Contemporary French Civilization

Cléo de Mérode on Broadway: a fin-de-siècle French celebrity's "successful failure" in America

Contemporary French Civilization (2012), 37, (1), 79–101.

Abstract

Forgotten French dancer and model Cléo de Mérode was an international celebrity at the dawn of celebrity culture, a missing link in the prehistory of our image-obsessed, star-struck modernity. Once the world's most photographed woman, she cultivated her image as "la première icône moderne" (Corvisier). But much about her life, career, and impact remains obscure. In particular, the as yet untold story of her 1897 Broadway debacle is a revealing episode, occurring at a pivotal point in the intertwined histories of celebrity, entertainment, visual culture, and Franco-American cultural relations. What one newspaper called her "successful failure" - triumphing as celebrity, flopping as performer - prefigured and perhaps helped precipitate the salient features of America's visually charged, celebrity-crazed entertainment industry: fad, fashion, imitation, emulation, and, above all, image over substance. Mérode fascinated Americans, and did long after her New York run, perhaps because she represented the emerging future of their own image-obsessed celebrity culture.

La danseuse et mannequin Cléo de Mérode, bien qu'oubliée de nos jours, fût une star internationale à l'aube du culte moderne de la célébrité. Jadis la femme la plus photographiée du monde, cette "première icône moderne" (Corvisier) représente un maillon essentiel dans l'essor de la pipolisation et de notre soif de visuel. Or bien des aspects de sa vie, de sa carrière, et de son impact restent obscurs, notamment son échec sur Broadway en 1897, épisode charnière dans l'évolution de la célébrité, du divertissement, de la culture visuelle, et des rapports culturels francoaméricains. Cet "échec réussi" (au dire d'un journal américain), avec son insuccès comme artiste et son apothéose comme célébrité, préfigure et aide à susciter des tendances majeures dans l'industrie du divertissement en Amérique: les vogues, la mode, l'imitation, l'émulation et, surtout, le visuel. Longtemps après son départ, Mérode fascinait encore les Américains, peut-ětre parce qu'elle incarnait un élément clé de leur avenir culturel: le règne des images au sein du culte de la célébrité.

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Author details

Garval, Michael