Carla Bruni Sarkozy: ‘I tried to be a good president’s wife’

Becoming the first lady of France was a challenge for Carla Bruni Sarkozy. But the supermodel and multimillion-selling pop star has always lived life to the max. And, at 52, she’s just warming up…

Carla Bruni Sarkozy
Philip Gay

Carla Bruni Sarkozy is laughing riotously because I’ve just told her I’m sure I got Covid at Madonna’s London concert in January, not least because Madonna later revealed she’d caught the virus on that same tour. ‘Hey,’ she teases. ‘Julia kissed Madonna! She gave Madonna Covid! You are a naughty girl!’

It’s not how you’d imagine a former president’s wife to speak (Carla’s been married to ex-French premier Nicolas Sarkozy for 12 years), but then again she isn’t like anyone I’ve ever met before. Irrepressible and cheeky, she’s not only one of modelling’s greats but a singer/songwriter who’s sold an incredible five million albums. No wonder her five years as France’s first lady, meeting the likes of the Obamas and our very own Queen, are just a blip in her extraordinary life.

During her time as first lady, Carla held her head high as saucy photos taken during her youth were reprinted. She also dressed very demurely in classic Jackie Kennedy-style outfits. ‘I tried to be the best president’s wife I could. I wanted to honour my country,’ she says. ‘My style became very classic. I didn’t want to provoke. I wasn’t going to wear hotpants on a state visit.’

She and Sarkozy (who at the time of going to print is standing trial in France for corruption; he denies all the charges) married just three months after meeting. ‘Being the unmarried partner of the President of the Republic is not so comfortable,’ Carla says in her occasionally eccentric English. I think she means Sarkozy (who had just had a messy divorce) needed a wife on his arm, rather than a bit of fluff. ‘Exactly!’ she says.

Carla Bruni Sarkozy and Nicolas Sarkozy
Carla with her husband Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then the French president, in 2009. Image: Getty Images

The couple have a daughter, Giulia, nine, the final addition to a family that includes his three adult sons and Carla’s 19-year-old son with philosopher Raphaël Enthoven (whose recent autobiographical novel reveals that Carla was his father’s lover before she started seeing him: ‘I haven’t read it,’ shrugs Carla). ‘I was 43 when I had Giulia,’ she tells me. ‘She was a little miracle, but it was so late in life. I lost five teeth when I was pregnant. She took all my strength from me.’

Talking over Zoom from the couple’s Paris home, Carla, 52, is in a black poloneck, with her chestnut hair tumbling down. How, I ask, does a woman renowned for her beauty handle hitting her 50s? ‘It is strange, it’s a change – the hot flushes, everything,’ she says. ‘But there are a lot of changes for the better. We have wrinkles, but who cares? By my age you know more about what makes you happy, so there’s no more wasting time.’ Is that the key to her happy marriage? ‘The older you are when you get married, the better. You know what you’re looking for.’

Carla, who’s just released her sixth album, is not about to swap her guitar for knitting any time soon. ‘I’m so tired of this idea that you have to be 20 and blonde to do anything! Women have so much power now. It used to be when you were 40 everyone forgot about you: now you have women like Sharon Stone, who are in their 60s and look amazing!’

Sarkozy’s in total agreement. ‘He thinks I look better now than I did at 25,’ she says. It’s just as well since she once warned him that if he ever strays she will ‘slit his throat’.

Her attitude, I tell her, is a far cry from her 20s, when she said, ‘Monogamy bores me terribly.’ She shrugs: ‘I was just trying to be bold and audacious when I said that.’

But Carla is bold, which is why it’s hard to believe her when she tells me she gets terrible stage fright on her concert tours. ‘It’s true!’ she insists. ‘I was a shy child. I am still a little, but I’m also Italian, so I can be very “Blah, blah, blah!”’

Carla Bruni
Performing in Paris two months ago. Image: David Wolff/Getty Images

Carla was born into a wealthy Italian family, who moved to France when she was seven to escape Red Brigades kidnapping threats. A ‘lazy rebel’ at school, her ambition was to be a musician. ‘But then I became a model,’ she explains, as if it were as simple as working in Tesco, ‘because although I love my family I wanted to work, to get an apartment, to travel.’

Three years ago, Carla was reunited on the Versace catwalk with fellow supers Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen and Claudia Schiffer. This special tribute show marked the 20th anniversary of designer Gianni Versace’s death. ‘It was so moving,’ she says. ‘Normally, there’s not much room for nostalgia in the fashion world – it doesn’t like to look back – but for once we were all forced to reflect on our memories. We walked the catwalk to George Michael’s “Freedom! 90”, which Gianni always used for us – it was so much fun, but then you realised George is gone, Gianni is gone, our youth is gone.’

Carla, who has appeared on over 250 magazine covers, left modelling when still at her peak to dedicate herself full time to her first love – music – with her debut album selling two million copies. She continued this new career after marrying Sarkozy. ‘I wasn’t allowed to tour for security reasons, but I never stopped songwriting,’ she says.

Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Naomi Campbell and Gianni Versace
With Naomi Campbell and designer Gianni Versace, 1992. Image: Dave Benett

On official trips to London, she met Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, but not Boris Johnson – ‘I could never have believed he would be elected!’ she exclaims.

She’s clearly no fan of Donald Trump, whom she met briefly when he was a businessman and was left gobsmacked when watching the Netflix documentary Trump: An American Dream to hear an old recording of him claiming she dropped her former lover Mick Jagger for him. ‘Oh my god, it’s so funny!’ she hoots. ‘He was saying every woman in the world wants to be with him.’ So can she confirm she’s never had the hots for Trump? ‘Ah, no!’ she laughs.

Generally, Carla couldn’t care less about politics – ‘I was interested when my husband was involved because I’m passionate about what he does’ – and admits they have ‘never been happier as a family’ now he is out of it. The couple and their family (including her mum and aunt – ‘Poor Nicolas, confined with his mother-in-law!’) spent the first lockdown in the South of France. ‘I made cakes – I didn’t know I could bake before,’ she says.

I tell her I put on half a stone in lockdown. ‘I saw this coming,’ she says, ‘gaining weight and being drunk all the time.’ Before I can protest I wasn’t drunk all the time, she says: ‘Moderation and I are not close friends. Being mature about drinking will have to happen in my next life. So I just drank water – but it wasn’t easy!’ I’m even more shamed by Carla telling me she did two hours a day on her elliptical machine with her trainer Zooming her from Mexico.

She also spent a lot of time writing and recording her latest album Carla Bruni between lockdowns and releasing it back in October. It’s full of lighthearted numbers, sung in her enchantingly husky tones, about ‘dreamy moments.’ ‘That’s what we want. We certainly don’t want any songs about 2020,’ she says, pulling a face.

Carla’s latest album Carla Bruni is out now on Wrasse Records; carlabruni.com.