I recently got round to visiting an exhibition in Berlin dedicated to one of my favourite proto-goth oddballs, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a.k.a.. Sissi. Though small, it went some way to deconstructing the myths associated with Franz Joseph’s Bavarian-born consort. It was Sissi’s fanatical dedication to her own beauty which stood out, beauty which she worshipped “like a heathen his idols,” according to her niece. Looking out from official portraits with her radiant skin, torrents of chestnut hair and tiny waist, Her Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty seems to be saying “this doesn’t just happen, you know”. And it really, really didn’t: maintaining it all was a full time occupation.
The exhibition offered a few of Sissi’s patented skin creams to try on but overall it was disappointing when you think of what a truly immersive exhibit could offer: fun house mirrors for instant anorexia, crowds of virtual commoners for the visitor to haughtily ignore, computer-generated verse in the style of Sissi’s own angsty emo poetry. So if you really want to Sissi up your life, you’re going to have to do it yourself. Luckily with this lifestyle makeover you’re just 12 steps away from imperial and royal apostolic fabulosity:
- Be nuts
You may already be one of the millions of people suffering from Sissi Syndrome, a “lifestyle malady” which was “discovered” in 1998 and said to be characterised by inner emptiness masked by restless activity and the quest for physical perfection. That’s according to global pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, anyway, who – what luck! – also manufacture the “cure”. Apparently 3 million Germans suffer from Sissi Syndrome, but it was discredited by independent studies as “an invented disorder”. So while you can file it under “made-up shit to sell drugs”, it’s an appropriately modern homage to a woman whose life was bankrolled by the dying absolutism of the previous century but whose pathologies looked forward to the next…
- Hit the gym
…and the exercise equipment which Sissi had installed in her Vienna apartments was just one sign of a sensibility which seems so much closer to our age than her own. This was one of the first private gyms in the world, where Sissi would work out for up to an hour a day in full corsetry.
- Don’t have children
Well of course Sissi did fulfil her dynastic obligation and have children, four of them in fact. But she was disgusted by childbearing, and never more rigorous with her diet and exercise than after a pregnancy. If left to her own devices there is little doubt that she would have remained childless.
- Drink raw veal juice
I haven’t eaten meat since 1993 and frankly I’d rather not know how exactly you juice veal, but this vile-sounding brew was just one of the quack diet potions which Sissi embraced.
- Keep moving
As well as her constant travels around Europe, Sissi would walk, obsessively, for hours at a time, or ride manically through the countryside. She desperately tried to outpace the pounds which refused to slip away as easily as they did in her youth. Her intensive regime was driven by depression as much as anything, but the black dog kept to her heels.
- Eat sorbet
As a young woman Sissi had a hearty appetite, but in later years she existed for long stretches on fruit, sorbet and milk to maintain her extraordinary 16-inch waist. One of the exhibits was a starched cloth garment I originally took for a large collar; it turns out it was meant to adorn her midriff.
- Eat nothing
You’re serious about this, right? Put down the fork, tubster. In her most extreme phases, Sissi exhibited what we would now regard as anorexia. She was renowned for her figure though it fell short of the zaftig proportions favoured by the age. Nothing, not even the empress’s beloved violet bon-bons, tasted as good as skinny felt.
- Wrap up
Sissi’s pores, at least, enjoyed a healthy diet. She wrapped herself in face masks of strawberries, honey and raw veal (again with the veal!) while she subjected herself to hot olive oil baths and body wraps of seaweed, sand or hay.
- Wear black
Sissi was enmeshed in grief for much of her life with loved ones dying at an alarming rate, and as protocol dictated she went into mourning for her son Rudolf, who died in a murder-suicide with his mistress in 1889. But when she was assassinated on this day in 1898 she was still in black, having no doubt discovered its slimming qualities in the interim.
- Take some time for haircare (three hours a day should do it) Care of Sissi’s tumbling locks required a complicated ceremony of combing, brushing and massaging performed by gloved attendants who placed a white sheet on the floor to catch any stray hairs, which were subsequently catalogued and presented to the empress in a silver dish. Once a fortnight the floor-length tresses were washed in egg yolks and cognac.
- Avoid commoners
Sissi’s self-absorption eventually became so all-consuming that she barely even saw her husband let alone his subjects. To live in exile in a fantasy world and maintain her mystique meant not exposing herself to the judgment of the rabble. Unlike Diana, Sissi’s vanity didn’t require others to regard her as good or virtuous, and despite her isolated acts of impulsive charity she didn’t see herself as the People’s Empress any more than the people did. Her occasional visits to mental institutions and cholera hospitals had as much to do with ghoulishness as compassion.
- Avoid the paparazzi
One of the very few photos of Sissi in later years shows her on horseback with a fan shielding her face. So frustrated were photographers in their attempts to snap the aging empress that they were reduced to painting wrinkles on photos from her heyday; a kind of reverse Photoshopping. Once again Sissi was way ahead of her time, gripped as she was by a very contemporary amalgam of compulsive narcissism and obsessive secrecy. When it came to aging, her attitude was: pics or it didn’t happen.