1 of 21
Decades after her acting and singing careers came to an end, Brigitte Bardot is today primarily known for her animal-rights activism and for her frequent scrapes with the French authorities over her passionate, public denunciations of what she considers the “Islamification” of her native France. (She has been fined five times for “inciting racial hatred” in books and speeches, arguing in 2003, for example, that France has “given in to a subterranean, dangerous and uncontrolled infiltration which not only resists adjusting to our laws and customs but which will, as the years pass, attempt to impose its own.”)
All these years later, however, it’s still difficult for anyone who was not alive at the time to grasp the galvanizing effect that Bardot had—as an actress and as a sex symbol—on moviegoers around the world in the 1950s and early 1960s. Here, on her 80th birthday (she was born Sept. 28, 1934, in Paris), LIFE.com celebrates the young Bardot with a series of pictures—most of which never ran in LIFE—made by Loomis Dean in 1958.
In a June 1958 article titled “The Charged Charms of Brigitte,” LIFE waxed lyrical (and, to contemporary ears, a touch patronizing, if not downright sexist) about the 24-year-old actress’ effect on American moviegoers and critics:
And on it goes—an endless stream of metaphors (she’s a car, or a kitten, or perhaps some primeval erotic force merely visiting Earth in the guise of a twenty-something French beauty) that remind us of why, in part, Bardot left acting behind when she was not yet 40 years old. She had helped to create and to define the sex-goddess archetype in the movies, but found herself almost entirely unable to break out of that mold no matter how “serious” her roles became or how nuanced her performances actually were.
In the end, then, if nothing else, the pictures in this gallery help explain why most critics and most audiences were, perhaps, unable to see beyond the sheer sensuality that Brigitte Bardot exuded, both onscreen and off. Ater all, for a while there in the middle part of the last century, she might just have been the sexiest woman on earth.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.