An uncompromising longing for freedom seems to have guided much of Khelfa’s trajectory. Born in 1960, she was one of 11 children of an Algerian immigrant couple who had fought for their country’s independence from France alongside Algeria’s National Liberation Front before moving the family to Lyon. Describing her parents, Khelfa says, “They were born colonized and remained colonized,” meaning that, in her eyes, they never really overcame the humiliation of French rule.3
An avid reader from an early age, Khelfa explains that school was one of the places where she found freedom away from her strict household. She believes she would have gone on to study in university had she had “a normal family, whatever that means, if it even exists.” Though she doesn’t go into specifics, she describes her situation growing up as “painful,” and says she decided to leave after her sisters moved out, leaving her, the youngest daughter, alone with her parents. Before the fateful day when an errand to the boulangerie became a one-way ticket to Paris, Khelfa had been carrying her Algerian passport everywhere for months. (France doesn’t automatically grant citizenship to children born to foreign parents on French soil, so she would risk deportation if she was found without papers. She ultimately obtained French citizenship in her 30s.)
In Paris, Khelfa had planned on staying with one of her sisters, but quickly realized that wasn’t an option. Things could have easily gone awry for a homeless teenager left to fend for herself in the French capital. Instead, that teenager met the coolest crowd in town: “la bande du Palace.”
The Palace was Paris’ response to New York’s Studio 54. A former music hall, the flamboyant red and gold rococo venue reopened as a nightclub at the end of the 1970s and instantly brought together an unlikely bunch of partygoers—jet-setters, artists, intellectuals and absolute nobodies—all there to surrender to the power of disco music and dance the night away. Model, artist and provocateur Grace Jones performed on the club’s opening night. Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise were regulars. So were philosopher Roland Barthes, Prince, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Jean Paul Gaultier and William Burroughs. It was in equal parts decadent and magnetic.
“Everyone went to The Palace, absolutely everyone,” Khelfa recalls. “The most renowned intellectual, the biggest drug dealer, the kid from the projects, they all got in, that’s what made it magical.” Above all, it was an endless party. Almost as soon as she arrived in Paris, Khelfa met Edwige Belmore, a punk icon who would go on to become the bouncer at The Palace, and her roommate Paquita Paquin, a fashion journalist and avid club-goer. They introduced her to the city’s party underworld, and the night creatures evolving in it, “super fun people with fantastic looks.”4
Most evenings, Khelfa would go out dancing, unsure where she would sleep later. It didn’t matter. She always found a place to crash. When a then-15-year-old Christian Louboutin invited her to sleep over at his mother’s place, she ended up staying with them for months. He would sew her skirts with material from the Marché Saint-Pierre fabric district. The goal was to be stylish, always, even though she couldn’t splurge on clothes. “I was young, everything seemed cool and easy,” she recalls. “I never had any money but I never thought about the fact I had no money. It was freedom. We did what we wanted. We woke up when we wanted. It felt like a Godard film.”5