Come on over, Valeriya: Meet 'Russia's Madonna'

She's had 17 number one hits in her homeland, but the so-called 'Russian Madonna' has remained unknown in the UK – until now
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The Independent Culture

A slim, blonde singer with a vulnerable look and an involved history may be about to burst upon us, as Russia's biggest cultural export since Shostakovich. Or she may just be another artist trying to break into the Western music market and not making it, the victim of a cultural prejudice that says that countries where they don't speak English can't do rock'n'roll.

It is odd that the singer, Valeriya, who has been called the Russian Madonna, can be such a superstar only a three-hour plane journey from London, and so unknown here. She is reputed to have sold 100 million discs east of the Oder-Neisse line. She has made eight albums, and had 17 No 1 hits. Her single "Chasiki" ("Locks") topped Russia's charts for 15 weeks. In August, she was named by Forbes magazine as Russia's ninth-highest earning celebrity. Vladimir Putin is ranked among her fans.

Click the arrow to listen to a clip of Valeriya's single 'The Party's Over'.

But over here, she merits a Wikipedia entry six desultory lines long, and the occasional mention in the popular press, usually because of a tie-in with Robin Gibb, formerly of the Bee Gees, who – like a voice in the wilderness – has been trying to alert an indifferent British public to the fact that they are missing out on a potentially mega international singing star.

Face to face, Valeriya – who does not use her full name, which is Alla Yuryevna Perfilova – is not what the West expects of a rock star. She is not childish, rude, self-obsessed, living off her nerves, stuffed with botox, or dependent on stimulants. Over breakfast in a Moscow hotel, she could have been any pleasant, well-dressed, fit, middle-aged Russian woman, with a scary-looking bullet-headed husband at her side. She seems as interested in everyone around her as they are fascinated by her.

There was champagne on ice in the background, and there is no prohibition on smoking in Russian restaurants, but light breakfast and coffee is good enough for Valeriya. "I've never taken alcohol, no cigarettes, never. I don't know why. I just don't enjoy it. We're not very typical showbiz," she confesses.

She also does not do sexually provocative photo shoots, or publicity stunts. Valeriya's life story, and the power with which she belts out songs on stage, is actually more Tina Turner than Madonna. Having risen to fame via a talent contest at the age of 23, she dropped out of the music business in 2001, abandoned her first husband, who was also her manager, and took their three children to live with her parents in the little town of Atkarsk, near the banks of the Volga in south Russia. Her fans were appalled, but she describes the episode as if it were life or death.

"I was very controlled. There was a guy who told me to do things, he told me how to think, how to feel, how to talk, how to behave – everything, everything.

"In a case where you have little children, it's impossible to break off a relationship just like that. The person has to try hard to make a decision, and maybe it's not right. I tried to save my family. I tried to save my ex-husband. I tried to help him in every possible way but I realised that if I didn't stop, I would lose myself.

"The fans thought that I was going to leave them for ever, they were very sad. When I stopped my career, they were really upset – they said, 'You don't have the right to behave like this, you didn't say goodbye to us.' It was horrible, and one of the reasons why I came back."

That comeback is also now the stuff of Russian rock legend. It concerns a chance meeting with the new husband at Valeriya's side – Iosif Prigozhin, head of NOX-music, one of Russia's biggest independent labels.

"It was a really funny story," she recounts. "It was in April 2003. I didn't have an apartment here in Moscow, because my ex-husband did not leave me anything. I lived in Atkarsk with my kids, in a one-bedroom flat. That's all I had. When I was visiting Moscow, Iosif offered me a lift. I said, 'Take me home.' He didn't understand that home was 1,000 kilometres away. When I told him, he realised there was no turning back.

"My parents were expecting me at 11am, but we arrived at 6am. We woke everybody up. My mother saw me coming in with a strange man. It's a very small flat. They were face to face in a narrow corridor. She looked at him and said, 'You have very kind eyes,' and I knew it would be all right."

Prigozhin also has a shrewd head for business. Soon, he had Valeriya back at the top of her profession, the public face of a lucrative television advertising campaign, with her own lines in perfume and jewellery and a store in Moscow bearing her name.

She published a book on her marital problems. "It was released two years ago and I still get many women coming up to me. I couldn't imagine it before, how many women suffer, not just in this country, but everywhere. It was like a ray of light for them, it was hope. They didn't think something like this could happen to me. They thought that I took baths in milk."

She looks in good shape, especially for a woman in a high-pressure job, about to turn 40, with three children under 15. She claims her blond hair is natural, though it's rumoured to have been darker years ago. "Blondes have more fun," she remarks. Her English, learnt at school, seems effortlessly fluent, though she complains that after a few hours, the strain of enunciating English vowel sounds makes her jaw ache.

Hitherto, the only Russian act to break into the English charts was Tatu, whose rise in 2003 was greatly helped by their being young, sexy and – allegedly – lesbians. Valeriya is not a novelty act, and is dismissive of the sort of passing fame offered by programmes such as Pop Idol. "They call themselves stars and it's not true. They are forgotten about very quickly and it's sad, very sad. They disappear as fast as they appear," she says.

Bluntly, there is no precedent to suggest that there is a market in Britain waiting to be filled by a seasoned Russian rock singer – and that is not to mention the current state of Anglo-Russian political relations, which are worse than they have been for a generation – yet Valeriya's husband/ manager is risking a hefty chunk of his private fortune on exporting her, and there are serious people such as the British record promoters working for her here who believe that she can do it. Her new English-language single, "The Party's Over", is now being distributed to DJs ahead of its British launch this month. Gibb made a 1,600-mile round trip to be on stage when she performed the song in a Moscow nightclub, for the benefit of Russia's national television news. "We can get bogged down in the UK and forget the rest of the world," Gibb says. "But once I had heard her music I was very excited. She has a style of her own. They have hit the market with the right music."

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