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Russia's Successful New It Girl / Phenomenon
Ten years ago they were all diamonds and D-cups*, and amounted to nothing without a man. Now Moscow’s ‘tusovshchitsy’ — It girls** — have culture, class and style. And serious plans for their serious money
The taxi driver speeds through dense birch forest northwest of Moscow, heading towards Rublyovka, the capital’s most exclusive suburb. Every third car on the road seems to be a Mercedes, BMW, Rolls-Royce or Bentley. We enter a gated settlement crowded with palatial homes. The car stops before a four-storey mansion. Ulyana Tseitlina comes to the door.
Aged around 40, Tseitlina is described by the editor of Russia’s OK! magazine, Yana Lepkova, as the “guru” of Russian It girls. A less enamoured tabloid journalist called her the “queen of the Moscow twilight”, owing to her alleged hopping between the beds of various oligarchs. Tseitlina, a tall blonde who’s tanned from a month in France and Italy, and who wears bejewelled Ugg boots, admits that she gave people reason to gossip. “All those collections of Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana I bought, I couldn’t have worn them all, even if I’d dressed in something different every day.”
Still, as she perches on the cowhide sofa that dominates her plush living room, she’s dismissive of the “queen of the Moscow twilight” accusation, though there was an oligarch boyfriend, she says, who bought her house and helped with a London pad. “I could say I worked hard and did this and that. But in Russia, men are always behind it.”
Perhaps. But it’s going out of fashion for these women to attribute their success to male protectors. They may still party, and benefit from their connections, but they run businesses and not-for-profit organisations, too – whether or not funding comes from rich other halves. And they’re a curiosity that could only have happened in today’s Russia.
“Now nobody wants to have their photograph in a gossip magazine with the caption ‘party girl’,” says Lepkova. “It’s become shameful to be seen as a bogataya bezdelnitsa or a tusovshchitsa – a rich, female good-for-nothing.”
Russia’s first It girls appeared in the early 2000s. In the decade after the Soviet collapse, inflation yo-yoed, poverty soared, and in 1998 Russia’s stock market crashed. A few became very wealthy – the oligarchs bought up industrial firms at fire-sale prices when the state denationalised them. Tseitlina and Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of St Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor, emerged from this ferment. They were outrageous and pretty and relished their new wealth. They went to openings and unveilings and threw parties for famous guests, at home and in Monaco and St Tropez. “We were the first girls who introduced Russians to that kind of life: dinners, beautiful clothes, going out,” says Tseitlina proudly.
But It girls have changed with the times. Then, there was raucousness and over-indulgence. Now, despite a serious downturn in the wake of the Georgian conflict, the era of economic upheaval in Russia seems to be over, and Moscow is a calmer, albeit more authoritarian, place.
In 2006, Russia paid off its Soviet-era debt to western nations, and currently has foreign exchange reserves of around Ј300 billion. The rich in Russia are coming to resemble the rich from anywhere else. They build art collections, ski in Courchevel, and own property from Miami to London. In Moscow, which is home to 74 billionaires according to Forbes, they live in Rublyovka or within a few miles of the Kremlin. They even dress better. Yurate Gurauskaite, the editor of Russia’s In Style, notes that head-to-toe Versace, logos flashing, has become uncool, and that “a more relaxed, Hollywood-casual style” is in. The next generation has adjusted to wealth and luxury. They’re international – some live or attended school abroad. And they work. Darya Zhukova, girlfriend of Roman Abramovich (net worth, around Ј13 billion), has a gallery and a well-received fashion label – Kate Moss and the Olsen twins have worn her designs. Polina Deripaska, wife of a metals tycoon, runs a publishing house. It’s fair to say some of these projects are dependent on deep pockets; Zhukova’s gallery, for example, is non-profit-making.
The changing fortunes and tastes of ordinary Russians are also driving the interest in these women. While there’s still a bedrock of poverty, affluence is spreading. The average Russian wage has increased from $79 a month in 2000 to $529 in 2007, and in Moscow it’s around $1,000. Living standards in the 12 or so provincial Russian cities with a population over 1m, known as the millioniki, are rising. St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg are the most hyped; the latter, a city in the Ural mountains, already stocks Versace and Cartier. “Being classy and stylish is in demand. There’s a growing middle class here. Being this crazy blonde who dances all night, maybe it was hot five or 10 years ago. Now it’s the era of women who have something more to offer,” says Svetlana Kolchik, deputy editor of Russia’s Marie Claire.
It girls couldn’t have emerged without a (relatively new) celebrity industry. The shift started after the Soviet collapse with the publication of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1994, followed by a string of other glossies. With their growing incomes and increasingly European lifestyles, Russian women are curious about celebrities, especially those who combine work with glamour. Yana Lepkova says: “Back then, women had to work constantly, raise kids… They weren’t perceived as women like they were in the West.”
No matter how much Russia has changed, one thing has remained constant: these It girls offer an escape. According to editors, Russians always want to see perfectly coiffed and richly dressed women. Lepkova says every star, every interior in her magazine must look pristine and glossy, because readers want to imagine themselves in a prettier, less overwhelming place than their own country.
Ksenia Sobchak causes such concern among some Russians from the Siberian city of Omsk that they have formed an “anti-Sobchak” group, but little seems to halt the march of this 26-year-old in her bid for world domination. A ubiquitous blonde socialite, she is known as “Russia’s Paris Hilton” and, according to W magazine, is “not just the hottest property in Russia… she’s the new zeitgeist”65.
Sobchak has TV shows, a radio show and a perfume, has written a book on how to marry an oligarch (though she remains single), and posed (almost naked) for Russian Playboy. She is invited to nearly every party and red carpet. While in person she comes across as intelligent and hard-working, and is disdainful of the Hilton comparison, she doesn’t do much to discourage it. With a seeming nod to Imelda Marcos, she recently staged an exhibition of 400 pairs of her shoes in a trendy gallery.
“It was an answer to those contemporary art specialists who take it really seriously,” she told me recently at Silver Rain, the Moscow radio station where she has a weekly show, before taking off to a photo shoot in a blue Bentley. “It’s contemporary art, too. Take off your shoe, wash it, and make it into an art object.” Sobchak was reported last year to have an annual income of $1.5m.
She grew up in St Petersburg, where her father, Anatoly, was the first democratically elected mayor. He fled to Paris in 1997 after facing corruption charges, and died of a heart attack when he returned a few years later. Sobchak, whose mother has since become a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, moved to Moscow, enrolled at a prestigious university and began self-promoting in earnest. She wants to become Russia’s youthful answer to Oprah Winfrey, a multimedia matriarch.
Far from worrying that she sets a bad example, Sobchak sees herself as offering an alternative to the Soviet-style formality that pervades Russian life. “We’re too strait-laced,” she says.
“Only a few people are free and ready to experiment.”
KSENIA GORBACHEVA & ANASTASIA VIRGANSKAYA
The Gorbachev girls, as they are known, are as close as Russia gets to political royalty. The granddaughters of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the Soviet Union, they are both editors at the Russian Grazia magazine (although a colleague claims that it’s exceedingly rare for them to come into the office, which is located in a former furniture factory in a grotty suburb — and, if they do, it’s in a chauffeur-driven car).
Ksenia who, at 28, is seven years older than Anastasia, came to international attention when she attended the debutantes’ ball at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris in 2002, and Anastasia followed in her footsteps. As well as their magazine gig, they’ve been involved in PR and modelling. Last year, they appeared on the cover of Grazia dressed as English punk rockers. Their clothes were from the most expensive European and Japanese fashion houses; they looked beautiful. The headline of the article — “Fashion is our everything!” — says a lot about the values that now reign in certain parts of Russian society.
Gallerist, fashion designer
Darya Zhukova — who has been dating Roman Abramovich for more than two years now — is behind an eclectic range of projects, including the fashion label Kova & T, which she runs with the heiress Christina Tang, and a Russian gossip blog she has said she owns, Spletnik.ru.
Darya, 27, has gone out of her way to promote her modern art gallery, the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, hiring Amy Winehouse to perform at the opening in June. She is also mixing in elite circles: guests at her recent Moscow bash included the gallery mogul Larry Gagosian, the supermodel Natalia Vodianova, Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate galleries, and Barbara Bush, one of President Bush’s daughters.
The daughter of Alexander Zhukov, an oil magnate, she attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, and now splits her time between London and Moscow.
In person, Darya comes across as unassuming, answering questions politely but briefly. She declines to speak about Abramovich. “Would you call me famous?” she asks. “I don’t really think about it.”
She inspires awe in her contemporaries. “It’s incredible that she wants to do something with her fame,” says the TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak.
Producer of the pop star Dima Bilan
With the backing of a rich husband, 33-year-old Rudkovskaya rode to fame as the producer of Dima Bilan, the Russian pop star who won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Magazine editors call her an object lesson in how relative nobodies can win renown. “Nobody knew her before she began to work with Dtima,” says Yana Lepkova, the editor of OK! “Yana began to appear everywhere with Dima, never dressed the same — sometimes in cowboy style, sometimes 1930s. The papers and magazines began to print pictures of them together, and now she’s a fully fledged member of the showbiz crowd in her own right.”
Still, like many It girls, she has also attracted attention for living out her private life in the public eye. Before Bilan, she focused on running her beauty-salon chain in the resort town of Sochi. Then she married the businessman Viktor Baturin, who said last year that he is worth at least $200m (his sister Yelena, the wife of Moscow’s mayor, is a construction billionaire). But since their recent split, they have been attacking each other in the press. They clashed over whether Bilan should make hip-hop music; Baturin complained that Bilan had become “the chief black man in Russia”. Rudkovskaya bemoaned Baturin’s abusiveness and the battle over their children.
“I’m under constant pressure from my ex-husband; he’s fighting me with newspapers and television,” she tells me during a break from filming a TV show.
There is a silver lining, though. “Because of my fight for my kids and the fact that Dima won Eurovision, everyone in Russia understands that I have a really strong character, that I’m dedicated.” She is now dating the Olympic figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko.
Deripaska’s husband, Oleg, who made his fortune in the metals industry, was No 9 on this year’s Forbes list of the world’s billionaires — his net worth was estimated at $28 billion.
Deripaska, 28, was educated privately in England, at Millfield School, then at the prestigious Moscow State University. She is now in charge of Forward Media Group, a stable of publications that includes Russian Hello!
She strenuously denies the rumour that the company was a gift from her husband to prevent her from getting bored.
In Moscow Deripaska is seen at parties with the likes of Darya Zhukova and Shakri Amirkhanova, the former editor of Russia’s Harper’s Bazaar.
Young Russians say they’re drawn to It girls like Deripaska because they see in them a reflection of themselves.
“They live between several different countries, travel like crazy, work hard and speak several different languages,” says Svetlana Kolchik, the deputy editor of Russian Marie Claire. “They represent our generation, a unique generation that includes my friends.”
Interior designer, TV presenter
According to popular legend, says Tseitlina, she “once beat little bears at a party because I wanted them to dance for my guests”. She has also been portrayed as “some cruel bitch who has thousands of shoes and drinks Cristal Ros champagne every morning” — none of which bears any resemblance to her personality or habits, she hastens to add.
Now around 40 years old, though looking considerably younger, Tseitlina was born into a family of St Petersburg intelligentsia. For 10 years she lived in Melbourne with her husband, a doctor, before returning to Moscow without him in 2000. It was then that she befriended her fellow It girl and TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak, and the two gained notoriety for their intense partying and love of luxury. Tseitlina’s lifestyle was funded by a boyfriend who is on the Forbes list of 100 richest Russians. “The money came from him,” she admits, though she won’t say who he is. “It’s the same story all over the world. How else could a young girl have money?”
Tseitlina has fans, including the editor of Russian OK!, Yana Lepkova. “She is like a fairy-tale princess. She’s the guru for those girls who want to follow the same path as her: beautiful, blonde hair, lots of diamonds,” she enthuses. “But taking all this into account, she is very, very far from being stupid.”
Last year, Tseitlina was on the cover of Russian Playboy — “I’ve thought it was really cool since I was a girl” — and more recently hosted a reality-TV show on how to pass oneself off as a rich Muscovite.
But while she remains as high-profile as any of the It girls, her plans centre on raising her two-year-old son, whose father, she mentions, is not famous. “I don’t want to change the world,” she says.