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Gallic flair, Kreuzberg grit: Françoise Cactus by those who loved her

A tribute to Berlin's best French export by her former bandmate and the artists who knew her.

Francoise Cactus in 2012. Photo. IMAGO / Wallmüller

Françoise Cactus was that ‘genial dilettante’ who carved out the shape of Berlin electro-pop for three decades. As the charismatic frontwoman of Stereo Total, Burgundy-born Françoise was known for her Gallic flair, Kreuzberg punk grit, and Bardot-esque chansons. A magnetic presence who defied categorisation, she was an icon of Berlin’s 1990s free spirit. One year after her death, we pay tribute to Cactus with the artists who knew her best.

Françoise by… Brezel Göring

One half of Stereo Total, the Verboten in Deutschland label boss was Françoise’s bandmate and boyfriend from 1993. Together, they released 16 albums and two film soundtracks.

Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring performing as Stereo Total in 1998. Photo: IMAGO / POP-EYE/Morlok

“I was aware of her before I met her because she was already a well-known figure in Berlin. She was the drummer and singer of The Lolitas and she had these gigantic blue eyes, really crystal blue eyes, that would stare out at the crowd. I’d never seen anyone like her. She had a very Gallic profile, only with this look that was very expressive and edgy. She was very tall, with endless legs and very glamorous. She had a little bit of the Velvets and a little bit of the New York Dolls and she hypnotised me.

I finally met her on the street in 1992, we both lived on Adalbertstraße, me on the east side and she on the west. We started to talk, and we became friends, fast. She started coming to my house every day and we would go out drinking all night, every night for three weeks. She was a different person from the woman I saw on the stage.

Françoise had so much energy, she had this heavy loud laugh (she was always laughing) with a funny accent and such colourful expressions. She was a pleasure to talk to and make music with and that’s how Stereo Total started. We decided to make our band as if it was a mixtape, where every song we made could be from a different band – we were experimenting and she always learned how to do everything so fast, it was like watching a child prodigy. We wanted Stereo Total to be funny, and for Françoise, that meant that the lyrics always needed slightly sexual connotations.

She had these crystal blue eyes that would stare out at the crowd. I’d never seen anyone like her.

Even in Berlin, no one knew what to make of us and it took three years until we had a label – Little Teddy Recordings. It was a really tiny label, and the boss, Teddy, was famous for ripping people off, but for Françoise, it was an opportunity, that’s how she was. Whenever offered the chance to make movies, music, theatre plays, exhibitions, or anything else, she would always go for it.

She really was this idea of the Geniale Dilletante. Geniale Dilletanten was a self-empowerment strategy that said you could do anything you wanted tomorrow and she always did. She always experienced everything in the present moment, and so did Stereo Total and that was the joy of it – we were never trying to create masterpieces.

We didn’t want to take the fun out of it because whenever the aim is to sell records, you know that you’ll have to sell more the next day, and it becomes a prison. Really, it might sound strange, but now that she is gone, I have no relation to our music. We never listened to the things we made after we made them. For Françoise, if you wanted to change something about the record, that was an inspiration for the next album.

Françoise was my girlfriend for 30 years and we always lived together in that same flat and during that time, you know, there was a time when we didn’t agree as musicians. There were times that we didn’t agree as lovers. Sometimes, we didn’t even agree as roommates. But, on at least one level, for 30 years, we were always great.”

Françoise by… Wolfgang Müller

Wolfgang Müller is the founder of the experimental band Die Tödliche Doris and the author of Geniale Dilletanten, the 1982 book that first brought Berlin’s punk, new wave, and industrial scenes under one banner.

Françoise Cactus, Wolfgang Müller und Wollita.

“Françoise was my upstairs neighbour in the 1980s, and you know back then West Berlin was a very strange place for anyone to move to from abroad, so I knew she had to be a funny one. When I met her she told me that one of her first experiences in the city was seeing Helga Goetze, this woman in her sixties, sitting outside the Gedächtniskirche with a sign saying “Ficken ist Frieden”. It was a former housewife that after experiencing her first orgasm was now calling for “fucking for peace”! From then on Françoise knew she was here to stay.

The tabloids tried to discredit her as a frustrated feminist, there were neo-Nazis saying that this was paedophilia. But, Françoise never backed down…

She really was a unique person – she was a drummer, and there was this powerful energy about her that was totally full of humour and irony. Françoise was extremely intelligent, she could talk for hours about literature and art. So, for me, she was a typical Geniale Dilletante, a tough, brilliant woman, who was truly emancipated.

Take Wollita. Wollita was this life-size knitted sex doll that Françoise created for an exhibition about the objectification of women. Wow, the response was crazy! The tabloids tried to discredit Françoise as a frustrated feminist seeking attention from men, there were neo-Nazis out there saying that this was an exhibition of paedophilia. But, Françoise never backed down, we wrote Wollita’s biography together, and she created an album from the perspective of Wollita. At one point she was going to nominate her for the B.Z. Kulturpreis (laughs)!

That’s just the way she was, even at a time when the whole press was against her, she was still creating powerful art with her music. On the surface, her pop music seems very light, but there was something that Françoise could do that no one else ever really could, which was teaching without being moralistic.

There aren’t so many people out there you can always have a genuinely good conversation with – one full of real understanding, even when you have different opinions. That was who Françoise was. She lived her life with humour which she used as her special ability to communicate with people – one thing I think we’re missing in Germany is irony, and Françoise had that. Honestly, I think she would laugh if she read all those articles about her after she died.”

Françoise by… Nicole Morier

The LA musician Coco Morier behind the band Electrocute was a close friend of Françoise since the 1990s.

Nicole and Françoise in 2009 at one of Françoise’s famous themed birthday parties: “This one was a ‘twins party’ where everyone came dressed identical to a friend.” Photo: Coco Morier private file

“I was introduced to Françoise by my future ex-husband-to-be Ghazi, who used to play in Stereo Total and was a good friend of theirs, some time in the late 1990s in Albuquerque New Mexico. Back then I drove a giant 1959 pink Dodge station wagon and I pulled up in this car with (also giant) 72 oz Dr Pepper in my hand. Françoise was this tall, striking French woman sitting on the porch and she thought I was hilarious, this American girl with a giant car and a monstrous soda.

She laughed and said in the thickest French accent ‘who is zees crazy girl with a pink Cadillac and a Super Big Gulp?’ It was love at first sight! We were just great friends and spent countless days and nights together when I lived in Berlin, sharing meals, music, laughter and fun. I once played and sang on a record she did in Los Angeles and I got to get up on stage with them and dance on ‘L’amour à Trois’ when I was their merch girl on a tour once when they were opening up for The Strokes.

Françoise was and is my forever super-girl rock ‘n’ roll idol. She was a larger than life woman, who could be simultaneously writing a best-selling novel, putting on a play or art exhibition, all the while writing and performing timeless pop songs for a new record, and then still whip up an incredible coq au vin for house party with all her friends.

One of the things I miss the most about her is her laugh. The way she would tenderly console me when I was down but would never let me stay too long in a world of self-pity. Amidst complaints or tears, she would crack me up with a shrug and say ‘ah well, whoooo cares?’ throwing her head back with a huge smile and burst of laughter.”

Françoise… a timeline

1985 – Françoise Cactus moves to West Berlin, starting the influential punk band The Lolitas.
1993 – Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring first perform as Stereo Total.
2001 – Stereo Total’s 5th album Musique Automatique forms the blueprint for Berlin’s burgeoning electro-clash scene.
2011 – Stereo Total scores their first feature film, Underwater Love.
1997 – Stereo Total release Monokini, establishing the band at the heart of Berlin’s alternative scene.
2004 – Françoise unveils Wollita, a life-size crochet sex doll for the exhibition When Love Turns To Poison, sparking a media frenzy.
2021 – Françoise Cactus dies of breast cancer, aged 57.

Article by Damien Cummings and Nadja Vancauwenberghe

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