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Russian Paris Hilton
The former USSR has its own version of the hard-partying blond airhead.
Ksenia Sobchak lies on a lonely stage. Glitter rains down on her. Disco balls hang from the ceiling. Everywhere, assistants, extras, men with mullets and airplane shades and video cameras circle and stare, purring, “Ksyusha, Ksyusha, Ksyusha.” (People who know Sobchak call her Ksyusha.) Ksyusha is lovely, ribald, ridiculous. Dressed in a mermaid costume, she drags a sparkly hand through her phenomenal blond mane. She seems oblivious to the people working on her—the stylist, the woman rubbing cream into her legs, the guy squeezing her into a blue-gray fin. Four very muscular men—tanned, waxed, naked except for G-strings—stand in a small pool in front of her. Cell phones (chimes, bells, hip-hop riffs) ring endlessly.
It is late afternoon in the middle of August, and everywhere in Moscow, it is scorching. Not here. Here it is cool and dark. We are in Egoistka, which normally features male strippers but today is the set for the latest episode of Sobchak’s reality-television show, The Blonde in Chocolate.
At 25, Ksenia Sobchak is not just the hottest property in Russia. With her two television shows—she also hosts House-2, about a clique of twentysomethings living under the same roof—her radio gig and her books, she’s a self-made, privately held corporation. More than that, she is an emblem for a way of being in today’s Russia—brash, sultry, self-involved. She is the new zeitgeist.
After the shoot, we decamp to an upstairs lounge at Egoistka. The name of the club means “selfish woman” in Russian, and right now, in this darkened lounge, in this tiny corner of the unholy capital, where oil money is ubiquitous and beauty is always a millimeter deep, the word feels very, very apropos. The new zeitgeist curls up on a zebra-print couch. She manages to look deeply into the eyes of someone she has never met.
Sobchak has been dubbed the Paris Hilton of Russia even though the two bear little resemblance: Hilton is tall, lithe, striking; Sobchak is shorter, a pretty girl, no doubt, but hardly a standout in a country teeming with standouts. Anyway, Sobchak apparently doesn’t like being compared to an American rich-girl sex kitten (or maybe she does, just a little), and before long she launches a preemptive, anti-Paris strike. “I like this idea that what we are doing on my program is taking an image like Paris Hilton, like this dumb blond doing nothing, but we are showing it in a fun way—absurdly,” she says. But that was Ksenia Sobchak up there in the spotlight, yes? This is reality television. Sobchak smiles and shakes her head. That’s Ksenia Sobchak playing Ksenia Sobchak. “This character,” she says, “is my hero. She can be in this pool with naked boys. She can be absurd. I am trying to speak to people through parody.” Much like Borat, she says. Sobchak is a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, even though his film was banned in Russia. “In a humorous way, he touched on very serious issues—anti-Semitism, middle-class culture, going to church.”
Not that The Blonde in Chocolate has similarly lofty goals. It’s just that Russia in the early 21st century is a place in dire need of parody. “People who have money here,” she says, “unfortunately, they still want to show off, wear all this jewelry. They haven’t gotten used to it like they have in Europe or the United States. We still have this”—she pauses—“this Arab touch.” Despite the influx of luxury retailers, the money, the unquenchable thirst for all things Italian, people haven’t figured out how to think about fashion, why it’s not okay to unbutton your shirt to your navel, why too much eau de whatever is off-putting. Russia, as any semi-sentient being who has spent a night at First or Diaghilev or any of Moscow’s top-tier clubs knows, is living through an era of very bad taste. Sobchak implies as much without alienating her audience; she skewers, but subtly. “Thank God I live in Russia in these times,” she says, “the total chaos, the total absurdity of things.”
Indeed, Sobchak’s celebrity could only have happened in times like these. She was four when Mikhail Gorbachev took power and 10 when the Soviet Union collapsed. That was in December 1991. At the time, her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was a law professor, a member of the quasi-independent Congress of People’s Deputies and a leading democratic light close to President Boris Yeltsin. From 1991 to 1996, as the country clawed its way out of 70 years of socialist totalitarianism, Anatoly Sobchak served as St. Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor. Among his senior lieutenants was a former KGB hand named Vladimir Putin.
The story of Anatoly’s fall from grace is a metaphor for Russia. Immediately following the Soviet implosion, a mafia war broke out across the country, with criminal organizations battling for control of state assets. St. Petersburg witnessed some of the worst violence. Local authorities, far from bringing order to the city, were accused of conspiring with mafia bosses, channeling billions into bank accounts and holding companies in Switzerland and Cyprus. In 1996 Anatoly was defeated for re-election, and the next year, under investigation for any number of scandals petty and not so petty, he fled to Paris. He returned to Russia in 1999—only after Putin had risen to the highest echelons of the Yeltsin government—and appeared en route to a full-fledged resurrection when, the next year, he suffered a fatal heart attack while campaigning for his former protégé. Ksenia, then 18, says she was in Amsterdam with her boyfriend when her father died. She won’t say anything else about what happened; she says she’s unclear about a lot of details.
What’s very clear is that a fortuitous alignment of politics and star power has catapulted Sobchak from student to starlet. After her father’s death she moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where she studied international relations at the top-ranked Moscow State University. And soon after coming to the big city, she embarked on a career in showbiz, starring in the 2004 film Thieves and Prostitutes, or the Prize Is a Mission to Space. Other roles followed. Then television. Then came the write-ups in the tabloids. Then more television. Then, in 2006, Sobchak launched, with oligarch-widow Oksana Robsky, the perfume To Marry a Millionaire. A few months later came the similarly titled book, which featured a cover photo of Sobchak and Robsky in bad-girl wedding dresses brandishing automatic weapons.
Yes, Sobchak knows lots of powerful people, beginning with her mother, a lawmaker in Russia’s Federation Council. Sobchak doesn’t say much about her mother, Lyudmila Narusova, who belongs to one of the two pro-Kremlin parties that dominate the parliament. But she’s been spotted in Narusova’s burgundy Mercedes, which has government license plates and is therefore immune to traffic cops. And no doubt, all these people would happily help Sobchak embark on a political career. (Not out of the question: Last year she founded her own youth movement, All Free. The movement’s stated goal was to teach young Russians how to be free—not a bad idea, given today’s climate—but most political consultants appear to have written it off.) Still, Sobchak says her on-air accomplishments are her own. “It was very important to me that I be my own person,” she says. “That’s why I chose show business. You can’t make people watch TV because you’re someone’s daughter.” But success in Putin’s Russia, political or otherwise, often means presidential patronage. The Kremlin controls all major television stations. And there are few investors who’d throw much cash at a movie that slammed the president. Unlike in the United States, where popular culture often lampoons or questions the establishment, in Russia, the hip, the now, is also the ruling class. There is no division of power.
Critics—the liberal cognoscenti, the reformers, the people who bemoan the fall of the House of Sobchak and the death of Russian democracy—say the little girl has grown up into a marionette, working, acting, distracting on behalf of the Kremlin, which would rather the masses focus on a blondinka in a mermaid outfit than important things like Chechnya or civil liberties. “The regime needs her to keep the freedom charade going,” says Nina Khrushcheva, an international-affairs expert at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of onetime Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. “Paris Hilton, as annoying and ridiculous as she is, has no bearing on politics and remains just entertainment. In Russia, where everything is about politics, Ms. Sobchak performs an important function.”
But there’s something uncontainable—unmanageable—about Sobchak. She says things she probably shouldn’t say. (Visiting the Sierra Nevada was “like having sex with a condom, like having sex with a prostitute”—very logical, very boring.) She does things she probably shouldn’t do. (There was that recent, not-quite-naked shoot in the Russian edition of Playboy.)
Sobchak gives no hint of her real intentions. Perhaps she has yet to decide. Perhaps she doesn’t know. She is a capitalist, a self-promoter, a party girl, the orchestrator and the orchestrated, the solar plexus of every late-night party in every vodka-soaked mandarin palace with a $10 million view of Red Square. She’s like Nicholas Urfe, the hero in her favorite novel, John Fowles’s The Magus. Urfe, on a desperate search for meaning in the Greek Isles, finds himself gradually drawn into the strange, terrifying world of the wealthy hermit Maurice Conchis. The question—facing Urfe and Sobchak—is who is running this peep show? Who decides what comes next? Is Sobchak a function of the place she comes from, or is she undermining that place, instructing her fans in not only how to dress and speak but also how to think?
The cameras are circling. The director and his retinue snake through the upstairs lounge. Sobchak’s deep stare fades, shifts, migrates to newer pastures. Someone’s cell phone is ringing. The sounds of 10 different techno headaches are drifting through the shadowy recess. Sobchak smiles one more time and says, “We are just about over now.”