tab Zahia Dehar 1-1558599440836
72nd Cannes Film Festival - Screening of the film "A Hidden Life" in competition - Red Carpet Arrivals - Cannes, France, May 19, 2019. Zahia Dehar poses. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard Image Credit: REUTERS

She is notorious as the under-age escort at the heart of a scandal that shook the French football team, but Zahia Dehar has confounded her critics with a startling big screen debut at the Cannes Film Festival.

The former escort who was allegedly paid to be intimate by French football stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema in 2009 when she was still 17, was hailed as the “main power source” in the acclaimed French film ‘An Easy Girl’.

Algerian-born Dehar — who is known in France simply as Zahia — has since traded her reputation for social media fame and her own lingerie brand.

But ‘Easy Girl’ — whose title plays on Zahia’s sulphurous celebrity — reveals impressive acting talent way beyond red carpet and photocall pouting which makes her a regular in gossip magazines.

The Hollywood Reporter compared her to 1960s French screen siren Brigitte Bardot, with one scene on a beach echoing the opening of Jean-Luc Godard’s classic, ‘Contempt’.

“Her pouty, performative femininity brings to mind a young Bardot,” critic Jon Frosch wrote.

Zahia, now 27, said she wasn’t in the slightest worried that people would draw parallels between the party-girl character she plays and her own life.

In the film, she leads her more innocent 16-year-old cousin into a gilded but cynically transactional world of yachts and flashy restaurants on the French Riviera.

Director Rebecca Zlotowski shot the ode to sexual and political awakening last summer in Cannes, and Zahia said she “didn’t agonise at all about what Rebecca was trying to do”.

“When I discovered the story of my character I was really excited,” Zahia said, “because I love free spirits who resist (society’s) expectations.”

It was “really liberating to see women on screen play against stereotypes”, she said, insisting the film was deeply feminist.

In fact, Zahia argued that the movie may help to reclaim the insult “easy girl” which had been thrown at women for centuries.

“Easy girl isn’t pejorative, for me it’s extremely positive, it’s a woman who is at ease with her sexuality and is the equal of a man.

“It’s a term that was invented by society to imprison women,” she said.

Critic Wendy Ide of Screen hailed the “laser-focused pursuit of conspicuous consumption and good times” Zahia brought to the role, “a cartoon nymphet dripping with labels and lazy sensuality” who has “rejected emotion in favour of sensation, adventure” and Instagram cred.

The Hollywood Reporter was equally laudatory, calling her “a glamazon with a good heart”, and calling the film “by far (Zlotowski’s) best”.