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Prominent Russians: Ksenia Sobchak

Born November 5, 1981
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“Why am I hated in Russia as unanimously as Hitler? I do not understand.” (Ksenia Sobchak in an interview to Izvestiya Weekly newspaper 15.02.2008)

They call her Russia’s answer to Paris Hilton, the darling of the Russian tabloids and Russia's chief "it" girl, claiming to earn more than 2 million dollars a year. The most eligible bachelorette moves around in a Porsche Cayenne, her driver always carries a pistol, and she counts Vladimir Putin among her friends. Her name is synonymous to scandal. She admires Madonna but at the same time adores Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Some say – according to the “W” magazine – she is “an emblem for a way of being in today's Russia - brash, sultry, self-involved. She is the new zeitgeist (the spirit of the times).” Meet Ksenia Sobchak – a socialite, a TV host and a career celebrity. Read more…

 In fact, she doesn’t like to be compared to Paris Hilton. “I have my own concept and my own vision,” says Ksenia Sobchak about the image that she’s created in Russia (Radio “Mayak” 03.07.2008). “And I’ve been lucky to receive a good education and upbringing.” However it wasn’t someone else but Ksenia who voiced Paris Hilton’s character in her silicone-enhanced comedy “Pledge This!”

“Legally” blonde

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Ksenia Sobchak was born on 5 November 1981 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) into the family of an academic. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was a law professor and author of more than 200 books and articles on economics and law. He became famous as one of the first advocates of free market reforms in the former Soviet Union. He was voted St. Petersburg’s first Mayor in 1991. Ksenia was just nine when her father became one of the most influential  figures in Russia, while the future President Vladimir Putin was his loyal deputy. In 1996 Sobchak was not reelected and the next year, under investigation into allegations of bribery and abuse of power, he fled to Paris. He returned home in 1999 – after Putin had risen to the highest echelons of power – and all the charges against Sobchak were dropped. He appeared en route to a full-fledged resurrection when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Ksenia’s mother – Lyudmila Narusova – is also a prominent figure on Russia’s political scene. She served as a deputy in the lower house of the Russian parliament and in 2002 became a senator in the upper house.

So how did a girl from such a family, the daughter of a lawyer, become “legally blonde” and even outshine her parents?

Daddy’s girl starving for attention

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As a child the future star of get-togethers attended the ballet studio of the Mariinsky Theater and the Hermitage museum art school. She even dreamt of becoming a prima ballerina. Although she never did, Ksenia has always been determined to make it:

“Simple willing doesn’t take you anywhere in this life. I will be working on myself and will make myself better! When I joined English school, I was the weakest. Two years later I became the best. It wasn’t because I pushed anyone out of the way. The reason is that they spent an hour studying, while I spent two and a half. In the end, one does need to jostle away the rivals, but not with the help of intrigues or sly schemes. I know how to learn from those who are better than me! One needs to be close to the strong, not to the weak. One can learn more from powerful people!” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta 01.04.2005)

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She was the best in class academically but hardly a model girl in terms of behavior: lesson disruptions were nothing unusual. After another of her escapades her father even threatened to give her taws and immediately got the response, “What kind of a democrat are you!”

She admits she has been restless since her early years and even fought sometimes. Once her parents’ friends came for a visit with their son – she smashed the toy the boy had given her as a present against his head. An ambulance had to be called. “When I grew up my father would often say, “You are my domestic Chechnya!” (Teleweek 15.04.2008)

She calls herself a daddy’s girl. She hated everything about his publicity. “I didn't see my parents any more. And I had these security guards looking after me 24/7. As far as I was concerned, being in the public eye had no advantages at all. It's strange, though, because now I realize that I lived through some of the most extraordinary events in my country's recent history. They were happening right there in our living room, because of my father and his friendship with Mr. Putin. Yet at the time all I was concerned about was trying to get away from my security guards to have a cigarette.” (Stella Magazine/Telegraph 23.07.2006)

Now she says she started living the life of a grown-up early as a protest against her parents. The attention she didn’t get at home – she found elsewhere.

“As soon as I had an opportunity for freedom – I filled myself with it.” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta 01.04.2005)

 Her father died when she was 18. At the time she was in Amsterdam with her boyfriend. But even after his death she wanted to prove that she was not just Anatoly Sobchak’s daughter. Today she is arguably better known in Russia than her once influential parents.

Free life

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Upon graduation from the Herzen University School in 1998 Ksenia entered St. Petersburg State University to study international relations. But in 2001 she was already on her way to conquering the capital. She moved to Moscow to continue her studies in international relations – this time at the prestigious MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations). In 2002, Sobchak received a bachelor's degree and did another two years for a Masters in political science.

It was here in Moscow that she embarked on a career in the spotlight. Scandals followed one another: first, “modest” student Ksenia claimed that a $600 000 worth of diamonds and other jewelry had been stolen from her boyfriend’s apartment; then came a photo shoot in underwear for Russian FHM magazine when she was still a student; two years later she became a cover girl for Russian Playboy magazine (Nov. 2006 issue); and the following year did another scandalous series of photos with Maxim magazine (June 2007).

In 2004 she made her film debut as an American psychologist who has sex with a monk on board the Russian space station in a movie with a complex title: “Thieves and Prostitutes, or the Prize Is a Mission to Space.” Other movies followed: a spoof comedy “The Best Movie” (2008) where Sobchak appeared as a luxury prostitute. In “Hitler Kaput !” (2008), she played Hitler’s companion and wife Eva Braun and went on to appear in “Nobody Knows About Sex 2: No Sex” (2008), “Europe-Asia” (2008) and “Artefact” (2009). Other roles followed and contributed to her fame, although Sobchak admits she is no professional actress.

A “brothel” at Dom-2

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However, real fame came to Ksenia – or Ksyusha as she’s called by friends – when she hosted Russia’s most successful and scandalous TV reality show “Dom-2” (which translates as “House-2”). According to reports in the British press, the show “manages to make “Big Brother” look like a model of taste and humanity.” (Stella Magazine/Telegraph 23.07.2006)

Watched by millions, it follows a group of single young men and women as they build a house on the outskirts of the city. Denied any contact with the outside world, the contestants have a strong incentive to build relationships because the finished house will be given to a couple picked by viewers at the end of the season. Some of them have responded by stripping and simulating sex acts. In 2005 Moscow City Council deputies urged prosecutors to move against the program: to ban the show and to hold its host, Ksenia Sobchak, criminally liable. They said the reality show “is exploiting interest to sex” and harms moral norms in society, while Sobchak takes part in “organizing prostitution acts,” “pimping” and “commercial sexual exploitation of people.” Apart from raising the ratings of the program – and Ksenia Sobchak’s popularity - the deputies achieved nothing.

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Ever since, Ksenia has been a frequent host on Russian television. “Who Doesn’t Want to Be a Millionaire,” “The Last Hero” and “The Blonde in Chocolate” (her very personal reality show on Russian MTV with the camera following the “it” girl everywhere) are just some of many shows she’s hosted. The latter caused a bit of controversy due to Sobchak’s free use of swear words, which, some say, could have been beeped out more effectively. She also wasn’t particularly shy about changing her clothes in front of the cameras, or taking a bath, or even getting drunk and loose conscience.

Today she says, "That's why I chose show business. You can't make people watch TV because you're someone's daughter."

From time to time Ksenia surprises the wider public with exhibitions like "History of One Centipede” where she put roughly 450 pairs of her worn shoes on display with everyone having a chance to buy a pair, or by having sex with Russian rapper Timati in one of his videos.

On the showbiz side Sobchak also had a radio gig on one of Russia’s radio stations, Silver Rain, and a column in Russian GQ magazine. She also wrote a book on fashion and launched a perfume together with oligarch widow Oksana Robski “To Marry a Millionaire.” A book with the same title followed shortly after – it featured a cover photo of the two socialites in bad-girl wedding dresses carrying automatic weapons.

How to marry a millionaire

Despite the book authored by her full of advice on how to marry a millionaire, Ksenia herself has never married one. She did date a few though. Among her boyfriends she counts Chechen billionaire and former Senator to the Russian Federation Council, Umar Djabrailov, businessman Vyacheslav Leibman and general director of Russian radio station Silver Rain Dmitry Savitsky.

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In 2005 she got very close to getting wed to a businessman with Russian and American citizenship, Aleksandr Shustorovich. It was meant to be the wedding of the year. Ksenia even had herself a dress designed by the famous Russian designer Valentin Yudashkin. The tabloids were full of reports on the uniqueness of the piece and its weight: with all its embroidery and decorations it was supposed to weigh roughly as much as the bride herself – about 50 kg. The wedding was cancelled at the very last moment. Some say the groom changed his mind and told Ksenia she could come up with any explanation she wanted. A while later, in an episode of “Dom-2,” Ksenia claimed it was she who decided she didn’t want to get wed. Whatever it was – the designer wedding dress has been dusting in the wardrobe ever since. 

In March 2007 Ksenia announced that she was ready to marry a billionaire – then owner of Russia’s metals giant Norilsk Nickel – Mikhail Prokhorov . The wedding itself was going to be a bit of a fake: Mikhail wanted to win a childhood bet that he’d get married before turning 42 – so the consequent divorce was part of the deal. However it turned out the role of “Mrs. Prokhorov for just a week” was no more than another publicity stunt on Sobchak’s part.

In fact, the one sphere Ksenia Sobchak is very low key about is her bedroom. “I am not ready to discuss my intimate life, the more so what is happening in my bed!” And her partners have been equally private.

Today Sobchak claims she’s not in the mood for family and having kids. In any case it’s not easy to be a man she would fall for – he has to stand out, impress, have a good sense of humor, and be successful, of course – to be able to afford Ksenia’s style of life. “Yes, I do have high demands and it’s hard to find a man who would satisfy me. I love myself very much and think I deserve the best.”

Ksenia spent her winter holidays in 2010 at the elite Alpine ski resort Courchevel, shopping with her beau, a married man, Aleksandr Malis, president of Russia’s largest mobile phone retail chain Euroset. So no wonder Ksenia got involved – not only in the relationship but also in business.

Business & first steps in politics

Be it a result of a holiday in the French Alps or the influence of her alleged partner, in February 2010 Sobchak bought a stake in “Euroset.” She invested around $1mln to become the company’s minority shareholder with plans to increase her stake eventually.

Some may be asking – where does the money come from? Ksenia Sobchak not only gives many interviews, she also takes them, although her reporter’s wages are much lower than her earnings as a TV host. The largest chunk of her annual income though comes from working as an entertainer at private parties. One publication even dubbed her “a self-made, privately held corporation.” In September 2009 Russian Forbes magazine estimated Ksenia Sobchak’s income at $1.2 mln and placed her among the top ten of Russia’s 50 richest celebrities.

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Still she can never quite get away from her past; there'd always been speculation as to whether one day Ksenia Sobchak will follow in her father’s footsteps and move into politics. She’s always brushed it off with “Not yet. We’ll see.” However in 2006 Sobchak presented to the media her own youth movement, “All Free” - to teach young Russians how to be free. Little has been heard of the organization ever since. In 2008 she confessed she wasn’t ready for politics, “I’m quite happy with my life the way it is now. I like to go out, to spend money – money that I earned myself on shopping, cars… while going into politics means a grey suit and a “Volga” car. I have to morally prepare for that.” (Komsomolskaya Pravda 23.01.2008)

Nevertheless, time came when Russia’s “enfant terrible” swapped her glamorous Porsche Cayenne – not for a Volga yet, but an Audi – and seemed to suddenly grow up. Her talk show on the Fifth Channel of Russian television was devoted to serious issues: social, political, economic. Most fittingly the show was called “Freedom of Thought.”  But that was before she got involved in politics big deal...

Ksenia as an opposition leader

On the 5th of November 2011 Ksenia celebrated her 30th birthday and it was as if she started a new life.

(Photo by Anton Tushin from http://www.ridus.ru/news/16391/) Photo by Anton Tushin from http://www.ridus.ru/news/16391/

“That age – 30 - it really hit me. I was being torn apart from the inside – I’ve turned 30! I’d never thought it could be such an enormous stress… Everyone talks about middle age crisis…” (interview to Russian “OK” magazine)

However, with her natural energy, Ksenia composed herself. And soon, she felt she could no longer avoid taking an active part in Russia’s political life. Or so she claims.

Speaking to RT, Ksenia said: “I think it was the moment of elections - the moment I realized that it has now something to do… not even with politics or with authoritarian rule in our country… but it has something to do with my own decency, with me as a human being.”

In December 2011 she joined the protest in Moscow sparked by reports of alleged falsifications at the country’s parliamentary elections. Dressed in simple jeans and white jacket, wearing seemingly little make-up, Sobchak walked on stage in front of nearly a hundred thousand people and said: "My name is Ksenia Sobchak and I have something to lose, but nevertheless I am here." Her speech didn’t go down well – most of the crowd knowing her scandalous past and her shameless behavior, booed, refusing to listen to what she had to say. However it did not deter Ksenia from going further down the political path and joining the street opposition ranks.

 “I love Putin as a man who saved my father but I don’t respect his politics right now…” (Interview to RT, 14 Feb. 2012)

She wouldn’t go too much into details but the story that Ksenia refers to goes back to the 1990s, when Vladimir Putin helped his former boss Anatoly Sobchak, suspected of abuse of power and corruption in St Petersburg, to get to Paris secretly.

Photo by Anton Tushin from http://www.ridus.ru/news/16364/ Photo by Anton Tushin from http://www.ridus.ru/news/16364/

“That saved Sobchak from a trial and perhaps from being thoroughly discredited if he had been found guilty of misdeeds. Getting Sobchak into France was a military operation that involved the special services, a chartered plane, and the covering of tracks”. (from “Putin’s Russia”, book written by Lilia Shevtsova, published by the Carnegie Endowment)

That link from the past made Putin the best friend of the family for many years. He was even said to have cried when he attended the funeral of Anatoly Sobchak in 2000. Rumors have it, Putin is also Ksenia’s godfather, although she’d never comment on this. With her mother still a loyal senator, many saw her criticism of Putin as a personal betrayal.

“He is a free person to think whatever he wants. He thinks of anything as a betrayal – it’s his choice… I can’t agree with his politics and it’s not a betrayal at all.” ((full quote: “There is a big difference between what the person might take is a betrayal and what I think is a betrayal. He is a free person to think whatever he wants. He thinks of anything as a betrayal - it's his choice. What I feel inside is that I’ll always grateful to this man and always would be. I respect Putin as a person - as a very decent man. But i don't respect the policy that he makes right now… I can't agree with his politics and it’s not a betrayal at all... )) (interview to RT, 14 Feb 2012)

Interview after interview, she tried to explain the sudden change of heart and what she thinks she might loose as a result.

“I have a lot of things to loose. I am already quite a rich person – with a huge glamorous career, known to all the people and for me it would be more comfortable to sit right now in a restaurant with my friends drinking champagne and discuss a new movie of Lars fon Trier. This life, those money, those friends and this stability…” (interview to RT, 14 Feb 2012)

However many still doubt her sincerity, believing this is just step of her publicity ladder. Those sceptics say: playing politics is simply in fashion now and Ksenia likes to stay with the trend.

“Everyone associates me with the regime and it’s pointless for me to try and justify myself. Everyone would still think I got everything from the ruling authorities. To think of it – what “everything”? The reality show “Dom-2”? What other assets? I can’t prove I made my career myself – with all its mistakes and weird things – with exactly that in my head: to do everything myself, and not receive from someone. I am extremely proud of that and I know it’s been an ambiguous path that provoked a lot of emotions – my own included. But at that moment I didn’t see another way to go…” (interview to The New Times, 23 January 2012)

Her most recent TV shows include one at the Dozhd (Rain) TV Station, where donning four-inch, putty-colored patent-leather heels and engaging in hour-long debates, she interviewed all the presidential candidates in the run up to the country’s March elections. The show still airs – unlike another project that had been launched on Russia’s MTV channel in February and closed down after just one episode.

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The first program of the new talk show called “GosDep” – which is a shortcut for the “State Department” in Russian (referencing the US Department of State, which has been accused by some of trying to stage a revolution in Russia) – saw the opposition figures clash with the pro-Kremlin activists on air. Sobchak claims, “GosDep” was taken off-air after she’d invited a blogger with nationalist views and one of the unofficial leaders of the protest movement Alexey Navalny for a later show. MTV Russia explained simply the channel’s viewers were not interested in politics.

Whatever the reason, Sobchak didn’t stay off-air long. Soon after, she was offered to run the show online - at a website belonging to her old acquaintance, one of the wealthiest people in the country and a former presidential candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov. Under a modified name “GosDep-2” the show is successfully running online.

And although everyone agrees there’s been a bit too much of Ksenia Sobchak  lately – be it on TV or in magazines – she will certainly continue inventing something to attract attention. No matter how irritating she may seem to some, she’s certainly not planning to abandon life in the spotlight.

As for Paris Hilton … they did meet after all – at the Moscow MTV Awards ceremony in 2008. And, they say, the two blondes hugged like sisters.

Written by Darya Pushkova, RT correspondent

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