Russia's got talent: Meet Emin, Moscow's answer to Michael Bublé

He's a property mogul, heir to family billions – and a pop sensation.

Interview,Fiona Sturges
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:49

It's a crisp spring morning in Moscow, and I'm standing in the penthouse of a luxury apartment block looking out across the city's icy rooftops. "You see those icicles?" remarks its owner, Emin, pointing at the translucent stalactites hanging off a building across the way. "They can take people out. Walk underneath them at the wrong moment, and you're gone. Finished! Can I get you a cup of tea?"

You may not have heard of Emin Agalarov (known simply to his fans as "Emin"), but in Russia everyone knows his name. As well as being a singer with four platinum-selling albums under his belt, this exuberant 31-year-old is the son of Aras Agalarov, the Azerbaijani founder of the construction and retail corporation Crocus Group, and, according to Forbes, one of the 1,000 richest people in the world (his net worth is estimated at $1.5bn, though his son puts it at nearer $2bn).

And if that's not enough to keep him in aftershave, Emin is married to Leyla Aliyev, the 25-year-old daughter of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan. With their combined wealth, lofty connections and assorted appearances in society magazines, from Hello! to Russian Tatler, Emin and Leyla's status lies somewhere between Posh'n'Becks and royalty.

It's no wonder that strangers are rarely granted access to the Agalarov's personal domain. The private security guards stationed at the front of the building attest to how seriously they guard their privacy (when Leyla is home, the security detail doubles in numbers). But when it comes to visiting British journalists, Emin is, for the time being, making an exception. Not content with managing a huge retail empire, he is now looking to conquer the global pop market as well. And the key to musical domination is, as he sees it, the UK pop charts.

Thus, I find myself at the couple's private apartment, just one residence in their property portfolio that also takes in London, Baku, Paris and New Jersey, and a country pile outside Moscow. The acreage alone is impressive in a city where property prices have overtaken London's.

While the upper floor has been turned into a home recording studio, with signed pictures of assorted singing stars adorning the walls (Elton, Elvis, Engelbert; they're all here), downstairs is Emin and Leyla's living area: all sleek polished floors, elegant sculptures and beautiful, cream furniture that looks untainted by human contact. Everywhere I look there are photos of Emin and Leyla dressed up to the nines at society events, striking pouty Beckham-esque poses.

The Agalarovs are part of the new class of Russian elite, the billionaire businessmen who amassed their fortunes in the Nineties and who have grown richer still under Vladimir Putin. While construction and property is Aras's area of expertise, retail is Emin's. Just outside Moscow lies Crocus City, an enormous shopping mall, one that dwarfs London's Westfield, which he helped to create and where you can buy everything from a doorknob to a designer dress to a car. Faced with the problem of how Muscovite shoppers would get there, Crocus simply paid for an extension to the Moscow metro.

A year ago, Emin opened his second mall, Vegas, which he describes as "Disneyland for grown-ups". I'm taken there the next day on a whistlestop tour of the Agalarov empire. It's all very over the top – there's a swanky jewellery arcade, a screaming funfair and miniature Walk of Fame, with stars laid down by his friends, Milla Jovovich and Robert De Niro. The Agalarovs have yet to branch out internationally with their business – "that would be almost like starting from scratch," says Emin.

And yet starting from scratch is precisely what Emin is doing with his music career. With four albums to his name, he is now as well known in Russia for his music as his business dealings. But cracking the British market is, for him, the musician's holy grail, a quick route to credibility and international fame.

"The UK is a trendsetter for global music," he says. "If I can make it there, I think I can pretty much make it anywhere." I remark that Russian pop stars aren't exactly known for cracking the UK charts. The last successful pop act from his country was the teen girl duo Tatu. But in their case, it was more about the saucy girl-on-girl action in the video. So what tricks has Emin got up his sleeve?

"No tricks," he replies blankly. "Listen, I know it's going to be hard. I'm honest with myself in that sense. But although this is my debut album in the UK, it's my fifth here. Anyone who thinks this is a piece of fun for someone with lots of money, they have to understand what goes into recording and rehearsing and performing these albums. It is a full-time job. If this was just a bit of fun, the music wouldn't be so good."

Perhaps understandably, Emin is keen that his musical endeavours aren't seen as a rich man's hobby. But, when you consider his background, this is exactly how it looks. Here he is, a wealthy man who has self-financed four albums – around £20,000 a piece – in Russia, and has now employed a crack team of British songwriters and producers to help him reconfigure his sound for the UK.

And how best to describe that sound? Well, music's bleeding edge it isn't. With its smooth vocals, jazz-lite flourishes and occasional forays into Europop, his new album Wonder is pitched at roughly the same audience that believes Michael Bublé to be the height of sophistication. Prior to the album's release this spring, the publicity blurb proclaimed it as the ideal Mother's Day present. Which pretty much hits the nail on the head.

I ask Emin who his musical heroes are. "Well there's Elvis, he was my idol as a child. Then there's Tom Jones, James Brown, Sade, Chris Rea..."

"Sorry," I interrupt. "Did you say Chris Rea?"

"Oh yes, I love Chris Rea. And Chris Isaak. I like all the Chrises. Except perhaps Chris de Burgh."

Right. But if Emin's musical tastes leave a little to be desired, you don't doubt his passion. Nor that of his Russian fans. The night before our interview, I watched him perform at one of Moscow's fanciest nightclubs, a place bathed in red neon, scattered with lamp-lit tables and filled with the young Russian bourgeoisie in a blur of high heels and hairspray, who had each paid £150 to see him.

As Emin swaggered his way through assorted hits, including covers of "Unchained Melody" and "My Way", women offered up bunches of flowers, held up banners professing their adoration and begged him for autographs (he obliged, writing on their hands), while their boyfriends looked on. At the end, Emin's beaming assistant, Roman, came over and asked me what I thought of the show. So I did what any self-respecting music journalist would do. I lied through my teeth.

Emin's father, Aras Agalarov, was an economics graduate who opened his first co-op (a business sanctioned by the government) in 1988 in order to bring computers into Russia, and in 1990 put on the country's first computer trade fair. In the mid-Nineties he moved into construction, building luxury apartments and exhibition centres.

Emin's personal memories of the Soviet era include standing in line for bread. "My parents moved here when I was four from Baku so my father could study. We lived in a tiny one-room apartment at first. I remember my mother would send me out to join the bread and milk lines as there were limited supplies. But it wasn't so bad. Obviously having no freedom, no foreign products, no foreign television, no foreign music was weird, but as a community people found a way to get what they needed."

In 1991, as the company grew, the family graduated to a three-room apartment, and got their own television; by 1993 they had moved into an even bigger place, reflecting Aras's standing as a businessman. Despite the family's wealth, Emin insists he wasn't brought up "with everything at my feet. My father was strict with me, and I rarely had money. I would have to ask for it, and give reasons why I wanted it, so by the time I was 15 I knew I would rather make my own."

Schooled in Switzerland and then despatched to college in the US, Emin began his own business career aged 17 when, while studying in New York, he and a friend started a website selling Russian trinkets. "It picked up really quickly. So when my father came to visit, I would be driving my car that I bought with my money, with the gas paid for by me. I wanted him to know, 'I'm my own person. I can look after myself'."

With the profits, he opened a shoe shop on New York's Lexington Avenue and then another one in New Jersey. Agalarov Snr was so impressed that he offered his son, then 21, a chance to form his own company within Crocus Group. At the time, Aras had 21 luxury good stores that were all running at a loss, so he handed them over to his son. Five years later, 21 stores had become 75, with an annual turnover of £80m. As a reward, Emin was made creative director of the company; two months ago he was promoted to vice president.

Emin sounds in awe of Aras, and also a little scared. "He doesn't like stupidity or laziness," he reflects. "He is in the office until 9pm every day, so he has high expectations of people, especially of his only son."

What does he reckon to your music career?

"He's supportive, as long as it doesn't interfere with my job. As soon as I made it clear that I was going to go all the way with my music, I had to find a compromise with him. But the fact that I'm successful in it, in Russia anyway, means he's ready to tolerate it." And the missus?

"Oh she loves what I do. Although I'm not sure she likes the female attention so much."

Emin first clapped eyes on Leyla five years ago while he was skiing in St Moritz. She was with her parents and, since they were cloaked in security, he decided not to approach her. Four months later, he engineered an introduction at a party of his father's to celebrate the latest Agalarov development, to which Leyla and her mother were invited. The pair hit it off and six months later he proposed. Now the couple have twin two-year-old boys.

Leyla, it seems, is something of a party girl; she is said to have once run up a £300,000 champagne bill at a gathering of a dozen girlfriends. A self-appointed ambassador of Azerbaijan, she now shuttles between Baku, London and Moscow in one of the family's many private jets, drawing attention to her country's cultural heritage. She is, inevitably, a friend of Prince Andrew, and is also the editor-in-chief of Baku, a glossy magazine dedicated to promoting her country (last cover star: Emin).

I ask Emin how he gets on with his in-laws. Since Ilham was elected in 2003, there have been accusations of voter intimidation, violence and media suppression in the country.

"I have a great relationship with her parents," he says. "I see them when I go to Azerbaijan and we go on vacation together. I don't feel the political weight on me when I'm there because I'm so far removed from politics. To me, the political world is as far away as my musical career is from her family."

I am introduced to Leyla over dinner at the recently-opened Nobu, the Russian franchise of which is owned by the Agalarovs. She is small and impossibly glamorous in a skimpy dress, stilettos (apparently the uniform for Russian women) and fluffy false eyelashes. She gently shakes my hand, asks if my flight was comfortable, tells me how much she loves London and rhapsodises about Baku ("You must come! It would be so fun! Emin, we should organise it!"), all in a single breath, before drifting off into the throng. After a couple of cocktails, I begin to wonder if she was a mirage.

Emin proves a genial host, hopping around the table so that everyone gets some time with him. He talks me through the food we are eating – he selected the menu himself – and tells me about the seven chandeliers that he had installed in the restaurant at £20,000 a pop. Seeing my jaw drop, he insists: "It's worth it. If the place looks right, and the food is good, we'll make that money back, no problem."

I find myself wondering if Emin will be able to recoup the investment he is making in his musical career – in this case, his reputation. The initial signs aren't bad: Wonder has been made album of the week on Radio 2, the natural home of his MOR sound. But what, I ask, if it doesn't work out, if no one buys the record and he gets pelted with tomatoes at gigs?

"I would take it as a challenge," he replies coolly. "I would take it as a sign that I didn't work hard enough. Anyone who knows me will tell you: I don't give up that easily."

'Wonder' is out now on Saffron records

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