Hjördis Niven’s twin nieces Gudrun and Maj-Lis Genberg (later known as Pia and Mia) were born in Sundsvall on 7th April 1941, the daughters of Hjördis’ only brother, poor old seriously outnumbered Karl Georg. In September 1959, Gudrun, and then Maj-Lis, left teenage modelling careers at the Leja store in Stockholm to perform with the Folies Bergère in Las Vegas.
“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…”
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.”
“American morals are stricter than here at home,” the twins’ father claimed. 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meanwhile, saw the job as temporary, and viewed it as a potential stepping stone to a movie career: “The contract is no longer valid after twelve weeks.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.”
Las Vegas and Hollywood
Hjördis and David Niven provided support for the 18 year olds during their Las Vegas adventure, which ran between December 1959 and March 1960. Although Maj-Lis and Gudrun’s hopes of Hollywood stardom didn’t materialise, they did manage an appearance in a movie called ‘Pepe’ – a vehicle for Cantinflas, the Mexican comedian who had played Passepartout opposite David Niven in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’.
The movie 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 was called by the Writers’ Guild of America, and 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, which would make 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.
On their return to Sweden, the twins spent the summer of 1960 on the folk park circuit with Maj-Lis’ fiancé Finn Dueholm (“Rock-Finn”), Sweden’s substitute Elvis, who was actually Danish.
At the end of November 1960 Gudrun and Maj-Lis arrived in Paris, armed with the address and phone number of the French freelance photographer whom they had met in Las Vegas, and by December 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 in Paris.
A press article from Paris in 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.”
For the sake of convenience, the girls adopted the names Pia and Mia Genberg, which would stick for another decade. Their impact in France was immediate – even more than Lagerfeld’s designs. They were featured on the front page of France-Soir, and soon afterwards were gracing the covers of European fashion magazines.
“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.”
“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 said. Contemporary reports said that the girls felt cheated by him 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.
Actresses in Italy
By early 1961, Pia and Mia had taken their first acting steps on French TV, appearing in the ‘Dolly Sisters’ with Maurice Chevalier. They also sang a traditional Swedish song on the radio: ‘Små grodorna’ (‘Little Frogs’). This may explain why there are photos of them dressed as frogs in our 1959-61 photo gallery. At least I hope it does.
Movies, however, were still Pia and Mia’s ambition. In mid February 1961, the Swedish press announced some “French perfumed news” [love it], that they were staying with Aunt Hjördis in Switzerland before driving down to Rome to take part in a movie starring Stewart Granger.
The film was ‘(The Last Days of) Sodom and Gomorrah’, a hideous biblical epic in which the girls danced in a scene choreographed by Archie Savage. To add to the difficulties of spotting them among a fast moving cast of hundreds, Mia apparently started out 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 modelling with appearances in a string of movies produced by the burgeoning Italian film industry. 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 two of Elizabeth Taylor’s maidservants in ‘Cleopatra’, amid a reported 14,000 extras. At the same time, 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, before landing film roles as a dancer and model.
Joined at the hip
Pia and Mia also performed an all-singing all-dancing parody of Germany’s Kessler twins – who remain major stars in Italy to this day. Two short routines were included in the 1963 movie ‘Scanzonatissimo’; a series of satirical sketches about life in Italy. The Genberg sisters re-worked the Kesslers’ European hit song ‘Da-Da-Um-Pa’, as ‘Da-Da-Enpas’ (‘Da-Da-Deadlock’).
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.”
Embed from Getty Images
Pia and Mia Genberg. Photographed in Rome, 1960s.
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 money out of the hapless duo to pay for a bogus operation to separate them.
The movie illustrated that, despite the girls’ success, their range of potential roles was hugely narrowed by them being viewed as a pair.
A split pair
‘Sedotti e bidonati’ proved to be the Genberg twins’ last movie together. Pia left the movie industry, while Mia continued and established herself as a solo actress.
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….
Embed from Getty Images
Mia Genberg, the Rome Lucia, at The Hilton Hotel, December 14, 1965
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, before she closed a successful and colourful run with the 1971 horror movie ‘Something is Crawling in the Dark’.
Next page: Lo Scoglietto – The little rock or continue the Pia and Mia theme:
Gudrun and Maj-Lis Genberg photo gallery covering their modelling, singing and dancing careers from 1959-1961, and Pia and Mia Genberg photo gallery covering the Italian years from 1961-1964