Back in the sixties and Seventies, Amanda Lear was a stalwart of London's demi-monde , an exotic name on the nightclub circuit. She was linked, as they say, with a string of rock stars, a kind of up-market groupie with her own cachet. Although never as well-known as Bianca Jagger or Marianne Faithfull, she was a regular fixture in the gossip columns. And then she disappeared. Unlike many of her friends from that period, she didn't become a junkie or an embittered nobody, and she didn't die. Instead she made it big in Italy.
When her name reappeared in the news last week, it was because her house in southern France, which contained a number of works by Salvador Dali, had burnt down. The house also contained her husband, Alain-Philippe Malagnac d'Argens and his 20-year-old friend, Didier Dieufis, a cat breeder. But in the reports the deaths of these two men seemed almost incidental, merely the surreal background to the main tragedy, the damage to a few surrealist paintings.
Thus the weirdness overshadowed the horror, as if to imply there was more to the story than a simple fatal accident. But then everything about Lear's life appears to have been shaped by distortion and disbelief. Some observers have even gone so far as to suggest that not only was the former model and pop singer Dali's devoted protégée , but also the late artist's strangest creation.
Lear's background remains a mystery. She has variously let it be known that her mother was English or French or Vietnamese or Chinese, and that her father was English, Russian, French or Indonesian. She may have been born in Hanoi in 1939, or Hong Kong in either 1941 or 1946. Once she said she was from Transylvania. And to this day, it is a matter of conjecture as to whether she was born a boy or a girl.
Lear came to notice in Britain shortly after she moved here from France in the mid-Sixties, when she hitched up with the Chelsea girl set that kept company with fashionable hangers-on. 'The sort of people,' says writer Jonathan Meades, 'who once shared a line with someone who once shared a line with a Rolling Stone.'
Lear went one better and developed a friendship with the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. It was through Jones, according to Lear, that she met Dali in 1965. He told her she had a 'beautiful skull'. Yet the story that Meades heard, and which followed Lear around London, is that two years earlier Dali had paid for her sex-change operation, which was carried out in Casablanca by Dr Bourou, who was at the cutting edge of transgender surgery.
Lear has never confirmed these details, although she was happy to trade on the notoriety they generated. 'It makes me mysterious and interesting,' she said. 'There is nothing the pop world loves more than a way-out freak.'
Later, however, she denied she was ever a man, insisting it was never anything more than a myth to gain publicity, a PR campaign whose architect, she said, was Dali. Or David Bowie. Or herself.
April Ashley, the transsexual who had once been George Jamieson, a Liverpudlian seaman, has long claimed she worked with Lear in the Fifties at Le Carrousel, a transvestite revue in Paris. In her book, April Ashley's Odyssey , she recalls a man named Alain Tapp, whose stage-name was Peki d'Oslo, later to become Amanda Lear. According to Ashley, Dali met Peki at Le Carrousel in 1959.
Whatever the origin of the relationship, Lear and Dali were to remain close for the next two decades. 'I knew nothing when I first met him,' she admitted before Dali's death. 'He taught me to see things through his eyes.' Between summer stints at Dali's home in Cadaques, she would return to London. 'I was a bit disenchanted,' she observed, 'because I had just left a genius and found myself passing the joint with someone in the King's Road who was talking nonsense about changing the world.
Lear, who once acknowledged her interest in one-night stands with the comment 'five hours is all you need with anyone', went on from Jones to move in with David Bowie. In fact, Bowie is one of the few men whom Lear has ever referred to as a 'lover'. Subsequently she was also linked with Bryan Ferry, having appeared as the cover girl on Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure album
For a brief period in the early Seventies, the glam-rock years, sexual ambiguity was highly fashionable. Lear represented what Freudians like to call the Other, and back then everyone who was anyone wanted a bit of the Other. But there was little space for Lear's camp glamour in British subculture with the advent of punk.
By that time, though, she had reinvented herself as Euro Disco Queen. She credits Bowie with encouraging her to be more than a model, although she has said he was only attracted to her as an album cover. 'I realised after a while that he was in love with a picture, not with me.' Her first album was knowingly titled I Am A Photograph.
While she made little impact on the British charts, by the end of the Seventies she was a notable success in other parts of Europe with her brand of deep-voice disco pop. Lear's assessment of her appeal was as cynical as it was clever.
'In Italy I'm big because they're all so sex-obsessed. In Germany I succeeded because they've been waiting for someone like Marlene Dietrich to come along ever since the war. I played on their need for a drunken, nightclubbing vamp. And I've won the gays, who are crucial because they have all the best discos, entirely because of the extraordinary legends about me.'
She also appeared naked in Playboy, in a series of photographs designed to end the rumours, and hosted a chat-show in Italy, where she enjoyed her most lasting fame. 'I am,' she explained, 'the Italian Janet Street-Porter.'
With her ahistorical self-invention and ironic contempt for old-fashioned concepts like the 'truth', Lear has been in many ways the prototype of the postmodern celebrity age. Meades recalls her driving ambition to be famous, without any specific plans about what shape that fame should take: 'She wanted to be famous for being Amanda Lear.'
Duncan Fallowell, co-author of April Ashley's Odyssey, says that in his experience few transsexuals harbour dreams of being a 'normal' woman. 'They aspire to this sort of glamourised ideal of womanhood.' He also suggests that in making, as it were, a public spectacle of themselves, transsexuals often have a paradoxical need for an intensely private life.
Lear did find a private life with her husband, Alain-Philippe, a former record producer whom she married in 1979 in a ceremony in Las Vegas at which Twiggy and Sacha Distel were said to be the witnesses. Lear and Malagnac d'Argens settled in the small village of Saint-Etienne-du-Gres, not far from St-Remy-de-Provence.
When Meades visited the house in 1985, he described it as 'a shrine to herself and, in a smaller way, to Dali'. He remembers Lear's husband as a shy man who preferred to stay in the background, and Lear herself as very much in charge. 'She didn't drink or take drugs and she was very regimented about exercise. The impression I got was that she wanted to be in total control of her environment.' But one woman who stopped by to see the couple was surprised to find such a domesticated setting. 'She was really very homely.'
Having spent decades moving around, erasing herself as she went, Lear had found a permanent role at home. Now that home is in ruins and her husband in dead. While she was away on a brief trip to Italy, the life that she spent years carefully building, her real life, her private life, turned suddenly, and horribly, public.