At the age of eight, Cléo de Mérode (1875 – 1966) was already showing the talent that would make her a world renowned dancer of the Belle Époque.
Born in Paris to a Viennese baroness, she entered the Paris Opera ballet school at seven and made her professional debut at age eleven.
But it would be her beauty that stirred the public’s imagination, for Cléo de Mérode was, perhaps, the first real celebrity icon.
Before long, her dancing skills took second stage to her glamour, as postcards and playing cards around the world started featuring her image.
She was the talk of the town. Her new hairstyle was eagerly awaited and quickly imitated. Famous artists of the Belle Époque, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Giovanni Boldini, and Félix Nadar queued to sculpt, paint, and photograph her.
Even royalty courted her. In 1896, King Léopold II, having watched her dance at the ballet, became infatuated with her, and rumor soon spread that she was his mistress. The king had fathered two children with a prostitute and her reputation suffered as a consequence.
But this was the Belle Époque, a time of unprecedented colonial expansion, the very dawn of modern celebrity culture. Such indiscretions were soon forgotten and Cléo de Mérode became an international star, giving performances across Europe and the United States.
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Her decision to dance at the risqué Folies Bergère cabaret only served to heighten her following. And when she met artist Gustav Klimt, whose specialty was female sexuality, a romance blossomed that inspired the 2006 movie Klimt.
Continuing to dance into her early fifties, Mérode eventually retired to the seaside resort of Biarritz in the French Pyrénées. In 1955, she published her autobiography, Le Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of My Life).
At the ripe old age of 91, the greatest celebrity of the Belle Époque was no more. Cléo de Mérode was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Her spirit still watches over her mother, interred in the same tomb.
Gone forever, but not forgotten.
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