Alys Robi

The two lives of French Canada’s first international singing star.

Written by Nelle Oosterom

Posted July 10, 2023

She’s been compared to Celine Dion, Shirley Temple, Carmen Miranda, and even Britney Spears.

But Alys Robi, Quebec’s first world-renowned chanteuse, was really in a category all her own.

Born a hundred years ago as Alice Robitaille, she emerged from humble beginnings in the workingclass Lower Town of Quebec City as a child prodigy who made her first stage appearance at age four. At thirteen she joined a Montreal song-and-dance troupe. Anticipating international fame, she changed her name: “Call me Alys Robi, because I want to go around the world, and it will be easier for other nationalities to pronounce my name,” she said.

In 1942, Robi was discovered by a CBC producer who began airing her songs on English radio. She soon rocketed to stardom thanks to songs like “Tico Tico,” a Brazilian-Portuguese tune Robi sang in French. She toured North America, Europe, Mexico, and South America. Then, in 1948, Hollywood came knocking with an offer to star in a musical.

At age twenty-five, Alys Robi had the world by the tail … and then it turned around and bit her. She crashed her Cadillac convertible in California, sustaining a concussion. The accident, along with other stresses, led to a mental breakdown. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Quebec, where she stayed for five years. Robi’s career, as she knew it, was over.

At Hôpital Saint-Michel-Archange, Robi underwent a lobotomy. In her autobiography Un long cri dans la nuit (A long cry in the night) Robi wrote: “I woke up cured and I understood later that I had been one of the rare successful cases of lobotomy.”

Upon her release from hospital, Robi struggled to make a comeback but was stigmatized because of her illness. Her situation gradually improved in the 1970s, when she became popular with the gay community.

Robi was still happily singing onstage in her eighties and was the subject of a 2004 biopic called Ma vie en cinémascope (My life in CinemaScope). In addition to performing, Robi helped other post-psychiatric patients, resulting in her being made a member of the Order of St John (Order of Malta) in 1985. Robi died in 2011 at age eighty-eight.

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This article originally appeared in the August-September 2023 issue of Canada’s History.

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