France’s cabaret queen Zizi Jeanmaire dies aged 96

French dancer and singer Zizi Jeanmaire, an iconic cabaret showgirl from the 1950s whose grace and glamour was celebrated on stage and in film the world over, died on Friday in Switzerland aged 96, her family told AFP.

France's cabaret queen Zizi Jeanmaire dies aged 96
On October 7, 1994 French dancer Zizi Jeanmaire poses during the dress rehearsal of "Gainsbourg" in Marseille, southern France. Photo: AFP

Jeanmaire starred in ballets, cabarets, musicals and film, mixing up styles but never compromising on the rigour of her classic training, many of her roles created by her equally famous choreographer husband Roland Petit.

“My mother passed away peacefully last night at her home in Tolechenaz,” a town bordering Lake Geneva, her daughter Valentine Petit said on the phone.

It was her leading performance in Petit's modern interpretation of “Carmen” in 1949 that launched her name and featured the short-cropped hairstyle that became her trademark feature.

The new-look production caused a sensation in Paris, London and on Broadway.

Jeanmaire and Petit met in 1933, when they were around nine-years-old and students at the Paris Opera Ballet. They married in 1954 and had a daughter.


“They became the power couple of Sixties Parisian cultural life, wearing Yves Saint Laurent and collaborating with Andy Warhol,” The Telegraph wrote in an obituary of Petit, who died in 2011 a giant of 20th century dance.

Jeanmaire was born in Paris on April 29, 1924, her real name Renee Marcelle Jeanmaire. Her nickname is reportedly rooted in her childhood pronunciation of “Mon zizi” for “Mon Jesus” (My Jesus).

Jeanmaire left the Paris Opera Ballet at 19, saying she wanted to see the world and eventually making her way to Hollywood and New York.

“Her career was closely linked with that of Roland Petit, the man of her life, whom she met at the Paris Opera ballet school,” the company said in a statement. “She gave her final recital at the Bastille Opera in 2000.”

“We'll never forget dear Zizi,” a former etoile of the Paris Opera, Marie-Agnes Gillot, wrote on Instagram.


Her leading films roles were in the 1950s, including in the Hollywood musical “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952), about the life of the Danish storyteller, and “Anything Goes” (1956) starring Bing Crosby.

She triumphed at Paris' Alhambra music hall in 1961 with a performance of “Mon Truc en Plumes” — her legendary costume of huge, pink ostrich feathers designed by Saint Laurent — and in 1966 danced alongside Rudolf Nureyev for the film version of Petit's ballet “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort”.

Saint Laurent, who dressed her for 40 years, once said she “only had to walk on stage for everything to take life, fire and flames”.

Sealing her place in popular culture, she was name checked in the opening line of Peter Sarstedt's classic “Where Do You Go to My Lovely” (1969), which says: “You talk like Marlene Dietrich, And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire.”

A public ceremony in her honour will be organised for September, her daughter said.

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