Catherine Deneuve. The name alone invokes mystery.
And the woman herself even more so. Since stunning international audiences with her beauty and talent in 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Catherine Deneuve remains an enigma. Despite over half a century in the public eye, Catherine has managed to keep her private life just that, private. There is virtually no in-depth information available about the French beauty.
Particularly if you don’t speak French.
As a long-time fan of her work, style, and timeless beauty, I’ve found it beyond frustrating to have next to no idea who Catherine Deneuve is off-camera, behind the frequently icy blonde exterior of her film roles. I imagine many others feel the same way.
Figuring Out Catherine Deneuve
So, in honor of Deneuve’s October 22nd birthday, I decided to do the work.
After countless hours of research, scouring archives for Deneuve interviews ranging from 1960-to the present—with papers and magazines as niche as the Slovak Moment; working through language barriers—Catherine is trilingual; to analyzing the at times questionable memoirs of Catherine’s longtime partner Roger Vadim; to attempting to glean gems of actual Deneuve information from dry academia on her stardom, here is my portrait of the cinematic legend who must be the only actress ever to get away with publishing her “private diaries” [aff. link] without divulging a single personal thought or detail.
(Unless you really, really read between the lines.)
Frustrated Deneuve fans, look no further. Here are a few things about Catherine Deneuve you didn’t know:
She Had a Bourgeois Upbringing
Catherine Fabienne Dorleac was born October 22, 1943 in Paris. The third of four daughters in the Dorleac home, Catherine insists that growing up with three sisters taught her to talk fast, a quirk she carries to this day.
The eldest of the Dorleac girls, Danielle, was a half-sister. The story of Danielle’s paternity was perhaps the only non-traditional element of Catherine’s very bourgeois upbringing: Catherine’s father, Maurice Dorleac, saved the reputation of her mother, Renee, by marrying her when Danielle’s paternal father would not.
But of all her sisters, Catherine was closest to Francoise. Only 19 months apart in age, the two were nearly inseparable.
Roger Vadim, Catherine’s future partner and the father of her son, observed that Mr. and Mrs. Dorleac were “rather strict,” and sent their daughters to Catholic school. Catherine later rejected the faith, but credits this early education for her strong, if unconventional, moral foundation, a foundation that helped her navigate the difficult waters of stardom.
Though Maurice and Renee Dorleac had both been actors, movies and theater were not a part of childhood for their four daughters.
As Catherine remembered in a 2008 interview:
“My mother brought us up very normally and very seriously, and cinema was not part of our family life.”
Still, it wasn’t long before young Catherine had her first experiences working in the movies.
Catherine Deneuve Never Planned to Become An Actress
Growing up, Catherine dreamed of being just about anything other than an actress. She aspired to be a graphic artist, an interior designer, or even an archeologist. But never an actress.
When Catherine was offered a bit part in Jacques Poitrenaud’s 1960 film, The Door Slams, the sixteen-year-old agreed not out of ambition, but curiosity:
“I was not particularly attracted to the idea [of acting]. But curiosity made me go for it. My mother wasn’t too keen, but because shooting fell in the school holiday she let me do it. In retrospect, though, I think I was a little too young.”
Her Sister Was The Star. And They Were Exceptionally Close
Catherine and her older sister Francoise were extremely close. In his 1986 memoir, Roger Vadim says that though the two sisters were just over a year and a half apart in age, they “loved each other like twins.”
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Though Catherine Deneuve would eventually become an international film star and fashion icon, it was Francoise who first found fame as an actress. Roger Vadim believed that her sister’s success was a major reason why Catherine didn’t initially pursue an acting career herself. The outgoing, vivacious, and beautiful Francoise seemed a born star, while the quieter, more introspective Catherine, according to Vadim:
“..was convinced that she was just a pale reflection of her older sister, whom she admired, adored and respected without being jealous.”
The Retiring Wallflower
Catherine wasn’t the only one who viewed herself as the retiring wallflower to her sister’s shining star.
The first time he met Catherine, Vadim observed that:
“I was the only one who found her more beautiful than her sister. Ten years later, the press would refer to her as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’ [But] I didn’t need the silver screen and the photos that would one day be distributed all over the world by Chanel to realize that her delicate nose, her intense but slightly cold expression, her mouth with the finely drawn lips…were the very image of romantic beauty.”
After her breakthrough performance in 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [aff. link], the introverted Catherine found her place in cinema, eclipsing her sister’s success. Now the world appreciated the beauty that Vadim had recognized on their first meeting.
Losing Her Sister
Catherine and Francoise famously starred together in 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort. But just as Catherine reached new career heights with her next film, Bell de Jour (1967), Francoise tragically died. Driving to the airport, Francoise lost control of her car and ran into a signpost. The car then flipped over and ignited. Francoise’s struggles to escape the flames were futile. She was ultimately identified by fragments of her checkbook and dairy.
Catherine never recovered from the death of her sister. The pain of losing Francoise still runs deep, and Catherine rarely speaks of her in interviews.
In a rare moment of candor two years after her sister’s passing, Catherine shared with Life magazine that:
“I’m very much for maintaining a certain distance, a certain formality between me and others—even people I really love…the only human being I could tell everything was my sister Francoise. She and I were so diametrically different; put together we would have been a fantastic woman.”
Catherine Deneuve Doesn’t Like Her Last Name
Catherine Dorleac first became “Catherine Deneuve” out of respect for her sister Francoise. “Francoise Dorleac” was already a big name in French cinema when Catherine began finding her own bit film roles. According to Roger Vadim, Catherine decided to use her mother’s maiden name, “Deneuve,” so that Francoise could be “the only Dorleac of her generation.”
Catherine Deneuve never imagined that she herself would be the Dorleac sister to achieve major film stardom and lasting success. Later, she regretted her choice of last name:
“If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t make that decision! I love my mother dearly but I don’t like her maiden name. It’s hard to pronounce, I prefer my real name…I didn’t see it as a permanent thing. I didn’t think I would keep working in film. My head was completely elsewhere.”
Catherine Deneuve Wasn't Always A Blonde
Catherine Deneuve made a name for herself as the quintessential, sophisticated, icy blonde.
But she was born a brunette.
When Roger Vadim met the seventeen-year-old Catherine, he described her as having “shoulder-length brown hair.” According to Vadim, Catherine didn’t go blonde until the early 1960s, when she became serious about acting, and thought light hair would help her career.
But Catherine tells a different story.
Deneuve was only seventeen when she moved in with 32 year-old Roger Vadim, the man who had earlier molded Brigitte Bardot into his ideal, sensual woman after marrying her in 1952.
Bardot was blonde, Vadim had created her blonde image, and Catherine loved Vadim.
So Catherine decided to go blonde herself. As she shared in 2008:
“I did it only because I thought it would make me more seductive to the man I loved. It seems the silliest thing now, but I was so young and in love.”
What started out as “a gesture of love,” in Catherine’s words, ultimately was good for her career. For the most part, Catherine Deneuve has remained blonde—in varying shades—ever since.
Catherine Deneuve Wanted to Be a Young Mom
Catherine Deneuve became a mother at age 19. In 2005, Catherine shared that this had always been her goal:
“I had always known that I wanted to have children very young.”
Roger Vadim supports this claim in his 1986 memoir:
“When I met her, Catherine had two secret ambitions: to be a mother and to become an actress.”
Catherine achieved both of these ambitions during her three-year relationship with Vadim. Motherhood came first, when nineteen-year-old Catherine gave birth to their son, Christian, in 1963. As an unwed couple, Catherine’s pregnancy was considered scandalous at the time.
A Second-Time Mom
Catherine loved motherhood from the start, sharing in a 1969 interview with Life that:
“I want many more children. I believe one can manage all—have a great career and a happy family life with a man, children, and all.”
Catherine became a second-time mother in 1972, when her daughter Chiara was born from her relationship with Italian acting legend, Marcello Mastroianni. The famously private Catherine doesn’t share anything about her four-year relationship with Mastroianni.
Privacy concerns keep Catherine from sharing anything about her partners or children. But she’s reportedly very close with her son, daughter, and now, grandchildren.
Daughter Chiara has played Catherine’s onscreen daughter in several films over the years. Chiara describes her offscreen relationship with her mother as:
“so intimate that it never resembles something you put on screen.”
Mick Jagger Was Her Best Man
Catherine herself has humorously noted that her one marriage was to a man she did not have children with.
English Photographer David Bailey photographed the reluctant Catherine for Playboy in 1965. Bailey says he tried to make Catherine more comfortable during the photo session by telling her he was gay, which she believed.
For about 90 minutes…
Despite a language barrier, the two connected almost immediately over a shared sense of humor. After a whirlwind romance, Catherine and Bailey married on August 18, 1965.
Bailey’s pal, Mick Jagger, was their best man.
"What They All Miss"
The marriage ended in 1972, in part due to the fact that their busy careers kept Catherine and David from spending much time together. And when they did have time for each other, David didn’t know how to speak French, and Catherine was usually too tired to speak English.
The two remained on friendly terms following the divorce, with Bailey insisting that one of Catherine’s best kept secrets is her sense of humor:
“You know what they all miss about Catherine? Her great sense of humor. She’s a very funny lady. She’s [a lot of] laughs. First-rate comedienne, but they always ask her heavy questions….so that’s all you ever read about Catherine.”
She Was Named the Most Beautiful Woman
In 1968, Look magazine named Catherine Deneuve “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Catherine, still a great beauty today, is gracious about the title, insisting that countless other women are awarded the same compliment, and that she’s really just like everyone else. As Catherine humbly shared in 1992:
“I get fat and have to exercise.”
She’s also very honest about the work that goes into her flawless look:
“Having to be that [beautiful] person, physically, takes effort—it doesn’t come naturally.”
When once asked which of her perfect features she feels is the most beautiful, Catherine comically replied that it would have to be her left ear.
And of course, it’s Catherine Deneuve who famously said:
“At a certain age, you have to choose between your face and your ass.”
Such honesty and humor makes the impossibly beautiful Catherine somehow relatable.
Catherine Deneuve Smokes. Unashamedly.
Catherine Deneuve began smoking at age sixteen. Although she managed to quit the habit between 1985 and 1996—and friend Juliette Binoche says Deneuve stopped smoking after her November 2019 stroke—Catherine has smoked unashamedly the majority of her life.
An interviewer observed in a 2017 meeting with Deneuve that, because she’s Catherine Deneuve, she can pretty much smoke wherever she wants. But Catherine’s still had her share of friends and passersby tell her about the dangers of smoking over the years.
And it bugs her. Here’s Catherine’s typical response:
“I don’t say, ‘Mind your own business,’ I say ‘Yes, I know, thank you.’ But what kind of advice is that? ‘You shouldn’t smoke so much. You should stop smoking.’ Yes, of course I should, but that’s not what I’d call advice. That’s a fact! Give me advice on how to stop smoking without suffering. Yes, that would be interesting.”
She’s Very Private
Like the legendary Greta Garbo, Catherine Deneuve values her privacy. As Roger Vadim put it in his 1986 memoir:
“When Catherine decides not to speak, it’s useless trying to drag the smallest confidence from her. She is sometimes an extraordinarily secretive woman.”
So secretive in fact, that Catherine sued Vadim over this very memoir he called her “secretive” in. Their three-year relationship covers just about one third of Vadim’s book, and the discreet Catherine was not a fan.
Catherine Deneuve: A Discreet Character
As Catherine said in a 2002 interview with The Independent:
“Discretion is part of my character. And if it had been required of me to be more open, I’m not sure I would have stayed in film…Sometimes I see people in magazines and I think: why did you do that? Why did you do that photo at home with your child or in your new kitchen? I don’t do things for the public. First for me, then for the public. Otherwise you don’t belong to yourself.”
Catherine’s desire for privacy and discretion goes back to the start of her career when, at age seventeen and a half, and on the brink of stardom, she hired an attorney to protect her name from the stories and rumors that constantly surround film stars.
The Power of "The Written Word"
Part of Catherine’s reluctance to share her personal life with the press stems from her desire for privacy—she tells an interviewer, for instance, that she likes to cook, but then refuses to share what her favorite things to cook are, deeming that information “much too personal.” But there are other reasons why she remains discreet. Catherine’s believes that sharing her private life could violate the privacy of others: to Catherine, her story isn’t exclusively about her. Others could be hurt if she were less reserved.
Another reason Catherine chooses not to disclose much of her personal life is fear of her words being misinterpreted:
“Even when something seems harmless to you, it can be interpreted as cruelty, and what’s the point of that?…the power of the written word can be terrible…what frightens me [is] the written word is really cast in stone. You can have regrets, you can deny it, say it was printed without your agreement, that your words were changed…none of that alters the fact that what’s written is written. The printed word has the weight of absolute truth. And this weight of truth endures longer than one could ever imagine.”
And, Catherine is also wisely aware that not telling all only adds to the Deneuve legacy and mystique:
“Of course, you would want to read it if you had it…but I also think that you would be terribly disappointed. Wouldn’t you?”
She Likes to Garden
Perhaps it seems at odds with her sophisticated screen image, but Catherine Deneuve loves to garden. According to Catherine:
“My garden is fantastic but my hands have been ruined. But I don’t care, I get more excited nowadays by being given a new plant than going out for dinner at a chic restaurant. I adore gardening; close contact with nature and the countryside has always been part of my life…I love my place in the country for weekends with my children, my grandchildren and my friends. No make-up, no glamour.”
These days, Catherine’s weak spot isn’t haute couture or jewelry. When asked in a 2017 interview what frivolous item she’s most likely to spend her money on, Catherine said:
“I buy plants.”
She Loves Shoes
When not buying plants, Catherine’s weakness is shoes. It’s a love that has remained consistent over the years. Roger Vadim remembered that, when shopping with Catherine during her pregnancy in 1962-1963:
“We bought nothing at the maternity shops we went to, but we returned each time with a new pair of shoes.”
In a 2006 interview with the Sunday Times, Catherine confirmed that shoes are still a particular passion of hers:
“It’s not an obsession—that’s exaggerated—but oh, I love shoes. I could wear a black skirt every day, but shoes? I like to change them three times a day.”
Catherine Deneuve: An Independent Thinker
Catherine Deneuve is a free thinker with her own thoughts and values. She doesn’t much care if her values match up with current social mores or trends: Catherine sticks by what she believes, no matter how unpopular.
As daughter Chiara told The Guardian in 2012:
“I’m proud of my mother because she’s so independent. She never accepts anybody’s demands. She’s a bit of a rebel, both in reality and in the films she makes.”
Here are a few examples of Catherine remaining true to her own values:
Catherine Deneuve Turns Down a Proposal
After the birth of her son Christian in 1963, Catherine’s partner, Roger Vadim, offered to marry her. But Catherine turned him down:
“When Christian was born, when Vadim said, ‘Let’s get married, ‘ I knew his reasons were now dictated by society. I just couldn’t accept. When you’ve been as much in love with a man as I had been with Vadim, you can’t accept marrying him for any reason but love.”
The independent-minded Catherine sparked controversy in the press and her family by not marrying Vadim, but ultimately decided that remaining true to herself was worth it.
Catherine stirred controversy again in 1972 when she signed her name to Le Manifeste des 343 salopes, or The Manifesto of the 343. The document, signed by 343 women who admitted to having illegal abortions, was meant to ease abortion legislation in France. The signers, by confessing to illegal abortions, risked prison sentences and legal action.
Catherine was willing to take the risk for her beliefs, which, at the time, were unpopular. Catherine remained true to herself, and historians now view the manifesto as instrumental in paving the way towards more lenient pregnancy termination legislation in France.
More recently, in January 2018, Catherine found herself embroiled in controversy during the #Metoo movement. Catherine signed her name to a letter published in Le Monde, along with such cinema legends as Brigitte Bardot, stating that #Metoo had strayed from its original purpose—to publicize sexual harassment—and was now a witch hunt against even innocent men.
It was a bold and unpopular statement with the press, and Catherine was largely criticized. But she remained firm in her belief that #Metoo had become a “media lynching” of men, and defended her signing of the letter by explaining that there was:
“nothing in the [Le Monde] letter that said anything good about harassment, otherwise I wouldn’t have signed it.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Catherine’s beliefs and actions through the years, it’s admirable that she thinks for herself, and sticks by her beliefs, regardless of popular opinion.
Catherine Deneuve: A Fashion Icon
Internationally, many are perhaps more familiar with Catherine Deneuve through her fashion influence than her films. Catherine has set style trends since the 1960s. She’s been the face of countless fashion houses and cosmetic products over the years, including Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, L’Oreal, MAC, and Luis Vuitton. As Catherine herself once said:
“I actually think that what remains in the collective unconscious is not my film image but based on my paper-image: interviews, magazine covers…”
Chanel and Catherine Deneuve
Catherine made her first Vogue cover in 1962, even before her film career took off with 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She’s been a fashion icon ever since. Her influence in the realm of fashion and cosmetics is such that when Catherine was the face of Chanel between 1969-1977, sales of Chanel No. 5 skyrocketed in the United States. The exposure of her gorgeous face in the Chanel ads lent to the US press’ decision to name Catherine “the world’s most elegant woman.”
Yves Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve
Catherine’s most celebrated fashion impact is as a muse of Yves Saint Laurent, who also became a close friend. Catherine modeled Saint Laurent designs in 1965, and was one of the first movie stars to support his ready-to-wear line when it premiered in 1966.
Belle de Jour
Saint Laurent designed the wardrobe for three of Catherine’s films, most famously for the classic Belle de Jour (1967) [aff. link]. Catherine appreciated Saint Laurent’s ability to, in her own words, “create an important expression of the role and even of the scene,” through his beautiful designs.
Saint Laurent on the other hand enjoyed an increase in sales as women sought to imitate Catherine’s look in the film: sales of Saint Laurent’s black vinyl trench coat and black dress with ivory cuffs and collar, both of which Catherine wears in Belle de Jour, soared after the film’s release. Similarly, the shoes Catherine wears throughout the film became so identified with the role, Saint Laurent christened them “Belle de Jour” pumps.
Catherine’s timeless look, whether wearing Yves Saint Laurent in 1967 or modeling for Louis Vuitton in 2017, continues to inspire and influence the fashion world today.
She Takes On Risky Roles
Few actresses can boast playing such varied roles throughout their careers as Catherine Deneuve. From innocent ingenues to icy blonde housewives who are secretly high-class prostitutes; from vampires to murderous manicurists; or rubber plantation owners to spunky grandmas, Catherine Deneuve has, quite literally, done it all.
Her willingness to take on risky roles has largely contributed to Catherine’s impressive longevity in films: at 80, Catherine remains an in-demand actress. With the exception of one small gap in her filmography between 1989-1990, Catherine has made at least one film a year since 1962, and usually more. Her filmography boasts over 137 credits.
Catherine suffered a “very limited” Ischemic stroke in November of 2019 while filming De Son Vivant, but even this tragedy only briefly restricted the determined actress: filming resumed in July 2020, with Catherine fully recovered.
Catherine Deneuve: A Living (and Still Creating) Legend
It seems Catherine Deneuve won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Unlike most stars of Deneuve’s generation, the legacy of this active, beautiful, talented, private, fashionable, and enigmatic cinema legend is still being written.