08 March 2016

Sylvie Vartan

French pop singer Sylvie Vartan (1944) was one of the first rock girls in France. She was the diva of the yé-yé genre. With Johnny Hallyday she formed France's Golden Couple of their generation, and they performed in several films, together and apart. With her slick stage shows, her sequined costumes and her sheer professionalism she has become a national icon in France.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by Publistar, Marseille, no. 939. Photo: Patrick Bertrand.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 482. Photo: Jean Marie Perier.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 507. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by Editions Lyna, Paris, no. 2051. Photo: Raymond Depardon / Gamma.

Sylvie Vartan
French promotion card by RCA.

The Twisting Schoolgirl

Sylvie Vartan was born in Iskretz near Sofia, Bulgaria. Her father, Georges Vartanian was a Bulgarian of Armenian descent. He worked as an attache at the French embassy in Sofia. Her mother, Illona Vartanian, was Hungarian.

In September 1944, when the Soviet Army occupied Bulgaria, the Vartan family house was nationalised and they moved to Sofia. A friend of father Georges offered Sylvie a role of a schoolgirl in his film Pod igoto/Under the Yoke (Dako Dakovski, 1952). The film was about Bulgarian rebels against the Turkish occupation. Being a part of the film had a lasting impression on her and made her dream of becoming an entertainer.

The family emigrated to Paris in December 1952. By the example of her brother, professional trumpeter and later artistic director at RCA records Eddie Vartan, teenage Sylvie's main interest was music. In 1961 Eddie offered Sylvie to record the song Panne d'essence (Out of gas) with the French rocker Frankie Jordan. It was a surprise hit and provided her first appearance on French TV.

Journalists gave her the nickname La lycéenne du twist. After the Twisting Schoolgirl had finished the Lycée Victor Hugo (Victor Hugo School), she signed a solo recording contract with RCA. Her first single Quand le film est triste, covering Sue Thompson's Sad movies was a hit in December 1961.

Soon followed more hits like her version of The Loco-Motion and Tous mes copains. Six of her thirty-one songs released in 1962 became top 20 hits in Europe. A small part as a singer in Un clair de lune à Maubeuge/Moonlight in Maubeuge (Jean Chérasse, 1962) starring Claude Brasseur was her first film appearance as an adult.

Sylvie Vartan
Dutch postcard by Muziek Parade, Hilversum, no. AX 5643.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by E.D.U.G. Publicity card for RCA Victor. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by Publistar, Marseille, no. 818. Photo: Spitzer.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 1092. Photo: Anders.

Short Skirts and Barbarella Boots

In 1962 Sylvie Vartan met Jean-Philippe Smet, better known as Johnny Hallyday, during her second concert in the Olympia. In 1963, after announcing their engagement over the radio, the young couple performed to a noisy audience of 200,000 at La Nation square of Paris.

Sylvie and Johnny appeared together in the film D'où viens-tu, Johnny?/Where Are You From, Johnny? (Noël Howard, 1963). And that year she was voted top French singer in the first pole on the TV programme Salut les copains.

Being accompanied by the film Cherchez l’idole/The Chase (Michel Boisrond, 1964) with Dany Saval, her song La plus belle pour aller danser sold over a million copies in Japan. In 1964 she opened for the Beatles at the Olympia and played a supporting role in the film Patate/Friend of the Family (Robert Thomas, 1964) opposite Jean Marais and Danielle Darrieux.

Sylvie made numerous US TV appearances and an international concert tour, including Canada, South America and Japan. In 1965 Sylvie and Johnny were married in Loconville. They had a son David Michael Benjamin, known now as singer David Hallyday. In 1968 Sylvie suffered a traffic accident, but was back on tour in August.

No longer a shy young yé-yé girl but a sexy dancer, more into cabaret than rock & roll. She appeared often on French and Italian TV, dressed in short skirts and Barbarella boots. In Italy she had huge hits with Zum zum zum in 1968 and Irrestibilmente in 1969. She continued with intensive performing and recording.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 329. Photo: Sam Lévin / RCA Victor.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 276. Offered by André. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 329. Photo: Sam Lévin / RCA Victor.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 1116. Photo: Kasparian.

Going Disco

Sylvie Vartan returned on the screen opposite Mathieu Carrière and Orson Welles in the cult film Malpertuis/The Legend of Doom House (1971, Harry Kümel). She also appeared in two documentaries by Francois Reichenbach, J’ai tout donné/I’ve given everything (1971) and Mon Amie Sylvie/My Friend Sylvie (1972).

Musically, she went disco in 1976 with John Kongos' cover Qu'est-ce qui fait pleurer les blondes?, topping the French charts for several weeks. Her disco era climaxed at the Dancing star show on French TV in 1977.

In 1980, after several widely publicised disagreements, Sylvie and Johnny finally divorced. After releasing Love again in duet with John Denver, a #85 single on Billboard Hot 100 in 1984, Vartan took a break in show business. In 1990 she gave a concert at the Palace of Culture of Sofia, opening and closing with a Bulgarian song. This was her first visit to the city after her emigration.

After her brother Eddie was shot in 2001, she took another break in performing public. In fall 2004 she started recording and giving concerts of jazz ballads in the French speaking countries and Japan. Her last film appearances were in L’ange noir/The Black Angel (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1994) with Michel Piccoli and Tchéky Karyo, and opposite Francis Huster in the TV film Mausolée pour une garce/Mausoleum for a Bitch (Arnaud Sélignac, 2001), adapted from a best-selling novel by Frédéric Dard.

Vartan celebrated her 60th birthday in style in 2004, publishing her autobiography, Entre ombre et lumière (Between Shadow and Light) and releasing a brand new album, simply entitled Sylvie. In the following years several new albums and tours followed. In 2014 she returned to the screen in the French romantic comedy Tu veux ou tu veux pas/Sex, Love & Therapy (Tonie Marshall, 2014) starring Sophie Marceau and Patrick Bruel.

Since 1984, Sylvie Vartan is married to Italian-American producer Tony Scotti. They have adopted a young Bulgarian girl Darina. Sylvie Vartan is an aunt to Eddie Vartan's son, actor Michael Vartan.

Sylvie Vartan
Vintage postcard.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 382. Photo: Philippe D'Argence.

Sylvie Vartan
French postcard by PSG, no. 1034. Photo: Laurent Camil / RCA Victor.

Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday
With Johnny Hallyday. French postcard by Carterie Artistique et Cinématographique, Pont du Casse, no. ST JH 13.

Scopitone clip of Sylvie Vartan singing Est ce Que Tu Le Sais. Source: Cheryl Lynn (YouTube).

Sylvie Vartan sings La plus belle pour aller danser in Cherchez l'Idole (1964). Source: win081 (YouTube).

Trailer Malpertuis (1973). Source: retrotrailer (YouTube).

Sources: RFI Musique (French), Wikipedia and IMDb.


Marie Reed said...

Good morning! I'm going to read the post in its entirety tonight! I watched the locomotion video three times with my kids though! They wanted to watch it over and over. I have never heard the French version of this song. Fun!

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

I remember Syvie Vartan fairly clearly. That ages me! :)

Daryl said...

I remember the name but dont think I had ever seen her in anything or heard her til now .. Happy Easter

MuseSwings said...

It's refreshing to see someone who is older than me. Sweaters and A-line skirts -we would have looked like the Bobsey Twins in the 60's. The video's were fun to watch - thanks for another delightful and informative PFF!

Pearl said...

Another fun history lesson! Loved the nick-name "Twisting Schoolgirl"... too funny! Hope your Easter is wonderful...

Margo said...

Fun history lesson. I loved the Locomotion. What a riot!! I've got to find the song she sang w/John Denver. When I read that, I went "huh?"

Eddy said...

Oh! When I was young, Sylvie was the idole of my mother (today again, I'm sure).
She's a star in France.
Happy PFF and happy Easter.

Paul van Yperen said...

Thank you for your comments. Happy Easter everybody!

Catherine said...

I remember her but I think that the new generation doesn't at all.
She doesn't appear anymore on our TV. Times have changed, as well as celebrities.
Have a nice week-end and Happy Easter.

Müge Tekil said...

Wonderful cards and complete information about Sylvie Vartan! She was very popular and loved in Turkey when I was a little girl.

Have a nice Sunday and a Happy Easter!