Carolina “La Belle” Otero (4 November 1868 – 12 April 1965) was a Spanish-born dancer, actress and courtesan.
Born Agustina Otero Iglesias in Valga, Pontevedra, Galicia (Spain), her family was impoverished, and as a child she moved to Santiago de Compostela working as a maid. At ten she was raped, which left her sterile, and at fourteen she left home with her boyfriend and dancing partner, Paco, and began working as a singer/dancer in Lisbon.
She reportedly married an Italian nobleman, Count Guglielmo, when she was 14. Her second husband, whom she married in 1906, was René Webb, an English cotton spinner.
In 1888 she found a sponsor in Barcelona who moved with her to Marseilles in order to promote her dancing career in France. She soon left him and created the character of La Belle Otero, fancying herself an Andalusian gypsy. She wound up as the star of Les Folies Bèrgere productions in Paris.
Within a short number of years, Otero grew to be the most sought after woman in all of Europe. She was serving, by this time, as a courtesan to wealthy and powerful men of the day, and she chose her lovers carefully. She associated herself with the likes of Prince Albert I of Monaco, King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, Kings of Serbia, and Kings of Spain as well as Russian Grand Dukes Peter andNicholas, the Duke of Westminster and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio. Her love affairs made her infamous, and the envy of many other notable female personalities of the day. Six men reportedly committed suicide after their love affairs with Otero ended, although this has never been substantiated beyond a doubt. It is a fact, however, that two men did fight a duel over her. She was pretty, confident, intelligent, with an attractive figure. One of her most famous costumes featured her voluptuous bosom partially covered with glued-on precious gems, and the twin cupolas of the Hotel Carlton built in 1912 in Cannes are popularly said to have been modeled upon her breasts.
It was once said of her that her extraordinarily dark black eyes were so captivating that they were "of such intensity that it was impossible not to be detained before them".
In August 1898, in St-Petersburg, the French film operator Félix Mesguich (an employee of the Lumière company) shot a one-minute reel of Otero performing the famous “Valse Brillante.” The screening of the film at the Aquarium music-hall provoked such a scandal (because an officer of the Tsar’s army appeared in this frivolous scene) that Mesguich was expelled from Russia.
Otero retired after World War I, purchasing a mansion and property at a cost of the equivalent of US$15 million. She had accumulated a massive fortune over the years, about US$25 million, but she gambled much of it away over the remainder of her lifetime, enjoying a lavish lifestyle, and visiting the casinos of Monte Carlo often. She lived out her life in a more and more pronounced state of poverty until she died of a heart attack in 1965 in her one-room apartment at the Hotel Novelty in Nice, France. As a neighbor said of Otero’s last days, “”She was constantly talking about her past, and I was not listening any more. It was always the same: feasts, princes, champagne.”
Of her heyday and career, Otero once said, “Women have one mission in life: to be beautiful. When one gets old, one must learn how to break mirrors. I am very gently expecting to die.”