PARIS — Over tea at a Left Bank hotel, Arielle Dombasle sprays her neck with perfume, lights a cigarette and exhales, watching the smoke form a cloud above her head.
She’s a French version of Barbie: Rapunzel tresses and a waist touted as the narrowest in Paris. Add to that her celebrity philosopher husband, Bernard Henri Levy, and she is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable — and emblematic — figures in the country.
So it’s a surprise to learn that she’s actually American, born in Norwich, Conn., and raised by a family of ambassadors in Mexico City. She only moved to France in 1976, at 18. “My first language is Spanish,” she trills. “Everyone thinks I’m Parisian, but I’m a Parisian by adoption.”
Though she’s best known as an actress, Dombasle has dabbled in opera, too. A couple of years back, she came out with a surprise hit, selling 100,000 copies of an opera-meets-techno album, and a year ago she played to packed houses in a popular operetta version of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“When I arrived in France I wanted so much to be integrated into French culture,” she says. “I studied classical music and then I got into film. But I had a whole other continent inside of me.”
Indeed, her new album, “Amor Amor,” takes her back to those roots. It reprises Latin-American favorites from “Rum and Coca-Cola” to “Besame Mucho.” Dombasle gives the tunes a retro Thirties twist with her high-pitched, quivering voice and languorous lisp.
She even performs a duet — “Quizas, Quizas” — with the ultimate Latin lover, Julio Iglesias. “His voice is like velvet, voluptuous,” she gushes. “He’s got something vulnerable to him, but he’s very strong.”
Was her husband jealous? “He’s always jealous,” she laughs.
All jokes aside, Dombasle calls the album an homage to her mother and grandmother. “We used to sing these songs together in the kitchen,” she recalls. “For me, they represent the femininity of another time.”
This story first appeared in the December 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The album has done well here, in the top 20 since it was released in October. She will embark on a European concert tour early next year. “I love being on stage,” she says. “It’s a thrill. I just have to practice my dances.”
Meanwhile, Dombasle is pondering a follow-up to her excursion into her heritage. She thinks there may be an American jazz album in her, too.
“When we did this album, I wanted to sing everything. I wanted to sing ‘Laura’ and ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ But my artistic director told me I had to reduce. There’s more America in me yet.”