NEW YORK — Gone are the prim (but stylish) Dior suits and sheath dresses worn by the first lady of France. Carla Bruni is back in pop-star mode, in a uniform of skinny jeans and cute little boots, toting a guitar.
The singer, who's been promoting her new album, "Little French Songs," in New York this week and excitedly announcing her first U.S. tour, says she's happy about her return to her former life — though she insists, "I never really left it, you know?"
But Bruni, who left the Elysee Palace in Paris with the electoral defeat of her husband, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2012, is still political enough not to rule anything out. Namely, another Sarkozy presidential run — an eventuality being discussed in France by opponents of current President Francois Hollande.
"Well," she says carefully about that possibility. "It's not current. You know? I don't think we can really talk about it today ... We go on with our life."
"Politics are a special world with special rules," she adds. "And so ... they talk about it, but it's just to fill up the press a little bit, you know?"
In an interview in a New York hotel room, Bruni prefers to talk about her album — it came out here in April, but an earlier promotional trip was canceled due to illness — and her just-announced U.S. tour early next year.
"It's fantastic! I never did a tour in the United States, I never even toured in Europe," she says. "I hope people will come. For a French artist or Italian artist it's really rare and it's lucky."
Bruni is aware that few people can look at her solely as a musician, but rather as a woman with a fascinating trajectory: an Italian-born supermodel turned songstress, famous for dalliances with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, who later engaged in a whirlwind courtship and marriage to the French president that transfixed the country.
She says all that doesn't bother her.
"What bothers me would be indifference," she says. "There's plenty of talented people, geniuses everywhere that have no chance to talk about their work, to show their work. So I don't really suffer from getting attention."
Much attention has indeed been paid to Bruni's marriage — with the snarkiest commentary speculating on how long it would last, past Sarkozy's presidency. But Bruni speaks freely and frequently in the interview of how much she loves her husband, whom she calls "my man." She also calls him "Raymond" — in a song on her album, called "Mon Raymond."
"It's a love song so obviously it's about my husband," Bruni says about the number, which playfully likens her man to a pirate, albeit in a necktie. "But you only get it if you listen to it. So of course some of the media (don't get it) and I understand that."
Along with jump-starting her singing career, Bruni, 45, has also been returning to modeling — she is a new face for Bulgari. And she's a new mother again, with an 18-month old daughter, Giulia, at home, joining her 12-year-old son, Aurelien, from a previous relationship. (Her husband has three other children, two of them adults, from his first two marriages.)
"Motherhood is just like the most incredible, difficult thing," she says. "Wonderful and difficult at the same time. You're always wondering if you're doing it right. But probably of course it's the biggest joy I ever had."
She speaks of her time as first lady almost as if it were a strange dream.
"I guess I was a little naive," she says. "I just fell in love with him and we got married, and poof! But what surprised me the most was I could really use that position for helping other people, and that was great. Also what was great was to meet some people that are exceptional, to me."
Who was the most interesting? "Maybe one of the most incredible moments for me was when we went to South Africa and we met Nelson Mandela," she says of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader and former president, lying critically ill now in a Pretoria hospital. "It was so moving to meet him, so kind, so gentle ... it was a great moment."
And how about Barack and Michelle Obama? Bruni calls the couple "very, very kind people and very simple people. She is very kind and very relaxed and very normal so that's how I felt about meeting them. At that level of power, being the president of the United States and being a really nice human being — it's good."
But with all the high-profile encounters, Bruni says, "It's nice to leave public life. It's nice to leave actually the stress of the weight and the responsibilities."
Of course, Bruni is still a very public figure. Promoting her album this week, she appeared at a private party at the tony Royalton Hotel, singing three of her songs, including "Chez Keith et Anita," a song about hanging out in the '70s with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg. In Paris, glamour shots of the former first lady are appearing on billboards. In December, remarks she made to French Vogue appearing to dismiss feminism sparked a Twitter uproar.
But Bruni says she craves a quiet, private existence.
"I'm not a very outside person," she says. "Even at 15, I was never a party girl. My favorite things to do are to play music, read, watch films, write, and cook — and those are all things you do at home. I don't know, maybe it's my astrological sign?" She laughs. "I'm a Capricorn. I don't know. I just said that to sound silly."
For now, Bruni seems pleased with the life she leads, and confident that the public will see her for what she is.
"I like that there's something double about the inside life and the outside life," she says. "I've been in the media since I'm 20 years old ... I feel there's this girl called Carla Bruni who's not at all exactly like me. But I do believe that the real person comes out. I believe that people see the truth."