Nico is most famous for being the Velvet Underground’s ice-queen chanteuse and in her twilight years, junkie icon.  She was labelled as one of the most beautiful women ever by those who knew her, with a unique style and an equally unique deep Teutonic voice.  Amy Rosa takes a look at one of the Sixties and Seventies true fashion outsiders.

Born in war torn Germany in 1938, life for Nico was always going to be anything but normal. A compulsive liar all her life, it is often near impossible to piece together the real story of how 5′ 10″ Christa Paeffgen became a highly sought after model and ultimately “Nico”.

During her teenage years she got a job working in one of Berlin’s high-end department stores, modelling clothes for its rich clientele. It was during this period she was offered a modelling job in Ibiza with German photographer Herbert Tobias. It was Tobias who christened her Nico, taking the name from a former lover in Paris. The combination of her strong, somewhat androgynous looks and the male name Nico would define her throughout her life.

From the mid Fifties to Sixties her modelling took her all over Europe and often to New York City. During this first of many somewhat nomadic periods she had roles in many films including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1959). She graced the covers of Elle and Esquire magazines, also appearing in the pages of many more including Vogue.

In 1961 whilst living in Paris, Nico met and became pregnant by France’s no.1 movie heart throb, Alain Delon. Their son Ari was born the following year, but Delon has always maintained that he’s not the father. Not long after Ari’s birth she landed her first starring role in the film Strip-Tease(1963). The film would also see Nico’s first foray into music, singing on the film’s title track, composed by none other than Serge Gainsbourg.

After the release and subsequent flop of the film, while struggling to care for a small baby as well as herself, Nico came to London and met a rock n roll star called Brian Jones. It was during this time that Nico’s image became very clear cut and stayed the same till near the end of the Sixties. In keeping with the rise of the “Modern” look she opted for masculine trouser suits with clean cut lines, in simple colours.

Teamed with her eye skimming fringe and long, snowy bleach blonde hair, it’s not hard to see why Brian Jones, guitarist with The Rolling Stones, became captivated by her. It was also The Stones’ flamboyant manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who saw something in Nico. Hot on the success of Marianne Faithfull, Oldham signed Nico to his Immediate label and recorded the song “I’m Not Saying” complete with B-side written by a young Jimmy Page.  The single failed to do anything, despite a charming little promo video with Nico wearing some rather stylish go-go boots and chequered skirt.

After her relationship with Jones broke down Nico headed to New York once more. She landed a job singing in the Blue Angel Lounge on 55th Street. It was here Leonard Cohen would come and watch Nico sing whilst writing poetry. She also had a supposed brief affair with Bob Dylan who gave her the song “I’ll Keep It with Mine”. It was Dylan who introduced Nico to Andy Warhol and The Factory crowd.  Compared to the likes of Factory regulars Edie Sedgwick, Viva and International Velvet, Nico certainly stood out with her sullen and icy persona and undeniably chic European look.

This no doubt helped her when Warhol decided his in-house band, The Velvet Underground, could do with a new singer, a more visually appealing one. Queue Nico taking over half the vocal duties with Lou Reed and one of the most influential albums of all time was born, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967). The back cover of the first Velvet’s LP features a photo of Nico in her all blonde glory, long thick fringe, big lashes and a simple but ever so modern white trouser suit.

During her Factory years Nico starred in many of Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s films, most notably Chelsea Girls. She also recorded her first solo LP, Chelsea Girl, with songs written mainly by previous lovers including Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale and Tim Hardin. It also featured Nico’s first song writing credit on the track “It was a pleasure then”, a song almost out of keeping with the soft, folk tones of the album.

After her failed romances with Lou Reed and John Cale she met one of the most defining influences in her transition from ice queen pop singer to nihilistic moon goddess. Enter Jim Morrison, The Doors’ tortured snake-like lead singer and all-round sex god. When they weren’t out tripping on mescaline in the desert, Jim encouraged Nico to write her own songs. In a bid to please her new lover and drug guru, Nico dyed her hair red and her image changed into a timeless European one with her Spanish leather boots in soft sandy hues and dark, autumnal tunics with loose fitting harem pants.

Heavy with eastern influences and what would later become proto-Goth, it marked a new dawning. Her new image fitting perfectly with her new music style, a dark, neo-classical influenced, black hole of sound. Her second solo LP the Marble Index (1968) was so unlike anything heard before or since, when it come out at the height of the hippie craze it sunk only to be picked up by Goths and Punks years later.

“She totally changed her image from being a blonde and wearing white to hennaing her hair and wearing black, and lived the dream. Everything that she did was part of a statement that now she was a different person. It was a solitary dream, where occasional friendships were struck and abandoned . . . and the transitory nature of all of this was really kind of the flotsam, the furniture of her life for these somewhat derelict emotions . . . and it was so highly personal that it was very powerful.”- John Cale in Nico Icon (1995 documentary).

Nico left New York in the late Sixties due to an incident when Nico took offense to a woman complaining about racist treatment she had received. The story goes that Nico smashed a glass in a woman’s face, who in various accounts was either a singer or a member of The Black Panthers. Nico’s close friend Danny Fields would go on to describe Nico as “Nazi-esque”: “Every once in a while there’d be something about Jews and I’d be, ‘But Nico, I’m Jewish,’ and she was like ‘Yes, yes, I don’t mean you.’ She had a definite Nordic Aryan streak, the belief that she was physically, spiritually and creatively superior.”

Having been exiled to Paris, Nico met yet another lover who would shape her life. Philippe Garrel, the French avant-garde filmmaker and Nico would collaborate and be together on and off for the most part of the rest of her life. The surreal films they made together, including La cicatrice intérieure(1972), would either be silent or often multi-lingual and generally high-arted weirdness. But they do serve as an invaluable document of Nico’s striking image and style, and sadly her fading beauty. By now she had a heroin addiction which would become the most dominating feature of her life till her untimely death in 1988.

The early part of the Seventies was generally a productive time for Nico. She recorded two more solo LP’s with John Cale, 1970’s Desert Shore and The End in 1973. For the latter years she sunk into deep addiction until she was forced to start touring to support her addiction. Her guitarist during the Eighties, James Young, wrote an often brutal but honest book about his years with Nico.  Songs They Never Play On The Radio (ISBN-10: 0747544115) is a compelling portrait of a woman haunted by her former beauty, who – although cold and uncaring – was also vulnerable and lonely, desperately trying to hold on to what she had left of her looks.

Sadly her son Ari had also succumbed to heroin addiction. They were reunited in the Eighties; Nico had given Alan Delon’s parents charge of Ari’s upbringing in the late Sixties. A young Ari can also be seen in a few of Warhol’s films and he sung vocals on a track on The Marble Index. The two of them were living together in Nico’s beloved Ibiza when she died. Having gotten herself off heroin, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage after she fell off her bicycle.

In true Dietrich style Nico pioneered the man’s trouser suit as an effortlessly chic piece of clothing, proving you can be practical, comfortable and stylist all at once. She’s been heralded as a style icon by the likes of Chloe Sevigny, who has photos of Nico adorning her walls, musicians such as Bat for Lashes, Patrick Wolfe, Bauhaus, Marc Almond and Siouxsie Sioux all have spoken of their respect and the influence Nico has had on them. Morrissey is such a big fan that he plays Nico songs before he goes on stage.

From classic mod tailoring to desert chic, Nico always remained the epitome of mystery and European cool. Even at the end she retained her elegance, grace and sense of style.  A timeless beauty.