Tatu: From Russia with lust

The Russian duo Tatu shocked the record-buying public (or titillated it heartily, depending on your point of view) with their faux-lesbian schoolgirl shenanigans a few years ago. Now they're back, older (but still only 23), a little less lesbian and, they say, a lot wiser. Interview by Shaun Walker

The two skinny, barely pubescent girls in their school uniforms, wailing lyrics of confusion and kissing in the rain. The dodgy producer who was running the show. The rumours that the lesbian antics were all a cynical ploy to sell records. Remember Tatu?

Well, the Russian double act, who made it to No 1 in the UK and dozens of other countries with their 2002 hit "All the Things She Said", are set for a comeback. They never really went away, but you'd be forgiven for not having noticed them much since those heady days of 2002. After a pretty ropey Eurovision performance and the cancellation of a high-profile set of gigs at Wembley Arena and other venues in 2003, they haven't exactly made headlines too often this side of the Volga.

But this autumn the pair, now a bit older, a bit more serious and a bit less lesbian, are back with a new album, and believe it or not, a Hollywood film starring Mischa Barton. I decided to catch up with them in Moscow and find out about how life has treated them since that infamous, rain-drenched kiss.

Before I get to meet the girls two-on-one, I've been invited to see them play live at a concert they're giving in the Russian capital, on a vile, rainy September night. I'm ushered into the dressing room to say a brief hello before the show, and am introduced to Yulia Volkova and Lena Katina, the brunette and the gingery blonde who make up the double act. In real life, both of them seem incredibly tiny, even with high heels on, and while time has aged them, they still look like teenagers.

Lena, the quieter and plainer of the two girls, greets me in polite English, while Yulia, being the diva, absentmindedly shakes my hand, while looking the other way and complaining that she's cold. The room is boiling. At the first sign of a camera, she strikes up a melodramatic pout, and throws a suggestive hand on to the inner thigh of Lena, who looks faintly bored. The dressing room is a hive of activity, with many mostly male hangers-on lurking. One of them, I later discover, is Parviz, the smartly dressed boyfriend of Yulia, and the father of her second child. Some of the others look pretty shifty.

"I love it when everyone's watching," jokes Yulia, striking ever more absurd poses for the camera. More men appear, and the girls give them excited hellos. Then another woman shows up wringing her hands and kicks everyone out – they only have 10 minutes to get changed for the performance. And so we all troop out, leaving only the make-up artists and boyfriend in the room. Outside, a foxy Russian television presenter, a pair of purple D&G knickers escaping out from her jeans, is loudly complaining that she was supposed to have time with Tatu, and is promising trouble for whoever has dared to deny her the interview. Ten minutes later, they're ready, in high heels and matching shiny raincoats, one white and one black, and we walk with them to the side of the stage as they prepare to wow the public.

The concert is a typically surreal piece of Moscow madness, an invitation-only party hosted in a lavish theatre in a shabby district of East Moscow that's been converted into a nightclub for the evening. Young moneyed Russians arrive in their droves, and my concerns that the scruffy jacket I've dug out for the occasion won't make it past the "strictly smart casual or you will be denied entry" door policy evaporate when I see that the male Russian twentysomethings in attendance have taken "smart casual" to mean anything from hoodies and wifebeaters to shiny white shirts open to the midriff. Their women are dressed to the nines, smoking slim cigarettes and knocking back mojitos as they wait for Tatu to come on. In a typical Moscow touch, downtrodden middle-aged women in navy proletarian jumpsuits meander meekly among the beautiful people, brushing up their cigarette ends and rubbish into dustpans.

The event is put on by Bacardi, the idea being to mix together genres that are "supposedly unmixable". So, before Tatu get to play their set, we have a dance routine by a dozen ballerinas from one of Russia's leading ballet theatres, who are presumably there not for the artistic enrichment of collaborating with Tatu, but because they need the cash. Next up is a pop/opera crossover singer, who emerges in a Tutankhamun costume, which he dramatically throws off to reveal a cream suit and peroxided bowl cut, and bashes out an appalling rendition of "Nessun Dorma" to the backing of a House DJ. The supposedly unmixable turns out to be, well, unmixable.

We wait at the side of the stage for the bowl cut to depart, which he does, after a protracted blowing of kisses to every member of the audience, and then it's time. A stage with Tatu's backing band already on it and playing a hard-rock intro descends slowly from the ceiling, and the two girls skip on to the stage to wild applause. I wish them good luck and retreat to the main dancefloor to watch the show. By now it's well past one in the morning, and the crowd are in the mood to enjoy themselves.

They play around six numbers that I don't know, including a couple of brand new tracks, before ending with the two hits that brought them worldwide fame – "All the Things She Said" and "Not Gonna Get Us". The ballads drag a bit, but the faster songs are full of energy, and the hard guitar chords underneath the girls' floating voices, which still resonate with innocence, give the performance a dark edge. After three tracks the two girls pull off their raincoats to reveal skimpy attire, but lesbian shenanigans are restricted to the mere holding of hands; there's none of the snogging and dry humping that used to accompany the girls' performances. But they're definitely enjoying themselves, sprinting around the stage and shaking their hair around, and they hit every note perfectly – a relief after the disastrous "Nessun Dorma".

I depart into the Moscow rain with a smile on my face – Tatu are trash, but they're extremely enjoyable and pretty talented trash, and there is always that slight hard edge that makes their songs a bit darker and a bit more uncomfortable than pure sugary pop.

A few days later I go to meet them at Tatu's central Moscow office, and the two of them are waiting for me in comfy red leather chairs each side of one end of a long meeting table.

"Shall I sit here?" I ask, pointing to the space in the middle – there doesn't seem much space for me to fit in. The two of them fix their stares on me and start giggling.

"Yes of course," they chorus. Despite the fact that both of them are now 23, neither of them looks their age, and I still see them as the snogging, just-hit-puberty teens of several years back. But they're adamant that the "All the Things She Said" time is long gone.

The music has evolved, keeping the soaring, angst-ridden voices but replacing poppy backing tracks with more rock-infused sounds. And the girls themselves have also changed.

"A lot of time has passed – we've grown up emotionally and physically," says Yulia. She does look different now, the spiky, dykey hair of their first videos replaced with longer locks.

"We're 23, we think about different things to what we thought about when we were 14," says Lena, munching on a piece of Turkish Delight. They're both far more engaged and open than they were when we met before the concert, and both of them come across as sharp, pleasant women.

"Our music now is very different," says Yulia. "We became much more rock-oriented, and the subject matter changed too." The Sapphic kissing is out, but the videos are still fairly risqué. The most recent single, "White Robe", features plenty of nudity, and ends with a pregnant Yulia, in an asylum, stripped to her underwear, and shot by a firing squad led by Lena.

So many years later, Yulia and Lena are still Russia's most famous double act, or at least they were until Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev teamed up earlier this year. And like the Kremlin duo, the two halves of Tatu couldn't be more different. Yulia is the dominant, Putin figure, talking at a hundred miles an hour and waving her hands in excited gesticulations, while Lena is the thoughtful and introspective Medvedev, talking slowly and ponderously. When I play back the recording of the interview it sounds like someone is cranking up the speed every time Yulia speaks and winding it back down when Lena interjects.

Yulia has come to the early afternoon meeting caked in make-up, with her eyebrows drawn on heavily and a bloody lipstick smile. She has a raunchy black leather jacket hugging her petite torso, a pair of tight white leggings, and dainty black shoes with grey bows on them. Lena meanwhile is almost completely without make-up, her hair pulled back from her small, birdlike face into a thick ginger plait. Yulia, who has had two children with two different men, says she enjoys going out to cafés and nightclubs, and can't survive a minute without chatting to her friends, while Lena still lives with her parents, and describes her interests as "taking walks in the park, or going to museums". She has a demure peach T-shirt and scruffy blue jeans, and looks like a university student on the way to the library more than one half of a notorious duo.

The pair had been selected and put together by the producer Ivan Shapovalov in 2000, when they were just 14, and after the girl band, the boy band, and the girl-boy band, the lesbian band was the next logical step and a brilliant marketing ploy. They were encouraged to play up the Sapphic antics and give short shrift to the media to increase the mystery. When they split with Shapovalov in 2003, the lesbianism was also exposed as a fake, and not long after Yulia revealed she had a boyfriend and was pregnant.

But the lesbianism, as well as being a useful marketing ploy, has also had more serious consequences in Russia, a country where homosexuality is still a taboo subject. The Moscow mayor has banned gay marches in the city and called homosexuals "satanists" and while as in many places, lesbians are treated with sniggers and gays with violence, life isn't easy for any "people of non-traditional orientation", as they're referred to here.

Eight years ago, when the pair first broke on to the Russian scene, the public lesbianism was dynamite. "People used to call us and say thank you that helped us to come out," says Yulia. "You helped us to feel like people." And even if they're no longer fully signed-up members of the gay community, they still support gay rights, turning up last year to a banned gay parade that saw Peter Tatchell and Right Said Fred's singer Richard Fairbrass assaulted.

"They nearly killed us," says Yulia. "They said we'd go to hell and chased us to the car – we were shaking all over. It's a very confusing situation in Russia. Gays are such friendly, positive people; they're much more positive than normal people. If you go to a gay club the atmosphere is so much better – none of these bitchy girls with their tits out and men sleazing around smoking cigars – they just have fun and enjoy themselves."

"If boys like boys or girls like girls, so what?" says Lena. "We're all people – we tried to show people that there's no need to pressurise or ostracise people because of it. The situation is still bad but it has got better."

A bizarre film project due out at the end of the year revisits the theme. Two girls, one American and one Russian, fall in love over the internet and share a love of Tatu. It's based on a book by a nationalist Russian politician, stars Mischa Barton, and is directed by Roland Joffé. The trailer looks pretty appalling, but it goes to show that the girls' appeal still endures. And the two of them claim that their initial image wasn't so far from the truth after all.

"It was overblown but it was real. We were just showing the emotions we had at that time," says Lena.

"It was our teenage years," adds Yulia. "You have to try everything. It felt at the time like it was real love – it felt like there was nothing more serious... Now when you look back at it of course it's ridiculous. We still sleep in the same bed sometimes. But it doesn't mean we stay up all night having sex," she says. I look the other way, trying my best not to conjure up a mental image. "We just have very close, friendly relations. Though we do still sometimes get drunk and kiss each other. But it's just fun between friends."

The album 'Happy Smiles' is released in October. 'You and I', starring Mischa Barton, will be released next year

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