THEO PANAYIDES meets a pop singer who after 25 years in the business concentrates on what makes her happy
We start with a bit of a stumble. Our Russian readers know who you are, I remind Valeriya, sitting on the terrace by the pool at the Nicosia Hilton, but others may be unfamiliar with your career; could you name a pop star who might be your equivalent in the West? The big blue eyes show the faintest glimmer of displeasure. “That’s what I – don’t like most,” she replies in fluent but sometimes hesitant English, “to compare myself to anybody else”. The face is calm and mostly unlined, the same face you’ll see on YouTube if you search for her very first album, 1992’s The Taiga Symphony. Iosif Prigozhin, her third husband, sits at the next table, gazing at the pool and taking phone calls.
I’m afraid we’ve started off on the wrong foot; I’m also worried that she might turn out to be a diva – which of course would be understandable in an artist who’s sold well in excess of 100 million albums in her native country. As it happens, I’m wrong on both counts. Yes, Valeriya is here to sing before President Anastasiades and other VIPs at the Cyprus-Russia Gala (organised by Ensemble Productions) and yes, she’s so famous in Russia that her life has been the subject of a TV mini-series – but she’s also very easy to talk to, with an air of practised but disarming friendliness. Even in Moscow she’s always “reachable”, as she puts it, happy to field requests and lend her presence to events. She even, eventually, agrees to name names, citing a Western superstar who might be her equivalent – or rather, one who definitely isn’t her equivalent:
“When we released my English album 10 years ago, Out of Control, Western journalists compared me with Madonna. I don’t think that’s a right comparison, because we have nothing in common. Nothing at all.”
Maybe just longevity? After all, she’s been a star for 25 years now.
“Maybe. But it’s a wrong comparison anyway. We are different in every single way.”
You can see why she feels so strongly – because Valeriya’s persona is clean-cut and sunny, totally unlike the taboo-busting, confrontational style of the former Material Girl. She doesn’t drink or smoke. Her only jewellery is a small gold cross around her neck. Her fans include President Putin, and she’s returned the compliment by, for instance, signing an open letter supporting the annexation of Crimea, which got her in trouble with Western activists. (Three years ago, protesters launched an unsuccessful petition calling on Downing Street to bar her from entering Britain for a gala performance at the Royal Albert Hall.) At one point I lament that Russian pop music is virtually unknown in the rest of Europe, noting that the only Russian singers many in Cyprus will have heard of – for non-musical reasons – are the punk band Pussy Riot, and Valeriya mouths “My God!”, shaking her head in disgust. “They are nobody,” she says of the feminist provocateurs. “Just – bad girls from the street.”
What’s Russia’s place in the world, in her opinion? Would she say it’s a misunderstood country?
“What I often see on TV, when I’m in Europe – I see a lot of twisted information,” she replies carefully. “I know how it is from the inside, and sometimes I’m so furious, as if [to say] ‘Oh my God, it’s not true!’. Of course it’s a powerful country,” she adds. “But we’re not aggressive. We’re not aggressive at all. And if you look back to the history of Russia, we’re not. We’re just defenders.”
She pauses, unhappy with the way this is going. “I hate this subject,” she admits. “I don’t like to talk about politics. What I know is that people all around the world, they want the same thing. They want to be happy. They want to raise their children. They want to live in love and peace. And all the rest is – Game of Thrones!”.
I see her point, forever being asked about Game of Thrones-ish political matters when all she’s ever wanted, or cared about, is music and motherhood. She was 22 when the Soviet Union collapsed (she’s now 49), studying at the Gnesin Academy of Music; that was a momentous time, I point out – but Valeriya just shrugs. “When you’re young, you don’t think much about it,” she replies. “I didn’t care.” She laughs merrily, indeed she laughs a lot throughout our interview. She seems open, outgoing, outdoorsy. Her passions include fitness, travel and above all hiking; she and Iosif have a home on Lake Geneva and she loves to go on 20- or 30-kilometre hikes (often with her older son Artemy, who lives nearby in Montreux), trudging across the Swiss mountains. Does she consciously try to be clean-cut? “No, no, I’m just – as I am,” she replies. “The dirt doesn’t stick to me, somehow.”
So she’s never been involved in scandals, like most celebrities?
“There were scandals. I had a divorce which wasn’t pleasant at all, so [there were] a lot of rumours around and all this stuff.”
That’s a whole other part of her life – and in fact, if one wanted to do a timeline, one might say there have been four stages in Valeriya’s life so far. The first is her childhood and youth in the town of Atkarsk, where she was born to a family of classical musicians. The third is her marriage to Iosif, culminating in their bold attempt to crack the Western market in 2008 – a year when she put out an album, performed with Mick Hucknall of Simply Red as a special guest on his UK tour, and was the subject of a long, admiring article in The Independent (‘Valeriya: Russia’s greatest export (after gas and oil)’ reads the headline), among other attempts to raise her profile. The fourth stage is now, still happily married but more sedate, less ambitious, happy to bask in her years of celebrity.
That leaves the second stage, and her marriage to one Alexander Shulgin – a slightly older musician who was instrumental in her rise to the top, though she balks at the idea that he discovered her. “We found each other,” she makes clear. “I was his only project at the time. Without me, he stopped doing anything in this field”. It was Shulgin, presumably, who clinched the deal to do an English-language album (the aforementioned Taiga Symphony) with Western partners – which also, incidentally, led to Alla Yurievna Perfilova adopting the stage name ‘Valeriya’, as the Western partners worried that her first name sounded too much like ‘Allah’. “I didn’t wake up famous overnight,” she insists – yet it didn’t take long. 1992 was the first year when the newly-minted star was stopped in the street by fans asking to take pictures, “and that’s when I realised that I” – she laughs – “I am watched. All the time”. She hasn’t walked down a Russian street since, except with bodyguards.
Valeriya and Shulgin fell in love, got married and had three children – but her husband was increasingly abusive, both to her and the kids. The violence was physical as well as psychological; he hit her “regularly, every week” for years, says Valeriya.
Why did she put up with it?
“If you cannot escape, nobody can help you,” she replies. “I was just waiting for the right time to escape.”
Going to the cops would’ve been pointless; the 90s were “a criminal period in Russia”, a time when – as the saying has it – “The one who has money is right”. Valeriya wasn’t just abused in the marriage, she was also powerless. Despite her success, she had no money, no credit cards, no papers, not even a passport; everything was kept locked away by her controlling husband. She herself was little more than a puppet, her job being to sing and go onstage – though it’s also true that going onstage was her salvation. “My work – the stage – music and children kept me alive. The only place where my husband could not come was the stage. It was my world. It was my area.”
Even after she finally walked out in 2001, the divorce didn’t leave her with much; Shulgin had made her sign a pre-nuptial agreement, placing all the property in his name. “I started my life from scratch, from the beginning,” recalls Valeriya, looking back to the end of that painful second stage in her life (it was also the subject of her autobiography, which became the TV mini-series); still, “I was so happy because I got rid of him, I got my freedom – so happy that I didn’t care about money, about property. I knew that I am a hard worker, I had my energy, I still had my audience when I came back” – she’d retired for a year, going back to her hometown to avoid the media – “I had my children, the [most] precious thing in the world. So I didn’t care at all. He should thank me for the rest of his life.”
Things are different these days, even in Russia; women have more rights – but it’s not just a question of rights, it’s a question of feelings. She and Shulgin had a complex relationship, both very close and very toxic; this abusive monster was also the father of her children, and her partner on the path to superstardom. She wrote a song about it later, with the rather surprising title ‘It Was Love’. “Yeah, it was love. It was love,” she admits when I quiz her on the title. “It was love, but not anymore.” Valeriya sighs philosophically. “I was not prepared, I was not ready for this kind of thing. I tried to change him, I tried to correct his behaviour. I tried a lot… We were happy in the beginning. And I fell in love, he was in love with me also. But he couldn’t help his personality. He’s very – aggressive by nature, and he couldn’t control himself.”
And how would she describe her own personality?
“Peacemaker,” she replies at once, and laughs. “Because I have three children, we have six between us, and I want to feel peace in the family.”
And when she’s onstage? Does she become a different person?
“Still peacemaker,” she replies, shaking her head. “I want to bring light, I want to bring sun, I want to bring hope to people. I think that’s why people come to my concerts, just to charge their batteries and fill themselves with positive energy.” One fan admitted as much after one concert: “Thanks God, now I refilled my batteries,” gushed this grateful fan, “and I will survive until the next one!”.
I don’t think it’s an act, this sunny persona. Or rather, it’s partly an act – you don’t spend 25 years in the limelight without being conscious of what you say to journalists – but Valeriya does seem genuinely inclined to think, whenever possible, of happy things. Nature, for instance, as experienced on those long mountain hikes. Her children, whom she absolutely adores (her voice wavers slightly when she calls them “the most precious thing in the world”), relating their accomplishments with the glee of every proud parent. Her music, which is bubbly pop for the most part (maybe she should go a bit darker if she wants international success, I suggest, and she laughs: “I don’t want to be darker!”). Her millions of fans who often name their daughters Valeriya after her, and with whom she interacts on social media, especially Instagram. ‘Do you write it yourself, or do you get your manager to do it?’ I ask, and she looks a bit shocked. “People know it: my style, my reactions, my sense of humour. They recognise me. I cannot – how to say? They can tell that it’s me.”
The current fourth stage of her life is the most placid. She turns 50 in April, a milestone even Madonna found challenging – though she clearly doesn’t feel her age, staying super-fit with daily yoga and Power Plate. The attempt to break out beyond Russia didn’t really work in 2008, which was partly a question of timing; that was the tail-end of the CD era, before it all went digital – a bad time to launch a new album, even with big-name support from the likes of Hucknall and Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees. Had she moved to London it might’ve been easier, but she insisted on staying in Russia (“I couldn’t ruin my children’s life”), sometimes cramming 20 interviews in one day then catching the plane back to Moscow. You almost wonder if she really wanted that kind of success, or just liked the thought of it.
Does she still dream of going global? “Honestly, not really,” she sighs. “Not really. Because life is so interesting – the world is so interesting, there are so many things around us, not only music. I was more focused on my career before, now it’s time to look around a little.” The kids are grown, her place in the Russian-pop firmament is assured; this year marks 25 years since The Taiga Symphony, when Alla became Valeriya. Time to move on, perhaps – or to look back, or just relax a little. “Nowadays I value life more,” she says, and looks happy saying it.