid sisters. (Stephanie Seymour and Rebecca Romijn have both hinted at being less-than-pleased about being compared to the new wave, though they each later denied any criticism of them.)
“The fashion industry is a constant evolution," Bruni says, picking on marinated olives and cheese between bites of her house salad. "So yes, these younger girls are different from us. They have their own way of walking, and talking. They even get discovered or become more popular because of Instagram! But they look fantastic doing it, and they're keeping the industry fresh. I think that's great."
What strikes me most about Bruni, though, is the way she so casually juggles her many hats and labels. Perhaps it’s because she was already a world-renowned model when she entered the Élysée, but it’s hard to imagine any other First Lady so effortlessly switching from meetings with international leaders to recording albums and being a mother.
“I’m a loner, and sometimes being with my man is better than being alone, and sometimes I can be alone while sitting next to him," she says. "But I also chose a profession as a songwriter, where I get to enjoy being lonely sometimes."
The one role that’s truly changed her at her core, though, is motherhood. "I had a super-selfish identity, and my children killed that because I had no choice. Suddenly there are people who are more important than you. But that's much more fulfilling than just focusing on yourself. I mean, how do you think Cindy Crawford felt walking down the runway at Versace and seeing her daughter Kaia do the same? There's a certain kind of pride and fulfilment that only mothers know, and it's worth it."
Today, there’s another label Bruni now wears proudly: In 2012, she told Vogue she is not an active feminist — a comment that created a firestorm and later led to her apologising. She nods emphatically as soon as I ask if she truly considers herself to be a feminist now that all that dust has settled.
"Yeah, I am a feminist, but not from wearing a T-shirt," she says. "That’s not the point. I came from a time when women were fighting for their right to take birth control, women who gave us the right to own our bodies and not just have children whenever our husbands would like for us to. When I was growing up in the ‘70s, there was a huge wave of radical feminists, so to me, calling yourself a feminist comes with a great responsibility. But while we made so many strides for years, in many ways, we've almost gone backwards. Now, it's even more important to fight and be radical. Look at the Women's March! It might not have satisfied some people who marched hoping to remove the US president from office, but imagine. Imagine there’s a woman from Russia or China or India or an Arabic country, and she’s watching coverage of the Women's March. America is the biggest democracy in the world, so even if everything isn't perfect here, the women here still have the power to inspire others all around the globe."
When Bruni was First Lady, she says there was almost a sisterhood among all the First Ladies, who were often shuttled off to their own programming and events while their husbands took meetings. I ask if she’s met the new French First Lady Brigitte Macron, and she smiles, sharing that she and her husband, former President of the French Republic Nicolas Sarkozy, recently had a "lovely" dinner with her and President Emmanuel Macron. But when I ask if she’s met Melania Trump, she barely shakes her head before launching into a gush session about Michelle Obama instead.
“I met Michelle Obama many times, and I always reflect on how she did such a great job," she says. "My husband and I had dinner at the White House with just her and Barack Obama, and she is the nicest, kindest woman, they both are. The first time I met her was at the NATO conference in Germany where she presented me a Gibson guitar. I later used it to play 'Blowing In The Wind' by Bob Dylan at Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday. I don't miss anything about being First Lady — there was too much on my mind worrying that something would happen to my man, that someone would try to kill him. It was an incredible honour, and I got to help many, many people throughout my time in the Élysée. I don't miss it, but I do cherish memories like that."
As Bruni talks about her husband’s presidency, I feel almost ashamed. All I've been able to think about while I look at her is her sex appeal. I am a feminist! How dare I objectify this accomplished woman just because she has piercing blue eyes and a perfectly angular face? Still, there's no denying her allure, and the conversation does, eventually, turn to sex with her husband.
The pair caused an uproar in France when Sarkozy, president for just five months, divorced his wife Cécilia in October 2007, began dating Bruni, a singer-supermodel whose nude photos were rampant on the internet, and then married her and moved her into the Élysée Palace by February 2008. The tabloids speculated whether their union would last, but the French people fell head-over-heels for Bruni and her ability to rein in an impulsive Sarkozy, who'd earned the nickname President Bling Bling because of his penchant for flashy jewellery and celebrity friends. Once Bruni entered the picture, she helped Sarkozy tone it down — and gained even more fashion buzz thanks to memorable ensembles, like the tailored grey Christian Dior look she wore to meet Queen Elizabeth II that year.
“I’m still so attracted to my man, and I guess he’s still attracted to me — I hope so after 10 years!" Bruni laughs, noting she and her husband are still going strong despite the naysayers. The couple have a 5-year-old daughter together, Giulia, in addition to four children combined from previous relationships. "But in a marriage, you must have both desire and friendship. When we lived in the beautiful castle that is the Élysée, I made him come home every night he didn't already have dinner plans so we could have a small meal together and talk, because we are friends. But we also have fantastic sex. I make sure there's always a little mystery there. I believe you need to be very attracted to the person you marry, because when you stop desiring one another, and when there's no more mystery, that's when you're tempted to cheat and you lie and then it's finished. But you also need to be very comfortable, because only fire and passion will lead to destruction."
She goes on to tell me a story about how director Woody Allen once heard that the President and First Lady of France were in the audience of one of his shows at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. After searching high and low for Sarkozy, Allen was shocked to find the President was in the corner making out like a teenager — with Bruni.
But boys aside, right now, she's all about work — this time, in front of the mic, not in front of the camera. After a small part in Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, she says going back to acting probably isn’t in her cards. At a dinner at her home in Saint Tropez a few years back, Leonardo DiCaprio helped her realise that perhaps acting isn’t her forte, she explains. “He said to me, 'Isn’t it incredible how much freedom Woody Allen gives you as a director! He didn’t direct me at all!' And I said, 'Well, Woody directed me every minute! He gave me no freedom!' That shows the difference in acting ability between Leonardo DiCaprio and me. I need a lot of direction!"
And instead of doing what she's always done when it comes to music, Bruni wanted to challenge herself to do something she's never done before. For French Touch, she decided to do an album covering American songs; she writes all her own music, but doesn't yet feel comfortable enough to write in English. The result is a record full of French-and-Latin inspired takes on recognisable songs like “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones and “Moon River”, the melancholy tune made famous by Audrey Hepburn and her ukulele in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
"I thought I needed to be Billie Holiday or Adele or Barbra Streisand to do covers," Bruni says. "But then over drinks after one of my Los Angeles shows, David Foster told me that most of my Americans fans might not understand my lyrics but like my French folk sound. Now that I've finished it, I think I created something just right for a long car ride. Or for a romantic evening when you want to kiss someone or hang out by the fireplace."
Though it's taken her years — perhaps decades — to fine-tune her musical prowess, fashion has always been her familiar home, something that's helped her maintain her identity on her ever-changing path as an Italian-cum-French model/singer/actor/mother/First Lady. It's no wonder Donatella Versace has her on speed dial.
"I think true style is very simple: Clothes that you can wear all your life," she says. "Showing off your figure is besides the point. Significant others are not the best people to dress for, because they just want everything out — legs, breasts. You can't let it all be seen! In my opinion, style is sober, simple, and transcends time and age."
"You don't want to wear too much makeup!" she adds. "I mean, you want to be able to kiss properly, right?"