Bambi: « I’d decided to live in women’s clothes »

Article publié le 20 mai 2022

Interview by Allanah Starr taken from Antidote’s « Persona » Issue Spring-Summer 2022. Translator: Pedro Rodriguez. Photographer and stylist: Betsy Johnson. Casting: Yann Weber. Hair: Charlotte Dubreuil. Make-up: David Lenhardt. Nails: Magda Stachura. Fashion Coordination: Brando Prizzon. Production: Caroline Helaine, Anne-Cécile Jemin. Photographer assistant: Freddie Stisted. 

Born in a boy’s body in 1935, Marie-Pierre Pruvot – better known under the stage name Bambi – has lived, to put it mildly, an uncommon life. It has led her from a small Algerian town to the mythic Parisian cabarets Madame Arthur and the Carrousel, from which in time she set forth to become a professor of French literature and then a writer. In the following interview, conducted by meneuse de revue Allanah Starr, Pruvot looks back on the prodigious journey that made her into a pioneer and model for generations of trans people. 

The year was 1994, and I had just moved into my very own studio apartment on Miami Beach. Being denied the chance to study acting by my parents after high school, I had rather randomly picked a two-year fashion-merchandising program in order to do something with myself. However, things didn’t quite go according to plan after graduation. By some bold stroke of fate I ended up performing anyway; except that performance turned out to be a drag. As a newly arrived drag queen in the then-burgeoning South Beach underground club scene, I spent a lot of my time developing looks to impress the night-club glitterati. I fulfilled my high-fashion dreams on a poor budget by scouring thrift shops back in the days when you could still find amazing pieces for very little money. I discovered a small charity shop just three blocks away from my new home that I would randomly check in to see if I could find a bargain or two. On a particularly muggy summer afternoon, I popped in and found nothing dazzling to wear, so I decided to browse the unpainted wooden shelves that housed knickknacks and books. My eye suddenly caught what seemed to be a vintage magazine of drag-queen photos. In those pre-internet days information on such subjects was very hard to come by, so I gladly paid two dollars for it and continued my afternoon shopping.
There have been moments in my life that have been so visually impacting that they are forever engraved vividly in my memory. I remember coming home, putting down my bags and hurriedly opening my newly bought thrift-store treasure. I sat in silence on my futon (as I had no other furniture) with an extremely bright bare light bulb over me as the wall-unit air conditioner hummed away. As I began to turn the pages I became transfixed by the extraordinary imagery before me, depicting “transvestites” of the 1950s Parisian cabarets in glamour, candid, performance and group photos. I was simply astounded. Who were these creatures? How could this have existed then? How were they so beautiful? How did they have breasts? As my mind raced with endless questions I turned the pages and came upon a stunning blonde that looked like an ethereal goddess of the silver screen. The caption simply read “Bambi.”
Bambi: Jacket and shirt, Gucci. Shoes, Abra. Earrings, Alan Crocetti.
Transition is unique for everyone. People often ask me, “When did you know you were trans?” – as if it was some sort of epiphany in which suddenly everything lights up theatrically, bells sound, a sequined halo appears and you declare: “I AM WOMAN.” My journey was foggy at best. And in another of those visually impacting moments in my life, it was not until I saw beautiful transsexual women in American pageant videos that I realized this was possible and that it was possibly me. 
Years later, after my transition, I still wondered about the beautiful Parisian women in that booklet. With the advent of the internet, I was able to discover a bit about Coccinelle, Bambi and some of those early trans pioneers. Fast-forward many years later, and life brought me to Paris and to cabaret. I met Galia Salimo, legendary trans showgirl, night personality, actress and author. Galia is from one generation after Bambi, and it was she who initiated me to this incredible history. Knowing I was fascinated with these women that she had known personally, she invited me to the inauguration of the Promenade Coccinelle in 2017. The city of Paris would be honoring Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy, better known by her stage name Coccinelle. It was to happen on Boulevard de Clichy, where she started her career in Madame Arthur and would go on to become an international star and a pivotal figure in history. Mademoiselle Coccinelle paved the way for generations of trans women and was one of the first persons to undergo the modern technique of gender-confirmation surgery, still used today and pioneered by Dr. Georges Burou in Morocco. Sadly, she passed away in 2006, but Bambi, her close friend and contemporary, would be there to speak of her memory. 
It was a breezy spring day in May. I arrived to meet Galia amongst the crowd that had gathered. Seated at the speakers tent, I caught my first glimpse of Bambi in a chair, looking every bit the great lady. My first thought was how beautiful and eternal she looked! My French was not as proficient then, and much of what was said I did not understand, but it did not matter. I was so lucky to be there to pay tribute to a woman that had laid the foundation of the house I now live in. As soon as the ceremony was over, it began to rain and we all hurried over to Madame Arthur. In honor of the occasion, Bambi would be performing on the same stage she started on 60 years before. I waited patiently and was having a conversation with a friend near the entrance when Bambi burst from the dressing room completely transformed in a black-sequined floor-length gown, beautiful stage makeup, her hair like that of a ’30s film star. Starstruck, I ran up to her and said, “Vous êtes belle, Mademoiselle!” She said, “Merci, and we snapped a picture together. As she got on stage I felt as if I had been transported back into another era. She was 82 years old, but how she looked, sounded, moved, her hand gestures, the way she connected with the audience with her sensual gaze and naughty smile was a masterclass in cabaret performance. My fandom expressed to Galia, she was gracious and kind enough to invite me to a dinner chez Bambi, and the rest has been pure destiny. 

Bambi: Jacket and pants, Sankuanz. Shoes, Abra. Gloves, Vintage.
Bambi has since become my dear friend and teacher. I revere her presence and knowledge deeply. Sometimes I feel bad, because I always ask her a million questions in my less-than-perfect French, yet she always answers them patiently. Though she is extremely humble about it, Bambi has led an extraordinary life. Pioneering trans woman, meneuse de revue, professor and author are just some of her titles. She holds the key to extraordinary stories and an oral history that very few are still here to tell. Her personality is warm and generous, filled with humor and an infectious, unforgettable laugh. Marie-Pierre Pruvot, also known as Bambi, truly stands as a testament to the will to survive and the power of resilience – the sort of combination that gives you the courage to be who you are unapologetically and carve out your own reality in an often unforgiving world. In short, she is and forever will be an icon.
ALLANAH STARR: I remember when we met for the first time being all admiration for you. I had the honor of watching your return to the stage of the cabaret Madame Arthur, where you’d made your debut. Your performance really bowled me over. The theme of this issue of Antidote being “Persona,” I wanted to ask: did that creature of the stage, whom you named Bambi, reemerge naturally?
BAMBI: My first time onstage I was 18. The boss grabbed me by the hand and dragged me up, and I started to sing while the pianist was still playing the intro. Once I left the Carrousel I stayed off stage for 35 years! And then one day, when my autobiography came out, Hervé, from the Tango [an LGBTQI+ club in Paris, editor’s note], said to me: “We’re going to put together a show for you, and you’ll sing a song.” I agreed out of curiosity, to see what it’d be like to get back onstage. And when it happened I forgot all about those 35 years. Every time I’ve been onstage since it’s seemed like it was yesterday. Except for once, at the Divan du Monde. My throat tightened up, I suffered a bout of stage fright, and it was terrible. I got the lyrics mixed up, and I thought it was one time too many.

« You’d learn fast backstage; everyone would look at everyone else and say: “Wow, are you ugly today!” We were brutal in our criticism of one another, and it was very effective. »

When you were performing there the Carrousel would boast that it was working with “the world’s most beautiful transvestites.” The words “transsexual” and “transgender” didn’t yet exist. Do trans women like you identify with the term “transvestite”?
We were all transvestites in the public’s eyes. In my early days, at Madame Arthur, very few of us felt like women. There were Coccinelle, Capucine and me. And at the Carrousel, there were only men who dressed as women. But Capucine and I wouldn’t say that we were “transvestites.” We’d say: “We’re women!” Others would reply: “If you’re women, you’ve got no business being here.” It was true. It was unfair competition [laughs]. And “transgender,” “transsexual” – those words were unknown to us.
Do you remember the first time you heard those words?
Yes. It was a long time ago. A colleague from the Carrousel told us backstage that a doctor had told her that we weren’t “transvestites” but rather “transsexuals.” “What a weird word!” we thought, but it changed nothing for us. The phrase “The world’s most beautiful transvestites, 100 million costumes” was always on the tour posters. 

Bambi: Dress, Gauchère. Turtleneck, Balenciaga. Shoes, Christian Louboutin. Earrings, Saint Laurent.
After 20 years at the Carrousel your passion for literature led you to switch careers and become a professor of literature and writer. Why the change?
My mother would always tell me: “Youth is great and all, but it’s over fast.” So I started thinking, because I didn’t want to become an old performer stuck doing comedy. Then came May 1968. I thought I should get an undergraduate degree, so I telephoned the Sorbonne. I asked how I could gain admission to the university and was told that it was enough to have passed the Baccalaureate exam. But I’d never taken it. So I took it in 1969, at 33 years of age, and entered the Sorbonne. I studied for three years to earn my bachelor’s before writing a master’s thesis in literary criticism and taking the CAPES exam for a teaching certificate. For five years I studied by day and performed by night at the Carrousel and Madame Arthur. It was exhausting.
How did you adjust to your new profession of teaching?
The first time I walked into a classroom, I wondered whether there was any common ground between that moment and the moment you make your entry onstage. And there is. If you walk into the classroom, like you’d walk onstage, and everyone looks at you and nobody speaks, you’re good. Now, addressing a captive audience and addressing a paying audience are two different things, naturally, but there are common points. You prepare your classes just as you’d prepare a number. You adjust your gestures…
You were born in Algeria, in 1935. What made you realize that you could live as the person you were deep inside yourself?
Id always dreamed of it. But I found out only at 16 that it was possible, when I saw the Carrousel’s show, with Coccinelle headlining, at the Casino de la Corniche, in Algiers. When I saw her I thought: “If she can do it, I’m going to do it, too.” And one fine day I put on a dress and made myself up. But a friend came into my room, saw me, and said: “This is horrible! Do you realize what you’re doing? You can’t live like that!” I cried, and he left looking at me like I was crazy. That’s when I thought to myself: “It’s over. There’s nothing for me here!” So I packed my things, in the middle of the night.
My mother knew that I knew a famous journalist in Algiers. I told her he was setting off for Paris and was taking me along as his secretary. Once there I took a taxi to the Carrousel, at 40 rue du Colisée. That evening I went to see the owner. He asked whether I could sing or dance, but I couldn’t do either. I was 17. He said he’d need to get permission from the police to let me work and that I should write my mother, to ask her permission to work at Madame Arthur and explain what it was. I sent her a letter right away. When I went back, the owner said that the police would grant permission on the condition that I wait until I was 18 and had been emancipated by my mother. People were considered adults at 21 back then. When she received my letter my mother said: “Come home immediately!” [laughs]. I obeyed, and we came to terms. I told her I’d decided to live in women’s clothes. We agreed that that would be impossible where we lived in Algeria, in Isser, and that she’d emancipate me at age 18 so that I could return to Paris.
When you arrived in Paris did you find what we’d now call an “LGBTQI+ community ” right away?
No. There wasn’t one. When I arrived Coccinelle was on tour, but Capucine was around, and she and I are the same age. We were like sisters right away. 
Before the Carrousel, you started out at Madame Arthur. Why?
You almost always start out at Madame Arthur. It’s a school. It was a true Montmartre cabaret, with a comic dimension, whereas the Carrousel was very snobbish, very bourgeois. The must-see places to go in Paris for foreigners at the time were the Lido and the Carrousel. Madame Arthur was much more French. The clientele consisted of small-time shop-owners. These were the post-war years. They didn’t have television and had suffered. They wanted to have some fun, and laugh. You’d learn fast backstage; everyone would look at everyone else and say: “Wow, are you ugly today!” We were brutal in our criticism of one another, and it was very effective.
Capucine and I wanted to work at the Carrousel, but in 1954 the police issued a decree and it had to close. Madame Arthur stayed open, but we were no longer allowed to wear wigs, fake breasts or heels. It was impossible to do transvestite revues. So the boss sent me off to tour North Africa. I returned to Algiers, to the Casino de la Corniche. My mother came to see me with her niece and my uncle’s mistress, Rosette. And when I returned to Paris, wigs had given way to raffia and curlers, and transvestites were walking around on tiptoe. We’d outsmarted the police. The boss asked me to wear dresses again, and since the police didn’t complain everyone followed suit.
Coccinelle played a major role in your life. How did she become a mentor to you?
When I first saw her, in her show at the Casino in Algiers, we didn’t speak. She’d already earned some prestige. But during my first year at Madame Arthur she took a pause in her tour and came to see me. When they told me she was in the house I thought: “Dear God!” I suffered a bout of stage fright. Onstage I did everything I could to avoid her eyes. At the end of the show she came to the little dressing room I shared with Capucine and the old ladies, who were 40 [laughs]. She was magnificent. She sat next to me and said: “Hello. I’m Coccinelle.” As if I didn’t know! I proffered a hand and she continued: “You’re lovely. An apparition onstage!” I thought I was dreaming! I saw her again a few months later, at the Carrousel, in a show she was the star of. And then one fine day, in my dressing room, she said: “How about you move in with me? It wouldn’t cost you anything. You’d get room and board. Come to my place after the show. Capucine’ll be there. We’ll have some wine and cheese…” I went there several times, and she told me I could stay over. Capucine asked her where I’d sleep, and she said: “With me, in my bed!” So that’s what we did, but Capucine, who slept on the couch, couldn’t bear it and left. Now I was alone with Coccinelle. We lived like that all season long, and then we set off together on a tour of North Africa. My name was writ big on the poster, the same size as Coccinelle’s.

« A friend I’d met at the Carrousel had fallen in love with me. He accepted me and loved me the way I was, and didn’t want me to change. When I left to get the operation I knew we’d end up breaking up, but I went in spite of him. I had to think of myself. »

Back then trans people living in other countries had already had surgery, like the Dane Lili Elbe and the American Christine Jorgensen. But it seems to me that Paris was the first city with a genuine trans community, within which we’d help one another. You were pioneers…
There was also Michel-Marie Poulain, a famous painter who published a book called J’ai choisi mon sexe [I Chose My Sex], in 1954. Coccinelle was aware of all these things, but she thought it was too soon, that it wasn’t for us. Michel-Marie Poulain, Christine Jorgensen, Lili Elbe – these people thought they were absolute exceptions. Those of us at the Carrousel – Coccinelle, Capucine and others – we were a community.
What changed Coccinelle’s mind?
She was on tour in Nice, where a young girl on a Vespa pulled up next to her and said: “Pardon me, Madame. Are you Coccinelle? I’m a little boy, and I’m like you.” The next year, she ran into Coccinelle again and said: “Don’t you recognize me? I’m Jenny. We met in Nice. I was on my Vespa.” Coccinelle replied: “Yes, I remember, but you’re completely transformed!” And Jenny told her that she’d been operated on by a doctor [Dr. Georges Burou], in Casablanca. He’d invented a technique that limited things to a single operation. Before you’d have to do a first one, then another six months later, and then yet another… That’s how Lili Elbe died, after her fifth operation. Coccinelle couldn’t believe her eyes and took an appointment right away. But since she was scared she asked Pamela to accompany her and go first [laughs]. The next day, seeing Pamela was still very much alive, she went in herself. That got me thinking, and so I went under the knife too.
How did it go for you?
I was both relieved and embarrassed. A friend I’d met at the Carrousel had fallen in love with me. He accepted me and loved me the way I was, and didn’t want me to change. When I left to get the operation I knew we’d end up breaking up, but I went in spite of him. I had to think of myself. When we saw each other again, three weeks later, he cried. And I told him: “Listen, if you’re not happy, you can’t touch me anymore.” Little by little he got used to it. We lived together for ten years, and then I left. Love wears out. 
At the time it was possible in France to get hormones without a prescription, too. Coccinelle was one of the first to take the step. How did she hear about that?
Yes. It was like buying oil or vinegar. You’d just go to a pharmacy and ask for a box of Ovocycline. One day, before her operation, Coccinelle, who lived her life in women’s clothes, was on a train to Paris with another transvestite. They were coming home from a tour. A woman settled into their compartment. She was burly and a good six feet tall. And Coccinelle, who loved to mock people, turned toward her companion and imitated the woman, who said nothing but understood that she was being mocked. Coccinelle wanted to have her fun but couldn’t get her to talk. So she took out one of her fake breasts and started fanning herself with it. The woman smiled, which got on Coccinelle’s nerves, so she took out the second fake breast [laughs]. And the woman said: “Wouldn’t you like to have real ones?” So Coccinelle replied: “If you only knew!” And the woman said: “I know you’re Coccinelle. You’re very pretty. I’m like you, and I got myself some real breasts. Look.” She showed her breasts, and Coccinelle couldn’t believe her eyes. For her that was impossible. So they went to the lavatory to get a closer look at those real breasts, and the woman explained that it was thanks to hormones. That’s how Coccinelle started taking them. And the woman in the train was Marie-Andrée Schwindenhammer.

Bambi: Dress, earrings and bracelet, Saint Laurent. Sunglasses, Balenciaga.
Could you tell about the famous Marie-Andrée? Her story is incredible… She also founded one of the world’s first trans associations.
Yes, the Association des Malades Hormonaux [Association for the Hormonally Ill]. She asked me to join, but I told her she was crazy. I wasn’t “ill” and didn’t want to be considered so. I always refused to join. Coccinelle and Capucine thought it out of the question, too. But she managed to get the association’s members an imitation ID card, approved by the police. It could be used as official ID. I have no idea how she did it, but it was great for some!

« The chief of the brigade said to me: “If we catch you ponied up [en ponette] – which meant dressed as a woman – we’ll send you back to your country!” I didn’t respond, but my country was France…»

Yes, because back then in France it was illegal to dress in a manner deemed to be contrary to the sex assigned to you at birth. What was that like for you? Have you run into any trouble?
Me, I’d never go out. I’d drive to Madame Arthur, so I was never picked up by the police. But those who were would be taken to the precinct for ten hours and get slapped with a fine.
Once, in the winter of 1964, Capucine and I set off on foot from Pigalle to go sleep at her little top-floor walk-up, in a building near the Eiffel Tower. We got there and went to bed, and there was a sudden knock on the door: “Open up! It’s me, André!” But Capucine didn’t know any André. Ten minutes later there was another knock, but this time there was a new first name. Then we heard the footsteps go away and come back, and the knocking started up again: “Police! Open up!” They came in like madmen, into that teeny little flat where we were sleeping up against each other. They asked for our papers and had us follow them out. We were summoned separately before the chief of the brigade mondaine [old name of the vice squad]. He was frightful, pounding the desk with his fist. He said to Capucine: “What manner of father puts up with a kid like you! If I were him I’d kill you!” To me he said: “If we catch you ponied up [en ponette] – which meant dressed as a woman – we’ll send you back to your country!” I didn’t respond, but my country was France…
You lived part of your life without revealing that you were trans. In the United States they call it “living in stealth.” What was it like for you to go from an openly trans persona, performing in a cabaret, to the discrete person you became in the context of your teaching career? Were you stressed out that someone might discover your identity and your past?
Already during my five years at the Sorbonne I had two distinct personalities. One for the stage, the other a student, trying to come across as young. I dressed like I was 20, even though I was over 30. I don’t know if people could tell. They found me different, a bit exuberant. When I got to Cherbourg [where Bambi began her career in teaching] I was always afraid I’d be recognized. In the schoolyard I kept mishearing “Bambi” all over the place.
You later decided to tell your story, to come out publicly. Why?
I had no intention of changing my life, but I wanted to become a writer. I’d always dreamed of that. So I wrote a book under the pen name Marie-Pier Ysser. And then one day Galia showed the book to one of her friends, who said she’d like to meet the author. Galia wrote me that a certain Monique Nemer wanted to meet. It was a name I knew well! But was it the professor of comparative literature I knew from the Sorbonne? Galia asked, and she confirmed that it was indeed she. So I explained that I’d attended her classes. She was delighted, and we met.
She was then in charge of the various publishing houses of the Lagardère group, a very important post. She told me she’d read my book and found that I knew how to write. Who could resist such a compliment? She said there was need for me, that I had to come out of anonymity and write an autobiography. I agreed, and she came to see me every month to read what I’d been writing. We’d talk and laugh. But when I finished I stopped hearing about her. She wasn’t the one who published my book. 
You’ve led an incredible life. What are you most proud of?
I don’t know… I’ve had more failures than successes. I passed the CAPES, but I failed the agrégation [exam for university professorship]. I think the most demanding thing was to pass the Baccalaureate exam, because I’d lost the habit of learning. The mind gets rusty. My life seems very strange to others, but I’ve just lived it day by day.
Did you ever think you’d become a pioneer, a sort of mother for the generations of trans women who’ve followed you?
Ever since the Carrousel I’ve felt like a mother to all the little young people who arrive at age 17 to 18 and tell me they were 8 to 10 when they first heard of me and decided to be like me. I’d think: “I’m contagious!” [laughs]. Now I feel like a grandmother!
70 years after your transition, the trans community has undergone incredible change. What do you think of the way it’s evolved?
I don’t follow the trans community much today, but my impression is that certain people are being a bit too aggressive. I’m always afraid there’ll be a backlash, a social movement against it. That would be a shame. We have to induce society to accept us. We shouldn’t tell society that it is obligated to accept us. We have to tell it that there’s nothing at risk, that we don’t bite, scratch or kill, that we’re people like everybody else. Above all, we must try to help trans people in countries where the conditions are very hard for them. I don’t like aggression. That’s not how we effected change at the time. Otherwise, it’s amazing. There are lots of associations. Things have been advancing very well!

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