Like every good model, Carla Bruni knows how to choose her lighting. And when she entered the back patio of the Bowery Hotel on a recent gloomy morning in New York, the sun poured in like a flood of camera flashes, as if Mother Nature herself heard she was coming. Not that she needs a welcome wagon: With her piercing brown eyes, high cheekbones, and lithe frame, the singer-songwriter and wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy commands attention wherever she goes, even during this interview, dressed down in a T-shirt, jeans, blazer, and Ugg boots.
She's come to discuss her new album, French Touch, a compilation of covers produced by David Foster that includes melodic, stripped-down renditions of classics like Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" and The Clash's "Jimmy Jazz", infused with romanticism and accompanied by Bruni's beckoning voice. "I try to bring intimacy into my music and other people's music," she said. "That's what I search for. Songs are a moment where I get close to you, no matter if I know you. What I prefer the most is when I find intimacy in something—as if the person is singing only for me."
The collaboration came about after Foster, who's worked with everyone from Whitney Houston to Jennifer Lopez, attended one of Bruni's L.A. shows back in 2014. Because Bruni writes in French, the two decided covers would be more manageable, not to mention accessible for an American audience. The 10-track selection is comprised of songs that she grew up singing. "These songs remind me of a time when I was starting to write," she said. "They were like training—formazione, as we say in Italian. I learned from these songs."
Though nostalgic for Bruni, some tracks, like Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man", are oddly prescient considering her 10-year relationship with Sarkozy, which unexpectedly took her to the Élysée Palace. "Ten years goes by so fast," she said. "It's a real problem in life. I agree with having a 10-year marriage with my man, but I disagree with how fast it goes. When I was younger, time went by more slowly—everything was confusing—but, when you get older, everything becomes clear. You're clear about what you need."
Something Bruni doesn't mind passing quickly is her post as France's first lady. "I don't miss it at all," she said. "Not even one minute of it." Still, she's grateful for the experience. "I got to meet so many interesting people, not only famous people such as Nelson Mandela or the Queen of England, but also anonymous people that do a lot of great humanitarian work. It was a very fulfilling time for me. I have no regrets."
That's not to say that the job didn't present its own unique set of challenges, especially coming from show business. "It was not easy for me," Bruni said. "I had to be very careful not to say something silly. It was such an important position for my man—I didn't want to do anything that would embarrass him, or my country." And then there's the looming threat of being attached to a political target. "I was always afraid something would happen to him or the family. Five years was fantastic, but enough for me as a human being."
When asked if she has any advice for the current FLOTUS, Melania Trump, Bruni answers generally, with a hint of humor. "They all get it right away," she said. "I had the pleasure of having lunch with the new French president and his wife recently—the minute you get there, you realize that you had better stand by your man."
As the fashion industry well knows, Bruni is fully capable of standing—and strutting—on her own. Most recently, those who attended Versace's spring show at Milan Fashion Week (or followed its happenings via social media) were sent into a tizzy when Bruni reunited with fellow '90s supermodels Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Helena Christensen to walk the runway as a tribute to the late Gianni Versace.
"It was quite moving," Bruni said. "It was fun and it was wonderful, but also very nostalgic. It gave me mixed emotions—I was somewhere in between laughter and tears."
Like her stint in politics, Bruni insists that she doesn't miss modeling either. "I'm 49 years old. I did [modeling] for so long. It was great to be in Milan, but just as a glimpse. I would be embarrassed to go back and do a runway. All of these girls could be my grandchildren!"
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On whether she'd let her daughter, Giulia, follow in her footsteps, Bruni nods "yes". "You can't control children," she said. "They have to live their lives and do what they choose. Of course, you have dreadful people in fashion like everywhere else, but fashion is not so dangerous for young girls. There's a lot of work, there's a lot of traveling, and you need to have a lot of discipline. I would say that it's one of the places in show business that is safe. People don't want to abuse girls—they want to photograph them. It's a healthy environment."
It's a reassuring statement to offer, as more and more women in Hollywood come forward with allegations against Harvey Weinstein. "That doesn't happen in fashion," Bruni insisted. "I never had a photographer or designer do that, never ever. Most agents are protecting girls because they have to work. And there are a lot of women in fashion—women rarely go into that kind of abuse. That keeps it safe for young models." She pauses. "Maybe I'm wrong."