She performed motionless on stage, sans make-up, inhabiting the personae of the songs she sang with such lyrical tact that listeners thought her a revelation. Her ability to alter vocal color--to import at need into her renderings the warble of an old French grandmother, the harsh squeal of a vain girl, the whisper of a conspiring lover--was unparalleled in the period in which she performed--1890 to 1920. Some dared to call the singer the greatest female dramatic performer of the era--greater than Bernhardt, Duse, or Ellen Terry. She first made a name on the stages of Paris as "a very pretty, very wicked sparkling little soubrette." But when Aristide Bruant and other poets of the metropolis began composing verses for her performance, the public and the critics realized that she was something more--a muse, a vessel of possibilities, a mimetic chameleon. When Guilbert sang Bruant's verses of underworld life in Parisian street slang, one realized the daring of an artist who did not fear to inhabit the fears and passions of the mad, the drug-addled, the abject.
She first appeared in the United States in the 1895-96 season, singing songs in French ("Les Ingenues," "La Soularde," "Ca fait toujours Plaisir") and English ("Linger Longer Loo" and "Golden Hair") and attempting to translate an American ragtime ballad into French. She appeared in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia and in a very short space of time earned between 170,000 and 190,000 francs. She returned to Paris smitten with things American.
If we are to trust the representations of her memoir, Yvette Guilbert Struggles and Victories, she grew up in dire poverty. Her father was a gambler, her mother a millner and lace-maker. As a girl she aided her mother at the tedious work at the sewing table. As a teen she began singing in music halls--at first without audience favor. She became fascinated with literary realism and read Zola. She took as her aesthetic task the importation of the realism and psychological insight of the realists into the song form. She composed her own lyrics, and one "La Poucharde" proved the key to her breakthrough as an artist. Performing it in Liege she prompted a popular furor. Convinced of the rightness of her path she returned, and became the vocal incarnation of Montmarte in the age of Toulouse LaTrec and Erik Satie.
In 1900 she contracted an illness that nearly killed her. When she recovered, she discarded the more Bohemian parts of her repertoire and sang chansons. She also began struggling with weight control. Her second American tour in 1906 had her performing songs of the 17th century and of the 1830s. World War brought her to American shores once again, including a stint teaching dramatic art in New York City under the auspices of the French Ministry.