29/09/2014 10:50 BST | Updated 29/09/2014 10:59 BST

Brigitte Bardot Turns 80: We Celebrate French Icon With These 80 Stunning Vintage Pictures

Six million viewers tuned in last week for a TV programme going behind the doors of a little old lady's home in St Tropez.

This was no ordinary pensioner letting the cameras in, however, but a real, living, breathing icon, and it is a testament to the enduring mystique and magnetism of Brigitte Bardot that, in her 80th year, she can still draw a French audience in such huge numbers.

Brigitte Bardot reveals her fear of "disappointing people"

It was a surprise move from the famously reclusive Bardot who, even more surprisingly, revealed that one reason for her self-invoked privacy is her "fear of disappointing people", her knowledge that her myth still looms so large the real person can only be a let down.

It was, too, a frank admission from a woman who has, for the last 60 years, seemed fearless - in her politics, in her love of animals, often over people, in her looks, refusing to bow to the Botox demands of an ageing icon and, most celebratedly for the French, her liberal lifestyle, incorporating her sexuality and freedom.

This apparent fearlessness has been one of her unique qualities ever since the she entered the global consciousness, back in 1953 - tripping across La Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, plunging her bare feet into the sand, setting the cameras alight and both disturbing and thrilling the world's press in the process.

For such a guileless young girl, she managed to create a storm both on and off the screen. As the muse and wife of director Roger Vadim, she ate up the screen with 'And God Created Woman' in 1956, and later 'A Very Private Affair'. Off-screen, hers was the breathy girl's voice on the original 'Je t'aime... non plus' with Serge Gainsbourg and, at the other end of the spectrum, she was the model for the bust of Marianne that sits in French civic institutions.

Brigitte Bardot on the beach at Cannes in 1956

What has always made Bardot stand apart was that her sexuality, so potent on screen, wasn't manufactured, but an authentic aspect of her liberal attitude. She has been married four times. When asked about love, she told one journalist, "I only think about one man, the next one."

This openness has had its downside. A longtime animal rights activist, she was once sued for having a neighbour's donkey castrated for "sexual harassment of her own donkey", but is a beloved supporter of Sea Shepherd and other animal welfare groups. She incited controversy in the 1990s with her comments about immigration in France, and has been convicted five times of inciting racial hatred, while her husband is a former adviser of right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen.

So, all in all, for a woman who retired officially in 1973 and has tucked herself away in her St Tropez home, it's not been quiet. Reviled by many for her outspoken opinions, celebrated by just as many others for her authenticity, Brigitte Bardot has, in a world of increasingly plastic faces and opinions, gone her unique way. On this, her 80th birthday, no doubt she'll be celebrating it in a style all of her own.

And if you've forgotten (or never knew) what the full was all about, here's a reminder of Brigitte when she danced onto the world stage and changed it forever...

Photo gallery Brigitte Bardot Vintage Pictures See Gallery