Cléopatra Diane de Mérode was born in Paris in 1875, the daughter of a famous landscape painter from a Belgian noble family. Sent to study dance at age eight, she made her professional debut at age eleven. As she grew into a young woman, she became renowned not only for her dancing skill, but for her beauty and tiny waist.
In 1896, King Leopold II attended the ballet and saw Mérode dance. The 61-year-old Belgian king became enamoured with the 22-year-old ballerina, and rumours that she had become his mistress followed Cléo for the rest of her life. She drew the attention of numerous artists, among them Alexandre Falguiere, who sculpted The Dancer in her image - now in the Musee d'Orsay. In Vienna her beauty caught the attention of painter Gustav Klimt; the character “Lea de Castro” in the 2006 film based on his life was drawn from Cléo de Mérode.
At the peak of her popularity, she chose to dance at the Folies Bergere, an unprecedented risk for the ballet elites. Mérode continued to dance internationally into her early fifties, when she retired to the seaside resort of Biarritz. In 1955 she published her autobiography Le Ballet de ma vie.