Though we might not know her name today, Mistinguett once ruled Paris. In the heady days during and after World War I, she personified glitz and glamour. Her racy midnight performances at the Moulin Rouge sated the hungry, liquor-soaked crowds—even as they earned her infamy among her buttoned-up and disapproving Victorian elders.
From her diva antics to her secret spy work, swing open the saloon doors and read these glamorous facts about Mistinguett.
1. Rags to Riches
Though she made her living decked out in jewels and marabou feathers on stage, Mistinguett had humble beginnings. Born in the Parisian suburb of Enghien-les-Bains in 1875, her father Antoine was a day-laborer, while her young mother Jeannette worked as a seamstress. Times got tough, and soon they were both working as mattress makers.
2. Fashion Victim
Once she was an established performer, Mistinguett often made her own stage costumes, stuffing them full of feathers and sequins, baubles and ribbons—but sometimes she went way too far. Like her mother, she also had a soft spot for enormous chapeaus. Her most infamous hat was a bizarre creation with two birds on each side that she’d stuffed herself. On humid days, the homemade fashion statement reportedly attracted swarms of flies.
3. Absolutely Floored
Mistinguett had men falling over themselves to—literally—sleep with her. She kept a coterie of heartthrobs, and it’s said that the strapping young men vied nightly for the chance to just slumber on the bedroom floor next to her. Only the very lucky few were plucked from the hardwood to “nap” in her plush bed.
4. High Class
Mistinguett wasn’t just a pretty face. She also had a wickedly quick wit, and she wasn’t afraid to use it. One night when she was performing to a loud, rowdy crowd, a testy patron yelled at her to sing higher. Without missing a beat, Mistinguett drew her skirts up higher and called back at the man, “How much higher do you want it to go?”
5. Double up
Her racy skirt quip didn’t go over well with everyone, and a group of outraged people left the bar in disgust. Then again, the stunt pleased the people who counted: the house manager doubled her salary after the incident.
6. The People’s Diva
Though she had plenty of style, Mistinguett didn’t necessarily have perfect pipes. One writer described her singing fondly as “slightly off-key” and “of the Parisian street hawkers—the husky, trailing voice of the Paris people.”
7. Working-Class Hero
Mistinguett started from the bottom. When she first began to perform, she worked in small bistros and strutted her stuff in front of gritty, working-class audiences with very short attention spans and a thirst for fantasy. There, she learned how to give them what they wanted, often performing just one song in exchange for feedback.
8. By Any Other Name
Mistinguett’s real name was Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois, but growing up, her family called the impish little girl “Jeannot.”
9. Preoccupied in Love
Mistinguett’s “first time” was one for the ages. She scandalously claimed that she lost her virginity at just 15 years old—but that she spent the entire time chewing on a licorice root and wondering how she was going to gracefully spit it out.
10. Me Time
In the 1910s, Mistinguett tried her hand at a series of silent films, but they just weren’t “her.” No, really—for the consummate diva, there just wasn’t enough of her on screen. She objected because “The director is in control too much of the time, and not Mistinguett.” She also didn’t like the absence of instant audience feedback for her performances.
11. The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far
Petite “Jeannot” came by her outsized extravagance honestly. Her mother, only 21 years old when she gave birth to Mistinguett, often dreamed of a more dramatic life and, as Mistinguett remembers, “liked to wear enormous hats.”
12. A Budding Star
Even as a young girl, Mistinguett knew she wanted to be an entertainer, and purposefully sought out odd jobs that let her showcase her nascent talents. While working as a flower seller at a local restaurant, the teen attracted customers by belting out popular songs as she handed over the blooms. Hey, everyone needs a shtick.
13. Child Labor
When Jeannot was still just a child, tragedy struck the Bourgeois family. Her father sliced his arm on chicken wire, quickly developed tetanus, and died. His sudden demise pushed their already strained finances to the brink of bankruptcy. Mrs. Bourgeois and Mistinguett—still barely school age—worked overtime to make ends meet.
14. Get That Paper
At the height of her fame, Mistinguett was the highest-paid woman entertainer in the world.
15. A Decade of Decadence
The indolent Mistinguett’s work ethic didn’t come naturally. She took violin lessons as a child, but found herself bored by her professor and scornful of her fellow students, who all seemed to think they were better than her. So when her teacher told her she would need to play for 10 years to achieve any kind of competence, she decided to quit.
16. Before and After
Mistinguett’s most famous residency was at the notorious Moulin Rouge. Her daring dances at the saloon attracted audiences in droves, and she remains an important part of its character and conception. Indeed, some historians of the establishment divide the building’s history between the “Mistinguett years” and “After Mistinguett.”
17. Priorities: Straight
When she was still trying to make it in the bright lights of show business, the little girl got some very racy advice. She went to her neighbor Anna Thibaud—herself a successful French entertainer—and asked her for advice. Thibaud responded by telling her, “To succeed in the theatre…you must be pretty. You must excite men.”
Confused, the naïve girl asked if she meant that she had to rile up the crowds. Thibaud shook her head knowingly and emphasized, “No, the men!”
18. Quit While You’re Ahead
Surprisingly, this was Thibaud’s gentlest advice to the young girl. When Mistinguett once confessed to the older actress that she wanted to be famous, her reply was utterly disturbing. Thibaud burst out into cruel peals of laughter and told her she was too ugly to even try.
19. Making a Name for Herself
While honing her songs and dances, little Jeanne spent a long time trying to land the perfect stage name. She experimented with variations of her famous final name, using pseudonyms like “Miss Helyett”—a character from a popular contemporary revue show—and “Miss Tinguette.” In time, she chose the name that would make her famous: “Mistinguett.”
Showbiz breaks are the stuff of legend, so of course Mistinguett has one. In the 1880s, she either met a Monsieur Saint-Marcel by chance, or else earned an introduction to him through another performer. Saint-Marcel was the director of the revue at the famed Casino de Paris. The living legend saw enough promise in Mistinguett to give her a start as a stagehand.
21. The Casino Kid
In 1893, Mistinguett made her big debut at the Casino de Paris, dubbing herself “The Casino Kid.” Unfortunately, it was not exactly a success. Saint-Marcel complained that her voice was thin and that he couldn’t hear her over the roar of the admiring crowd. A true diva from the start, Mistinguett only shrugged and drawled, “If I was a second rate star, at least I was myself.”
22. The Queen of Paris
Mistinguett was hailed as the “Queen of the Paris night,” and men and women clamoured to be with her or just plain be her. She even had a fan in the renowned writer Colette. She praised Mistinguett as a “spiritual diva” and lauded her as a woman “who possesses the most beautiful legs in Paris and the most gracious smile in the whole world.”
23. This Thing Has Legs
The infamously leggy Mistinguett knew her worth. In 1919, she insured her gams for 500,000 francs.
24. A Royal Admirer
The celebrated entertainer could count some of the most powerful men in the world among her admirers. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, was an ardent fanboy, and even fellow wit Oscar Wilde paid a visit to her dressing room after a show. Mistinguett was less than impressed with the writer; she called him a “fat, slovenly Englishman” (he was, very famously, Irish).
25. Mystery Man
Though she was infamous for her dalliances with men, Mistinguett never married. This didn’t stop her, however, from having one son, the bombastically named Léopoldo João de Lima e Silva. Born in 1900, Leopoldo’s father was a Brazilian man known only as “de Lima.”
26. Working Mom
When she was carrying baby Leopold, Mistinguett refused to stop singing or dancing. She kept at it until she was a very round 6-months pregnant.
27. Cougar Town
Though she played most men better than she could have ever played the violin, Mistinguett did have one great, and controversial, love: the dashing young actor and singer Maurice Chevalier. And when I say “young,” I do mean young. The experienced Mistinguett was 13 years older than Chevalier, and met him when he was just 23 years old.
28. Too Legit to Quit
As her popularity grew, Mistinguett tried to go legit. She traded in seedy basement bars for Parisian hot spots, and curtailed some of her bawdiest on-stage commentary. There was just one scandalous fixation she couldn’t quite give up: bedroom romps. As she once said, “Sex is the only habit I never wanted to give up. It is good for the figure and the soul.”
29. Difficult Diva
Mistinguett was a prima donna through and through. She became infamous in the Paris circuit for her ludicrous demands, exacting perfectionism, and her habit of skipping out on shows and contracts when she didn’t feel like performing.
30. Miss Mistinguett
Around Parisian dressing rooms, people respectfully called the singer “La Miss.”
31. Vive La Miss
When the resistance liberated Paris in 1944, Mistinguett wasted no time in putting on a full stage costume and riding her bike down the Champs Elysee beside the soldiers. While she shouted “Vive de Gaulle,” at them, the army delightfully yelled back, “Vive la Miss!”
32. Song Bird
In 1916, Mistinguett recorded the French hit “Mon Homme.” The tune quickly became her signature song, and it’s still performed today as a jazz standard.
33. Je Ne Sais Quois
After Time magazine asked Mistinguett to explain the rabid fanaticism she inspired in her admirers, she gave a legendary response. “It is a kind of magnetism,” she purred. “I say ‘Come closer’ and draw them to me.”
34. Bring Back My Man
Chevalier was eventually conscripted to fight in World War I, and the usually stone-hearted Mistinguett became beside herself with worry. In 1915, the performer even broke character for the first time ever and started sobbing on stage while in the middle of her act.
35. Prim and Proper
Sadly, Mistinguett’s glory days were numbered. Young hotshots like Josephine Baker were rising up the ranks in the 1920s, and audiences increasingly saw the aging Mistinguett as a belle époque fossil. For her part, Mistinguett had no love lost for Baker’s even racier dancing. Discussing Baker, the former strip-teaser commented primly that “One day, sex will take over.”
36. Do Not Go Gentle
Even near the end, however, the old lady still had it. In 1938, Mistinguett gave possibly her most legendary performance in the Feerie de Paris at her old stomping grounds, the Casino de Paris. The 63-year-old woman somehow managed to float down the stairs in 40 pounds of feathers, a 20-foot train, and a towering headdress.
37. A Sorry Sight
When World War II struck and the Germans conquered Paris, Mistinguett was well into her 60s and claimed she was “too old” to start taking up espionage again. Nonetheless, when she returned briefly to Paris in 1941 after living in exile, she wept at the sight of the German flag draping over her beloved Arc de Triomphe.
38. It’s the Little Moments
After taking up with Chevalier, Mistinguett also took the young performer under her wing and promoted his work. She even invented her famous “topsy turvy waltz” with him in mind; the dance required the lovers to leap passionately on tables and cartwheel across the stage before rolling themselves up in a carpet at the end. Risque enough—but the performance also had a steamy secret.
Chevalier later claimed that, while rolled up in the carpet grand finale, Mistinguett got in the habit of grabbing his manhood where no one could see.
39. A Rescue Mission, But Make It Fashion
Mistinguett’s love for Chevalier was so deep, she was even willing to enter into dangerous espionage to save him. In 1916, after learning that Chevalier was sitting in a prisoner-of-war camp, she convinced the King of Spain—one of her biggest fans—to secure his release papers, and then crossed enemy lines just to jailbreak her lover.
Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple…
40. Both Sides Now
While she was on her way to Chevalier, German officers stopped Mistinguett and threatened that they would only release the young man if she offered to spy for them. Now, Mistinguett might have had some shaky morals, but she was no dummy. She agreed—and then turned around and struck a deal with the French to spy on the Germans. That’s right, this dirty diva became a double agent.
41. A Captive Audience
Mistinguett’s heady spy days were short lived. Whether through bad luck or bad espionage, the Germans uncovered her plan almost immediately and sentenced her to a terrible fate. They locked her up and even scheduled her to face the firing squad. Luckily, this terrifying ordeal was brief. They eventually released their celebrity captive in exchange for German prisoners in France.
42. The Magic’s Gone
When Mistinguett met up with now-free Chevalier in Paris, it was hardly the passionate reunion she was hoping for. Not only had he suffered a nervous breakdown, the public had largely forgotten about him, and he was a listless and distracted lover. In an effort to revive his career, the devoted Mistinguett began demanding that his name appear alongside hers on the marquee.
43. Boy, Bye
Tragically, the damaged Chevalier repaid Mistinguett’s kindness with a cold-hearted betrayal. At the end of the war, he dumped the showgirl for the much younger actress Arletty. Mistinguett never quite got over Maurice: Years later, while writing her memoir, she confessed bitterly that “His absence dominated the rest of my life.”
44. I Will Always Love You
The Age of Mistinguett spanned a generation and two World Wars, but the end comes to everyone. In 1956, when she was 80 years old, she passed away in her own home, attended to by her son. According to those people present at her death, Mistinguett’s last words and thoughts were for her beloved Maurice Chevalier.
“He was the best of them all!” she sighed to them in her final moments.