Edith Piaf was known for her voice, but her face was just as unforgettable. The French singer, one of the most illustrious entertainers of the 20th century, wore the emotion of her songs in her expressions. Framed by buoyant curls and drawn-on eyebrows like sideways parentheses, her features contorted to form the shape of sorrow or passion or joy coursing through whatever melody she sang.
Born a century ago in Paris on Dec. 19, 1915, Piaf lived a life marked by pain and success in near equal measure. Beginning her career in nightclubs, she rose to national prominence during World War II and achieved international renown following the war. But for all her popularity, she lived in fear of loneliness. Piaf’s mother had abandoned her shortly after she was born, and she was raised for many years in a brothel run by her grandmother. Though she had a daughter at 17, the girl died as a toddler. As she got older, Piaf sunk deeper and deeper into addictions to alcohol and morphine, ultimately dying at 47 of cancer.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that a woman who experienced such extreme highs and lows was able to channel pure emotion through her music. On the centennial of her birth, LIFE looks back at a selection of portraits by Gjon Mili, who captured Piaf swept up in the emotion of a song.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.