Thursday March 16, 2000
Larger than life
At 17, she was a smart student from a middle-class Breton family. Last week, following 10 years of punishing plastic surgery on her breasts and face, she was found dead, a possible suicide. Jon Henley tells how self-loathing led Lolo Ferrari to freak-show stardom – and, ultimately, to an early grave
But Lolo Ferrari was not funny. She was sad, and she’d been saying so for a long time. But nobody listened to her much. They were too busy spinning their private fantasies and cracking their public jokes, because Ferrari had the biggest breasts in the world.

They were gross, gargantuan, grotesque – surgically enhanced and silicone-stuffed. The Guinness Book of Records says they weighed 6lb 2oz (2.8kg) apiece, and measured her bust at 54G. She wore a specially engineered bra day and night and could not sleep on her stomach or her back (they interfered with her breathing). She was afraid to travel by plane in case they exploded.

The breasts were not the only part of Ferrari that were not entirely natural. She had undergone multiple cosmetic surgery on her lips, cheeks, nose, forehead, eyebrows and stomach: 25 operations in five years. She was Miss Tits Europe, a smiling, collagen-crammed star of stage and screen, sort of. She had a song and striptease act that drew tens of thousands to nightclubs in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium; she was a regular on Channel 4’s Eurotrash.

Early on, she had also performed in a couple of hardcore films. Explicit pictures of her could be found on nearly 1,000 internet sites. But she had managed to get out of that and was trying to launch herself as a singer. Her first single was a bouncy Eurodisco number wittily entitled Airbag Generation. Her second, recorded just before she died 11 days ago, aged 30, was rather more bluesy. It was called Set Me Free.

Lolo – les lolos is French for knockers, jugs, melons, what you will – was running from something. “All this stuff,” she once said, referring to the operations, “has been because I can’t stand life. But it hasn’t changed anything. There are moments when I disconnect totally from reality. Then I can do anything, absolutely anything. I swallow pills. I throw myself out of windows. Dying seems very easy then.”

The night before she did die, Ferrari wasn’t well. She had taken her usual fistful of antidepressants and sleeping pills – she was on 12mg of prescription uppers a day – but also some antibiotics for a bad sore throat. The autopsy’s verdict was death by natural causes, but the results of a more detailed drug test, due out later this week, will establish whether it was a drug overdose that killed her.

Her husband and manager, Eric Vigne, found her body in the upstairs bedroom of their modest house on the hillside above Grasse in the south of France. “She had wanted to sleep alone,” he says, “so she could feel at ease, and cough without waking me up. So for once I slept downstairs. When I went up on the Sunday morning, I thought she was still sleeping. Her body was cold.”

Lolo Ferrari had very few friends. But people who took the time to talk to her seriously were invariably charmed. “She would talk so intimately, so openly,” says Elisabeth Alexandre, who spent several days with her for French Marie Claire magazine just after the big breast operation and the Cannes film festival of 1995 that really launched her on the world.

“She was really very touching. You wanted to imagine her in a dream world with a big, airy house and white bunny rabbits and pink butterflies and friends who would like her truly for what she was, not for the money they could make out of her. The reality was very different.”

Born Eve Valois in the central French town of Clermont-Ferrand in 1970, Ferrari was the second of four children, a bright and pretty girl. Her father, a senior official in France’s nuclear energy programme, was relocated to Brittany when she was a toddler, and the family moved to the chic resort town of La Baule.

There Eve went to the local lycee, finishing up with a respectable baccalaureat. To her teachers and the rest of the outside world, she looked set for a solid and sensible career, perhaps in medicine or in teaching. But nobody, it seems, had seen how deeply a disastrously unhappy home life had already marked her.

“My mother told me I was ugly and stupid,” she told one interviewer. “She said I was only good for emptying chamber pots. I wanted to be an anaesthetist, but you can’t learn with a mother like that. Actually, I’m like my mother. She thinks she’s ugly too. When I was born, it was herself that she saw and she stuck all sorts of negative stuff on me. She did all she could to stop me living.”

To another interviewer, she went further: “My mother was always very unhappy with my father. My father was this macho guy who was never there and deceived her openly. So she revenged herself on me. She told me I was revolting too, that no one would ever want me. She hit me sometimes with a riding crop. I was frightened and I was ashamed; I wanted to change my face, my body, to transform myself. I wanted to die, really.”

Eve left school and launched herself on a small-time modelling career, appearing in a couple of girlie mags. And then she met Eric Vigne. She was 17; he was 39. He was big, bearded, cool. A laid-back, child-of-the-60s manner hid the sharp mind of an entrepreneur.

Vigne’s urgent desire to make lots of money perfectly matched the teenager’s urgent desire to ditch her body: they were married within a year. Two years later, in 1990, the operations began. Vigne encouraged her; it was he who designed her mouth and eyebrows and came up with the plans for her mammoth breasts. The newly named Lolo Ferrari – the surname, which led to a three-year legal battle with the Italian car company, was her maternal grandfather’s – felt scared at first, but soon got used to it.

“For my mouth,” she said in 1996, “we removed my Cupid’s bow, tucked the mucous membranes up to my nose, and filled my lips with collagen. There’s no particularly odd feeling or anything, but I have to put lipsalve on all the time. I adore being operated on. I feel wonderful in clinics. I love the feeling of a general anaesthetic – falling into this black hole and knowing I’m being altered as I sleep.”

The breasts went first to 41in, then to 46in. They were desensitised and the skin was stretched nearly to bursting point. Ferrari lived in constant fear, as she mimed her songs and took off her clothes in club after club around Europe, that some madman would jump up on the stage and try to puncture them.

Beyond 46in, it became increasingly hard to find a plastic surgeon willing to take on the job. A couple of years ago, Vigne described the operation that made her a monstrous 54G. “I calculated the volume, the diameter, I drew up the plans and I took them to a guy I know who designs fuselage moulds for the aeronautics industry,” he said.

“The designer made the moulds, and I gave them to a prosthetics maker who produced the empty silicone implants. It took a long, long time to find a surgeon willing to perform the operation. He removed the old implants and replaced them with the new. Each one was filled with two litres of serum. A bit later we increased it to three.”

Ferrari insisted she was happy with the changes that were made to her body. “Having a big bust comforts me,” she told yet another French interviewer. “It makes me more sure of myself. I’m like a transvestite – I’ve created a femininity that’s completely artificial. But I’d like to have even bigger breasts. I can’t because there are medical problems – you can’t stretch the skin any more.”

It frightened her, she said, to think of herself as skin, bone and blood. She wore a ring on every finger and dozens of bracelets and bangles; she painted her long fingernails pink. Her skin was the one thing she couldn’t change, so she covered it with jewellery and makeup. If she didn’t, she would have anxiety attacks, feeling, she said, that she was suddenly back with her old face.

And, of course, none of it worked. Ferrari became completely estranged from her family and had not spoken to them for years at the time of her death. “Every time they saw me, my parents told me to get my breasts shrunk and take off my rings and cut my high heels down,” she said. “When someone tells me something like that, I just want to die.”

Without meeting her, psychologists said Lolo probably suffered from the rare condition of dysmorphophobia – an irrational conviction that one’s body is repulsive. Once embarked on that path, says a Paris psychiatrist, Francois Chauchot, there is no going back.

“It’s a vicious downward spiral,” he says. “It will never end, because no amount of operations will ever be enough to put the body right. Exterior appearance counts for more than personality; there’s no distance any more. And when one more frustration appears, these people collapse easily – to the point, certainly, of suicide.”

Ferrari’s progressive metamorphosis into a grotesquely proportioned inflatable doll looks like a long slow suicide. Vigne, who initially insisted she did not take her own life, now says Ferrari visited an undertaker before she died, chose a white coffin, and specified that she should be buried with her favourite teddy bear.

“She wanted to be a star,” he says, “but she couldn’t bear living. She often said she’d kill herself if I wasn’t there, and a few times she tried.” But further than that he will not go. Nor will any of the other men who, despite all the signs that something here was dreadfully, horribly wrong, helped Eve to become Lolo, fuelled her fears and made money out of her malaise.