Not so long ago, images of a young girl washed over the Internet. She was impossibly blonde and impossibly shaped, and surely it was all a masterly work of Photoshop. Right? Michael Idov travels to meet with Eastern Bloc Barbie herself and discovers that her world is far more bizarre and twisted than anything in the photos
Per Barbie’s instructions, I enter Kamasutra, a brightly lit Ukrainian version of an Indian restaurant. Imagine a blind date, with all the attendant “Does she look like her picture?” jitters, multiplied by the queasy fear that she does look like her picture. If you saw the pictures I saw, you would understand. You would know that meeting Valeria Lukyanova is the closest you will come to an alien encounter.
Her improbable looks—the Margaret Keane peepers, the head quizzically cocked like a sunflower too heavy for its stem, the plasticky skin and wasp waist—reached the West when her self-shot home videos began drawing gawkers to YouTube. The Western
media were quick to dub her the “Human Barbie,” but Valeria was hardly the first Homo sapiens to willingly make herself look like a doll—she wasn’t even the first to earn the moniker: Some tabloid-damaged Brit laid claim to it a few years back. Still, where others had dabbled, she went for broke. However odd her own view of perfection, she appeared to have achieved it.
Valeria wasn’t in on the Barbie branding. She preferred to call herself Amatue, a name she claimed had appeared to her in a dream. Most of the Amatue videos were intended to be some sort of transcendental self-help lectures. I’m not sure. Like everyone, I was staring too hard at her image on-screen to actually listen. Was she real—in the sense of existing in the three-dimensional world—or a Photoshop experiment run amok?
Well, Valeria exists, all right. She is seated in the back of the restaurant in her classic pose, preternaturally upright, head cocked. By her side sits sidekick Olga “Dominika” Oleynik, one of Lukyanova’s several doll-like apostles. I walk through the restaurant, which is vaguely porny, like everything else in Odessa, and Barbie gets closer and realer with every step. Her brand-new hair extensions, the color of Chardonnay, hang straight down, reaching her nonexistent hips. Her mouth is frozen in a vacant half-smile; the teeth are small and almost translucent. She’s holding a handbag shaped like a lantern. A one-eyed smiling-skull pin perches on her sky blue top, pushed to the side by the veritable shelf of silicone around which her whole body seems arranged. In the flesh—the little of it that she hasn’t whittled away with what she says is exercise and diet—Valeria looks almost exactly like Barbie. There might be some Loretta Lux-style postproduction to her photos, sure, but it’s not crucial. This is live. This is happening.
“Hello,” she says in Russian, remaining perfectly still. Her mouth, like in a cheap cartoon, is the only part of her that moves. The eyes, the staring eyes, are the scariest. Part of what I’m seeing is an optical effect brought about by makeup (there is essentially an eye drawn around each eye), but even after I make the mental correction for it, Valeria’s eyes remain chillingly large. The Internet rumor mill claims she has had her eyelids trimmed to achieve this look, which seems unlikely and sounds nightmarish. Evolution has taught us to think of big eyes as beautiful—it’s a so-called neotenous feature, implying youth—but tweak that delicate scale just a little and you’ve got a wraith, or an insect. A living Barbie is automatically an Uncanny Valley Girl. Her beauty, though I hesitate to use the term, is pitched at the exact precipice where the male gaze curdles in on itself. Her features are the features we men playfully ascribe to ideal women; it’s how we draw them in manga and comics and video games. Except we don’t expect them to comply with this oppressive fantasy so fully. As a result, she almost throws our idea of a supervixen back in our face.
For a while, I just look, which would normally be rude. Here, though, the act of looking feels like an experiment conducted on me. Am I supposed to be attracted, to be repulsed, or to ponder the sexism of that dichotomy?
Compared with Valeria, Olga is just a human in a lot of makeup, no more or less augmented than any Miami Beach body, wearing some sort of purple Power Ranger outfit (self-designed, she later explains). I instantly understand why Valeria insists on having her around. She seems to be there for scale, to subtly underscore Valeria’s ethereality.
We order food, in a manner of speaking. Kamasutra being an Indian restaurant, there are the usual three chutneys on the table—mint, tamarind, and chile. Valeria gets a carrot juice, then proceeds to upend all three chutneys into it, swirl the result with her straw, and drink. This gag-inducing mix, she explains, is her dinner; she is on an all-liquid diet these days. I don’t quite know where to go from there, so I ask about her nails, which feature a complicated pointillist design of pink, lavender, and turquoise. “This is a fractal pattern from the twenty-first dimension,” she explains matter-of-factly. “It took the longest time for the nail artist to get it right. It came to me in a dream.”
“Just like your name, Amatue,” I add.
When seated across the table from a living Barbie and stuck for topics, by all means go for collegiate bullshit. “But Amatue seems to be all about the Eastern philosophy of reincarnation,” I say. “And the beauty that you embody is very Western. American, even.”
Valeria grows pensive, which in her case means rolling her eyes slightly upward without changing anything else about her face. “I wouldn’t say so. Everyone wants a slim figure. Everyone gets breasts done. Everyone fixes up their face if it’s not ideal, you know? Everyone strives for the golden mean. It’s global now.”
“But that’s a relatively new thing,” I reply. “The ideal of beauty used to be different.”
“That’s because of the race-mixing.”
If I had a glass of multi-chutney carrot-juice mix before me, I’d do a bright orange spit take.
“For example, a Russian marries an Armenian,” Valeria elaborates helpfully. “They have a kid, a cute girl, but she has her dad’s nose. She goes and files it down a little, and it’s all good. Ethnicities are mixing now, so there’s degeneration, and it didn’t used to be like that. Remember how many beautiful women there were in the 1950s and 1960s, without any surgery? And now, thanks to degeneration, we have this. I love the Nordic image myself. I have white skin; I am a Nordic type—perhaps a little Eastern Baltic, but closer to Nordic.”
I feel like checking my watch. We’ve gone from nails to eugenics in about two minutes flat.
I realize that just like everyone reading about Human Barbie, I had had a simple narrative prepared in my head: A small-town girl grows up obsessed with dolls, etc. Instead, I get a racist space alien.
Valeria innocently daubs her face with powder. “I have combination skin,” she explains. “I get shiny within twenty minutes indoors.” In another minute, the last of her dinner goes up the plastic straw.
The future Barbie was born nowhere near Malibu. Valeria hails from Tiraspol, a gloomy city in Europe’s poorest country, Moldova. Valeria remembers both her Siberian-born grandfather and her father as very strict and began to rebel at the usual age of 13. Stage one involved dyeing her hair, which is naturally a low-key shade of brown. Valeria went for the goth look first—about the farthest you could get from Barbie. She wore all-black clothes to accentuate her very white skin. Kids at school began to tease her. Look, a witch! At 15, traumatized by the name-calling, she doubled down: bracelets with sharp two-inch spikes, artificial fangs. She was dismissed from a school choir for standing bolt upright when the singers were instructed to sway; in different circumstances, this budding nonconformism could have brought her straight into Pussy Riot.
Instead, she began modeling, small-time stuff, and learned to apply makeup and hair dye in increasingly theatrical ways. Valeria was less interested in attracting men than in repelling them: “A dude would try to talk to me on the street and I’d be like—” she switches to a raspy basso—” ‘Oh, honey, aren’t I glad I had that operation.’ ” Another time, a guy tried grabbing her by the hand and she semi-accidentally cut him with her bracelet spike.
At age 16, Valeria moved to Odessa, the famous Black Sea port in the south of Ukraine. Whatever ideas of beauty and identity she had had before, Odessa would warp further. The city fizzes with sex, but not in the fun way of, say, Barcelona or even Moscow. Sex is an industry here, and sometimes, amid the scuffed nineteenth-century splendor of its seaside boulevards, it feels like the only industry left. Hundreds of “marriage agencies,” devoted to finding Western husbands for girls from all over Ukraine, operate here. Their websites, in halting English, promise the customer the kind of femininity the West has supposedly lost: fragile, pliable, submissive. Fully posable. Odessa girls—often beautiful, often model beautiful—don’t just dress to impress. They dress to attract the right kind of attention, pre-rebuff the local losers, and thwart ruthless competition all at once. “It has everything to do with the desperate desire to get married,” explains Ukrainian feminist Anna Hutsol, the founding member of the radical group Femen. “A woman here is brought up for two things, marriage and motherhood. Valeria is the ultimate demonstration of what a Ukrainian woman is willing to do to herself. I bet she is exactly what men dream about.”
Online, in Facebook pictures and on the many Ukrainian sites and message boards devoted to hating on Valeria, you can watch that dream evolve. Arranged by year, the photos tell the story of a transformation all the more thrilling because you know the ending. Here she is on some guy’s lap, different-looking nose, flatter chest—but the glassy doll stare and the tilted head are there, in beta, being tested out. It’s like a superhero-origin story. And then, the spider-bite moment: going blonde.
Within a month of dyeing her hair platinum, she caught the eye of Dmitry, the son of one of her father’s closest friends. Dmitry was a rarity: a wealthy local. A construction mogul, he had erected some of Odessa’s largest hotels. After the two got together, Valeria’s metamorphosis picked up pace. The breast implants, the only surgery she will cop to, appeared in the photos soon after. The Barbification was complete.
Lukyanova, after going blonde; The evolution: testing out her vacant
gaze; swimming with newly added flotation.
Valeria informs me that we’re going to a movie theater in a nearby mall. Walking the dark Odessa downtown with the Human Barbie flips on all my protective and fearful circuits at once. Everyone looks. Leather-jacketed youths stare heavily, meaningfully. Kids stare, which is somehow worse. Women stare, too. But here’s the thing—other women’s looks are largely approving. “Your waist is so amaaazing,” coos the plain brunette ticket taker. Valeria’s waist is basically a sock of skin around her spinal cord.
She said we were going to see “five-dimensional movies” that play in a kind of indoor roller-coaster imitator. Seats list and rumble in time with the action, and whenever possible a water mist spritzes you from below the screen. Valeria and Olga take a long time thoughtfully browsing through the movies, most of which they have seen, and pick three. We bump and shake our way through a heavy-metal-scored dinosaur attack, a supernatural haunted house, and a sci-fi flight sequence that includes a detour into a giant worm’s stomach (water-spritz time). Afterward, Valeria takes a shine to a particular wall of the theater lobby—it goes well with her outfit—so Olga, the Beta Barbie, photographs her against it. The ticket taker watches them from her booth, transfixed.
We walk through the mall, maneuvering around clusters of children out with their parents. I begin to wonder whether a nuclear family—the ostensible endgame of the Odessa bride—is in the cards for Valeria and Olga. I carefully broach the subject.
“Oh God, no!” both women exclaim in unison. “It’s unacceptable to me,” says Valeria. “The very idea of having children brings out this deep revulsion in me.”
“It’s so boring, I’d rather die,” chimes in Olga.
The topic has clearly shaken something loose in Valeria. In her view, expressed in a staccato rant, parenting is the pinnacle of selfishness. “Most people have children to fulfill their own ambitions, not to give anything,” she says. “They don’t think about what they can give this child, what they can teach her. They just try to shape her according to some weird script—whatever they couldn’t do in life, like becoming a writer or a doctor. Or some woman who’s almost 30 and thinks no one needs her, she says, ‘Oh, I’ll have a kid. He will love me and become my reason to live.’ And then this kid becomes a soccer ball she and her boyfriend will kick back and forth.
“I’d rather die from torture,” she concludes, “because the worst thing in the world is to have a family lifestyle.”
You know, I can’t help saying, that last part sounds almost feminist.
“I’m against feminism,” Valeria says proudly. “But what would you keep the children for? So they can get you a glass of water when you’re on your deathbed?”
It’s Valentine’s day in Odessa, and half the city walks around with flowers and red balloons. Strip clubs and marriage agencies are hawking discounts. A steak house called SteakHouse, a prime foreigner pickup spot, fills with the standard Ukrainian combos of beautiful women and old men.
Valeria says she is too busy to meet me today. On her Valentine’s Day schedule: a salon called Angel of a Genius, to freshen up those fractal nail patterns from the twenty-first dimension, which will take about three hours, then the gym for a couple of hours of hydrotherapy (i.e., a bath), then the airport. Tonight she is guesting on a Turkish talk show in Istanbul. Dmitry is coming too, on his own dime.
Using the salon’s bizarre name, I decide to find it and ambush Barbie there. I walk into what turns out to be an ordinary white-walled space and find Valeria seated between a morose fiftysomething lady and a chestnut-haired teen, both getting traditional French nails in our own three dimensions. Valeria is only about 60 percent Barbie today; it even takes me a second to pick her out among the clientele. She is dressed in a gray cashmere sweater and a pair of snug jeans, her makeup pale and minimal. Her eyes seem smaller. A pink-faced Ukrainian master is seated opposite her, deftly working a nail file. Valeria’s frail hand atop hers looks like E.T. high-fiving Hulk Hogan.
If she is surprised or unhappy to see me, she doesn’t let on. I ask her about the Turkish TV show: Is this part of a larger plan for international expansion? “I tend to cut off anything I don’t need,” Valeria says. “The next step is to cut off Ukraine entirely, because all I get here is shit. Why waste myself on this?”
She doesn’t see herself in Western Europe, either, but maybe the United States “or Mexico.” (She and Olga are “obsessed” with the pyramids there.) Earlier in the year, the duo visited the States to gauge the level of showbiz interest; the visit itself was reported by everyone from V Magazine to Gawker, and Valeria enjoyed a nice feud with America’s own “Human Ken,” Justin Jedlica, but none of it generated any Hollywood offers. For now, Valeria says, she will get the Amatue brand out by conducting New Age workshops in Moscow. The first one had long been announced on her website, then moved, then canceled. She’s also working on a New Age opera, because why not. Whatever works.
And the amazing part is, it works, her thing. It does. In a place that expects a woman to prepare for marriage and motherhood “from the moment she is given her first baby doll as an infant,” as Hutsol has put it, Valeria has gotten a degree of power, a degree of control, and a major say in her own destiny. It could be that the world and I have misjudged the Human Barbie in a fundamental way. Her steady drift from reality and into the twenty-first dimension is not about submissiveness, fame, or snagging a husband. It could be about finding a way out, however random, bizarre, and costly the route appears from the outside. It could be about gaining some measure of freedom.
Valeria’s pointy talons have meanwhile been stripped into fuzzy half-transparency; I can see the outline of the real nail, shorter and darker, under the acrylic. She pulls her cashmere sweater’s sleeve farther up, baring an elbow. It is dry and flaky, a flaw that, for some reason, imbues me with joy. This is the first and last moment of our brief acquaintance when she looks genuinely beautiful. Then she smiles the studied Barbie smile, and it’s gone.