Police said Friday that a body found in the River Seine was that of Katoucha Niane, a former model for Yves Saint Laurent and other top designers who spoke out against female genital mutilation after quitting the catwalk. She was 47.
Paris judicial police said her body was found Thursday near the Garigliano bridge in Paris.
Police said an autopsy showed no signs of foul play, pointing to the possibility that she may have fallen accidentally into the river.
She had been missing since January and was last seen returning home from a party. She lived in a houseboat near Paris' Alexandre III bridge that spans the Seine, and her handbag was later found on the boat.
Known simply as Katoucha, the Guinean-born model told The Associated Press in 1994 that she ran away to Europe at age 17 aiming for a career in modeling. Her break came when Jules-Francois Crahay, then the designer at Lanvin, spotted her in a line-up. The label hired her as a fitting model. Her first catwalk modeling was for Thierry Mugler at the start of the 1980s.
Katoucha become one of the first African women to attain stardom as a model, becoming a muse for Saint Laurent and posing for top photographers like Irving Penn. She said she called Saint Laurent "Monsieur" _ mister _ in part because the word rhymes in French with "Dieu," or God.
Katoucha told the AP that her father, Djibril Tamsir Niane, an archaeologist and writer, was initially disappointed that she didn't become "a professional intellectual, with a university degree," but later was reconciled to her other successes.
Not a conventional beauty, but with incomparable panache, Katoucha earned the respect of top names in the fashion business.
She set up her own label in 1994 after years of modeling for the likes of Christian Lacroix and Saint Laurent. Singers Cher and France's Johnny Hallyday were among the stars who turned out to look at her creations.
"I don't pretend to be like Lacroix, Saint Laurent or the others," she said then. "But I was certainly in a great school by wearing their clothes and going to the fittings. I learned several basic lessons, including: Don't cut the fabric until you've got the 'toile,' or heavy linen prototype, just right."
In a book last year, "Katoucha, In My Flesh," she described how she was genitally mutilated at age 9.
"I will never get the incomparable pain out of my head," she wrote. "At that moment, I became a rebel. I remained so all my life."
She talked in the book about wild nights of partying, alcohol and drugs. She dedicated the book to her three children.
Vanity Fair's fashion and style director, Michael Roberts, said Katoucha was "one of those girls who used her fame to spotlight the misfortunes of others."
"She always seemed so gracious and very lovely," he said. "She was sunny and she was bright, and I liked her a lot."
In the months before her death, Katoucha took on her first film role, playing a beautiful and rebellious woman who was not unlike herself, said Leandre-Alain Baker, director of "Ramata." Filming is complete but a release date has not yet been set.
"In the work we've done, one gets the impression that she's always been an actress," Baker said. "She's marvelous in the role."
Baker said he sensed Katoucha could never entirely free herself from painful childhood experiences. The battle to overcome her past was sometimes apparent in her emotional shifts, he said.
"She could go right from laughter to anger," Baker said. "But she always came back ... and I attribute that to her past, what she experienced and lived through."
Associated Press writers Joelle Diderich, Jean-Pierre Verges and Devorah Lauter in Paris contributed to this report.