Local arena

Tina Arena calls Paris home these days. Here, the Australian singer (and French national treasure) shares her insights into an authentic, intimate side of the City of Light, from the gritty streets of Montmartre to vintage couture at the Palais Royal.

By Stephen Todd
Tina Arena was just seven when she entered stage left, capturing the hearts of the nation with her first appearance on the seminal Young Talent Time. Every week we'd watch the kid from Melbourne's western suburbs grow up before our eyes, shimmying in disco shorts and glitter, or belting out renditions of "Volare" in her parents' native language - round-mouthed words that none of us tight-lipped "blondes" could even begin to understand.
Three decades later, the artist formerly known as Tiny Tina is living in the east end of Paris with her French partner Vincent Mancini and their five-year-old son Gabriel. It's easy to understand why the artist has adopted France as her home, since it's here that Australia's eternal child star has been allowed to mature into a legitimate performer - to move, as she quoted '60s songstress Lulu when inducting YTT host Johnny Young into the ARIA Hall of Fame, "from crayons to perfume". Because if being a child star comes with immense privileges, it also comes at a price: growing up so publicly means that you can never really grow up at all.
I first met Arena five years ago when she asked me to art-direct the cover of her album The Best & Le Meilleur for Sony France. The woman I encountered was ebullient and warm, a frank talker, even in her now lightly French-accented speech. She looked like a mini Monica Bellucci, all dark hair and eyes. Initially, I too still saw her as "Tiny Tina", but her larger-than-life personality soon obliterated all images I had of her past.
If Arena has adopted France as her second home, France has adopted her as one of its most esteemed talents: for the past eight years, Arena has enjoyed platinum-level sales in the millions here. That's not to say she denies her Australian roots - far from it. It's more that she is so rarely asked to affirm them. On French television, Arena is treated as one of the country's own, with even French president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy inviting the singer to perform her anthemic hit, "Aller Plus Haut", in front of thousands at his inauguration party in 2007.
"Strangely, I always felt comfortable in Paris," Arena says. "But the city really started to seep under my skin in 2005 when I was pregnant with Gabriel. We lived on a beautiful square in the Batignolles quarter to the north and were really living like locals, which is how I always felt we should live. We'd wander through the food market to see what was fresh for the evening's meal. There was a real esprit de quartier, or neighbourhood spirit: often, we'd create these spontaneous gatherings with our neighbours on the leafy square, eating, dancing, singing and gossiping. It was like a touch of Provence in Paris."
Clearly, despite her celebrity here, Arena's Paris is not the City of Light filled with fashion boutiques and gold-leafed bridges. To follow her around town is to see another Paris revealed, an authentic Paris that is not only true to her working-class roots, but that evokes a memory of another French chanteuse à voix so integral to the national psyche: Édith Piaf.
Le Paris de Tina Arena
Hôtel de Crillon
"For me, the Crillon represents the best of French tradition. You walk through those polished brass doors and no matter who you are - wealthy, famous or otherwise - there's a smile and a warm greeting. Real chic is not about attitude or arrogance; it's about integrity and real elegance. It doesn't matter what's fashionable and what's not: I couldn't live and die by that sword. I've stayed at a lot of hotels in a lot of cities around the world, and the Crillon remains one of my all-time favourites. As for the ground floor bar, it's genius. A cosy, rich red hideaway where you are completely cocooned. It even has a discreet side entrance if you want to avoid being seen. The barmen are young, but with a total respect for tradition that is so important in such a venerable institution. They make you feel immediately welcome." Hôtel de Crillon, 10 place de la Concorde, 8th arrondissement, +33 1 44 71 15 00. Métro: Concorde.
Au Général La Fayette "This place is genial, a classic French bistro serving no-nonsense steak-frites and haricots verts. Good ambiance, with these fantastic quirky waiters who have seen it all. The murals inside are incredible, but I still can't help opting for a seat on the terrasse, so great for absorbing the hustle and bustle of the crowds descending on the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores. It's right out of a Zola novel. The coffee's pretty good, although here my Italian roots betray me - nothing's quite as amazing as an espresso standing at a bar in Florence, Milan or Rome." Au Général La Fayette, 52 rue La Fayette, 9th arrondissement, +33 1 47 70 59 08. Métro: Le Peletier.
Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen "What I love about this Clignancourt flea market is the sheer eclecticism of the place. You go past one stand filled with Louis XVI furniture, to the next mesmerising with art deco magic, to another showing extraordinary art nouveau pieces, and the next filled with incredible bric-à-brac from Provence, and the following overflowing with Gustavian antiques from Sweden. It's totally crazy. I especially love the old fabrics, the gorgeous silk wall-coverings embroidered with butterflies and insects, a slightly Chinese aesthetic in evidence. I come just as often as I can, and it is constantly changing. Such a relief from the market-researched offerings of other interior design establishments. I'm just beginning the renovation of my home - a 1930s pavilion in the east of Paris - and it's certain that the puces will be my first port of call when it comes to decorating the place." Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, Porte de Clignancourt, +33 8 92 70 57 65. Métro: Porte de Clignancourt.
Miroir "The name of the place says it all: these guys are happy to look at themselves in the mirror every morning. They've all left big-name establishments such as Alain Ducasse's Aux Lyonnais to establish this streamlined, simple bistrot on one of the most wonderful streets of Paris, winding up towards the Sacré Coeur. But if the décor is simple, the cuisine is deceptively complex. I love the salade de tomates et courgettes aux coquillages, and the crisp-skinned duck with chanterelles. But one of my all-time favourites has to be the côte de porc Ibérique - a succulent side of pork served with spring vegetables simmered in bouillon. Chef Sébastien Guénard gives hope to the future of French cooking. Bravo les gars!" Miroir, 94 rue des Martyrs, 18th arrondissement, +33 1 46 06 50 73. Métro: Abbesses.
Marché de la Bastille "Every Saturday I wake up, throw on a pair of jeans, sneakers and a hat and head off to the local market. It's like my therapy. It's a constant thrill to see what's come into season: this week it's cantaloupes, and artichokes have made an appearance. Soon, I know, the berries will begin. And nothing lasts beyond its seasonality: a fruit or vegetable is in season for a time, and then it's gone. But I think one of my favourite things is the cheese. Comté. Roquefort. Chèvre. If somebody told me I could never eat cheese again, I think I'd stab myself; just shoot me. But you know, out of everything, one of the greatest pleasures for Vincent, me and Gabriel is fresh crevettes, crusty bread and salted butter enjoyed in our garden at our own pace. It's the simple things that bring the truest pleasure." Marché de la Bastille (Thursdays & Sundays), boulevard Richard-Lenoir (between rue Amelot & rue St-Sabin), 11th arrondissement. Métro: Bastille or Bréguet Sabin.
Palais Royal gardens "This is one of my favourite gardens in the world. It's magic to walk off the busy Rue St-Honoré, slip past the Ministry of Culture with its iconic black-and-white columns by Daniel Buren, and breathe out as you enter the calm oasis of the Palais garden. I love the fact that Parisians aren't in awe of the place previously inhabited by Colette and Cocteau. They really use it, happily slipping off their shirts and sunbathing and playing in the fountain, reading seated upright against a colonnade, and generally having a great time. You could be back in the 18th century - apart from the bare chests. Of course, of late the Palais has become highly fashionable, with designers such as Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and Rick Owens moving in. But that's kind of beside the point: fact is, a stroll through the gardens remains a step back in time, not a step onto the fashion pages." Jardin du Palais Royal, rue de Montpensier, 1st arrondissement, Métro: Palais Royal.
Didier Ludot and Le Petite Robe Noire "I love clothing that tells a story. When I'm in Sydney I love raiding Collette Dinnigan's old collections - I have great memories of her up on a ladder, fishing out old stuff for me to look at. In Paris, Didier Ludot is the specialist in vintage clothing. His main store, on the west side of the Palais Royal, has been there for as long as I can remember. More recently, he's added the fabulous Little Black Dress shop in the east side of the Palais. It's brim-filled with delights. A little black dress is a total no-brainer: every woman looks great in this simple, chic wardrobe essential. Maybe it's the ragazza in me? My mother was an excellent seamstress, an incredibly chic woman. She would put on a black dress, some Nivea cream and red lipstick. That was it - she never wore foundation in her life. True, timeless elegance." Didier Ludot, 24 Galerie Montpensier, 1st arrondissement, +33 1 42 96 06 56; La Petite Robe Noire, 125 Galerie de Valois, 1st arrondissement, +33 1 40 15 01 04. Métro: Palais Royal.
L'Olympia "The Olympia is a mythic theatre; anyone of any notoriety has played there. I'm greatly honoured to have trodden those boards six or seven times in the course of my career. It's at the Olympia that I recorded a live album in 1999, an album that I consider one of my very best: Vous Êtes Toujours Là . That was at the beginning of my French career. I'd just started singing in French, "Aller Plus Haut" had been a hit, "Les Trois Cloches" had been a hit, and my song with Marc Anthony from The Mask of Zorro was still going through the roof. I'm so proud of that album. Unlike most 'live' albums, we went into manufacturing right off the mixing desk, we didn't pass it by a studio or Pro Tools to tweak it for any false notes or whatever. It's raw, and it's true." L'Olympia Bruno Coquatrix, 28 boulevard des Capucines, 9th arrondissement. Métro: Madeleine.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont "The Buttes is in the resolutely working-class 19th arrondissement, and so the people who frequent its rolling lawns and fantastic sculpted hills and valleys tend to be young, artistic types. Me, I love the total escapism it offers from the concrete jungle: it's hard to imagine, once inside its walls, that a throbbing metropolis is going about its daily grind just outside. Some people go to church, but Tina needs to go to a garden! It's good for the soul, just sitting quietly, reflecting, or walking with Gabriel through the hanging vines and lush waterfalls of the Buttes. As for the Temple of Sybil, what a wonderful monument to Paris in all its near-fanatical reverence, for, on the one hand, the monumental, and on the other, for the bucolic and playful side of life." Parc des Buttes Chaumont, rue Botzaris, 19th arrondissement. Métro: Buttes Chaumont.
  • undefined: Stephen Todd