About the Author
I’ve been saying for years that the best possible life is that of a D-list celebrity. It may not be glamorous, but you’re usually always working and you’ll probably have a cult following that slobbers all over you at conventions and, unless you have a drug or gambling problem, you’ve got enough money for a pretty comfortable life. Best of all, you can leave your house without a personal security detail to keep crazy fans from pushing you into traffic and nearly killing you– they save that crap for the A-listers.
But maybe I need to readjust this theory of mine. Maybe the best possible life is to have it both ways, to be wildly popular in one country and completely anonymous everywhere else. French rock star Johnny Hallyday, lauded in the international music press as the French Elvis, has been living that way for decades and he seems pretty happy with it.
Johnny (real name Jean-Philippe Smet) was born in 1943, and was adopted by his aunt and uncle after his father deserted the family. Johnny’s uncle was American entertainer Lee Hallyday, who gave him early opportunities to perform and was his first manager. Like many young post-war Europeans, Johnny developed a serious interest in rock ‘n roll music, which was trickling across the Atlantic as American bands started selling records and booking tours in Europe. Johnny’s first brushes with fame came from translating American hits into French; for example, Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” became “Amour d’Eté,” and his bilingual cover of “Let’s Twist Again” was a smash hit in 1961. It sounds dumb, but keep in mind that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones started out as Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry cover bands.
Johnny bolstered his success with wild stage performances and a rebellious look—including visible tattoos—that scandalized conservative 1960s France. And while Johnny’s attempts to break into America and the UK didn’t amount to much (they already had plenty of rock icons, anyway), his tours of Africa and South America drew huge crowds (25,000 wasn’t an uncommon attendance figure in Argentina, for example). One interesting side benefit of Johnny’s otherwise unremarkable appearances in England was his discovery of Jimi Hendrix, who he invited to open for him when he returned to France.
As Johnny’s career progressed, it wouldn’t have been unkind to call him the French male Madonna, due to his adaptable stage persona (over the years, he’s been everything from a tuxedo-wearing crooner to a glam rocker) and much-publicized love life, especially his tumultuous marriage to fellow French pop icon Sylvie Vartan, one of many Johnny Hallyday conquests over the years. In a situation not unlike Dazed and Confused, he keeps getting older but his girlfriends stay the same age.
Johnny has never found success in the US, but he does own property here. He’s had a house in Los Angeles for years, and comes to America to get tattooed and live without the pressures of fame, since no one here has any idea who he is. He was even put into a medically-induced coma here back in 2010, both to recover from a back operation and to help him recover from withdrawals; his cardiologist called his intakes of booze, cigarettes, and cocaine “incredible,” and France panicked until they got word that he wasn’t dying.
Johnny has mostly retired from music and transitioned into acting, but he still occasionally performs. Just for fun, I’ll leave you with his 1961 performance of “Elle Est Terrible,” from Amsterdam.