With record sales of 100 million and countless awards for her music, she is probably the best-selling star never to have topped the British charts. But now Valeriya – Russia's answer to Madonna, who counts President Vladimir Putin among her army of fans – plans to change all that by trying to conquer London this week.
She brings with her an extraordinary soap-opera life story that, if filmed, would have critics pointing out that reality is not like that. But hers is. Born the daughter of two classical musicians, she achieved fame at the age of 23 with victory at international song contests. That set her on a fast track to becoming one of Russia's leading pop stars, and three years later she was voted Person of the Year by the country's journalists.
More awards and many more hits followed, and then in 2001, at the height of her renown, she broke with her manager Alexander Shulgin (who was also her husband and father of her three children), announced she was leaving showbusiness, and returned to her native Atkarsk in the country's south-west. Allegations that Shulgin was abusive speedily surfaced. "My ex-husband was a tyrant, a real tyrant," she said, "and I had a very messy divorce. It was a very hard time for me and for my kids."
She stayed out of the limelight for two years, resisting all offers, until, one day in 2003, Joseph Prigozhin, a kind of Russian Simon Cowell, came calling. He persuaded her to sign for a comeback; they fell in love, married, and, with his help, she returned an even bigger star – and tougher person – than she was before. Her empire now extends to publishing, perfume and jewellery, and she is also planning a clothing range with the French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
She is not your average simpering pop singer. Speaking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday, the classically trained Russian star was not slow to criticise her Western counterparts. "I think a lot in the West are just producers' projects more than artists in their own right," she said. "It's the lack of emotions, the lack of feelings – just catching phrases and some hooks and off they go. I hope that you'll be able to hear the elements of Russian soul and passion in my music. I think there's more than in Western pop – not only music but also in literature and in every kind of art. Many artists copy each other and are not as emotional in their music as I am."
She continued: "Nobody knows who I am in Britain yet but I want to become as famous here as I am in Russia. London is the world's music capital and it's a chance to show what a Russian pop singer can offer."
But Paul Williams, editor of Music Week, warned: "There is no real history of Russian acts having commercial success in the UK." He added that for the Russian star to make it over here, "it would have to go against all the trends".