Russia fawns over its starlet

Celebrity: For her 50th birthday, singer Pugacheva gets hero's welcome at the Kremlin.

April 16, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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 were.

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:

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.

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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