On the Record with Constance Debré
The Metamorphosis of a French Writer
Photography by Craig McDean
Fashion by Marie-Amélie Sauvé
In her books, as in her life, Constance Debré is not one to prevaricate. Following the criminal lawyer-turned-writer’s first book Play Boy, in which she recalls coming out as gay, Debré released Love Me Tender, detailing how she lost custody of her son. Maternal love, the love of women, love writ large: Debré’s sharp, incisive autofiction cries for truth and reaches for emancipation.
In the spirit of metamorphosis, Debré steps in front of the lens of Craig McDean, using clothing and accessories to become yet another woman. Life, according to Debré, is an exhilarating act of losing it all in order to find something true.
Valérie Costantino: Have you always been a writer?
Constance Debré: Yes, I think so. That’s why I wrote two books when I was younger. It’s certainly something very bourgeois and very French, this vague desire to write, but I think I had to find my way, and it happened at exactly the same time that I found my body and –you could say – my way to homosexuality.
Very clearly, in the same week I had sex with a woman, I started swimming and writing. I can’t dissociate homosexuality from writing and writing from homosexuality because I discovered, at that moment, an extraordinary, vital impulse and the power to write. Writing is an exercise in power and authority, which I also find in homosexuality – more precisely, in the departure, in leaving heterosexuality. Homosexuality is not an identity. It’s the opposite of identity: it’s a transformation process, a deconstruction movement that we start and discover as things go along. So, yes, my desire to write was ancient, but it could only really have happened then.
You come from an important family in the French Republic, yet you left everything to write and become another woman. What remains from your previous life?
It is more complex than one might think. I had parents who were very critical, very different from their own parents – aristocrats on my mother’s side and bourgeois on my father’s – and who were drug addicts. My mother died when I was 16, while my father struggled. I had to manage. But yes, although I have no money, I’m from the upper class, no question. But origins are boring. The best thing in life has always been to leave our homes, our families, our countries, to forget our childhood, to have as many lives possible. What’s left from my previous life? Nothing, I believe, except my posh accent. It’s like a golden tooth in the mouth of a gypsy.
You used to be a lawyer. Why did you choose that profession?
First, I went to law school. It’s still fundamental to me. Law is understanding the norm. It’s a system of thinking that encompasses all systems of thinking at once: history, philosophy, moral issues, class issues. It’s fascinating. Besides, I could only be a lawyer – a criminal lawyer. It’s my nature to be against the norm, and that’s why literature has always interested me – not only since I’ve been writing.
The law is a bourgeois profession, they say, but it depends on how you practice it. Of course, you are dressed like other lawyers, but when you are a criminal lawyer and on the side of the defense, you plead against the state, you plead for freedom, with this idea that there is no monster, that nothing that is wrong is monstrous. There is something very political, too. I am of my family, but I am against them. I remember very well that my grandfather [Michel] Debré, a former prime minister, was very proud of me, as the brilliant law student I was – when I told him that I wanted to be a lawyer, we almost had an argument. He passed me a note saying: You have to be a magistrate.
Do you swim every day so as not to sink into madness or to sculpt a warrior’s body?
Yes, I think it’s true. There are many explanations. It’s not at all a sad discipline: it’s also a question of pleasure. I find my center. I’m going to make use of my body, whether it’s through the senses – sexuality – or simply saying no to certain things, like, for example, not working in an office every day, even if it has difficult con- sequences. It’s an incredible luxury. I still can’t believe it.
The pleasure of sport is something I’ve always liked. Feeling my body is something that makes me feel good, but there’s also the desire to have a body that is beautiful, powerful, muscular. Again, in my opinion, athletic bodies have something to do with power and, therefore, the rejection of a form of weakness that could be seen as feminine. There is also, for sure, my sexual ambiguity in my taste for sport, both because it gives strength and because it makes a body firmer.
Your muscles, your tattoos, your nearly shaved head: are these your armor?
Definitely. Building armor is the most interesting thing in life. If everything went well and we were perfectly happy, we wouldn’t have had to build civilizations, we wouldn’t have the urge to invent anything – music, painting, spaceships, philosophy; we wouldn’t go swimming like crazy, and we wouldn’t bother writing books. Armor is not only protection from death or grief or anxiety; armor is also a creation, always a proposal for life, joy or love. I don’t care about what the armor is built to block – I think it’s the least interesting question on Earth. What interests me, thrills me, seduces me in others is their armor and the way they dance with it.
To read the full interview with Constance Debré, purchase Mastermind 08 at this link.
Hair by Duffy. Makeup by Hannah Murray. Manicure by Marie Rosa. Model: Constance Debré. Tailoring by Carole Savaton. Set Design by Alexander Bock. Production by Northsix.