By Susan Schindehette
October 04, 1999 12:00 PM

No fireworks will blaze over the Champs Elysées on Sept. 28 to herald the milestone, and no dignitaries will issue proclamations in the halls of the National Assembly. Instead, on the morning that Brigitte Bardot turns 65, the onetime sex kitten will begin the day much as always. “My birthday will be like any other day. My dogs will give me a marvelous party the moment I wake up,” she says from her rustic seaside home in St. Tropez. “Then they’ll share my breakfast and give me the courage to face the new day.”

For one ephemeral moment in the ’60s, Bardot was the bubbly quintessence of a generation, a ubiquitous object of desire. Indeed, her pouty lips and baby-doll ripeness made her the voluptuous centerpiece of 40-odd films over two decades. Yet behind the public glamor, Bardot’s private life was riddled with strife and stress: three failed marriages (to director Roger Vadim, actor Jacques Charrier and German playboy Gunther Sachs), a distant, bitter relationship with her only child, countless affairs, a half-dozen suicide attempts and, in later years, a little-publicized bout with breast cancer. In 1977, three years after bidding adieu to her cinema career, Bardot stepped onto an ice floe off Newfoundland to protest the clubbing of baby seals and sparked an international cause célèbre in the name of animal rights.

It has been her raison d’être ever since, inspiring her in 1986 to form a foundation that bears her name (www.fondationbrigittebardot.fr) and claims 43,000 members in 41 countries. From its headquarters in a Parisian townhouse to her simple Provencal-style country home (“No marble, no gold faucets,” says Frank Guillou, her secretary for the past decade. “That’s her style”), Bardot, married for the past seven years to businessman Bernard d’Ormale, fights ferociously for the feathered and furry. “I gave my beauty and youth to men,” she said in 1987. “I’m now giving my wisdom and experience—the best of me—to animals.” Many have puzzled over her evolution from actress to activist—and Bardot, ever the iconoclast, couldn’t care less. “Public opinion?” she once said. “I sit on it.” Intimates have more insight into her motives. “She’s lived a life with so many disappointments in love and work,” says Guillou. “With animals, there are no deceptions.”

What Bardot herself has often described as a lifelong search for love and security began in a sometimes glacial relationship with her late parents, Louis Bardot, an affluent bottled-gas manufacturer, and his home-maker wife, Anne-Marie. Brigitte and her younger sister Mijanou, now 60, enjoyed servants, country houses and the best schools. But after one especially inappropriate parental punishment, Bardot said, “I no longer felt as if we were their children.” At 14, after a modeling job for the magazine Elle, she was spotted by budding film director Vadim, who arranged a screen test for her and married her in 1952. When the pair appeared at Cannes in the spring of 1953, Bardot “hijacked the festival,” wrote biographer Jeffrey Robinson. Two thousand sailors from the USS Enterprise, then anchored in the city, stomped and whistled their approval. Vadim later noted in his memoir, “They knew a goddess when they saw one.”

From the start, “B.B.” was a phenomenon. “I remember walking into a restaurant in Rome in the early ’50s. Brigitte wasn’t even famous yet,” recalls Olga Horstig, 87, her longtime agent and surrogate mother. “Everyone stopped eating and watched her. She was like a magnet.” Bardot made 16 films between 1953 and 1956, the year Vadim directed her in the then-racy And God Created Woman, which set off an international furor.

After she and Vadim divorced amicably in June 1959, Bardot began a brief marriage to actor Jacques Charrier, who the following year became the father of her now-estranged son, Nicolas. Bardot, who saw the boy only intermittently, later said that her own insecurities robbed her of normal maternal instincts. “I needed a mother, not a child,” she once said, adding in her 1996 memoir, “I felt incapable of providing roots for a being who would be dependent on me all his life.” In 1997 she was ordered to pay a total of $44,000 to Charrier and Nicolas—who, at 39, now lives in Oslo with his wife and two daughters—for invading their privacy with unflattering references (to Charrier as “a gigolo” and to her unborn son as “a tumor feeding off me”) in her autobiography. “For me,” she has reportedly said, “Nicolas is dead.”

When her three-year third marriage to Gunther Sachs ended in 1969, Bardot turned for diversion to a series of lovers—trailed as always by tabloids and paparazzi. “It was awful. I really felt trapped,” she said of the celebrity status she loathed. “That’s when I understood what loneliness is.” She had never overcome chronic stage fright while filming. “She’d break out with a cold sore on her lips from nervousness,” recalls Horstig. “Sometimes we’d have to delay the shoot.” Finally, during filming of a medieval comedy in 1973, she was directed to don a turban and survey herself in a mirror. “I was suddenly struck by the silliness of the turban, of that rather dumb film and cinema in general,” she told a reporter. “I decided at that precise moment that between me and the cinema, it was a final divorce.”

Instead, she turned to another, more fulfilling activity. As early as 1962, Bardot, who long ago gave up eating meat, called for more humane practices at French slaughterhouses (which led to passage of legislation still known as the Bardot law). More recently she has protested bullfighting and vivisection, publicly castigated Sophia Loren for appearing in fur ads and in August fired off a fax to President Jiang Zemin protesting a form of Chinese entertainment in which live calves are tossed into lion pits. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a minister or the president of France,” says her friend Patrick du Teurtre. “Brigitte will call someone a stupid jerk if that’s what she thinks.”

Still, she wrestles with private demons, as in 1992 when she made her most recent reported suicide attempt. “She suffers enormous depression,” Vadim once told author Robinson. “It’s her awareness of her own loneliness.” Today, no longer so alone since marrying d’Ormale, 58, Bardot still answers the letters that find her, addressed simply to “Brigitte Bardot, Actress,” and still “goes to the market in her little green minijeep that she started the fad for in 1965,” says her friend, producer René Chateau. Last year she again declined an offer to appear at Cannes, preferring to socialize at L’Esquinade, a small beach restaurant where she dines with old friends. “Brigitte will never be happy. That’s the way she was born,” says Horstig. “But she’s happier now than when she was an actress. She’s comfortable with herself.”

And, it seems, with those she trusts and who ask nothing of her. “I have chosen animals as my family,” says Bardot, “and I have no regrets.”

Susan Schindehette

Peter Mikelbank and Cathy Nolan in Paris and Lanie Goodman in St. Tropez

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