Many of the girls I know have a problem with Eastern-European women. Ex-girlfriends, acquaintances, and family members have all expressed a deep-seated mistrust for females native to the Balkan and Slavic states. Something about their nakedly charming guile perhaps, seems to disagree with those accustomed to a Westerner’s sense of decorum. That and the fact wearing bras seems optional. The products of a tragically interesting convergence of historical circumstances, those with roots in the lands East of the Iron Curtain seem to have developed survival techniques as sharp as the point of a scythe’s blade. Hearing about the Miss Russia NY pageant, I decided to take a closer look at this misunderstood, intriguingly aloof ethnic community for myself.
Tuesday, June 21, 4:30pm
I meet pageant contestant Aluna outside her apartment, and sit in the lobby of her fashionable building which resembles a boutique hotel. She speaks into my tape player with a charming eagerness, chatting about her faint recollections of the Communist era: “I remember the long lines for food.” She also remembers that Americans, with all that nice clothing at their disposal, still dress like slobs, “People in America dress like they’re on vacation all the time.” She’s also treated differently when she returns to her native Moscow — “Yeah they think I’m a snob.”
I ask whether she prefers American or Russian men. “In our culture, the man is the most important in the family and he walks a few steps ahead of the woman. In America the man and woman walk side-by-side,” she tells me gesturing with her hands. She most decidedly prefers the Russian way. Asked about the other contestants, she marvels at the friendliness of the other girls. “Everyone’s been so nice.”
She tells me about a recent publicity trip to Atlantic City where girls were expected to be nice to some VIP guests, which included notable pro football players, boxers and the like. “Do I have to sleep with someone?” she asked the organizer point blank, and was relieved to find out “being nice” wasn’t a euphemism for something sleazier. “In Russia it’s all about sex... when you want to get the prize you have to sleep with somebody,” she tells me with a faint air of disgust that can’t quite efface her sweetness. I feel like even my sister would like her.
Wednesday, June 22, 9:15pm
I make the long trek out to Sheepshead Bay on the Q train and watch as the complexions of the passengers get paler: dark hair turns blonde and brown eyes blue. The air has the subtlest suggestion of the sea. The girls I pass all seem to be holding either cigarettes or baby strollers in their brightly manicured hands… sometimes both. Their pants are a bit tighter than they need to be, their tops cut a little too low, and their stares defiantly cold. If I was a girl I’d probably hate them too, I think to myself.
I settle at an empty table in the round, cavernous Rasputin Restaurant. Girls stream in wearing their street clothes, their frosty-tipped hair catching the spotlights, as tanning-bed midriffs swish past me. I wonder if I can smoke inside. Stupid question. I’m joined by a Russian acquaintance familiar with the backstage goings-on at the contest. “Oh my God they hate each other,” she laughs when I mention Aluna’s comments about the girls being one happy family. She also questions whether the winner is chosen solely on merit, but perhaps she’s just cynical.
During the rehearsal I get a bead on Aluna’s competition. There’s a petite blonde whom I’m told is a mega-bitch, a coquettish redhead with an adorable curtsey and Victoria, an Elite agency model who’s the favorite. She goes through the dance routines and monologue with a sort of bored detachment and during downtime, chews her gum with slack-jawed indifference. She reminds me of a champion sprinter, confident of her abilities, coasting during training with the knowledge there’s lots in reserve.
Aluna on the other hand, bounces through the production numbers in her long 70s skirt and headband with unbridled enthusiasm. I notice a statuesque, lovely Byelorussian whose features seem carved from a glacier. The rehearsal hits a snag during the swimsuit number as the girls twirling their parasols struggle to cross their bikini-clad legs in unison. I light another cigarette and look over the thick-necked male spectators gawking up at the stage.
After the rehearsal I speak to the producer of the show, Leonard Benfeld, a Ukrainian émigré, who came to America in 1978 and tells me the other kids taunted him by calling him “commie.” Upstairs I find Aluna, who is nervously playing with the zipper on her cargo pants as she tells me her formal dress isn’t ready yet, and complains about how hot the lights were. Outside waiting for a car with my Russian acquaintance and Aluna, a group of guys in a taxi makes a backseat window pass; after they’ve driven off she mutters “keep going” in a way that’s more sweet than tough.
Friday, June 24, 10 pm
The Rasputin is crowded with women bedecked in some version of porn star chic, the men hovering over them protectively, biceps and shoulders bulging through loudly printed fabric. I sip my drink alone and wait. The show begins with a Space Odyssey-type theme song as the girls parade out in puffy white dresses, nervously frozen smiles plastered to their cheeks. Aluna stumbles slightly during her introduction and I fear the worst. Production numbers (one to the tune of David Bowies’ ‘Young Americans’), laser light shows and a pony-tailed saxophonist go by in a blur. I’m a bit confused by the all-Russian announcements of the winners but when I hear the name “Aluna Kamedina” called first, I ask, “did she win?” “Third” my helpful neighbor tells me. The Byelorussian ice queen is second and, predictably, the Elite model wins and is immediately draped in a fur coat. I leave the Rasputin and make my way past the crowd of Russians gathered on the sidewalk, smoking and chatting on cell phones in front of a silver Mercedes coupe. As I walk towards the subway, the smell of perfume and cologne hangs in the air then dissipates, soon giving way to car exhaust.