Sex and death, love, lust and longing. Murder and sado-masochism. These are some of the things that Camille O’ Sullivan, -Ireland’s answer to Agnes Bernelle- likes to sing about. The subjects of a life that is passionately lived, because Camille is nothing if not a passionate girl. Passionate and sexy and verrrrrry Frrrrrrrench with smoky dark eyes and smouldering good looks, a Vamp of the old school of vamps. Think Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. While most Irish Catholic teenage girls were being instructed-as I was-in the seductive and sophisticated arts of brown-stew-making, apple-pie-baking and the proper way to hem a gingham apron and darn a pair of old men’s socks, Camille was learning the correct application of eye-liner and the importance of fishnet stockings, in an enigmatic lady’s wardrobe.
Do I exaggerate? Possibly. But on this lovely Sunday morning in Stoneybatter, the chanteuse freely admits to having nothing whatsoever in her fridge and tells me that she is not a domesticated creature. Not at all. She has, she says, made a special effort to clean the place in my honour, because it would not have been possible for us to sit in her sitting-room, otherwise. As she prepares strong black coffee in the tiny kitchen, I admire her black lacy dress, teamed with a pink lacy jumper and topped off with a flower in her long dark hair. This is not how Irish girls spend Sunday mornings. A nice Irish girl should be in her sweats, scrubbing floors and hoovering, with the roast already in the oven for her man. But Camille’s man, -who is not really her man, but more of that later-has learned to live with a girl who refuses to cook and he doesn’t care.
Camille is half-French and half Irish, which accounts for everything. Her mother, who is from Bordeaux, met her father who was a racing driver in a café in Monaco and they fell in love. Camille and her sister Victoria were born in England, but their father wanted them to be reared in Ireland, so the family moved to Cork. They didn’t have any relatives in Ireland, however, as her father’s family had all emigrated, so it was an isolating experience.
‘The locals thought I was Chinese, at first,’Camille says, narrowing her eyes, to demonstrate. ‘Because I had narrow eyes, from being suspicious of them. I met a neighbour the other day who didn’t know who I was and I had lived just down the road from her for twenty years!”
The family was close, however and very supportive of each other. She shows me photos of her glamorous mum.
‘My mother is amazing, men are still falling in love with her and she still has her French accent. Whatever she has, I want to bottle it! Be the mystery, Camille, be the enigma,” she says. “She has that thing.”
How do you do be an enigma? I ask, intrigued.
‘You keep a part of you for yourself,” she mimics her mother’s accent. “Nobody is ever quite sure what is going on with you and that is enticing.”
All the way up the stairs, dresses are hanging and shoes are displayed, as though we were in a second-hand clothes shop. The dresses are colourful concoctions, in lace and velvet and there isn’t a Nike trainer in sight. In the bedroom, which is painted magenta, there are roses entangled in the wrought-iron bedstead and more dresses are displayed. Some of them were her mother’s and most of them take part in her stage act, as do the wigs and other accessories. In the hall is a collection of stuffed toys, which Camille delights in. In the classic tradition of sex-goddesses and sirens, Camille is a little girl as much as she is a woman. She likes to dress up and she likes to play with make-up, but some aspects of the grown-up world, she does not like. Household bills, for instance. The Domestic Science teachers would have torn their hair out.
“But you must suit yourself,’ she says. ‘There’s no point trying to be somebody you are not.” And Camille has chosen an unusual lifestyle, one that might not be socially acceptable. She shares her home with her ex-partner, a musician, and they are very happy together, just the two of them and their cat. I am intrigued. How can this work? Aren’t the new, prospective partners scared off by the ex?
‘Oh, yes!” she laughs. ‘Only the ones who just want a good time and not a commitment, those ones aren’t put off.” Maybe the man upstairs is very weird. I am taken upstairs and introduced and he seems very nice indeed. Maybe this is the ideal marriage?
What happens when one of you brings home a man or a woman? I ask.
‘Oh, we don’t do that. We have certain rules. There isn’t really any jealousy, or if there is, you get used to it. It really works very well. You have the stability of living with a partner that you love, but you can still go out and rejuvenate yourself, with new passions. Is that terrible? Maybe I don’t live in the real world and maybe I’m not settling down to a proper lifestyle. But I have a fear that everything will stop, if I settle. Other people don’t understand how you can live together, this couple that has ended. But what brought you together in the first place was that you had so much in common and that doesn’t have to be discarded, even if the relationship changes. Why throw it away?”
Because Camille is such a classic vamp, down to the beret, red lipstick and fishnets, she has come to the attention of many of the men that I know. I was worried that I might hate her for being too damn sexy, but as Ciara, -one of our own writers and an ardent fan- has assured me, that is simply not possible. Her charm transcends sexiness. Talk quickly turns to the subject of men, though. What kind of men she likes. We have already discussed Nick Cave, who is an old friend of mine that Camille is attracted to. She performs some of his songs on her new album and her new show is based on his ‘Murder Ballads.’ Nick is nothing if not moody, and for years he struggled with heroin addiction. Do they have to be as wild and weird as that?
‘They have to be clever and funny. And have a love of life. And be themselves, because I hate people who make themselves into something to suit you. It has to be hard. Difficult. If it’s difficult, then something must be working? Does that make sense? They shouldn’t be at your beck and call and they should have their own agenda, that’s what is exciting.”
Camille is describing what most men seem to want-a wife at home who is familiar and dependable, combined with the thrill of going out chasing a succession of beautiful women who resist their charms. Being a passionate chanteuse, perhaps this fuels her art?
‘Being an emotional person, I think that the intimacy between people is the most important thing that you can experience and learn from, because it changes you, as a person. But it wouldn’t be easy to be with me, I am difficult! I live all my emotions out on stage, because I have to do it somewhere. When you are singing, I think it is important that you are feeling it, people know if you aren’t.”
Irish people repress their feelings, she says. And most of us are trying to hide every aspect of ourselves. But because of their French mother, Camille and her sister learned not to.
‘We learned to really say what we feel and to be very open with our parents, which is fantastic. Other people are horrified, but it’s always been that way. I feel lucky that my parents know me so well.”
Camille went to Trinity College and qualified as an architect, partly because her mother told her that she was too sensitive to be an actress or a singer. After she qualified, she went to work as an architect and was, by all accounts very good at it, but her heart wasn’t in it. She needed something more, something more expressive and that is what she found in singing. But it wasn’t until a near-fatal car accident left her unable to walk that she decided to take a leap of faith and throw herself into singing, full time.
She had crashed the car after a heated argument with an ex-boyfriend and when she came to, with blood everywhere and found herself being cut out of her car, she asked the fireman to pass on final messages to her loved ones, believing herself to be dying. She didn’t die, but spent several months in a hospital , on a ward with people who were dying, lying there with a fractured pelvis and a metal plate in her right hand. She had been told that she may never write, draw or dance again and learning to walk was a difficult and painful process. But she was thankful to be alive, so thankful that she made up her mind not to waste another moment. As soon as she recovered, she attended an acting workshop at the Gaiety school and soon she was doing the cabaret shows that she now tours the country with. And she used all of her savings to record her first CD. The posters, she designed and pasted up all over town, it is, she says, a one woman industry. She would ideally like to have a manager, but for now she is very happy to be doing what she is doing and very glad to have made the choice that she made, however precarious the music business may be.
Most of us women spend an absolute fortune on the pursuit of beauty-cosmetics, hair, clothes, fake tan, botox, you name it. But what would happen if one day we woke up and we were, like Camille, a totally gorgeous chick that all the guys fancied? Would it change our lives? Would it help?
‘It’s a funny one, because as a woman you know when you’ve got that something that you speak of, and you can use it, undoubtedly. But unfortunately, it has a shelf-life! I appreciate how women look, but I have to know that I have something stronger and more important somewhere else, for when the beauty fades. It is disappearing, every day! But Agnes Bernelle, in her seventies had something that was mesmerising, if I can have something like that, I will be okay. Beauty is not the end of the line, for me it’s about my work, that is what makes me feel good about myself. Okay, I take care of my looks better than I do my house, but that’s not what’s important. You’ve got to get ready for when you walk down the street and none of the men turn to look! It’s going to be devastating. Which is why it’s important to have a man who loves you for you and not for the physical!”
When she worked as an architect, she says, men didn’t really comment on her looks. But when she hit the stage, things changed.
“I love dressing up, you can be sexy, or dark or whatever and you can have the most fun, on stage. You can really let go, and you get men who are interested, but you know yourself that it is a fantasy that they are attracted to. Anyone who goes on stage gets that. At the end of the day, if someone is only attracted to that fantasy, then he is the wrong man.”
What kind of guys does she attract?
‘Musicians, artists, creatives. Never accountants. Although I have been told to date accountants because my life would be a lot easier, if I did. Men come in droves, when I am feeling good and not when I am down, though. They always are attracted when I am with someone! I attract a lot of weirdos, some of them are sweet, but you know what I mean! Some of them realise that nothing will happen, but some of them are determined that they are in with a chance.”
Camille is innately stylish, but her nail polish is chipped, she doesn’t, she says, spend a fortune on make-up, nor on designer clothes. She wears second-hand things, put together cleverly. She isn’t groomed to within an inch of her life, like a ‘Sex and the City” chick. One wonders if she shaves or waxes, but doesn’t dare ask. French women don’t worry about things like that, do they? But French women, especially the pretty ones, get hundreds more guys than the uptight American chicks. This lady is a one-woman lesson in how to really be charming and sexy, not by being expensively trimmed, tucked and botoxed, but by being frank and expressive and human and creative and interesting. Oh, and enigmatic, of course.
For info on tour dates see http://www.camilleosullivan.com