She is, quite literally, the daughter of Barbarella—the campy sci-fi sex romp written and directed by her French-playboy father, the late Roger Vadim, as a vehicle for her movie-star mother, Jane Fonda, and released in 1968, the year of her birth.
The 40-year-old Vadim is a single mom who lives in Atlanta with her two young children; she’s also a documentary filmmaker, an organic farmer, an all-around free spirit and, as much as she might wish to deny it, a member of Hollywood royalty.
And she’s a fan of glass dildos and cucumbers in the service of ecologically responsible orgasms—but we’ll get to that later.
“Part of what I hate about my job is that I get to be the downer. I pick things like sex and make it not fun.”
“We grew up much differently than I think folks would imagine,” says Vadim, who sounds remarkably like her mom over the phone. “You said I know everyone in the business, but I don’t feel like I know anyone in the business. With my mom, our reality was always political, not Hollywood. We were purpose-driven and we lived very differently [in the lefty community nicknamed ‘The People’s Republic of Santa Monica’]. The big house and all the cars and all that was an option we might have been conscious of, but my mom’s choices were different. When you’re on a black list [which Jane Fonda briefly suffered in the aftermath of her notorious 1972 visit to Hanoi], sometimes that’s the only option.”
As for herself, Vadim says, “I’ve always made a very conscious decision to lay low and be way under the radar.” Unlike her Fonda relatives—uncle Peter, cousin Bridget, and mother Jane, to say nothing of her legendary grandfather Henry—Vanessa has stayed behind the camera, at one point teaming with her friend Rory Kennedy, a fellow Brown University alum, to produce documentary shorts. Not surprisingly for a celebrity kid who has carved out her own identity, she has a bracingly post-feminist take on Barbarella, a movie that was reviled in its day as misogynistic, exploitative and politically incorrect.
“I loved it,” she tells me about her mother’s comic portrayal of a kind of Space Age nymphomaniac: The opening scene has Jane Fonda taking off her clothes while floating in a weightless environment. In due course Barbarella experiments with various sci-fi sexual devices—though not, alas, environmentally friendly ones. “For me that film—and it’s true of the majority of my dad’s films—is feminist. It mostly has not aged well in a lot of ways, and it was taken at the time as misogynist, which is really off base,” Roger Vadim’s daughter says. “I think he was an incredible feminist, even if you look at the film now and it seems kind of bizarre, fluffy exploitation—which is a shame.”
She warms to her theme. “When I see something like Barbarella I think it’s such a hilarious film, when you look at some of the lines about human behavior, war, and sex. It’s just fantastic. Oh my God—when else have we seen a woman with that much power on the screen? Sexy and in no way having to feel ashamed of being sexy; powerful, in charge. She’s so not the bimbo. She’s smart, and she actually owns her sexuality. The same was true of And God Created Woman [Roger Vadim’s 1956 cult classic that made his then-wife, Brigitte Bardot, a star]. Before that, nobody had seen on screen any space for women to be sexual or to own their sexuality. The shock was that here were women doing what we’ve all seen men do. This was exploding the myth that if a woman was consummate in her sexuality, then she must be a slut.”
Which brings us to the subject of sex toys that even Al Gore might approve of.
In her latest column—which Vadim, a member of MNN.com’s board, has been writing regularly since last year—she warns that many such devices are not safe or healthy, because state laws pretend they are “for novelty use only” or “for educational and instructional use only”—meaning that they need not be medically vetted.
“All sorts of chemicals you would never consider putting in your body are used in the manufacturing of adult toys because they are—by law and labeling—not meant to touch your body,” Vadim writes. “So what to do? Ultimately, we must work to get these laws overturned and demand that all products be safe for human and planetary health. In the meantime, opt for accessories made from sustainably harvested and recycled substances such as leather, glass, metal, or wood. And don’t neglect the vegetable drawer (locally grown and organic, of course).”
Vadim refuses to say whether she’s tried this out herself. Laughing, she tells me: “Part of what I hate about my job is that I get to be the downer. I pick things like sex and make it not fun. I am a constant party pooper. In July, I did a piece about the toxic fallout from fireworks. I’m the constant bearer of bad news. I’ve become a very unpopular lady since I started working with Mother Nature Network. Otherwise, I’m all for it.”
Vadim says her mom got her involved serendipitously with the Web site—which is backed by Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell and Atlanta advertising executive Joel Babbit, among others. When Vanessa saw a newspaper item about the site, she sent her mother an email noting that it was strange that the Mother Nature Network had no actual women working for it. Jane Fonda forwarded the email to Babbit, who immediately got in touch.
Vanessa has lived in Atlanta for 11 years—“way too long,” she says. She was pregnant with her son, and on her way to the West Coast from North Florida, where she’d been running an organic farm, when she passed through the city where her mom was living with her third husband, media mogul Ted Turner. She fell in love with a century-old frame house in a historic neighborhood near downtown and settled down, had two children by different men, and focused on being a mom.
The second child, a daughter, was born at home nearly seven years ago without benefit of medical science or any other assistance: “Her father was a very sound sleeper,” she says, adding, “Yes, it hurt like hell.” But she’s not so zealous a nature girl that she planned the home birth, “When the baby’s ready, the baby’s ready,” she says. “I just didn’t make it to the hospital.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.