A decade ago, Zahia Dehar, a French-Algerian teenager, woke up to find her picture on the front of France’s newspapers as the underage girl caught up in a prostitution scandal involving members of the national football squad.
She was an escort that star player Franck Ribéry was said to have solicited as a “birthday present” to himself. Aged 18 when the scandal broke – and just 17 at the time of the incident – Dehar seemed destined to be defined for life by the sordid story.
But she refused to let it define her. For young woman, driven to thoughts of suicide, it was a question of survival. “I had the choice between killing myself or going forward. I didn’t want to kill myself,” she said afterwards.
Today, the 27-year-old model, lingerie designer and muse to the late couturier Karl Lagerfeld is celebrating her first film role and has found herself compared to a young Brigitte Bardot.
In Une Fille Facile (An Easy Girl), released in France on Wednesday, Dehar plays the liberated Sofia, who sleeps with rich men who buy her gifts; it is set in a steamy summer in the south of France, featuring sun, sea, sand and sex, with luxury yachts and jewels thrown in. One reviewer said the film had a “classically Gallic nonchalance when it comes to sex”.
The French culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles ran a front page with the headline “Et dieu créa Zahia” (And God created Zahia), a reference to Roger Vadim’s 1956 film And God Created Woman, which launched Bardot’s career.
“‘An easy girl’ is not pejorative: it’s a woman who submerges herself in her sexuality like a man. It’s rare to see a woman like Sofia celebrated like that,” Dehar said.
Born in Ghriss, Algeria, Dehar came to France at the age of 10 with her mother and younger brother after their parents’ divorce. By the time she was 16, uninterested in boys her own age, she made a decision, she says, to sleep with older men for money. By night, she frequented high-class clubs in Paris, returning home in the early hours to change for school.
The first her mother learned of it was when the scandal broke involving Ribéry and Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid striker. “She heard about it on the television and was very shocked. But she was never aggressive with me. She was mostly worried,” Dehar said.
“I was not in a good place until I told myself that what I did was not a crime.”
Ribéry and Benzema were investigated and in 2014 the charges against them were dropped, with the judge ruling there was insufficient proof they had known Dehar was underage.
Dehar says the affair still haunts her. “I experienced it as a shock, a catastrophe … I had the feeling that my adult life had barely begun but had no future,” she told Les Inrockuptibles. “I felt trapped in a box, the box of banned, stoned women … I really felt very bad and I even thought of killing myself because I believed I no longer had a life. I felt as if I was a monster that had to be hidden.”
Later, Dehar told Antidote magazine: “I was very ill, I didn’t go out, I saw nobody … I was ‘Zahia the whore’. And I knew that, in society, that kind of woman is seen as diabolical.”
Instead of being ostracised, however, Dehar received modelling offers, inspired the artists Pierre et Gilles to portray her as Marianne, the feminine symbol of the French state, and was photographed by Lagerfeld, who supported a lingerie collection she launched.
Some critics see art imitating life, describing Dehar’s role in Une Fille Facile as that of a blank canvas on to which the men in the film project their fantasies, albeit tempered by her character’s independence and wit.
The film’s writer and director, Rebecca Zlotowski, a founder member of the 50/50 collective – a French organisation set up in response to #MeToo that rejects the perceived “Anglo-Saxon puritanism” of the US-born movement – says her film is “an amoral summer story”. Its subject is “the question of strength, power, domination in all fields”, she says.
“To be a feminist, you don’t need to show female astronauts or neurosurgeons. I like to show women in extreme femininity,” Zlotowski says.
The film has highlighted again the contrary response in France to #MeToo. After the allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape against Harvey Weinstein, a number of high-profile French women, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, accused feminist campaigners of attacking men’s “right” to hit on women.
Zlotowski told the Hollywood Reporter: “We have a Latin culture that always feels a little bit threatened by American puritanism … [The French] want to keep their wild sexuality.” She maintains the most powerful tools to combat sexism and misogyny are “economics … and humour”. “It was Gloria Steinem that said that, by the way – that humour is the strongest tool – and it’s true.”
However, the French feminist group Osez le Féminisme! strongly disagrees that sex work is empowering for women. “There is still work to do in France, that’s for sure,” said Céline Piques, a spokesperson for the group. “Zahia Dehar is perhaps a particular case, but at least 90% of women in prostitution are forced into it; trafficked, held against their will and raped. There’s a great difference between seduction and sexual violence, that has nothing to do with puritanism. It’s a message we keep hammering home.”