CANNES, France—The Leopard Ladies are legends, a mother-daughter pair who’ve appeared in Cannes for the Lions and the film festival for as long as many of us have attended the shows. But who are they? Are they prostitutes, porn stars, spies—or women who simply like appearing in places where cool things are happening?
We’ve heard all the stories, most of which smack of urban legend—friends of friends who’ve partied with them, or worldly older Cannois men who claim to know them personally. Whichever stories are or aren’t true, we can all agree the Leopard Ladies are fixtures, their very presence drumming up countless tales.
But if you expect to see the Leopard Ladies this year, you’ll find only one: Esmerelda Petit, the daughter. Pascaline Petit, her mother, died around this time last year—on June 17, two weeks after her daughter’s birthday on June 4.
“For her, a day without an outing was inconceivable,” Esmerelda told La Voix du Nord, a regional French newspaper. “While I prefer serene spaces, today I can’t refuse her a last mad party.”
The pair hail from Armentières, a commune in northern France with around 25,000 inhabitants, and were nearly inseparable. But Pascaline Petit, née Benito, was born on April 17 in Spain’s Castille mountains, where her mother sold ice cream.
Pascaline would grow up and briefly become a drummer in a local all-girl group called Les Soeurs Bailleu, which specialized in tango, swing and rumba — “everything we were dancing to at the time,” she once said.
In a biography that appears on a site dedicated to the Leopard Ladies (they’re actually called the Panther Women in French), the story goes that, during a visit to Fuencaliente del Burgo, a “mysterious event” occurred that compelled Pascaline to take an odd vow—that for the rest of her life, she and her daughter would dress in panther-inspired outfits.
Thus was born a myth. From then on, the women appeared in full animal-spotted garb, with the exception of talismanic earrings made from the bones of exceptionally tough chickens, found in Spain’s Sierra Nevada, where the vow was made.
No one really knows their age. Asked point-blank, Pascaline would respond, “20 years and some stones”; Esmerelda, “20 years and some dust.”
While our imaginations have given them all kinds of fascinating jobs, their own website both adds to the mystery while bringing nuance: They’ve built a fairly light filmography and discography. They’re also passionate about the fight against AIDS—the subject of their films, directed by Esmerelda—and animal protection. (They’ve both “adopted” two snow leopards, which share their names.)
After completing high school, Esmerelda wanted to become a makeup artist for fantasy films. “From childhood, Esmerelda was a great artist. She could have had a career in animation movies,” Pascaline said—but her true passion is cinema.
And this is how they came to appear in places of high regard. In 1984, the Leopard Ladies were invited to their first-ever Festival de Cannes. Since then, they’ve been every year, and have even appeared (though briefly) in an actual French cult film, La Cité de la Peur (City of Fear), a parody about the festival itself.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. While their professions remain a mystery, a niche business grew around them. Artists and photographers have used them as muses; they even inspired an exposition, “Regard sur les Panthères,” (“A Look at the Panthers”).
Marionnettes have been made in their image. Their effigies, in the form of statues, can allegedly be purchased at Hollywood’s film market. They’ve been mentioned in an interview with Roger Ebert. And they appeared in a billboard campaign for Euralille (shown below), a shopping center in Lille, another city they’re known to frequent.
But it’s their generosity and big hearts we remember most fondly. Whatever the word about them, Esmerelda and Pascaline have always proven good-natured and happy to stop and chat, or even take photos together. This one was taken in 2010:
Pascaline’s funeral took place last June 24, a year ago this week, at the church of Saint-Vaast in Armentières. She will be missed. This week on the Croisette, we’ll be watching to see whether Esmerelda will be doing the rounds in her honor.