La Reine de la Belle Epoque
The First Celebrities
A few years back, I was researching fin-de-siècle art in the university’s archives, when I came upon something I had never before seen in 19th-century writing: a celebrity couple nickname. Long before Kimye, Brangelina, or Bennifer, the media was creating nicknames for celebrity couples. Though many think this is a trend of the new millennium, even Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were given the name “Desilu”. These nicknames seem to be as old as celebrity itself, starting with Cléo de Mérode.
Cléo de Mérode was one of the first celebrities. While there have always been famous people, celebrity is more than that. It began with the cult of personality among the 18th-century Romantics, artists and poets whose success depended upon their reputation. The intrigue created by the notable personalities of the age needed to be documented. The 18th-century saw the birth of the newspaper gossip column, which came into full swing in the cultural centers of Paris and London in the 19th-century. Photography helped make these early personalities recognizable to people who read the news, and soon stars were born. People became famous for being famous, and they developed the type cult followings we are all too aware of today.
Cléopatra Diane de Mérode was born on the 27th of September in 1875 into an impoverished noble Belgian family. Cléo began to dance at seven and made her professional debut at eleven. It wasn’t long before she became well-known in dance circles for possessing a lithe form, perfect poise, and a beautiful face. Though she was a skilled dancer, it was her beauty that caught the attention of the public. By the age of thirteen, she was already beginning to pose for artists such as Jean-Louis Forain and Edgar Degas.
She danced for the Paris Opera in an era when dancers garnered little respect for their craft. It was well-known that aristocratic men frequented the opera to ogle the dancer’s legs, and that many of these men trolled the backstage area in search of mistresses. The opera was sometimes referred to as the “national harem”. Mérode would discover how difficult it was to maintain a decent reputation in such a profession, and she would learn how to use this to her advantage.
A Famous Hairstyle and Hidden Ears
Part of Merode’s celebrity surrounded her hair. At 16, Mérode would début the hairstyle for which she became known, wearing a low chignon that covered her ears. Her hairstyle became highly admired and copied; though, it also gave rise to absurd questions. Articles have been written, both then and now, about Mérode’s mysterious ears. Reporters suspected that she wore her hair this way to hide a deformity. As one paper put it, “Mlle Cléo de Mérode, Opera dancer, beauty queen, are her ears ill-formed or does she have no ears at all?”. The public desire to know the secret of Mérode’s ears took on an oddly sexual tone, in some ways acting out society’s deeper frustrations about celebrity. It became a mystery newspapers had to solve. They had to see this bit of hidden flesh to complete their narrative. Mérode was a spectacle, but could it be that she was both perfect and flawed? On a trip to the New York, she reportedly showed a bit of ear to a reporter who would not let the subject go, performing almost of striptease. Mérode’s ears are symbolic of her entire career. Mérode was a celebrity, whose image belonged to the public at large, yet, in many ways, she stayed in control. She decided what the public saw and what they did not.
Over the next few years, Merode became a symbol of her era. She was an A-list celebrity by all standards, and she was photographed hundreds of times. Artists drew inspiration from her, and she became the subject of many portraits. Her image and name were everywhere.
In 1896, the press gave Mérode her celebrity couple nickname, due to the attentions she received from the 61-year-old King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was not known to be a particular fan of music or ballet, but he did seem to be a fan of beautiful actresses. He presented the young dancer with a large and conspicuous display of roses after one of her performances. From this moment, Mérode’s reputation as a courtesan was born. Though Mérode denied the affair with King Leopold her entire life, the press and public at large felt that they were in on the secret. They referred to the couple as “Cléopold”, and thus the first celebrity couple name was born.
1896 saw another scandal for Mérode: a nude sculpture, bearing her face, became famous at the salon. The sculpture, la Danseuse, by Alexandre Falguière bore an unmistakable resemblance to the famous Mérode. Mérode, in fact, posed only for the face of the sculpture, and the body was modeled on an unknown woman. However, the public little believed this story, and believed that they were privy to the nude body of the famous dancer. Yet, Mérode was savvy with her image. She knew that she could not risk her reputation so much as to actually pose nude and become a courtesan in the eyes of the French public, but she could plausibly deny that the nude body was her, while also fulfilling a public desire to see her so unclothed. As Michael Garval stated in Cléo de Mérode and the Rise of Modern Celebrity Culture, by posing for the sculpture, Mérode “would pose– literally and figuratively– as a courtesan” in order to capitalize on public expectations. She controlled the narrative while maintaining the blushing and innocent demeanor appropriate to a lady of her time.
In fact, the performance in which she was first viewed by the king included a scene with illusory nudity (she wore a pink toned bodysuit that she essentially flashed the audience at key moment in the performance, and many believed to have seen her nude form.) This is yet another example of Mérode controlling her image. She did not appear nude on stage, but the audience believed that she had, giving rise to rumors of her nude performance, adding to her fame– while all the time having revealed nothing at all.
A Master of the Gaze
Mérode continued to dance throughout Europe into her early fifties, though her fame largely faded with the Belle Epoque. She remained popular in Austria and Germany, where she met and befriended Gustav Klimt. She eventually retired in Biarritz, where she lived until she died in 1966 at the age of 91. You can visit her beautiful grave at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. She left behind a memoir, la Ballet de ma vie, should you want to learn more.
Mérode was every inch a celebrity of her time, one of the first. She sold her image over her skill and controlled that image to her self-interest. She invited scandal while denying it. She invited the gaze, while controlling where it looked. In many ways, she cultivated fame in a similar fashion as our contemporary celebrities, knowing that bad press can often be better than good. She fought to remain in control of her public image, with some success and some failure. Yet, while other models of her era were posed, Mérode posed.