The Queen of Russia
Johnson’s Russia List, October 29, 1998
Russian diva says she missed her chance
By Daniel Bases (Reuters) –
Russian Americans forgot about the raging economic crisis and struggling
relatives back home for one emotional night recently, listening to the rock
‘n’ roll of their youthful years in Russia and the singer who brought it
to them, their queen, Alla Pugacheva.
She drives around Moscow in a white stretch limo, a gift from her husband,
and is said to have sold more than 150 million records, mostly in Russia
and the old Soviet empire. If you have never heard of her, you are in the
majority, but for Russians everywhere there is only one Alla, the reigning
— some say fading — diva of Russian pop music for 25 years. The East Coast
Russian American community descended on the Trump Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino
on a recent Saturday, paying $50 to $250 a ticket for a sold- out evening
performance or a nearly full matinee of her 2-1/2-hour-long show.
50, Pugacheva still plays a vixen on stage, belting out the passionate love
songs dripping with melodrama that made her famous in the tense Cold War
days under Brezhnev. Adoring, misty-eyed senior citizens clapped vigorously
and sophisticated youth, dressed in designer clothes from Armani, Valentino
and Dolce & Gabbana, looked like they were at a wedding rather than a
concert as they walked down the aisles with traditional gifts of flowers
She’s better than these kids!
‘Perhaps I’m too long on this stage but I get older and wiser here. It is
your fault. You won’t let me die,’ she said.
Western critics described her as a dinosaur and savaged her performance at
the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, where she placed 15th. But Pugacheva
has never really lived in the hearts of fans outside Russia’s borders and
now even she admits her time to reach them is past. ‘I have a wide audience,
but to get a wider American audience I should have started here years ago,’
she told Reuters in her cloistered dressing room between shows.
‘WE’LL ADAPT AND SURVIVE’
Pugacheva was nothing like her reputation for having a poisoned tongue off-
stage, speaking humbly after her first performance at the 5,292-seat Etess
Arena at the Taj Mahal about Russia’s economic crisis and its entertainers.
Russia’s entertainment community has been devastated by the economic nightmare.
In the face of adversity, Pugacheva offered a stoic prediction: ‘We are
Russians, we’ll learn to adapt and we’ll survive.’
‘Concert dates for smaller artists are being canceled because promoters
in Russia can’t go to banks to borrow money and regular people can’t afford
ticket prices,’ said Michael Gulko, a semi-retired nightclub singer in Brighton
Beach with its large Russian community in New York’s Brooklyn borough.
‘Alla and Philip are exceptions,’ said Gulko, who keeps up with the
entertainment community in Moscow. Philip is Philip Kirkorov, a rising star
himself and Pugacheva’s fourth husband, 18 years her junior. He is producing
the four-concert U.S. tour that wraps up in Los Angeles Oct. 21 after a show
in Chicago. They are mega-stars in Russia and with the Russian emigre community.
‘I cannot play stadiums because the average Russian doesn’t have money so
I cut back on production for smaller venues, for people who can afford higher
ticket prices,’ Kirkorov said. Stadium shows where thousands more could
attend do not make as much money for the artists when the average Russian
is not being paid a regular wage, he said.
‘MY FORCE IS THE RUSSIAN SOUL’
‘The value of my singing is in the Russian language, my Russian voice. My
force is the Russian soul,’ Pugacheva said. And the Russian soul now is
tormented with winter approaching, a bad harvest, reignition of inflation
and a banking system that teeters on complete collapse. ‘Now is a time of
changing generations. While there is a problem with the crisis, the younger
generation wants to change things but doesn’t have the facilities yet, while
the older ones say don’t change what wasn’t necessarily broken,’ she said.
‘Coming here reminds me of Russia,’ said Natalie Nekrasov, 30, who emigrated
to New York from Kiev six years ago.
‘I think she was funny,’ said her 7-year-old daughter Lisa, who fidgeted
in her seat as mom laughed, cried and sang along. ‘But I like the Back Street
Boys the best,’ she added, referring to the heart-throb mega-bands that
have millions in marketing dollars behind them. ‘I want Lisa to know about
her culture, even pop culture,’ Natalie said.
But if Lisa is a sign of things to come, Pugacheva and her husband will have
a tough time breaking through to American audiences to supplement the Russian
Americans who form a base of support outside a collapsing economy. She performs
a uniquely Russian form of entertainment called Estrada that mixes different
kinds of performance art and music and was likened to rock ‘n’ roll in Soviet
days. Kirkorov says popularity means raising production costs. ‘Being a
star is a myth, a persona, a fairy tale to live. I feel like I play a role,
lifting the bar higher each time.
The country may go down, but if I reduce the size of my show, then people
think something wrong with me,’ he said. Kirkorov, who played to sold-out
crowds in New York and Las Vegas in recent years, says he covers his expenses
but is forced to spend more each time to match his popularity. ‘I have very
big ambitions. To have all the limits of Russia is too small,’ he said before
his wife’s concert.
‘I’m the king of Russian pop. I’m good-looking, I will always have a baby
face. I have no promoter now but I hope he will appear soon. I am waiting
for him to come to me,’ he said confidently, while fans waited with hopes
for an autograph.
Baltimore Sun April 16, 1999
Celebrity: For her 50th birthday, singer Pugacheva gets hero’s welcome
at the Kremlin.
By Kathy Lally
MOSCOW — The crowd pressed close together in the corner of a muddy apartment
courtyard yesterday, people fragrant with garlic, sausages, beer and French
perfume. A father balanced a toddler on his shoulders and a video camera
in his hand; old women rested heavy shopping bags; model-like beauties strode
about, mobile phones pressed to their ears; women in fluorescent orange work
jackets put down cups of ugly green paint, to watch and dream.
They all awaited Alla Pugacheva, a national heroine who turned 50 yesterday.
They waited, some holding a single red rose, others a bouquet of yellow ones,
standing cheerfully in an oppressive morning fog, simply because she is a
star, the nation’s most-loved and longest-enduring pop singer.
Her birthday was the top story on TV news programs, ahead of death in Yugoslavia,
attempts to avoid a world war and crucial World Bank negotiations. Boris
N. Yeltsin summoned her to the Kremlin, and gave her the Order of Service
to the Fatherland, second rank, apologizing that it was not the first rank,
held exclusively by the president as a symbol of power.
Outside her apartment building, the crowd cheered and chanted her name when
she headed toward her stretch limousine, a white Lincoln Town Car from Brea,
Calif., that looked about 5 blocks long, though it’s said to be 30 feet.
“I’m going to the Kremlin,” she said, saying the word “Kremlin” as if in
italics, as if she were an ordinary person just like them, one moment standing
in the Moscow mud, the next swept off to the Kremlin with the rich and famous.
“I’m going to get a special order. I want to tell you it’s not mine but yours.
If it were not for you, I wouldn’t be getting it.”
Alla Pugacheva has been famous ever since 1975, when she won a contest singing
a song called “Harlequin.” Since then, the nation has seen her through four
marriages, the birth of a grandson, 150 million records, a few face lifts,
serious weight gains, diets, surgery, weight loss and constant, lively gossip.
She is a consummately Russian heroine, admired as the perfect grandmother,
performing in white go-go boots, dresses high above the knee. When she’s
heavy, the dresses billow like mini choir robes. When she’s thin, they’re
slinky and diaphanous. Her songs are melodramatic. Her voice is raspy from
too many cigarettes, too much vodka and plenty of pain. She wears big hair
and high heels. Her fourth husband, a baby-faced pop singer named Filipp
Kirkorov, is 18 years younger than she is.
A month ago, the volatile politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky demanded that
presidential impeachment proceedings, scheduled for today, be postponed so
as not to distract from the important business of her birthday. At the last
minute, they wre. Yesterday, she was dressed modestly as she headed off to
the Kremlin, wearing a long black dress with a black jacket, carrying a cigarette
in a long black holder. Her hair, sometimes a bright, shouting red, was streaked
red, blond and brown. Her makeup was understated — her husband had pinker
lips and darker foundation than she.
When she burst onto the stage, Leonid Brezhnev was presiding from the Kremlin
over what were called the years of stagnation. She quickly attracted scandalized
attention. In those gray days of conformity, she spoke louder than other
women. She smoked rakishly. She charged across the stage in fancy costumes,
full of showmanship, glamour and abandon. She was said to swear. They called
her vulgar, sometimes coarse. She made the authorities uneasy.
“She never sang about politics,” said Inna Rudenko, a well-known journalist.
“In a cold, hypocritical time, she sang about simple, natural feelings. And
she sang in such a way that every song was a riot against the hypocrisy and
heartlessness, against being an automaton. She wanted to live and not just
to exist.” In a repressed society, she acted as if she were free.
“I remember her youth,” Maria Dyomina, 76, said yesterday as she waited outside
Pugacheva’s apartment. “Those memories give me a good feeling.” “She’s a
national hero,” said Fyodor Shirokov, a 19-year-old student wearing a black
leather jacket and carrying a backpack with the name of the rock group Queen
emblazoned on it. “There’s no one equal to her,” said Leya Redzhini, 36.
“She’s not afraid to change her style. She has changed with the times.”
She even has an Internet site dedicated to her: www.alla.net.
In the late ’70s, Russians told this joke: “Who was Brezhnev?” a child asks,
20 years into the future. “He was a political figure who lived in the Pugacheva
era.” Yesterday, a playful Yeltsin summoned up that old joke. “I’m happy
to be remembered as one of the political leaders of the Pugacheva era,” he
said in the reception hall were he entertains the high and mighty. Yeltsin
pinned a medal on Pugacheva’s jacket and hung another around her neck. She
smiled and gave a thumbs up.
“If we were going to drink …,” she began, then caught herself and said,
“I forgot, you don’t drink anymore.” The president interrupted. “We’re going
to drink. We’re going to drink.” They clinked champagne glasses, and drank.
The Guardian (UK) May 1, 1999
Alla be praised Alla Pugacheva came 15th in the Eurovision Song Contest.
But can this Russian granny fill the Hammersmith Apollo?
By Isobel Montgomery
Alla who? Alla Pugacheva, heroine to millions of Russians and eastern Europeans
but a total unknown to most Britons, is playing London. Her audacity is
astounding: this woman who came 15th in the Eurovision Song Contest two years
ago and sings only in Russian hopes to fill the Hammersmith Apollo.
It just might work. Pugacheva has sold millions of records at home and played
70,000-seater stadiums across the former Soviet Union. And tomorrow’s concert
will give fans a chance to wish Alla Borisovna, as she is known to
Russian-speakers, a happy 50th birthday.
Pugacheva is the queen of Russian pop, indisputably glamorous and a grandmother.
She rides around Moscow in a white stretch limo, puts her name to perfume
and shoe brands, and this month made the cover of Russian Vogue. On her birthday,
April 15, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda asked fans to lay single red
roses outside her Moscow flat in deference to her 70s hit A Million Scarlet
Roses. Pugacheva joked that they should come back when she was 60.
Meanwhile, radio stations plundered her 13-disc collected works for a non-stop
tribute, and a documentary produced by her third husband, singer and sex
symbol Filipp Kirkorov, was screened for a second time. (In 1996 it drew
record viewing figures: 85% of the population).
Even president Boris Yeltsin has toasted Pugacheva, throwing a champagne
reception for her birthday. Awarding her the Order of Service to the Fatherland,
Second Class, he joked: ‘Many of us can claim to have lived in the Pugacheva
era’ – a reference to a quip that geriatric leader Leonid Brezhnev would
be best remembered for sharing his nationality with the flame-haired, vivacious
singer whose huge voice has made her Russia’s best-loved star for more than
a quarter-century. Even Mikhail Gorbachev appointed her People’s Artist of
Communism has come and gone, but Pugacheva has remained. She has been likened
to Barbra Streisand for her ballads, and to Shirley Bassey for her gutsy
throatiness and her gay following. Her longevity and penchant for thigh-skimming
skirts draw obvious comparisons to Tina Turner. Even her most devoted fans,
however, would say that the time has come for Pugacheva to act with more
But the singer, who punctuates speech and songs with a gravelly laugh, refuses
to compromise with age. And while many of today’s teenagers see her as a
dinosaur who should retire gracefully, or at least restrict stage appearances
to her regular new year concerts, Pugacheva has rarely heeded advice. Her
whole career has been in defiance of accepted behaviour.
When she made her debut in 1965 with a song about a robot, the Soviet pop
scene was strictly controlled. Klavdia Shulzhenko, voice of the postwar
generation, was still singing nostalgic ballads, stirring marches and the
occasional melancholic love song. A younger singer, Edita Pekha, performed
the same kind of material but with a Polish lisp. Pugacheva, the gap-toothed
prima donna, broke the rules less as a protest against the straitjacket of
official culture than because she wanted the limelight all to herself.
By 1975, when she wowed the jury at Bulgaria’s Golden Orpheus festival, Pugacheva
had spent a decade playing workers’ clubs, beach resorts, provincial palaces
of culture and the occasional stadium. She played first with an agitprop
brigade from the Yunost radio station, then with a series of bands, succeeding
in upstaging them all.
At last, the men in grey suits at the ministry of culture allowed her to
launch a solo career. When her first album appeared, she was a single mother
living in a one-bedroomed Moscow flat, earning less than 20 roubles per concert.
But however fantastic it seemed in the grey days of Brezhnev, Pugacheva knew
what she wanted: a Mercedes, a good fur coat and the adoration of every Soviet
Her massive popularity – she is estimated to have sold more than 150 million
records officially, plus millions of bootleg recordings – was sparked in
the early seventies, when televisions appeared across the Soviet Union. Her
enduring status as Russia’s premier pop ambassador has been enhanced by her
complicated love life and battles against weight and ageing; she is rumoured
to have had liposuction, breast implants and numerous other nips and tucks
at Swiss clinics.
Pugacheva has trodden a careful path, rarely directly opposing the political
leadership, though when one love song was banned for its narrowly personal
theme, she defiantly sang it at a Polish pop festival. Her concerts were
televised during religious festivals, in a deliberate attempt to keep citizens
glued to the screen and away from church. And she has been shrewd in eschewing
western tastes, creating her own uniquely Russian brand of pop. When she
was finally let loose on the world in 1988 – she toured the US, then North
Korea, Spain, Italy, Canada and Australia – she was reportedly disappointed
that the west found her old-fashioned, even a comic parody. Now, she insists,
she is beyond caring. To smooth out her backcombed hair, tone down her make-up
and swap her voluminous kaftans for elegant clothes is just not Pugacheva.
Admittedly, it takes a Russian to truly appreciate her emotional ballads.
But her songs, with lyrics by Russian poets, are far from banal. When the
50-year-old takes the stage at Hammersmith, the audience will be clutching
red roses, ready to throw them at the feet of their idol. Undoubtedly, they
will award the grandmother of Russian music a standing ovation or two.
o Alla Pugacheva plays the Labatt’s Apollo, Hammersmith, London, at 6pm tomorrow.