From Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II to France’s iconic fashion designer Thierry Mugler and the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev, many notable public figures left us in 2022. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the lives and legacies behind some of the year’s most high-profile deaths.
“We have lost an icon; a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure,” Bahamian Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper tweeted in announcing the death of American actor and film director Sidney Poitier, who passed away on January 6 at the age of 94.
Born during a family trip to the southern US state of Florida in 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty to tomato-farming parents on Cat Island in the Bahamas. He started dreaming of film and cinema at an early age, and after moving to join his older brother in Miami at the age of 15 he started taking acting classes at the American Negro Theatre – paying for them by working there as a machinist. His first appearance on stage failed miserably. But after spending months working on getting rid of his Bahamian accent, he was finally noticed and eventually given a leading role in the Broadway production of “Lysistrata.” He landed his first film job in 1950, starring in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out,” which depicted racism and racist violence.
Poitier always picked his roles with great care, burying the Hollywood idea that Black actors could only appear in demeaning contexts as shoeshine boys, train conductors and maids. His fight against racism, exclusion and stereotypes would come to mark his entire career, and in 1964 he became the first Black actor to win an Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field.” In all, he starred in more than 40 films and directed seven. He was also awarded an honourary Oscar in 2002 for his “extraordinary performances” on the silver screen as well as his “dignity, style and intelligence” off of it.
Thierry Mugler, the French designer who was a leading figure in fashion from the 1970s into the 2000s, died of “natural causes” at his home in the Paris suburb of Vincennes on January 23 at the age of 73.
Born in Strasbourg in December 1948, Mugler didn’t start out in the world of fashion but in the world of dance, joining the ballet company at the Opéra national du Rhin as a teen before studying at the School of Decorative Arts.
From a young age he created his own clothes, adapting items bought at flea markets. He moved to Paris at age 20, initially to work with another ballet company – but he was more successful with his wardrobe and soon started freelancing for various fashion houses in Paris, London and Milan.
His designs exaggerated and celebrated the female form: shoulders accentuated by padding, plunging necklines, constricted waists and rounded hips. Mugler himself once said that dancing had taught him “a lot about posture, the organisation of clothing, the importance of the shoulders, the head carriage, the play and rhythm of the legs”. His daring, avant-garde and often shocking style, blended with his ability to conform – when necessary – to Hollywood’s dress codes, quickly made him a darling of the fashion world.
For the 10th anniversary of his label back in 1984 he organised the first public fashion show in Europe, with 6,000 attending the rock concert-like event.
Despite seemingly retiring from fashion’s front lines in the early 2000s, Mugler continued to impact culture by dressing mega-stars such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and the Kardashians, who all swore by his outlandish outfits.
“A force for freedom, democracy and human rights,” former US president Bill Clinton said upon learning that Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as the country’s secretary of state, had passed away on March 23 at the age of 84.
Born in Prague in 1937, Albright’s family – who were Jewish although she did not know of this heritage until later in life – fled ahead of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, moving first to England and then to America, where she would go on to flourish as a diplomat.
After studying political science, Albright made her entry into politics as a fund raiser, then a congressional aide, and entered president Jimmy Carter’s administration working for Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser.
When Clinton took office in 1993 he tapped Albright as ambassador to the United Nations and in 1996 he named her secretary of state. In announcing his choice of Albright to head the State Department, Clinton said gender “had nothing to do with her getting the job” and that she was simply the most qualified candidate.
Albright took the helm of the State Department in the post-Cold War world in which the US had emerged as the single superpower, leading crucial discussions with world leaders on arms control, trade, terrorism and the future of NATO. Not since Margaret Thatcher governed Britain had a woman held such a position of global influence.
Described by her family as a “tireless champion of democracy and human rights”, Albright was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by president Barack Obama in 2012.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving but also polarising prime minister, died on July 8 at the age of 67 after being shot during a campaign event in the city of Nara.
Abe has been described as one of the most influential political figures in Japan in recent decades. He is remembered for revitalising the country’s economy via his “Abenomics” formula and his controverisal view that Japan had been unfairly judged for its brutal past. For many years he also acted as a mentor for Japan’s current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
After studying political science in Japan and the United States, Abe first opted for a corporate career, taking a job at Japanese steel manufacturer Kobe Steel. After three years he returned to his political calling and pursued a number of jobs in the government, including as private secretary to the chairperson of the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) General Council. Following his father’s death, he was elected to replace him as an MP for the first district of Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1993 before starting to climb the party ladder. With the slogan “Japan is back,” Abe has also been credited with reinvigorating Japan’s role on the international scene.
“Yours from the moment I saw you and forever!” John Travolta posted when he learned that Olivia Newton-John, his co-star in the 1978 hit film “Grease,” had passed away at her home in Southern California on August 8 at the age of 73.
The British-born and Australia-raised entertainer began performing as a child, forming her first all-girl group at the age of 14, and went on to participate in numerous television shows. She recorded her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine,” in 1966 but her career really took off after moving to the United States in the early 1970s, where she had her first hit with the Bob Dylan song, “If Not For You.”
Between 1973 and 1983, Newton-John was among the world’s most popular entertainers. She had 14 “Top 10” singles in the US, won four Grammys and starred in “Grease.” The fast-stepping Travolta-Newton-John duet, “You’re the One That I Want,” was one of the era’s biggest songs and sold more than 15 million copies.
Following the first of three cancer diagnoses in 1992, she also became a prominent breast cancer campaigner.
Newton-John performed into her late 60s, including a two-year residency in Vegas, a 2015 tour with Australian music legend John Farnham and even recording a Club Dance track at 67 with her daughter Chloe Lattanzi.
Reflecting on her career, she once said: “I have done everything, and the icing on the cake as well.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and the man who brought Eastern Europe out from behind the Iron Curtain, died on August 30 at the age of 91 “after a serious and long illness”, Russian news agencies reported.
Born on March 2, 1931, into a poor peasant family of Russian and Ukrainian heritage in the Caucasus, young Gorbachev took the classical apparatchik route: Step by step, he climbed the Communist Party ladder. He finally reached the top in 1985, becoming the leader of a Soviet Union in economic shambles and embroiled in a seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
Gorbachev became synonymous with the perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) movements, introducing Russia to pluralist politics, liberalising the economy and significantly improving the country’s diplomatic ties with the West.
His decision not to mobilise the Soviet army when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 was seen as key to preserving Cold War peace. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for helping end the Cold War and for playing a “leading role” in redefining East-West relations. Although regarded fondly for those efforts in the West, Gorbachev was much less popular at home, where many blamed him for what they considered the unfortunate demise of the Soviet Union.
After retiring from politics in 1991, Gorbachev lived the rest of his life in near anonymity in Russia.
Queen Elizabeth II
Elizabeth II, queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, passed away on September 8 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland at the age of 96.
Born in London on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth never expected to ascend to the throne: it was only after her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson that the crown passed to her father, George VI, when she was 10.
She was just 25 when her father died, becoming Queen Elizabeth II on February 6, 1952. From then until the end of her reign, Queen Elizabeth ll visited 117 countries in an official capacity, meeting 113 leaders and overseeing the appointments of 15 British prime ministers. She also saw 14 American and 10 French presidents come and go.
But Elizabeth’s years on the throne were not always smooth sailing, with the monarchy coming under fire for the lavish expenses of the royal residences as well as the failed marriages of three of her four children. The 1997 death of Princess Diana – the ex-wife of Elizabeth’s eldest son, King Charles – inflicted even more damage on the family’s public prestige as the queen and other relatives initially remained silent while huge crowds gathered in London to mourn the hugely popular Diana.
Elizabeth became the longest-reigning British monarch in history in 2015 after beating her great-great-grandmother Victoria’s record of 63 years. In February, Britain celebrated her 70 years on the throne with a platinum jubilee.
Her death shook Britain, and a 10-day mourning period was announced during which thousands from all over the world flocked to London to pay their respects.
Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century and the father of the French New Wave, died at his home in Rolle, Switzerland, on September 13 at the age of 91. The Franco-Swiss director ended his life through assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland.
Born into a wealthy French-Swiss family on December 3, 1930, in Paris, Godard grew up with four siblings in a family that divided its time between Switzerland and the French capital. After graduating from high school – on his third attempt – Godard moved permanently to Paris, putting distance between himself and his family, who had accused him of kleptomania.
Godard lived a bohemian life and was increasingly drawn to the cultural scene that flourished in the Latin Quarter “cine-club”. He started to write scripts and film reviews, and became friends with future big-name directors such as André Bazin, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol.
In 1960 he released his first feature film, “Breathless,” which was filmed with a hand-held camera and starred Jean-Paul Belmondo. The movie revolutionised the world of cinema and has since inspired directors the world over.
Godard, one of the co-founders of French New Wave filmmaking, later also made “Contempt” with Brigitte Bardot and “Pierrot le Fou” with Belmondo, which are both widely considered to be French cinematic masterpieces.
Coolio, one of the biggest hip-hop names of the 1990s, died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on September 28 at the age of 59.
Coolio’s rise to fame started as a member of the rap group WC and the Maad Circle but in 1994 he decided to go solo and released his debut album, “It Takes a Thief.” Its opening track, “Fantastic Voyage,” received wide critical acclaim. A year later he released “Gangsta’s Paradise” – the soundtrack to the Michelle Pfeiffer film “Dangerous Minds” – which would go on to become one of the most successful rap songs of all time, topping the charts in several countries for weeks on end. In 1996, Coolio was awarded a Grammy Award for best solo rap performance. In all, he was nominated for a Grammy six times during his career.
But after the turn of the millennium, the rapper’s career began to slow and Coolio’s public appearances became more associated with TV-reality shows, including Celebrity Big Brother in the UK, than with music.
In 2013 he also ran into legal woes after being accused of hitting his then girlfriend.
Jerry Lee Lewis
“This man doesn’t play rock ‘n’ roll. He is rock ‘n’ roll!” Bruce Springsteen once said of Jerry Lee Lewis, who passed away of natural causes in the state of Mississippi on October 28 at the age of 87.
Born on September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis started playing the piano at the tender age of 7, holding his first public concert before he even reached his teens.
With his outrageous talent and unstoppable energy, Lewis quickly rose to fame with smash hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” spellbinding his audiences with his piano playing as much as with his singing. His untamed performances, which often included him playing the piano while standing up and hitting the keys with his fists or with his heels, also earned him the reputation as a rock rebel. At one show he even set his piano on fire. During his career, he won four Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, and was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But the life of “The Killer” – as he called himself – also had its dark moments. Two of his seven marriages ended with the early deaths of his wives: one drowned in a swimming pool while suing for divorce and the other died of an apparent drug overdose. Despite the dubious circumstances surrounding their deaths, Lewis was implicated in neither.
Despite his love of firearms and his abuse of both drugs and alcohol, the rockabilly icon seemed almost invincible, touring until just a few years before his death.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and Reuters)