I have always had the feeling of being unfinished. When I was young, I thought I was mousy, and I would never have imagined that I would ever be considered pretty.
This was probably because I was overshadowed by a very glorious mother, who had raven-black hair, and a sister who looked equally like a pre-Raphaelite painting. I always thought my mother viewed my sister as prettier than me because they looked alike. I don’t suppose that was the case, but that was what I thought. Even my brother was more beautiful than me in his own way: he would put a scarf on his head, and he looked exactly like my mother.
I, on the other hand, took after my father. At boarding school, I got teased for being ‘half-boy, half-girl’, because I had no chest. Somehow, I was never up to what other people thought was normal.
The attention would be on my mother when she came to pick us up from school looking like a film star. She drove a mauve Triumph convertible and wore dark glasses with permed hair and bright lipstick. She would fling open the door to the chapel a tiny bit late and everyone would look around at this wonderfully glamorous woman. Meanwhile, I would shrink in the corner; all I wanted then was an ordinary-looking mother with tan shoes.
As soon as I realised I could make myself look less dowdy as a teenager, I started buying make-up from Woolworths on the King’s Road. I’d pile on double the amount of mascara and eyeshadow – I knew my father was going to scream at me and tell me I looked either like Cleopatra or a tart. When this happened, I’d go back upstairs and take half of it off. Only then would I be allowed out.
It was a surprise when I began to attract attention from older men. There was a man who lived opposite us in Chelsea; I used to see him from my bedroom. In the summer, I couldn’t see him as well because of the leaves on the trees. When I was about 16, I saw him near our house and we started talking. He was about 40 and I’d never seen anyone so good-looking.
It was very exciting; it was the first time I noticed that someone had noticed me. Soon after, my father let me go to his house because he could see us from our balcony. What he didn’t see was the man kissing me behind the front door.
By the time I got married to the composer John Barry at age 18, I was just a painted face, hiding behind a mask of make-up. I suppose I fitted into the 1960s ‘English pretty’ look at the time.
I wasn’t as beautiful as Jean Shrimpton, who was my icon, but the fashion of the time helped, with very short miniskirts and blonde haircuts with a fringe. Throughout my marriage to John, I used to sleep with an eye pencil under my pillow. If he woke up in the night, I could put it on, so he wouldn’t think that I had tiny piggy eyes.
There was such insecurity, it was quite crazy; I spent most of my time wanting to look like a fashion tableau. It was only when I left John and went to France, where I met Serge Gainsbourg at an audition for the film Slogan, that I finally felt secure in my looks and realised that I had my own kind of attractiveness.
Very soon after we met, Serge told me I was his idea of beauty, which felt so amazing after my marriage to John, during which I’d often felt unwanted and undesired. No one had ever said that it was actually more attractive to have no chest at all. People might have said that it didn’t matter that much, or it wasn’t all important, or we’d get by without it. But no one had said that they’d always imagined they’d be with a girl who looked half like a boy; someone with no chest and big hips, like I had.
I remember early on, Serge took me to the Louvre to look at paintings by medieval artists and show me what he meant. He said that he’d always drawn girls like me when he’d been at art school.
We quickly became part of the furniture in France, along with my daughter Kate, and then Charlotte, who was born soon after. On Saturday nights, I was on French television, lying on a piano in sequinned dresses, singing songs.
In Paris, we were welcome everywhere. Even when we went to nightclub Maxims and I was carrying the huge basket that I used as a handbag, they’d let us in. In those days, you wore whatever you liked: Serge loved Yves Saint Laurent and the designer would make me going-out dresses.
We sat on little gilt chairs at the boutique and Serge would help put together outfits. I remember one in particular that had tiers of taffeta; I think it was probably during the designer’s Russian phase. They were beautiful, and I always loved the excitement of getting ready for an occasion. I’d wear outfits for going out for dinner somewhere, and then on to a nightclub afterwards until 5am.
If we weren’t on shows or making movies, we just went out for fun. We were suddenly ‘the couple of the year’. Magazines put me on their covers with great photographers, like Guy Bourdin, taking my picture, so I realised some people thought I was their cup of tea .
I never imagined that I was particularly beautiful, even then, but I knew I was what Serge thought was beautiful. I think I only looked like myself for the first time around the age of 28. Serge was directing me in the film for the song 'Je t’aime moi non plus'; he took off all my make-up and I had a short haircut. It was only then that I felt truly secure in my own skin, with no eye make-up or lines tracing my lips, or any gloss really. I felt great with no effort at all.
As time went by, I did less and less. After I split up with Serge, I’d wear the same jeans, shirt and trainers. I cut my hair really short again. With my third husband, Jacques Doillon, I don’t think we ever went out. It was a secret life behind closed doors. There was no effort. All the showing off had gone and I didn’t bother wearing make-up. There was no more pretending or playing a role.
I did that in films, bare-faced with wonderful parts. Instead, I felt like I could portray anyone, and that was a great feeling.
It was a different life then, but it didn’t make me feel any less beautiful. If anything, the films I did with Jacques meant I was suddenly a dramatic actress who was taken seriously. People talked to me about my job – it was no longer about how I looked. It was about my work as an actress or singer and that felt good.
Even the basket went. Jacques thought it was a gimmick and he hated gimmicks, so he reversed over it with his car as I was leaving for England.
I put all my stuff into a suede pouch bag just so I could catch the plane. It was on that flight that I happened to be sitting next to Jean-Louis Dumas, then-CEO of Hermès. All my things were falling out of the pouch, so we started talking about handbag designs. I ended up drawing something on the back of a sick bag, and it was a version of that design that eventually became the Birkin bag.
Before she was very old, my mother said to me, completely out of the blue: ‘It’s gone…’ I asked her what had gone, and she said: ‘My beauty.’
I remember thinking, Must she really go on about how beautiful she was? But I recently found myself saying the same thing to my daughter Lou – that it had just gone! Suddenly your mouth isn’t the same, your once-fleshy lips are flat. I remember feeling the skin on my arms and thinking it was exactly like my mother’s had been in old age. I used to like touching her arm where the skin had gone a bit soft, so I don’t mind that at all.
People tactfully tell me I’m still beautiful, but I know perfectly well that you just become something else. I’m not worried about it, and it’s too late to do anything about it: I’m too scared to have plastic surgery. Anyway, I no longer do films and my voice is still fine for singing so I can still work. I write and I have fun.
What I look like doesn’t matter as much. These days, it would be pathetic to fluff up my hair, hoping to have a mane like a wonderful lioness. I feel like I’ve done all of that. To have a good sense of humour and to be really curious about something, that’s fine for me now.
Munkey Diaries by Jane Birkin is out now. This article appears in the October 2020 edition of ELLE UK.
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