Paris’ bohemian luster can ware off for many after their early 20s, but not for D’yan Forest, who at 82 years old is still bringing the house down as a cabaret singer and standup comedian in Paris and New York. Darting about the bustling Place d’Italie to find a spot for an early dinner before her standup show later that night, she discloses what keeps her coming back for more.
“For ten minutes every night I’m on stage, I get to be a queen,” she said. “That’s what keeps me coming back for more.”
While not a permanent resident, Forest has never had a hard time finding her way back to Paris since she first fell in love with the City of Lights upon her first visit in 1955 right out of Middlebury College. Beginning her performing career in Paris in 1963, Forest has seen the city transform from an open and optimistic post-War haven to the cagey and cosmopolitan landscape that it is today.
“Paris was even more liberal than it is now,” she said between bites of sushi. “It’s much more closed now.”
Forest attributes much of this—based off of her experiences with evolving crowds over the years and her circle of French friends—to the sudden ubiquity of English and smartphones in Paris. “No one spoke English back then, but if you spoke French, you were in,” she said. “You would go to these restaurants, and you’d sit at a communal table, and you’d be speaking to all of the other French people… I haven’t seen that now. Everybody is at their own little table with their phone.”
Another troubling trend Forest has seen more acutely through the network of her friends is the decrease in the intellectual vibrancy among Parisians. “Everybody talked about Simone de Beauvoir and whatever her boyfriend was [Jean-Paul Sartre],” Forest laughed as the sushi place began to come alive. “And we would go to their cafés… And we’d sit there and try to get in on the atmosphere.”
“Rien! Absolument rien, today,” she quipped in her hard-earned French accent. “People here don’t want to have anything to do with anything connected to philosophy. It’s the Kim Kardashian, whatever. The other thing that I’ve found—I was amazed—the French would read books on the subway and I thought, Oh they’re so intellectual. Now, every once in a while, I’ll see an old lady reading a book.”
Among the crowds she entertains, Forest has noticed an unfortunate trend in one of Paris’ most sensitive and proud domains: fashion.
“The other change, the French people were always well, well dressed,” she said. “Now, they’re well dressed, but they look like they’re all robots. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but most everyone has black jackets… Black, black, black. Where are the colors?” Later, Forest admitted that she too had bought a black jacket to fit in, at least every once in a while.
Despite some trends she wished were going the other way, Forest still feels invigorated by the city, especially in her capacity to break norms on stage, especially with a very un-French raunchiness. “I do an opening five minutes in French every night, and the people looked up at me like I’m an extra-terrestrial, because they had never seen an older woman doing that kind of [sexual] comedy, or any comedy, so they’re only used to certain things… But they’re interested, and they’re amazed, that an American can do comedy in front of them.”
Donning the persona of a “cougar” on stage, Forest finds a way to bring the house down by navigating the space between France’s liberal attitudes towards sex and up-tight politesse. Forest bucks the stereotypes of old age on stage, and has no fear wading into the undiscussed realm of senior sexuality.
“Most women my age have given up sex,” Forest said in the setup to one of her favorite one-liners. “Not me. My rule is it ain’t over till the fat lady is dead!”
Soon enough, Forest was hailing for l’addition, ready to don her black coat and white hat, dart off into the night, and become a queen again for ten minutes.