That first time I posed for him I just sat in a rocking chair. I was terrified of old men because I was abused as a child, but Picasso was the most charming man and he put me at ease very quickly. Many times he tried to make me giggle, to get me out of my seriousness. He was funny – like a clown, actually – and I loved that.
Nevertheless, I was cautious. He was an old man after all, 73, and I was just a young girl. But he never touched me, probably because he sensed that if he did, I would run away, like a deer.
One time, he did sketch me in the “nude” in the way he saw me. He did it thinking that, after I saw it, I would accept to pose for him. It wasn’t something I would do.
I never felt sexual towards him, I was never his lover, but I also had no anxiety around him flirting with me. He liked my hair, my neck and my profile which, in the three months we were together, inspired him to make 60 works, including paintings, sketches and sculptures.
I didn’t feel beautiful. I thought I was ugly and my body was fat. I used to cloak my body in long skirts or men’s clothes to cover it up. Picasso was like a godfather, a special blessing because he gave me confidence in myself. He was very loving and caring.
To see the way he saw me is extraordinary. I feel lucky to have inspired such a great master.
I also never received money for all the times I posed for him. Instead, he said I could choose a painting. I looked in a room filled with “Sylvette” pictures and I picked the one that was most like me, like a photograph.
I was never his lover, but I also had no anxiety around him flirting with me.
After Picasso exhibited the work in Paris in the summer of 1954, suddenly people started coming over to our home looking for me. I told my mother to tell them I was not home. I used to hide in a cupboard. I didn’t like fame.
People also started writing to me from all over the world asking me to marry them. My partner Toby was very jealous, so I had to tear the letters up.
When Hollywood came knocking, I said no to French filmmaker Jacques Tati. I was frightened. Life for me in some ways was tricky.
But I did do a photo shoot for Paris Match which inspired women to copy my ponytail, including Brigitte Bardot. I wore that ponytail after my dad had told me he had seen a Greek drama in Paris, and the girl in the play had a beautiful hairstyle, a ponytail very high up. So, I did it for him.
During the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, when Bardot was still brunette, but sporting the ponytail, she went to see Picasso. He would not do her portrait because he had done mine. We looked alike, two peas in a pod.
My life crossed paths with her and her husband Roger Vadim. I was at Cannes with Toby to watch films when we noticed each other and Vadim said to her, “You should colour your hair blonde,” and she did. She became a beautiful blonde.
At 21, I married Toby. I really didn’t love him enough to marry him, but I was too scared to say no. I had a heartbreak with him when he fell in love with my best friend.
I was feeling lost at the time, and my brother Léonard introduced me to Subud, a spiritual practice through which I was able to heal my childhood pain and trauma but also find God.
I felt that for the first time I had woken up to life. That’s when I also changed my name to Lydia – it’s my spiritual name. I got baptised at 26 in the Church of England as a Christian. Shortly after that I met Patrice, fell in love, and had my daughter Isabel. But I didn’t trust him, so never married him.
In 1965, I went to visit Picasso with Isabel. He swirled her around on his armchair. He was as sweet to her as he was to me. I never saw him again after that. I wish I’d told him more of how grateful I was. He changed my life.
At 28, I met Rawdon Corbett. He was a 23-year-old student studying in Paris. We talked a lot together and fell in love. I followed him to England with Isabel and married him. We had two more children together, Alice and Laurence. I became a stay-at-home mother raising her three children on Dartington Hall estate, in the English countryside.
After the pain of this marriage, which broke down when I was 45, I was suddenly free to begin painting. At first, I painted scenes from my life using watercolours and Indian ink. Now, at 85, my eyesight is deteriorating, so I’ve switched to oil paints and charcoal, which has made my work much more bold but simple.
In my paintings there’s a bit of my father and mother – and, of course, Picasso’s influence. A lady once commented that my work is like that of a female Picasso. I found that very nice of her to say.
I no longer own the original painting Picasso did of me. I sold it, but I do go and see the image in London when I can.
Those giant Picasso sculptures in Greenwich Village and Rotterdam – that’s me, Sylvette. I’m the only of his muses who has such colossal sculptures.
My life now is about worship, contemplation, loving nature and all the beautiful things, including my memories of Picasso. He’s been with me all my life.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale January 19.