Until last Thursday, when a nude photograph of Carla Bruni, the 40-year-old model-turned-pop-star-turned-first lady of France, sold at Christie’s for $91,000, more than 20 times its expected price, Ms. Bruni hadn’t been the subject of much conversation among New Yorkers. But over the last week, her name popped out of pursed lips at cocktail lounges and long lunches across the city, as men and women started to catch on that a new icon of fashion, sex and sensibility—a 21st-century amalgam of Jackie O, Lady Di and J-Lo—was emerging across the Atlantic. News of the photo sale even made it onto Saturday Night Live’s weekend update.
Thanks to the Internet, the photograph—taken by Michael Comte in 1993, when Ms. Bruni was working as a model—made the rounds. Her face all wide planes, her small breasts pointing off in two directions, she stands with her hands forming a diamond over her nether regions, a sort of ironic Eve pose, but she doesn’t seem to be covering up for her own sake. Her expression—her lips are parted in a parody of innocence, her eyes are semi-frozen—says she had little need for shelter. Her skin is just the outfit she’s put on for the picture, as easy to model as a Dior suit or an Yves Saint Laurent gown. This woman has nothing to hide.
Indeed, in our own political season, when concealment, attack and counterattack are so rife, there was something Edenic about the photo of a first lady standing naked, unapologetic, challenging the viewer to choose between arousal and admiration. Because frankly, she looks great. The fact that the photo was taken 15 years ago is irrelevant, because Ms. Bruni has continued her full-frontal, forward surge of sex and power to this current day.
And while our own politicians seem to regard carnal passion as a dangerous third rail of politics—which, after all, it’s proved itself to be in the cases of men such as Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer—there is something invigorating about a first lady who told French magazine L’Express last year, “I’m monogamous occasionally, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry.” Just look at any photo of her with her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy—looking at his dumbstruck, grinning, subservient mug, you can tell he can’t believe his luck. Just last October he divorced his second wife, Cécilia, after rumors of affairs on both sides, and immediately he finds himself cheek to cheek with Carla Bruni.
It’s taken the rest of us a bit longer to catch on. The widely circulated paparazzi shots last Christmas of the happy couple cavorting on an Egyptian beach were notable for the contrast of her physical perfection against his tubby, furry tummy. Their quiet February wedding made our papers without much fanfare. But even as Europe has been electrified—the British fell so deeply in love with Ms. Bruni during a recent state visit with her husband that The Daily Mail ran some 17 pictures of her, including close-ups of her hands and feet that, for some, were more erotic than the Comte photo—we’ve remained grounded, inoculated against her charms. Carla Bruni? Wasn’t she a model, a pop singer? Did she date Mick Jagger? Do a Guess campaign?
But while we were distracted by our own former first lady’s vigorous lunge for a return to the White House, Ms. Bruni stealthily installed herself as the most compelling, glamorous and refreshingly bold first lady in many a year. She’s let us know she looks great naked and looks great in clothes. She’s stayed young without chasing youth; she’s stayed sexy without shedding her dignity or her position of power. And that’s what many women, particularly New York women, want.
ON HER RECENT trip to England, much was made over Ms. Bruni’s choice of attire. Dressed head to toe in Dior by John Galliano, Ms. Bruni was described in The Guardian as “two parts Jackie O, one part Lycée girl.” Commenting on the importance of the French couple’s visit to Britain, Andrew Gimson wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “Many of us decided at once that if we were going to be seduced by anyone, we would rather be seduced by her.” Hungry for a woman who could brighten up dowdy, rainy, grannyish England, male and female members of the press swooned, comparing her also to Diana, the last woman to bring glamour to the U.K.
Former French Vogue editor-in-chief Joan Juliet Buck sees Ms. Bruni as little more than an extention of high-end, French consumer products that everyone wants. “Versailles was conceived as a magnificent showroom for French goods, because around 1678, Colbert said to Louis XIV: We have to prove the French do things better than anybody,’” said Ms. Buck. “In 2008, at last, a model is married to the president, which is great PR for the further global extension of French luxury brands.”
Of course, New York women posess their own kind of glamour (and plenty of Louis Vuitton handbags!). But Ms. Bruni, at 40, has more to offer us than the promise of good taste. She’s a popular sophisticate, and an intellectual exhibitionist.
As a powerful woman operating on the international stage as one half of the first family of France, Ms. Bruni begs to be compared to that other first lady, who is hoping to become our president, Hillary Clinton. This isn’t about looks; that contest would be unfair, given Ms. Bruni’s outrageous genetic gifts. The question is which of them stands as a more useful—even more modern—model of feminism, and femininity.
In America, we like our powerful women to be not too beautiful, not too brash, not too brilliant, even. They must be mothers—make that proud mothers—who wear gold jewelry, makeup done just so, and appropriate suits. (Something in red, or cobalt, is as daring a style choice as is made.) They also must admit their vulnerability as women, even if they are tough as nails. Ms. Clinton, who is whip-smart and confident in her debates with Barack Obama, has had some of her most affecting campaign moments when teary, or sentimental. These moments “humanized” her, said the press. But what is it about tears that make a woman a woman? And for some women, those tears seemed as false as so much political posturing that’s come from all sides of this presidential race. We’re constantly being manipulated.