The First Lady of French Music
by Michele Elyzabeth
Perhaps many Americans have not heard of Sylvie Vartan. That is unfortunate. However, many people, me included, have had the privilege of being touched by her music. For all the deprived people who are not acquainted with her body of work, let me enlighten you. Francophile or not, there are some who deserve to be introduced as one of France’s living legends and Sylvie Vartan falls under that category. Born in Bulgaria and raised in France, for the past five decades she has held the title of France’s most famous female entertainer. Sylvie started singing as a teenager and became the first French female recording artist to introduce rock n’roll and pop music to France. It took no time before her career soared. Millions of young women from Paris to Tokyo wanted to emulate her. She achieved the status of super stardom by the time she was 18. By age 20, Sylvie was headlining Paris’ iconic Olympia theatre and the Beatles were opening her concerts. Just before turning 21, she married French Rocker Johnny Hallyday. Sylvie and Johnny were the darling couple of Parisian show biz. They were referred to as idols. She had the best French songwriters on her team including the likes of Charles Aznavour who wrote one of her biggest hits, “La Plus Belle Pour Aller Danser,” selling 1.5 million copies. After Paris, Sylvie conquered London, Madrid and Rome before taking over Brazil, Argentina, Japan, and Africa among others. Eventually she recorded her first English album in Nashville. With each year that passed, her popularity grew bigger, performing in stadiums and releasing hit records one after the other. In the early 80s she starred in her own show in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and in 1984, Sylvie did a duet with the late John Denver called “Love Again,” which charted on Billboard. Her persona did not go unnoticed, she was a “brand” before the word was invented. Known for her impeccable taste and style, Sylvie became a fashion icon, gracing more Fashion Magazine covers than Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve. She wrote her autobiography, “Entre l’ombre et la Lumiere “(“Between Light and shadow,”) a best-seller.
I met Sylvie Vartan for the first time when I was a teenager. She became my role model. I admired her for who she was, what she represented and the strength that she showed as a young woman and as an entertainer. She always was so dignified, something young women lack these days. I have followed her career through the years and met up with her again recently to talk about what had been going on in her life. We had not seen each other for many years, so I asked…
What have you been doing?
Traveling, singing always, rehearsing, releasing albums, promoting them, touring.
Do you still tour a lot?
Yes, pretty much. But touring has changed a lot. You can be touring for four months; the dates are not consecutive. When I was touring back then, it was more strenuous. I was doing 30 dates straight, one after the other. Now when you’re touring, you do 10 days, and then you have a one week break, then you do two, etc…
Are you going back to France soon?
Yes, I always go back. I go back and forth.
Is that tiring?
Not really, I just have that flight — LA-Paris and Paris-LA — tattooed in my DNA. I don’t have to look through the porthole; I know exactly where I am and what I’m flying over.
You still keep a place in Paris, of course.
I have a house.
Are you going back there for a film?
No. Matter of fact, I just finished a film “Tu Veux Ou Tu Veux Pas,” I had a cameo role. I accepted the part because my dear friend — Tonie Marshall asked me to be in it and because I liked the idea of doing a comedy. I played a crazy mother who’s looking for a partner through the Internet, and I thought it was funny. Sophie Marceau and Patrick Bruel star in the movie.
You sold millions of records and you are still in demand. How do you sustain the generations?
I often wondered the same thing myself, especially because I did not choose to be a singer. I wanted to be an actress, I kind of fell into it. I was surrounded by music. My brother was a musician and my father was a producer. I started singing by accident. I was asked to appear on someone’s record, and it was exciting, I never planned for it to become my main profession. Then it happened very fast, I had a manager — an agent — who by the way, I learned later on in life had passed on all the movie parts that came his way for me (laughs).
You were on top of the charts at that time, but had you done any movies then?
I had done one movie; it was an adaptation from a famous play called “Patate by Marcel Achard.” I did it with Jean Marais, and Pierre Dux and Danielle Darrieux who played my parents. It was fun. It was about a young girl who falls in love with an older guy — her parents’ friend. I had received some good reviews. Next thing you know, producers and directors were calling him for me to do other movies, but I never knew about them until 10 years later when I ran into Jacques Demy on Fifth Avenue who he told me, ‘I would like to introduce myself, I’m Jacques Demy. I wanted you so badly for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but your agent turned it down. He said you were on tour.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was 18, so I didn’t know who, what.
How do you compare singing to acting?
Well, singing actually, is far more difficult than acting. When singing, you are alone and you can’t fake it. You are who you are by choosing your own material, your own songs. You reveal yourself through your choices and sensitivity, and you touch your audience. You get an instant reaction from the public. It is the relationship that you develop with your fans over time which gives you longevity in the business. It’s such a wonderful feeling, because it’s a real connection. The public doesn’t have the same attitude towards actors. Even though they admire them, they don’t have that deep emotion. There’s always a distance — the distance of the screen — because they always play somebody else, and so they cannot relate to them the same way. They can only admire them, period. As a singer, they identify with you, and they have you in their hearts. They really do. And I’m very touched now, because of course I have had a long career, and I have a wonderful audience. And I’m so moved to see what impact my songs have had on people.
You have influenced several generations. Did you have any idea what was going on then?
I never even paid attention or realized it, because I was so young and I never thought about anything. I never calculated anything, but now when I see so many people coming to see me and recapturing their youth, enjoying themselves through my music, it’s very touching.
How do you feel when you see your people sing along?
It’s love. It’s pure love. I can’t believe it. And I’m really, really sensitive to that and I realize it now, which I did not at the time. I can say that I have no regrets. I was very lucky.
Is there anything you would like to do right now that you haven’t done in your career?
I would love to do movies, still.
Do you go out at all to read for movies?
In France it’s specific, because when you are a famous and a known singer, it’s very hard to have people from the movie business looking at you any other way. Also both of these industries are quite separated. The movie business and the singing are two different worlds — it’s very difficult, especially for a woman. For a guy, it’s easier. There are examples of famous singers who made some movies such as Eddy Mitchell or Patrick Bruel.
What about in the US?
Here, nobody waits for French actors or singers. From time to time there is the exception like Marion Cotillard who was in a specific movie and who fortunately received an Oscar for it, but generally speaking, nobody waits for anybody here. And the movie business is really geared toward the youth. There are few roles for seasoned women and there are many great actresses in this country.
Besides her work Sylvie has been an advocate for justice and is the Founder and President of the “Association Sylvie Vartan Pour la Bulgarie” in France. It supplies medical equipment for the children’s hospitals and orphanages in Bulgaria
You have been back to Bulgaria and even adopted your daughter from there. Can you take me through that journey?
I went back to Bulgaria for the first time for a concert and to see the country again after the Berlin Wall fell. I wanted to see the people and I wanted to see the places where I lived. It was very emotional. When we returned to my country with my brother, it was 1990, I think, or ‘91. The children were in such terrible condition that we decided we were going to help those children. It was a year after the wall fell, the people were free again, but they were queuing in line and there was nothing in the stores. It was exactly the way we left it. It was amazing.
And they did a TV show of my concert and it was a wonderful show. It was supposed to air on Christmas, but I said, ‘Hey listen, it’s going to be so emotional and do you have to air the show on Christmas? I mean, it’s going to be sad.’ I cried all the time, because I didn’t want to go back. I arrived the night before my concert, which was the following day, and just to fly east, my heart broke.
The TV Channel France 2 had a big private plane to take us all over — all the crew and all the participants and my band and everybody — and we arrived in that private plane on the eve of the concert. When you fly over the west you see nice fields; everything is all colorful, with plantations and stuff. And when you went over there, everything was like somebody bombed it. There was nothing, no color. It was so depressing.
For the drive from the airport to the center of town where we were staying at a hotel, I recognized almost everything and it was heartbreaking. And I didn’t want to see anything and I didn’t want to go to the house because I said I won’t be able to sing. It was impossible for me. And the day of the concert, I really lost my voice. I was so anxious and so moved and it was terrible. I had to breathe. I had to go out. My throat was closing. It was just very, very difficult. But it is wonderful now, in retrospect. It’s such a great, great time. I went back many times after that and adopted my daughter years later.
I understand that you were so distraught by the lack of medical care for children in Bulgaria that you initiated an association?
Yes I did. I created an association to help the children in Bulgaria. It’s a small foundation. There are so many needy kids in our country, so with Bulgarian children, it’s very difficult to motivate people to give money, not many people feel concerned about Eastern European kids. So I felt that I had to be the one. My fans and some companies joined us. For the first years, my brother and I got few people involved. Some of them were Bulgarian born and living in France. We started sending food and the basics because they had nothing to eat. The hospital was in such terrible condition — it was dirty; it was dingy; it was all awful. People were really a wreck, but there was an enthusiasm in it — a spirit, a freedom that was fantastic and easily felt. It was really incredible. They had so much hope, and they were so welcoming, and they were so ready to do everything to get better. So we started — my brother Eddie and I — to do this with a few people, and then finally, little by little, things started to get better and we didn’t need to send food anymore. But people were still so poor and so deprived from everything and we didn’t want the donations to be mishandled so we teamed up with the Red Cross.
They were wonderful people and they were really trustworthy and little by little we started to purchase medical equipment for children and for maternities. They all needed those incubators to cure hepatitis or the severe jaundice which the newborns had as soon as they were born, because the mothers had been underfed. They had to have blood transfusions, and in the process of transfusing them, they would die. Because they were old and inadequate, we started providing each hospital with those incubators equipped with blue light therapy.
They’re pretty expensive, but so far, we’ve given away about 40-42. We’ve equipped many, many hospitals, which saves a lot of children’s lives. It’s wonderful.
So you’re still doing it?
Oh yeah, we’re still doing it. We have programs. According to the funds we have, we also sponsor cultural events, but basically all the money goes to the kids.
So what’s next for you?
My new recording in Nashville.
How many did you cut so far?
Yes, I’ll be going sometime in January. It will be my 71st recording, I think. I don’t count anymore. I don’t count, period. (laughs) It’s better.
Have you already selected your material and what can you reveal about it?
I cannot say much. However, I can tell you that there are going to be duets and that we are still in the process of selecting new music. But, I promise to keep you posted.
Sylvie has become a phenomenon. In recognition of the esteem in which she is held by in France and Bulgaria, Sylvie is now one of the most decorated women in both countries, having received the highest honors the government awards to civilians in each country.