From the 1950s into the 1970s, Hjördis Niven’s twin nieces Gudrun and Maj-lis Genberg (also known as Pia and Mia) enjoyed colourful and successful careers as models, dancers, singers, and actresses.
They were born in Sundsvall on 7th April 1941, the daughters of Hjördis’ only brother, poor old seriously outnumbered Karl Georg.
“If they had not been so beautiful, they might still be living at home,” their mother Elsa claimed in 1963. “They didn’t attract any special attention as children, even in their early teens. Except that they had dimples in their cheeks when they smiled. They were discovered shortly afterwards [aged 15] by a photographer, who lived next door to us.”
From the age of 3-4 the girls were keen to sing and perform at family occasions. Modelling was never the extent of their ambitions.
“We didn’t really know what we were going to do after we left school,” Gudrun told Fick magazine in 1961. “But then Maj-lis started as a model at Leja in 1958 [just as Aunt Hjördis had done seventeen years earlier], and it changed everything. I got myself a short-term contract there too, and we both went to Kim’s modelling school. [‘Kim’ being Kim Andersson / Söderlund, Hjördis’ mentor in 1941]. Then we saw an ad for dancers in Las Vegas. And so it all began…”
In September 1959, Gudrun and Maj-lis left their teenage modelling careers at Leja’s Stockhoolm store, to perform with the Folies Bergère in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas and Hollywood
Gudrun and Maj-lis were two of five Swedish girls selected to be showgirls for the Folies Bergère Christmas show at the Hotel Tropicana. Elements within the Swedish press were not impressed, screaming exploitation:
“American girls are no longer drawn to an offer of $200 a week. They are tired of acting as a draw for the gaming machines. That’s why US agents have to travel to Europe to recruit girls.”
The girls’ father took a more relaxed attitude. “American morals are stricter than here at home,” he said,”they’ll be fine”. And then he signed the contract. He was doubtless aware that Aunt Hjördis and Uncle David could provide support for the 18 year-olds during their American adventure.
The twins meanwhile, saw the job as temporary and viewed it as a potential stepping stone to a movie career: “The contract is no longer valid after twelve weeks. Then we can go home if we want to.”
The adventure ran between December 1959 and March 1960, with their first performance on Christmas Day. Although Maj-lis and Gudrun’s hopes of Hollywood stardom didn’t materialise, they did manage an appearance in ‘Pepe’. The movie was a vehicle for Cantinflas, the Mexican comedian who had played Passepartout opposite David Niven in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’.
‘Pepe’ sought to recreate the sweeping multi-cameo feel of ’80 Days’, but unsurprisingly fell short. Gudrun and Maj-lis featured in a musical interlude with Maurice Chevalier and the Folies.
While in Las Vegas, the girls were approached by a French freelance photographer, who saw potential in them as fashion and photo models.
“At the time we weren’t interested in modelling,” Maj-lis said. “So, we put the business card aside and headed for Hollywood.”
“We really enjoyed it. Aunt Hjördis lent us one of her cars, a turquoise-coloured Thunderbird, which we used as much as possible. We were in Hollywood for a month, dreaming of screen-tests, but then the big strike happened and all the studios ground to a halt. We couldn’t stay for a long time, so we had to put our plans on the shelf.”
The strike, called by the Writers’ Guild of America, disrupted the American movie industry through to June 1960.
Before returning to Sweden in March 1960 the girls took part in a widely reproduced photo session in the garden of David Niven’s Pacific Palisades home. Their uncle and aunt were already in the process of relocating in Europe, making these the last family photos taken at the house. (David was busy filming ‘The Guns of Navarone’ in Rhodes at the time).
One year later the photo story was still being published in newspapers and magazines around the world. By then, Gudrun and Maj-lis’ careers had taken off in a different, and very successful direction.
Cover girls in Paris
On their return to Sweden, the twins used their new-found celebrity to perform their showgirl act at the Hamburger Börs nightclub in Stockholm, along with another Las Vegas returnee, Mona Arvidsson. They also spent part of the summer on the Swedish folk park circuit: “with songs and beautiful clothes. Everyone wanted to see the twins from Las Vegas,” women’s magazine Året Runt gushed.
Also on the bill was Maj-lis’ fiancé Finn Dueholm (“Rock-Finn”), Sweden’s substitute Elvis, who was actually Danish.
Ready for a new adventure, Gudrun and Maj-lis arrived in Paris at the end of November 1960, armed with the address and phone number of the freelance photographer who had approached them in Las Vegas.
The twins quickly made an impression. By December they had been chosen by German-born designer Roland Karl (soon better known as Karl Lagerfeld), to model his Spring 1961 collection for the Jean Patou fashion house.
The same month a US newspaper correspondent reported: “Customers at one of the major fashion houses just off the Place D’Etoile were convinced they had found a model whose speed at changing costumes surpassed all others. Within seconds of an appearance in the salon she would re-appear seconds later in a completely new costume, everything changed, even the jewellery. The simple answer appeared during a display of matching gowns when the customers thought they were seeing double. In fact they were: identical twins Pia and Mia Genberg newly ‘imported’ to the fashion capital from Sweden.”
A French press article from January 1961 mentioned that: “Both hope to become actresses, have 20in. waistlines, speak four languages fluently and share a small apartment with a vast ‘family’ of pets.”
A Swedish press report focussed (perhaps predictably) on Patou’s 1961 ‘Lolita Look’:
“They have chosen to show the spring fashions on cute teenagers instead of last year’s sophisticated femmes fatales.” The oldest model chosen was 25 year-old ‘Cynthia Kamikoff’, reportedly the grand-daughter of Rasputin.
Despite concerns from back home, the twins’ impact in France was immediate – even more than Lagerfeld’s designs. They featured on the front page of France-Soir, and were soon gracing the covers of European fashion magazines.
For the sake of convenience, the girls adopted the names Pia and Mia Genberg, which would stick for another decade. The name “Mia” originated during their time in Las Vegas, as “the Americans could not say Maj-Lis.”
Gudrun’s change to “Pia” was even more straightforward: “Gudrun has always wanted to be called Pia.” Bang. Sorted.
“At Patou, of course it was interesting, but it was tiring,” Mia (Maj-lis) told a Swedish magazine in 1961. “Not only modelling clothes – we were photographed for a lot of fashion magazines as well. Paris-Match had an article about us with lots of pictures of us wearing contrasting dresses.”
They also graced the cover, emblazoned with the title: “Fashion 1961 presented by the twins Mia and Pia.”
“We posed for over a thousand pictures for the photographer we met in Las Vegas last year,” Pia (Gudrun) added. “We even got to go to Val d’Isère in the French Alps to pose in sportswear.”
“But now we’ve parted with the photographer,” Mia continued. Contemporary reports claimed that the girls felt cheated, and left France: “disappointed and destitute.” All that Pia and Mia would confirm was that they no longer wanted any photographer to have a “monopoly” on them.
Movies were still Pia and Mia’s main ambition. In late 1960 / early 1961, they took their first steps in French TV films, appearing as the ‘Dolly Sisters’ with Maurice Chevalier, and as showgirl dancers in a Jean-Paul Sassy directed Chevalier tribute ‘Maurice de Paris’.
Swedish magazine SE didn’t hold back when describing their performance in ‘Maurice…’:
“Pia and Mia didn’t have to show their tits to the audience – unlike in Las Vegas last year, where they caused a sensation by refusing that requirement. That was the first time they received a lot of publicity.”
Around the same time, the girls sang a traditional Swedish song: ‘Små grodorna’ (‘Little Frogs’), on French radio, and on film for Jean-Paul Sassy. This may explain photos of them dressed as frogs in our 1960-61 photo gallery. I can’t think of an alternative reason!
Reports of mischief began to follow the teenagers. In February 1961, UK newspaper The People described them as “The rage of Paris show-business… Everyone wants to date them.”
To keep things in check, the twins were allocated a minder, French actor and ex-wrestling champion Lucien Fleurot.
“Although they look like angels, they don’t like being escorted everywhere, and they stop at nothing to give Lucien the slip,” the newspaper exaggerated, probably massively.
“The final straw came when one of the twins made a break for it and Lucien carried her back to the studio under his arm. The moment the irate girl was put down she picked up a huge mirror and broke it over Lucien’s head.”
Actresses in Italy
Pia and Mia Genberg left France for Italy in early 1961, after a successful movie audition to appear as dancers in ‘(The Last Days of) Sodom and Gomorrah’, a hideous biblical epic starring Stewart Granger.
In mid-February, the Swedish press announced “French perfumed news”, that Pia and Mia were staying with Aunt Hjördis in Switzerland, before driving down to Rome.
To add to the difficulties of spotting them among a fast moving cast of hundreds, Mia apparently started as a girl in the movie and ended it as a boy.
Pia and Mia’s move to Rome soon became permanent, and their popularity in Italy took off as quickly as it had done in France.
They spent 1961 and 1962 balancing movie appearances in the burgeoning Italian film industry, with modelling jobs ranging from magazine covers to romantic photo stories. When asked about their success, their mum said: “I can’t understand how they can earn so much by doing so little.” A very mum thing to say.
The girls’ film work in 1961 included ‘Leoni al sole’ (a comedy now considered an Italian classic), and ‘Five marines for 100 girls’ (a comedy never considered an Italian classic).
1962 had an epic beginning (literally) with Pia and Mia playing Elizabeth Taylor’s maidservants in ‘Cleopatra’, amid a reported 14,000 extras.
While ‘Cleopatra’ was being filmed, Aunt Hjördis lured away Ms Taylor’s real-life maidservant to look after her newly adopted daughter Kristina. [Game, set and match to the Genberg family.]
Hjördis must have seen parallels with her own early career. Both she and her nieces started their careers as models at Leja in Stockholm, and although she did not model in France (not really possible in wartime), she did model for the ‘Franska’ department at NK (Nordiska Kompaniet) in Stockholm, while landing small film roles.
Joined at the hip
By the time ‘Cleopatra’ was finished, the twins’ mother was well aware of how hard they were working.
Året Runt reported that: “They got up at 4am every morning and travelled one hour to the studio, where work started at 6. The day only finished at 10pm. One morning Maj-Lis was so tired that she fell asleep again after putting a coffee pot on the stove. The coffee boiled over. The flame was extinguished and the gas flowed out. Neighbours smelt the gas and sounded the alarm. Mia was distraught, but recovered after one day in hospital.”
The girls’ movie careers went well beyond roles as extras. In 1963 they performed as an all-singing, all-dancing parody of Germany’s Kessler twins – who were major stars in Italy.
Two song-and-dance short routines were included in the movie ‘Scanzonatissimo’; a series of satirical sketches about contemporary life in Italy.
Between 1961-63 David Niven was also working extensively in Italy. At one point he and Hjördis even considered moving to Rome. Pia and Mia were visited there by a Swedish journalist, who reported that the girls spoke excellent Italian “picked up from the street”, and spoke English even better – polished up by, among others, David Niven. Hjördis was mentioned as being “very mischievous, more like a sister than an aunt.”
Although David Niven’s films didn’t cross paths with the Genberg twins, they almost inevitably worked with the same people. In 1962 David had a cameo role in a D-Day comedy [?!] called ‘The Shortest Day’, which starred the popular and ultra prolific Italian duo Ciccio Ingrassia and Franco Franchi.
Pia And Mia had already appeared with the two comedians in ‘Five marines for 100 girls’, and in 1964 landed their biggest joint movie-role in the Ingrassia and Franchi vehicle ‘Sedotti e bidonati’. The girls played fake Siamese twins (named ‘Pia’ and ‘Mia’) who con the hapless duo into paying for a bogus operation to separate them.
The movie illustrated that, despite the girls’ success, their range of potential roles was narrowed by them being viewed as a pair.
A split pair
‘Sedotti e bidonati’ proved to be the Genberg twins’ last film together. Pia left the movie industry, while Mia continued and established herself as a solo actress. (Pia had previously made one movie appearance without her sister – 1963’s ‘Madame Sans Géne’, starring Sophia Loren.)
Adding to the variety of her career achievements, Mia sang on a 1966 solo single called ‘Ogni Giorno Che Passa’ (‘Every Day That Passes’) which was used on the soundtrack of the movie ‘Io La Conoscevo Bene’ (‘I Knew Her Well’). If you’re interested to hear it – it’s very pleasant….
Speaking of who’s who, even the girls’ close family could have difficulty telling them apart.
“It’s easy to make a mistake if you only hear the voice and do not see who it is,” their mother advised. “For example on the phone. When they call, I ask: ‘Is that Gudrun?’ and get the answer: ‘No, mother, it’s Maj-Lis!'”
“Otherwise, Maj-Lis has a birthmark on her left nostril. And Gudrun has a laughter line beside her eye, an inheritance from her dad’s side.”
Mia’s movies from 1966 covered a broad spectrum, from ‘The Tough One’ (aka ‘El Aventurero de Guaynas’) – a modern-day spaghetti western complete with helicopters and machine guns, through ‘Agente Sigma 3 – Missione Goldwather’ – one of the deluge of 1960s spy movies in the wake of James Bond.
She closed a colourful run with the 1971 horror movie ‘Something is Crawling in the Dark’.
This page is dedicated to Gudrun Genberg, who sadly passed away in 2020.
Embed from Getty Images
Pia and Mia Genberg. Photographed in Rome c.1962
Next page: Lo Scoglietto – The little rock or continue the Pia and Mia theme with three photo galleries covering their modelling, singing and dancing careers in Sweden, America, France and Italy.