From scandalous affairs to ‘castration’ of son, how royal who inspired Netflix’s The Empress became bigger than Diana

BEFORE Princess Diana, there was Empress Elisabeth of Austria – the first royal celebrity.

She was the most beautiful woman of her day, and one who met an equally tragic end.

The subject of a sumptuous Netflix series, Empress Elisabeth "Sisi" of Austria was idolised and was the most famous royal in European history


The subject of a sumptuous Netflix series, Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” of Austria was idolised and was the most famous royal in European historyCredit: Getty

The subject of a new and sumptuous Netflix series called The Empress, Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi, was idolised for her looks, her daring style and her hatred of convention.

She was mobbed by the public and photographers and was the subject of the first ever paparazzi photo, while newspapers ran breathless stories about her beauty regime and daily life.

A political progressive, she was a woman before her time, who became known as The People’s Empress.

But her life was anything but charmed.

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Sisi happens to be an ancestor of mine, marrying into my family on my mother’s side, and I have been fascinated by her since childhood.

She was born into the Ducal House of Bavaria, Germany, in 1837.

Her father, Duke Maxi, was considered mildly insane (madness ran in the blood) and was sent to live apart from the family after shooting guns in the dining room while guests were present.

Elizabeth’s mother, Duchess Ludovika, was the aunt of the new Emperor of Austria, the young Franz Josef, who was head of the Imperial House of Habsburg, which in the 19th century was the richest and most powerful royal family in Europe.

Franz Josef was the world’s greatest catch, and upper crust mamas pushed forward their daughters.

It had been agreed that he would marry Sisi’s biddable elder sister, Helene, but when the young man saw the 16-year-old Elisabeth, goes the legend, it was love at first sight.

He proposed to her against the wishes of his mother, the formidable Archduchess Sophie, who wore the royal trousers.

Sisi's marriage to the Emperor of Austria - the world's greatest catch - in 1854 was the wedding of the century


Sisi’s marriage to the Emperor of Austria – the world’s greatest catch – in 1854 was the wedding of the centuryCredit: Getty
Sisi was wild and a rebel, but also a political progressive who pushed for the political autonomy of Hungary in the Austrian Empire


Sisi was wild and a rebel, but also a political progressive who pushed for the political autonomy of Hungary in the Austrian EmpireCredit: Getty

One can’t blame him. Sisi was the swan of all time, with huge eyes, perfect features, skin that was likened to moonlight and chestnut hair to her knees. But she was a rebel and wild.

She went barefoot, wandered alone in the woods at night, rode horses at breakneck speed and freed all the caged birds in the palace.

But her charm and charisma was such that as soon as the Austrian people saw her, she became the subject of unprecedented adoration.

Her marriage in Vienna to the Emperor, which took place in 1854, was the wedding of the century.

On her way to the cathedral, hysterical crowds ran beside her glass coach. (She was later horrified to learn than some of them were shot by armed police for their impudence.)

Her white satin dress weighed more than six stone and cost the modern equivalent of £80,000.

At just 17, Elisabeth was the most powerful woman in the world — but her feelings about it were mixed.

Austrian court protocol was the most stifling in Europe, and Sisi hated it absolutely from the start.

Defying her strict mother-in-law and even her husband, when the young Empress learned of her subjects’ poverty she visited slums and factories, becoming the first royal to do walkabouts.

If courtiers were horrified, the rest of the world was entranced.

Sisi came of age just as the medium of photography had become both skilled and immensely popular.

Her image was everywhere, while her exquisite full-length portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the most famous artist of the time, became iconic overnight.

She was a rock star before rock stars ever existed.

Face mask of raw mutton and berries

Women wanted to look like her and copied her clothes and her habit of putting decorative stars in her hair, which she usually wore down her back.

It took three hours to wash her thick tresses, which she did in a special blend of eggs and Cognac.

The young Empress certainly had her eccentricities. At night, Sisi wore a face mask of raw mutton and crushed berries, which must have alarmed her husband.

She had a horror of fat people, even refusing to meet Queen Victoria on the grounds she was disgustingly overweight.

Elizabeth herself was slimmer than a modern size 0, with a 15in waist.

She achieved this with a meagre diet of broth and milk — and dangerously tightly laced leather corsets specially made in Paris.

They were the kind, screeched Archduchess Sophie, usually worn by professional courtesans.

She bathed in ice, exercised constantly and was the first royal to have gyms built in her palaces.

As her fame grew, however, so did her sense of imprisonment and alienation.

Sisi became the world's first victim of the paparazzi photograph in the English countryside


Sisi became the world’s first victim of the paparazzi photograph in the English countrysideCredit: Getty

Her first two children, both girls, were taken away from her by mother-in-law Sophie after Sisi wanted to breastfeed and look after them herself. (Royal mothers were supposed to hand over their offspring to wet nurses and governesses.)

Heartbroken and outraged, she ran away, returning to her family in Bavaria, but was ordered back to Vienna.

To annoy her in-laws, she dressed increasingly in black and smoked cigarettes in public.

“She acts like a savage,” Sophie moaned.

Sadly, Sisi’s sense of stifling confinement led to severe bulimia. She would binge-eat pastries and cakes in a specially built kitchen with a hidden staircase that led directly to her rooms.

Her marriage turned sour as Franz Josef grew more conservative, while his Empress advocated a liberal approach — she campaigned successfully for the political autonomy of Hungary, which led to the creation of Austria-Hungary, or the Dual Monarchy, in 1867.

Eventually, Sisi refused to have sex with the still besotted, but stolid, Franz Josef, and spent more and more time abroad as part of a daring, liberal set that gravitated between England, France, Corfu and Hungary. She dressed as a peasant and danced on tables.

But the hated photographers followed and stalked her everywhere, even hiding in bushes.

While out riding in the English countryside in the late 1870s, a large fan held up to obscure her face, she became the victim of the first paparazzi photograph.

Terrified of ageing, on her 32nd birthday the Empress decreed that no one was to paint or photograph her again.

Her mood swings increased and she was seen on solitary walks wearing a thick veil.

Still, half of the men in the world were in love with her, and she had numerous love affairs, one with an English aristocrat and another with the Hungarian revolutionary Count Andrassy.

But Elizabeth’s greatest trial was yet to come. Her beloved only son and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, became involved in the “scandal of the century”, which subsequently inspired Hollywood movies, plays and even ballets.

Rudolf, a troubled drug user who hated his father, was found dead one morning at the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling.

Used cut-throat razor to sever his penis

Worse, also dead and lying beside him was his teenage mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera.

She had been shot through the head, and it was thought that Rudolf had then turned a gun on himself.

Mayerling remains the greatest unsolved royal mystery.

The accepted version is that Franz Josef ordered his son to give up Marie and return to his despised wife, Crown Princess Stephanie. Rudolf and Marie agreed on a suicide pact.

In my family, however, a different, more scandalous, version has been handed down the generations.

Marie was unbalanced, conniving and fiercely ambitious. She even hoped Rudolph would divorce his wife for her.

When he instead broke off their relationship, she begged for one last sojourn together at Mayerling.

Tragedy struck when her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, died with his mistress in a believed murder-suicide


Tragedy struck when her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, died with his mistress in a believed murder-suicideCredit: Getty

The scorned girl waited until her royal lover had fallen asleep then used a cut-throat razor to sever his penis.

Understandably aggrieved, a crazed Rudolf shot her and then shot himself.

Whatever really happened, there was a huge cover-up and Mayerling was razed to the ground brick by brick.

The affect it had on Elizabeth was devastating. She refused to see to her husband and talked of suicide.

The scandal shook the world and was on the front page of every newspaper. Elizabeth retreated to her villa on Corfu, spending the next years as a recluse, travelling under a false name.

But she could not escape her notoriety. In 1898, during an incognito trip to Geneva, accompanied by a female attendant, she forgot to put on her veil and was recognised instantly by a fanatical anti-monarchist, Luigi Lucheni.

Armed with a sharpened file, the assassin rushed up to the most famous royal in the world and plunged the weapon into her chest, penetrating the leather corset and her heart and lungs.

Lucheni was actually on a mission to murder the pretender to the French throne, Henri Philippe d’Orleans, but he had not come to Geneva.

Elizabeth, aged 60, died of blood loss a few hours later. Austria, Hungary and the world went into shock. Hundreds of thousands of mourners left flowers near her palaces.

Her funeral was pandemonium, making Diana’s look tame by comparison.

Cara Delevingne's short film 'reincarnation' paid tribute to Sisi


Cara Delevingne’s short film ‘reincarnation’ paid tribute to SisiCredit: Youtube
Cara's video is just one of many tributes to the Empress of Austria over the years


Cara’s video is just one of many tributes to the Empress of Austria over the yearsCredit: Chanel
Melika Foroutan stars as Sisi's mother in law, Archduchess Sophie, in the new Netflix series 'The Empress'


Melika Foroutan stars as Sisi’s mother in law, Archduchess Sophie, in the new Netflix series ‘The Empress’Credit: Netflix

Hysterical crowds tried to touch the hearse and the army had to be called in. Franz Josef was bereft and never remarried.

Then the Sisi cult began. First, books and exhibitions, then films, the most famous starring Romy Schneider in 1955.

Her gym in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna receives 500 visitors daily. Her tomb is always covered in fresh flowers, brought by adoring visitors.

In Europe, she remains the most famous royal of all time.

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But, all Elisabeth wanted was to be free. Free of royalty and free of convention.

Sisi was the ultimate bird in a gilded royal cage, killed by a fame she never asked for.

Dita Von Teese's corset style is a direct homage to Sisi


Dita Von Teese’s corset style is a direct homage to SisiCredit: People Image
Madonna is another celeb to copy the Empress's iconic style


Madonna is another celeb to copy the Empress’s iconic style

Her style still lives on today

NETFLIX drama The Empress, which is trending in the top ten in the UK, is just the latest in many retellings of Sisi’s extraordinary story.

There have been books, plays, an opera and ballets, and the musical Elisabeth, which premiered in 1992 and is still running today, is the most successful German-language musical of all time.

On the big screen, Ava Gardner played the Empress in 1968 film Mayerling, which starred Omar Sharif as Crown Prince Rudolf.

And Romy Schneider made her name as Elisabeth in a trilogy of German films, which were edited into one English-dubbed movie, Forever My Love, in 1962.

Two new films will hit screens soon. Corsage, set for release in December, won accolades at the Cannes Film Festival and Sisi & I will follow in 2023.

Sisi’s style is still copied by celebrities like Madonna and Dita Von Teese, whose corsets are a direct homage.

Legendary late designer Karl Lagerfeld said his trademark fan was a tribute to the one carried by Sisi.

And he dedicated Chanel collections to her, even making a video about the Empress starring Cara Delevingne in 2014.

In the short film, Cara recreates Sisi’s look from the 1865 Franz Xaver Winterhalter portrait, alongside Pharrell Williams, who plays her husband Franz Joseph.

Another designer, Carolina Herrara, used the Winterhalter painting to inspire the wedding dress she created for US singer Jessica Simpson in 2014.

Jessica told Herrara she wanted to look “regal.”

Sisi remains a major tourist draw in Vienna, where her image adorns everything from tote bags to Christmas ornaments and coffee cups.

Attractions connected to her are the city’s most popular – her gym in the Hofburg Palace receives 500 visitors daily.

Her tomb is always covered in fresh flowers, brought by adoring visitors, and in Europe, she remains the most famous royal of all time.

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