From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Christa Päffgen (October 16, 1938 – July 18, 1988) was a German singer-songwriter, fashion model, actress, keyboard player and Warhol superstar, best known by her pseudonym Nico. She is best remembered for a collaboration with The Velvet Underground in 1967.
Nico made her early fame as a model. After leaving school at 13, she started selling lingerie and soon was spotted by fashion people. A year later, her mother found her work as a model in Berlin. While on a modelling assignment in Ibiza, she met the photographer Tobias, who christened her "Nico" after his ex-boyfriend, filmmaker Nico Papatakis. She later moved to Paris and worked for Vogue, Tempo, Vie Nuove, Mascotte Spettacolo, Camera, ELLE, and other fashion magazines in the late 1950s. She also claimed to have been briefly hired by Coco Chanel. Despite having dropped out of school at such an early age, Nico eventually became fluent, through working in Europe and the United States, in English, Italian, Spanish, and French, in addition to her native German.
Acting and modeling
After appearing in several television advertisements, Nico got a small role in Alberto Lattuada's film La Tempesta (1958). She also appeared in Rudolph Maté's For the First Time, with Mario Lanza, later that year.
In 1959 she was invited to the set of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, where she attracted the attention of the acclaimed director, who gave her a minor role in the film as herself. By this time, she was living in New York and taking acting classes with Lee Strasberg.
She appears as the cover model on jazz pianist Bill Evans' 1962 album, Moon Beams. After splitting her time between New York and Paris, she got the lead role in Jacques Poitrenaud's Strip-Tease (1963). She recorded the title track, which was written by Serge Gainsbourg but not released until 2001, when it was included in the compilation Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg.
In 1962 Nico gave birth to her son, Christian Aaron "Ari" Päffgen, commonly held to have been fathered by French actor Alain Delon. Delon always denied his paternity. The child was raised mostly by Delon's mother and her husband and eventually was adopted by them, taking their surname, Boulogne.
In 1965 Nico met Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and recorded her first single, "I'm Not Sayin'"/"The Last Mile", produced by Jimmy Page for Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label. Actor Ben Carruthers introduced her to Bob Dylan in Paris that summer. Dylan wrote the song "I'll Keep It with Mine" for her shortly thereafter, which she recorded for her first album, Chelsea Girl, in 1967.
After being introduced by Brian Jones, she began working in New York with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey on their experimental films, including Chelsea Girls, The Closet, Sunset and Imitation of Christ.
The Velvet Underground and Nico
While appearing in Warhol's films, Nico was introduced to The Velvet Underground, at that time the backup group for Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia performance featuring film, music, lights and dancers. She soon began to work with the Velvet Underground, singing lead vocals on three songs ("Femme Fatale", "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "I'll Be Your Mirror") and backing vocals on another ("Sunday Morning") on their debut LP, The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Released in 1967, the album became influential and lauded within rock music and art circles. Nico had a short-lived romantic relationship with the main singer and songwriter, Lou Reed. Around this era, she was also romantically involved with prominent musicians including John Cale (also from The Velvet Underground), Jim Morrison of The Doors, Jackson Browne, Brian Jones, Tim Buckley and Iggy Pop.
Shortly after the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour drew to a close in early 1967, Nico and The Velvet Underground parted ways. The exact reasons for her departure have not been made public, though both Reed and former Velvet Underground bassist John Cale played significant parts in various aspects of her solo career.
Over the course of the next 20 years, she recorded a series of critically acclaimed albums, working with the likes of Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera. Cale was particularly involved in her music, producing four of her albums as well as arranging and playing various instruments on the recordings.