- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

It’s not often that the love life of a European — at least, one who’s not royalty — makes headlines on this side of the pond. Then again, it’s not often that a head of state finds himself single and in the tricky position of having to conduct every one of his dates in the public eye.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced through his office last October that he and his second wife, Cecilia, had divorced. She left him to return to the lover she had already abandoned the politician for once before. He bounced back from this romantic setback rather quickly: Just two months later, he made his public debut with a new love at Disneyland Paris.

Since December, newspapers around the globe have been reporting on the every move of the new couple, as they visited the pyramids in Egypt and contemplated a state trip to India. What seems to have captured public attention is not merely the fact that the 53-year-old head of one of Europe’s most powerful nations is dating again. It’s that Carla Bruni, the Italian-born, French-raised woman whom Mr. Sarkozy says he’ll marry, is a beautiful 39-year-old former model.

Most men would be high-fiving one of their peers who managed to snag a catwalker, but Mr. Sarkozy has gotten almost nothing but grief since he embarked on the affair. Reacting to pictures of a smiling Mr. Sarkozy looking adoringly at his new girlfriend, most critics believe that the head of France has lost his head over a pretty ex-model. The general feeling has been one of resentment, not admiration.

Writing in the Washington Post, a snarky Robin Givhan summed up the sentiment: “Models already get the star athletes. The bookish debate-team captain should get the prime minister.”

Notice how Miss Bruni is invariably described as an ex-model. Few columnists mention on first reference that she has a new career of her own now, as a singer-songwriter. It’s her looks that matter, and in this context they work to her detriment.

Catholics like to claim that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in the Western world, but the case of Miss Bruni — and others — suggests something else: Bigotry against beautiful women is one of the oldest, and longest-lasting, forms of prejudice.

Miss Givhan wrote prissily in the Post, “Bruni posed and pouted for fancy European houses and, in the late 1990s, she cashed out and embarked on what has been described as a singing career. Alicia Keys, she is not.”

Ouch.

Miss Givhan is correct on one count: Miss Bruni is not a melismatic singer like Miss Keys. But is that pyrotechnic American style the only standard of musical quality nowadays? Miss Bruni comes from a different tradition, and for pure enjoyment, I would choose one of her modern chansons any day.

Not too many people this side of the Atlantic have heard Miss Bruni’s music, which might account for Miss Givhan’s comments. Miss Bruni sold almost 2 million copies of her first album, the French-language “Quelqu’un m’a dit,” which certainly sounds like a successful European career to me.

I’ve been listening to it since I first discovered the music in reviewing the indie movie “Conversations with Other Women” a year and a half ago. The clever drama starring Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart featured three songs from the album, and their romantic but contemporary feel added much to the film’s atmosphere.

Miss Bruni wrote her own music and lyrics and played guitar on some of the tracks. Her sweet-sounding voice and breathy delivery, and her music’s swinging, mysterious quality stay with you. Don’t just take my word for it. Interviewing director Darren Aronofsky once at the Four Seasons Hotel, I heard Miss Bruni’s music playing in the background. “Oh, I love her,” the director gushed.

Songs like “Le plus beau du quartier” are influenced by folk and jazz and have a movement reminiscent of Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann, but Miss Bruni’s playful lyrics and sexy intimacy have a contemporary style all her own. It’s the only album I keep permanently in the bedroom.

Miss Bruni isn’t content to sing in just two languages, her native Italian and her acquired French. Her latest album, “No Promises,” features her original music setting classic English and American poetry. It’s being released this month in the U.S., although it’s already available exclusively at Barnes & Noble. I never thought Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden could swing until I listened to “No Promises.” Miss Bruni has made yet another tradition her own.

Miss Bruni, however, gets no credit for her immense talent from those writing about her most recent liaison. I put most of this down to jealousy. It just doesn’t seem fair, Miss Givhan seems to imply, that a beautiful woman gets not just the jock but also the brain. Beautiful women have already won the genetic lottery; must they also win the smarts and talent lotteries as well?

Miss Bruni isn’t the first beautiful woman to find it hard to be recognized for their talent. A classic example is Marilyn Monroe, who tried mostly in vain to be taken seriously as an actress.

Miss Bruni thanks her friend Marianne Faithfull in the liner notes to her new album, and there’s another perfect example of anti-beauty bigotry. It took years before the English songstress got noticed for her talent, with her acclaimed 1979 album, “Broken English.”

It didn’t help that Miss Faithfull had long played muse to other, male musicians, like Mick Jagger — with whom Miss Bruni also famously had an affair. As Francine Prose noted in her insightful book about nine women, “The Lives of the Muses,” muses who have tried to be artists in their own right have found it difficult to transcend their earlier role. Think of Lou Salome and Yoko Ono.

When a beautiful woman who’s inspired musicians — Miss Bruni also dated Eric Clapton — strikes out on her own, condescending critics assume she’s merely copying those she dated. But Miss Bruni’s wonderful music is nothing like that of her past paramours — which critics would discover if they quit looking at her and started listening to her.

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