Amanda Lear: the androgynous muse to Dalí who made disco intellectual

<span>Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

At the peak of the disco era in the late 1970s, Amanda Lear, who had established herself as a singer after 15 years of being a Vogue model and muse to everyone from Salvador Dalí to Bryan Ferry, had a bone to pick. “Disco music is a fantastic medium, and it’s a pity not to use it intelligently: we used rock to communicate with youth,” she said in 1979. “What shocks me is seeing my colleagues, who sing well, sing idiocies. The music is good, the production is good, the singer is good. The lyrics are aberrant.”

Taking issue with the “love” and “baby”-heavy lyrics, her solution was to intellectualise disco. “I want to be the Juliette Gréco of the 1980s,” she used to say – someone bohemian and erudite who would deepen pop culture. With more than 20m records sold globally, she is praised as an icon who made her life a work of art, but her artistic output is on a par with her life. It is all now retold in a new documentary, Queen Lear, as well as a biopic, Dalíland, directed by Mary Harron, in which Andreja Pejić plays Lear alongside Ben Kingsley and Ezra Miller as old and young versions of the painter.

Lear, now in her early 80s, never wanted to be pigeonholed in one era. On that note, she turned down an interview request, citing her unwillingness to talk about past music. “What she hates most is cliche, and repetition,” says Gero von Boehm, the writer and director of Queen Lear, and that attitude has permeated her entire life.

She started out as a model to support fine art studies in Paris and then London: Catherine Harlé, head of a modelling agency, predicted the then predominant Brigitte Bardot look would give way to a taller and less voluptuous style, foresight that led Lear to model for decade-defining designers such as Paco Rabanne and Mary Quant. But she grew tired of it. “Before singing, I used to be a fashion model, the most boring job in the world,” she said in 1978. “People give you money because you’re beautiful: it’s immoral, and stupid … I’ve done nothing, I am a coat hanger.”

Salvador Dalí and Amanda Lear circa 1965.
Salvador Dalí and Amanda Lear circa 1965. Photograph: Sipa/Shutterstock

Around 1965, she became a muse to Dalí, whom she considered her spiritual father. He reportedly used her as the inspiration for Hypnos (1965) and Venus in Furs (1968). He was enthralled by her looks – first remarking on how she had the most beautiful skull he ever saw – and her hip bones. “He hated healthy and ruddy-cheeked girls,” Lear wrote. And, despite Lear’s fine art studies, he was not impressed with her artistic ambitions. “Talent and creative power are located in the testicles: without them, one cannot create,” he told her, as we learn in her memoir Mon Dalí. Still, they maintained a platonic union for the next 15 years; when she married Alain-Philippe Malagnac in 1979, Dalí said he would give them a funeral wreath as a wedding gift.

She began dating Brian Jones in 1966, then was briefly engaged to Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music: she is the face of their 1973 album For Your Pleasure, for which she posed, femme-fatale style, in a leather dress with a black panther on a leash. That photograph caught the attention of David Bowie, and the two soon started dating after a setup by Marianne Faithfull. By then, she was frustrated with being a model and wanted to establish herself as a creative and artistic force of her own. Bowie remarked that her voice had potential and, while he paid for her voice lessons, she helped him with his erudition. For his birthday in 1974, they went to see Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which kickstarted Bowie’s fascination with German expressionism.

To get started as a singer, she harnessed a rumour about her assigned gender at birth – a subject something Dalí was obsessed with. “It’s always been the Grecian ideal: the hermaphrodite, the divine being,” he had told her. And when the rumour was picked up by tabloids, “everyone will be intrigued by you,” he told her. “You’re neither a girl, nor a boy. You’re angelic, an archetype.” So. she took it in her stride – frequently denying it but then winkingly writing songs such as I’m a Mistery and Fabulous (Lover, Love Me), with lyrics such as: “The surgeon built me so well / that nobody could tell / I was somebody else”. “There’s a good thing in scandal, sensationalism: it sells records,” she said in a 1976 interview, and the rumours continue to this day (most recently renewed by the fact that Pejić, who plays her in Dalíland, is a transgender woman).

When she was signed by the German label, Ariola records, Lear titled her 1977 debut album I Am a Photograph to poke fun at and exorcise her model days: “I am a photograph, I’m better than the real thing,” she sings on the title track. Her wit fully emerges in Alphabet, a disco track sung to a Bach backing: “A stands for anything … D for dirty old man … and Z, my child, is the zero you will get if you don’t learn my alphabet.”

By the time of her second album, Sweet Revenge, “she understood that disco music was a social and musical phenomenon that was in constant evolution,” says Beppe Savoni, a connoisseur of Eurodisco, who runs video archive Disco Bambino. “She started enriching American-influenced disco with cold, robotic sounds from northern Europe.” The single Follow Me is a little odyssey, the story of a girl resisting the devil’s bargaining. “Underneath the disco veneer,” says Savoni, “there’s a version of Eve in paradise refusing to be tempted.”

Very sophisticated, subtly nostalgic, a little teutonic, and vaguely disquieting

Carla Vistarini on Amanda Lear

In Italy, she made the jump from disco queen to mainstream celebrity, thanks to television hosting on both the country’s state-owned RAI and the private networks owned by Silvio Berluscon. “Lear’s [song] repertoire had a peculiar flavour,” says writer Carla Vistarini, who worked with Lear on the award-winning TV show Stryx. “Almost reminiscent of 1930s cabaret: very sophisticated, subtly nostalgic, a little teutonic, and vaguely disquieting.”

For her third album, she gradually sought to let go of disco: Never Trust a Pretty Face (1979) abandons the femme-fatale cover art in favour of a surrealist, sci-fi tableau, where she is part sphinx, part snake. The ballad The Sphinx sounds like Abba’s Fernando, but with lyrics explaining what it means to remain a mystery, an entity that can never cry nor die. The title track is, again, a warning against superficial values: “A pretty face is like a trap, a temptation / Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Her 1980s music wasn’t as successful, but deserves reappraisal for its conceptual, elaborate storytelling. “I am the only really honest artist around,” she said on releasing Diamonds for Breakfast in 1980. “I had to build up an image of a sexy doll and outrageous disco queen. Now I am perfectly willing to abdicate my crown.” On the new wave album Incognito, she writes in the liner notes of a fight with “envy, violence, greed, fear, indifference and even bureaucracy and nostalgia, this favourite sin of mine, which helps to accept the future”.

Amanda Lear at the 2022 Cannes film festival.
Lear at the 2022 Cannes film festival. Photograph: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images

In 1986, she tried to launch her career in the UK and North America with the album Secret Passion, but was seriously injured in a near-fatal car crash. To this day, she remains underrated in these territories. (She later faced another personal tragedy when her husband (Malagnac) died in a fire in 2000.)

In the 21st century she became more active in theatre and visual art – painting fauvist colour palettes, still lifes and glorious male nudes. But her music continued: her 2012 album I Don’t Like Disco was the umpteenth effort to distance herself from the genre (undermined by club bangers La Bête et la Belle and Chinese Walk).

It adds up to a discography in which concepts of high and low culture, man and woman, past and future all melt like so many Dalí landscapes. Lear also found fulfilment in cover versions: the Elvis songs on her 2014 album My Happiness have their roots in 1975, when she performed a version of Trouble before she was forced on to the Eurodisco bandwagon.

In late 2021, she released Tuberose, a tribute to the French chanson balladry (“some chanson seeds had already been planted in her first albums,” says Savoni) and a homage to Dalí who was fond of that flower. It is admirable that, unlike Abba with their current Voyage project, she did not rehash the mid-70s disco that she is most known for – part of her eternal fight against nostalgia. “Disco helped to create her image: now she doesn’t need that any more,” says von Boehm. “This is real freedom, artistic freedom – she does what she really likes.”