Cleo de Merode: The Start of the Celebrity Culture December 30 2022

It’s easy to think of celebrity culture as being a modern phenomenon. Fueled by social media, celebrity is now a throwaway term, as anyone with a successful YouTube channel or Instagram account demonstrates. However, in terms of how we understand celebrity in the twenty-first century, Cleo de Merode was the first woman whose image was distributed around the world, and the first modern icon.

A beautiful portrait of De Merode

Born in Paris in September 1875, she was the illegitimate daughter of a Viennese baroness, Vincentia Maria Caecilians Catherina de Merode. Her father is often cited as being her uncle, the landscape painter Carl Von Merode. However, her mother had little contact with Cleo’s true father (in fact, she didn’t meet him until she was an adult), the Austrian judge and lawyer, Theodor Christomannos, who was also one of the fathers of modern tourism.

[IMAGE] A beautiful portrait of De Merode

She was sent to study dance at the age of eight, with the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul, and made her debut at the Paris Opera when she was still a child, at just eleven years old. Glamorous, posed photographs of her exist from the 1880s, giving an early indication of her iconic status to come - it wasn’t long before her image began appearing on throwaway items; cigarette packets, and playing cards.


By 16, she became famous for her trademark chignon hairstyle (although this in itself led to rumors that she was missing one or both ears!), setting a trend that caused unexpected workplace difficulties for some women that adopted it:

Cleo de Merode at a very young age

“The Stockholm telephone authorities are finding fault now with the way in which (switchboard operators) do their hair…the hair is drawn over the ears. The subscribers have since found a falling off in the hearing powers of the operators, as the result of which complaints of inefficiency in the service have been made.” - The American Telephone Journal, Volume 8, 1903

[IMAGE] Cleo de Merode at a very young age

This almost led to a strike - ordered to stop wearing the hairstyle to improve their hearing, the telephone operators refused to co-operate. History doesn’t record how the dispute was resolved, but it is the first recorded incidence of fashion influencing - and inhibiting - effectiveness in the workplace.


The teenage Cleo wasn’t just dancing and posing; she was also the muse of famous artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas. Around a dozen famous painters of the age captured her on canvas, as did several sculptors. Although never confirmed, Cleo de Merode is also thought to have been the model for Alphonse Mucha’s iconic Art Nouveau series of busts, La Nature.

A teenager Cleo de Merode

However, it was her image in photographs that really made her famous. Immensely photogenic, the French dancer went from chorus girl to international star by virtue of nothing more than being a beautiful woman with an aristocratic sounding stage name.

At the turn of the 20th century, photographic portraits were easily reproduced and distributed worldwide. Reproduced on postcards, de Merode’s image became popular with collectors, and still is today.

[IMAGE] A teenager Cleo de Merode

However, it wasn’t just postcards - anything with her image or name attached to it became a sales opportunity and sold out to the public almost as quickly as it became available. It didn’t matter if it was a pack of playing cards or an item of clothing - association with Cleo de Merode meant an instant top seller.


With celebrity come gossip columns, rumor, and scandal. However, the rumor that her hairstyle covered up the fact one or both ears were missing was just the start (and it has to be said, there are very few images where even part of an ear is visible!).

A playing card made with her image

In what has to be one of the first uses of a portmanteau word to describe a celebrity couple, the ‘Cleopold’ scandal implied that the 20-year-old dancer was having an affair with the 60-year-old, married father of four, famously womanizing King Leopold II of Belgium.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A playing card made with her image

The initial impact on her reputation was significant, and it didn’t help matters that the real mistress was even younger - the 16-year-old Caroline Lacroix, who went on to have two children by the King.

The rumor mill painted de Merode as a courtesan, and over the decade that the rumor persisted, both gossip columnists and newspaper political cartoonists had a field day with the material. By June 1911, the New York Times printed a declaration that there was no evidence for the rumor whatsoever, and indeed, Cleo de Merode always denied it. But not too strongly - after all, no publicity is bad publicity.

De Merode’s mother wrote a badly-spelled letter to the editor of Le Figaro in an attempt to squash the rumor, but this led to mockery. Around the same time as the New York Times clarification, Xavier Paoli wrote in his book Their Majesties as I Knew Them that not only were Leopold II and Cleo de Merode not lovers, they had never even met. They didn’t meet until the rumors were very well-established - the King apologized to de Merode, that “the good fortune people attribute to me has offended you”. De Merode records in her own 1955 autobiography that she was “completely bewildered by the dimensions that this story took on”. However, for an avid courter of publicity, she can’t have been that bewildered.

Cleo de Merode’s other big scandal around the time of the Leopold II rumors was over the sculpture La Danseuse. Exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Francais in early 1896, Alexander Falguier’s life-sized marble nude was said to be taken from a full body plaster cast of de Merode.

Cleo de Merode as a young stage actress

Critical reaction to the sculpture was strangely antagonistic; coming as it did at the birth of a new age, and almost at the start of the new century, art critics labelled the body ‘modern’ and even ‘deformed’ or ‘damaged’.

[IMAGE] Cleo de Merode as a young stage actress

This less than warm reaction led her to deny that her body had been the model - just her face - but again, she took full advantage of the notoriety by using a copy of the statue in performances. The grain of skin was visible on the plaster cast, proving that it had been taken from a live female body, if not hers. As The Journal (New York) commented at the time:

“Her beauty is not only remarkable, judged by any standpoint, but it is of a type very different from that which is ordinarily offered to the eye of the pleasure-loving public”

This statue - and the critical reaction - inspired other artists. In Carlos Vasquez y Obeda’s Cleo de Merode au Salon (held in a private collection), Cleo and a female friend are shown looking at the statue at the Salon exhibition. Cleo looks directly out at the observer, striking a very similar pose to the statue, challenging the public. The statue itself is currently at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.


Cleo de Merode photo portrait

Worldwide distribution of her image meant that international fans were keen to see Cleo de Merode in the flesh. Her European appearances were generally well-received, except for a show at the Alhambra in London in 1902. Interviewed by British weekly The Sketch, she said:

“I dance the ancient dances…I am gowned by a real dressmaker. I know music very well…I know how to arrange a basket of fruit, place flowers in a jardiniere, and touch a book without spoiling it…what other accomplishments shall I speak of?”

[IMAGE] Cleo de Merode photo portrait

The journal also printed her measurements, comparing them favorably with the vital statistics necessary to be judged the ‘perfect woman’ by the beauty standards of the time.

In 1896, she became notorious for a simulated nude scene, dancing the title role in Phyrne, a three-act ballet. A combination of a skin-coloured body suit and clever drapery gave the audience the impression that she was completely nude. In the same year, she was elected “Beauty Queen” by readers of L’Illustration, beating others celebrity beauties such as Sarah Bernhardt.

She was less popular in America, with New York City audiences in 1897 finding her disappointing. She had been booked to appear at Koster and Bill’s music hall for a month, and the critics were bluntly unimpressed:

“Cleo de Merode can go back to her inconspicuous position among the ballet dancers at the Paris Opera, crowned with the distinction of having made the most successful failure of the season…yet she has set a new fashion in personal adornment, crowds mark her progress on the street, and large audiences assemble to see her.” Munsey’s Magazine

Cleo de Merode in costume

Again, her dancing skills - described as “not remarkable” in The Sketch in 1904 - failed to set the New York dance world alight, but her look - her entire brand - was as enthusiastically devoured as it was everywhere else. Crowds would follow her down the street, begging for her autograph.

[IMAGE] Cleo de Merode in costume

Also, bad reviews meant nothing to her - she was on approximately 40 times her Paris Opéra salary, and her reaction to her critical failure was to level some criticism of her own:

“The papers…lied. I pleased the Americans vastly. The papers pretended that I danced badly, as if the Americans could tell. They know nothing about dancing”

On returning to France, she took the gamble of appearing at the Folies Bergere, a bold decision for a serious artiste to branch into cabaret. Instead of ending her career, she won a new pool of fans, continuing to enjoy her fame well into the second decade of the new century, entertaining wounded soldiers during World War I. She was by now into her forties.


De Merode retired to the sea to teach dance and make figurines. And typically, given her public life, be involved in two high-profile lawsuits. She claimed in 1923 that the film Peacock Alley, depicting the main character, Cleo de Paris, giving birth to an illegitimate child was damaging to her reputation. However, the courts didn’t find enough parallels with her own life, and she lost the case.

Cleo de Merode photo portrait

She was successful, however, in taking on Simone de Beauvoir in 1950, who libelled her in her book The Second Sex. Describing her as a prostitute from peasant origins, de Beauvoir further claimed that Cleo de Merode had assumed an aristocratic surname to escape her birth and further her career.

[IMAGE] Cleo de Merode photo portrait -one of her most iconic photographs

However, she didn’t get the five million francs she had asked for; having never shied away from courting publicity, de Merode had done little to squash those rumors in the past, using them to be talked about instead. De Beauvoir was ordered to remove mentions of De Merode in subsequent editions, and Cleo de Merode was awarded the sum of one franc in damages.

Cleo de Merode wrote her own autobiography, published in 1955 - La Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of my Life), finally clarifying some of the rumors she had encouraged to boost her fame throughout her performing life.

One of her final interviews was for Vogue in 1964. Visited at her Paris apartment by Cecil Beaton, his photographs and interview with her were published in the February issue of the magazine. Still conscious of her image, as Beaton left, she requested that he destroy any photographs of her that were not flattering.

Cléo de Mérode, probably the most beautiful woman, never married, and never had children. There was significant speculation that she was a lesbian, although she was involved with two men - a French aristocrat who died of typhoid in 1904, and a 13-year affair with Spanish sculptor Luis de Perinat, who sculpted the statue of Cleo in mourning which is on the tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery where she is buried alongside her mother.

Cléo de Mérode died on 17th October 1966, in the same apartment she had given her interview to Vogue.


Aside from the iconic nature of her own image, de Merode’s greatest legacy is perhaps the agency she gave to women during the twentieth century to control - and indeed manipulate - their own public image.

Colorized photograph of an elegant Cleo de Merode as herself

The European aristocracy who became the party set of the inter-war years, the young British princesses Margaret and Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II), and later on, even Princess Diana owed much to de Merode’s control over her image and her much-copied style. The ‘It Girls’ and Wild Child pack - Tamara Beckwith, Amanda de Cadenet, Emma Ridley - and even 1990s supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss might also have been marketed (self or otherwise) rather differently without the trail blazed by Cleo.

[IMAGE] Colorized photograph of an elegant Cleo de Merode

Today, her legacy can be seen in the Instagram influencers, the YouTube beauty channels, and the ‘celebrities’ who seem to be famous for little else other than their much-copied style, fashion lines, ‘signature fragrances’, and good looks.

Was Cleo de Merode a good dancer or not? It hardly matters - she was the first female celebrity to have the wit and intelligence to take control of her own image and legacy. Female celebrity culture today would be different without her influence.

Written by Zoe South


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