PARIS (Reuters) - Former French first lady Bernadette Chirac has transformed her image from a dull, dowdy and dutiful wife into a glamorous fashionista who pokes fun at her fuddy-duddy hubby and is adored by the hippest Parisians.
Jacques Chirac's petite wife, now 77 and previously best known for her bouffant hairdo and impeccable breeding, has a new following among France's uber-hip clubbing set and has become a fashion muse, inspiring a range of "Bernadette" T-shirts.
Since the Chiracs left the Elysee palace in 2007, Bernadette has cut an unexpected dash on the French social scene, overshadowing her increasingly frail husband in the public limelight and speaking more freely than ever before.
"He's not much fun, you know. He's never really been one for going out, it's a shame," she said of Chirac, one of France's longest-serving presidents, in a recent interview on French television.
Her transformation from strait-laced matriarch to dancefloor darling has won her points with youths who grew up seeing her on television at official events as the dowdy and unsmiling wife playing a backseat role during her husband's 12-year presidency.
"I think she's great. She's really young at heart and determined to stay that way," said Marc Delattre, 21, the designer behind an arty "Bernadette" T-shirt featuring a sketch of Madame Chirac in a pink coat and trendy aviator sunglasses.
Delattre said he was inspired after seeing photos of Bernadette in the exclusive VIP Room nightclub in the Riviera resort of St Tropez, alongside fashion heavyweights such as Chanel designer Karl Lagerfield and LVMH-owner Bernard Arnault.
"It was like seeing my gran going there, it was surreal," he told Reuters.
The Bernadette T-shirts have sold in the hundreds, outstripping others Delattre has made featuring better-known fashionistas such as socialite Paris Hilton or Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and proving a hit with the gay nightclubbing community in the French capital's Marais district, he said.
Born into the aristocratic Chodron de Courcels family, Bernadette was seen as the silent force who drove the career of a husband whose family origins were somewhat humbler.
She dropped out of her political studies at a prestigious Paris university to help the young Jacques through the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration, a training ground for future politicians, learning to type so she could write up his reports.
Today, Chirac is suffering from problems with walking, hearing and memory loss, and faces a trial next month over charges he misused public funds when he was mayor of Paris.
Meanwhile, his wife is a regular on the front rows of the Paris fashion shows and often first in line to congratulate Lagerfeld after his latest collection has hit the catwalk.
Her humorous comments in recent interviews have shown a more human side to her than when her husband was in office -- although her colloquial account on French radio of catching some celebrity DJs at the VIP room raised some eyebrows.
"Alexandre Arnault, Bernard and Helene Arnault's son, was spinning that night," she said coolly.
"So we went along in a group, with Karl Lagerfeld as well. The atmosphere was very friendly, very warm."
Additional reporting by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato