Emilie Marie Bouchaud was born in Algeria, in 1874. She spent her childhood in a harsh landscape, with colors blasted into sepia by a sun so hot it seemed to kiss the mountains with a fiery, merciless passion.
Her father died when she was five. Of her eleven siblings, only one still lived by the time she was sixteen. When she was seventeen, she had run away to France. She sang in cafes and cabarets, her smoky voice wafting above the demimonde that assembled there to in their lavender languor.
Within the year she was singing and dancing in music halls. She named herself after the Pole Star – the brightest star in the sky: Polaire.
During a time when women were as indolent as flowers, when pink and porcelain coursed through their skin in delicate confusion, Porlaire was viewed with both horror and desire. A lithe, dark animal, she was a feral object who twisted and coiled like a cat trying to escape.
Her short, thick hair was wavy and expansive; it was parted on the side so that one undulating curl draped across an almond-shaped eye, steeped in shadow, caught in a perpetual eclipse. The mouth was wide and spoke of a curved invitation, even when silent. Everything about her face was bold and seductive, alarming those who could not accept a woman who felt no shame.
She was proud of her sweaty barbarism – the scandal of her magnificent allure. When she debuted in New York, she was billed as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’.
Polaire danced like an untamed sprite, a thunderstorm descending from the sky and unleashed upon the stage. Her spitfire body was fluent and sinuous, and when she pulled her skirts to her knees, balancing on unstill muscles, she moved with an unhinged grace. She sang ‘Ta-ra-ra- Boom-de-ay (“Just the kind you’d like to hold/Just the kind for sport I’m told”). Toulouse-Lautrec sketched and painted her inelegance, her cropped hair, her wide mouth and shrouded eyes.
People came to watch her dance and act. They came to listen to her sing. But they also came to stare – at her tiny, tortured waist, punished inside of a ring of whalebone that rumor claimed was as small as 16 inches. Though petite – she was 5 foot three inches and naturally slim – women “gasped sympathetically” at the sight of the ribcage crushed like folding hands, and men swooned at its minute perfection. Her agent, displayed one of her 14 inch corsets in a theater where she was performing, describing her waist as “this gift of the gods.”
This was a superficial time that embraced beauty and triviality. Women at the opera stood on their chairs and balanced their lorgnettes on judgmental noses for a close look at the current mistresses. They crowded bridal paths to view courtesans drive their carriages paid for with the wages of sin. They made Polaire the star she always wanted to be – because they wanted to stare at the forests of furs wrapped around her shoulders, the jewels wrapped around her arms and neck. They came to regale in the foreign magnetism that burned within her shocking silhouette.
Someone in that admiring, desiring audience had written a song for her, which began:
“When I started in a music-hall, my waist fitted in a man’s collar” (“Quand j’députais au music-hall,/Ma taille tenait dans un faux-col.”).
Many gentlemen found this a charming image, and sent her their collars, to see if she would fulfill it.
Polaire died at the age of sixty-five in 1939 – a time when such gallantries would have been laughed at. It was said that she suffered from depression – the spider that crushes mind and body within its shadowy web. But for a few delirious decades, she was the brightest star in the sky, guiding Paris’ ships in the night, their bright faces staring up at her like lanterns held aloft.