Archive for July, 2008

Going Out on Top

Friday, July 25th, 2008

The last time I spoke to Lena Berkova, Russia’s preeminent porn star, she had just woken up—at nine in the evening. “The young lady drank too much last night, you see,” her manager Sasha Valov tells me. “She’s not feeling too well.” But Berkova, a disciplined entrepreneur, knows the value of putting on a good show for the Western press. “It’s kind of hard for me to talk right now, but let’s talk anyway,” she insists, registering the weary notes of metabolized ethanol. “Plus,” she adds, switching into her usual deferent breathiness, “Sasha yelled at me for it, so we should talk.” Like many of her less successful colleagues’ paths to fame, Berkova’s is littered with men who, well, yelled at her.

At 14, she met a dashing young Armenian named Albert in her home town of Nikolayevo, Ukraine. Albert, then 33, was young only in absolute terms, but he ran a successful marriage agency that helped foreign men find the desperate Ukrainian loves of their lives. Albert kept Lena for himself, marrying her in 2001 when she was 16, but proved to be so suffocatingly jealous of his nymphet wife that Berkova divorced him two years later and fled, penniless, for the neon dreams of Moscow. What was a pretty girl with no education to do? Model, of course. But Berkova was too short, and someone at the modeling agency let her down easy by suggesting that other profession for a pretty girl with no education: porn.

Fast-forward to 2004, when a 19-year-old Berkova appears with her (second) husband, Roma, as a contestant on the reality TV show Dom-2 (a rather explicit Big Brother knockoff). Her compromising history is quickly discovered and revealed; Roma gets up and, without batting an eye, walks off camera, leaving Berkova, who was summarily kicked off the show, with an exploding reputation that fueled the sale of two million copies of her hardcore porn debut, retitled “Dom-2: How to Make Love to Lena Berkova.” It even outsold the blockbuster meta-thriller Night Watch, according to Sasha Valov, Berkova’s new manager. Valov wasted no time turning Berkova into a multi-platform brand: there’s the de rigeur music career (her debut album is called It’s Just SEX, recorded with her girl band Min Net, a play on the Russian for oral sex), a Berkova-branded television channel, OERTV, that regularly holds contests for luscious young “veejays,” and even a porn academy that trains legions of young Berkovites.

Berkova has since retired from the hardcore circuit, triumphantly remarried (a Ukrainian businessman), and now limits herself to high-concept “light erotica.” In 2005, she turned down the lead role in “Yulia,” a half-hour polit-porn written by a Russian ultranationalist parliamentarian, in which Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili join the mile-high club on a helicopter.

Berkova, unwilling to do heavy erotica on screen, opted instead to play Tymoshenko’s innocently clad 19-year-old daughter Zhenya, a role she kept in the sequels, “Yulia 2” and “Misha” (named for Saakashvili). Berkova is now working on an erotic biopic about Russian pop icon Alla Pugacheva, a sort of Cher-Barbra Streisand-Liz Taylor amalgam.

INTERVIEW

RUSSIA!: So how did you get into porn?

Lena Berkova: It wasn’t because I wanted to but because I had to. When I got to Moscow, I had no money, my financial situation wasn’t so great and—you know, it’s hard to talk about it now, but I got used to it. After a while, I started to enjoy it. It was nice to work with certain stars and be in front of a camera. I don’t hide my past. I’m not ashamed of it; I’m proud of it. It brought me fame and everything I have today. I mean, we all have sex, we all have certain fantasies—it’s normal. Maybe I even helped someone along the way, helped someone discover their sexuality, or helped some married couple explore their fantasies. You should try it some time!

R!: Uh—

LB: Really, try it! You might like it! Everyone has sexual fantasies, it’s just a matter of developing them.

R!: All right, I’ll think about it. So what did your parents think when you started doing pornography?

LB: Well, obviously it was really hard for them at first. We fought a lot. I didn’t talk to my mom for a long time. But eventually, they realized they couldn’t really do anything about it and soon I was making enough to support myself and I started sending them money and helping them out financially. And then, when I became famous, my mom finally recognized that it was a good thing and now she really supports me.

R!: Will you ever go back to porn?

LB: No, I won’t go back to it. It gave me a story, it gave me a name, and I’m grateful for it, but it’s enough. I want to work on my music—I’m working on my second album now—and I’m also working on starting my own political party. It’s going to be called the Party of Love, and it’s going to fight for the rights of people of uncertain orientation—homosexuals, transvestites, you know, people like that.

R!: Do you think gay people choose to be gay?

LB: I think it’s a personal thing. Everyone picks for themselves, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think that some people have it in them when they’re born, and when they’re older, they can decide if they want to be gay.

R!: Are you running for office?

LB: No, no, I’m still working with Erica on developing the party. Do you know Erica? She’s a transsexual. Anyway, we’re creating this party because people aren’t so good about these things in Russia, they just don’t get it. We want to protect them, to speak out for them.

LB: Oh, that’s a question of politics, I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about politics. But I mean, why not, right? It won’t happen for a while, though, because women in Russia aren’t considered—well, they’re often not considered equal to men, at least politically. You know, founding this party, we’re having a hard time getting our political position out there.

R!: Is that because of the political climate or because you’re women?

LB: Oh, both, probably.

R!: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

LB: (Laughter) Well, I guess I am in my own way? Sometimes I’m a feminist, sometimes not. I see it more as a fight for equal rights, you know? But equal political rights. At the end of the day, every woman wants to lean on a strong man’s shoulder and cry and feel like a vulnerable woman.

R!: Who is the Russian woman?

LB: She’s a strong and independent woman. But… without a man, she probably isn’t too happy.

R!: Why do you think American men have such a thing for Russian women?

LB: Oh, we’ll be here all day if you want me to explain that one, but really there is that idea that the most beautiful women in the world are in Russia. But it’s more than that. “Russian women know how to feel their men. We know what our men want and what they need at each moment. We’re more attuned to our men.”

R!: How is that different from American women?

LB: Well, I don’t want to talk badly about American women; I’m sure they’re very nice, but they’re more independent than Russian women. They’re more, um, egotistical?

R!: Have you ever gotten offers to work in the U.S.?

LB: Well, I’ve worked with American stars before, like this one young lady, one of your porn stars whose name I can’t remember. Not Jenna Jameson, someone else. Anyway, we’d like to branch out into your market, though, definitely. My friend Sophia and I opened a new modeling agency that wants to bring Russian models to the U.S. Our models are much thinner than Western models, which we think is an older ideal of beauty. These days, everyone is using the same big girls—they’re all the same type. They’re all big. So we said, why not? Why not return to that classic ideal of the thin woman? We have the very thinnest models. The thinner, the pricier.

R!: So how thin are we talking?

LB: Oh, about 5’ 7”, about 90 to 100 pounds.

R!: Do you think this might be a dangerous ideal?

LB: Well, there is this concept of anorexia. When you reach that point, it’s a very, very bad point. It’s one thing if a girl that size feels good, if she’s like that naturally; it’s another thing if a girl goes against her genes and does it by force, you know? It depends on the girl. If she has a good head on her shoulders, she won’t do it. A girl has to think for herself. I can’t climb into her head and tell her not to do it. I personally don’t want to get that thin, but it’s their choice. I don’t see how I can help them.

R!: So tell me a little bit about the Porno Academy.

LB: Well, the Elena Berkova Porno Academy is for girls who want to do porn, some professionally, some just for themselves. We teach them how to hold themselves in front of a camera, what’s expected of them—it’s really difficult work, a really hard industry.

In one year, we get about 120 girls, but only ten or twenty finish the course because it’s really hard work. Not everyone is capable of opening themselves up like that. So we teach them things like striptease and the basics of the industry, how it works and stuff. We have choreographers that teach them how to strip and we have lots of psychologists. It’s really hard work, and sometimes even the camera people need to talk to them.

R!: What do the psychologists counsel the girls on?

LB: You know, normal psychologist stuff. The hard thing about the industry is that a porn film isn’t like real sex; it’s scripted, it’s rehearsed. And a lot of these girls aren’t used to that, they’re not used to being naked on camera, having sex on camera. So the psychologists talk to them and explain to them that’s it’s not that scary, it’s not a bad thing to open yourself up like that.

R!: Has your work improved your sex life?

LB: I don’t really like to talk about my personal life, but there’s no comparison. Before and after—no comparison. Let’s just say that there are certain skills you learn that you put into practice.

R!: So where do you see yourself in ten years?

LB: Married, with a kid.

My Friend(s)

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

My friends, in discussing the verbal tics of certain aspiring presidents, I would be remiss to pass over the punishing repetitions of that other aspirant to the throne, our friend Arizona Senator John McCain. Recently, the Times reported that McCain’s campaign minions have been struggling to massage his style and make it fit into the tight corset of general election speaking engagements. Before he learns to read the teleprompter, however, something’s got to give, and that something is McCain’s favorite phrase: “my friends.”

Though McCain’s doesn’t friend his listeners with quite the same range that Senator Obama asks them to look, he cakes it on just as thick. To wit: in a twenty-two minute victory lap after the Michigan and Arizona primaries (mostly applause and hooting), McCain globbed on the icing seven times. (“Well, my friends—well, my friends, here’s a little straight talk for you: What a difference a couple of days makes.”)

There are, to be sure, distinctions. There are the friends who endorse him, as when, early on, former presidential hopeful Kansas Senator Sam Brownback announced he was backing “my friend and true American hero, John McCain,” a platitude that solicited a reciprocal “my friend” from said American hero. This, however, seems to be a deviation from a pattern The Washington Post delineated in recalling McCain’s fist-pumping attack on Iowa Senator Charles Grassley in a 1992 meeting over the fate of American soldiers still MIA in Vietnam: “While the plural ‘my friends’ was usually a warm salutation from McCain, ‘my friend’ was often a prelude to his most caustic attacks.” (McCain apparently addressed Grassley as “my friend” before launching into such a friendly disquisition that Grassley stood up and demanded an apology.)

McCain has many friends and frenemies in Congress, yes, but his best and oldest friends are his voters, especially his Hispanic not-yet-voters. In a recent ad, McCain beckoned his Latino holdouts with his now familiar siren song: “My friends, I want you, the next time you’re down in Washington, D.C., to go to the Vietnam War memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You’ll find a whole lot of Hispanic names.” The Senator is also especially kind to his more tightly-wound voters, who worry that, should he win the presidency, he’ll keep the United States military in Iraq for a century. “My friends, the war will be over soon, for all intents and purposes, although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years,” he crooned. “But it will be handled by the Iraqis, not by us.” There. Feels better already, doesn’t it, friends?

And then there are the friends who secretly don’t want to be friends. Take Todd Haupt, a Minnesota Republican who just lost his real-estate business and makes a living selling health drinks. “I hate when he says, ‘My friends,’” Haupt told a reporter. “McCain is not my friend.”

Right. Then there are the friends who never were friends, like those who presumed McCain’s guilt in the Keating Five Scandal almost twenty years ago. “If you don’t believe that a 354-page document, my friend, is sufficient after a nine-month investigation… then you are different than most Americans.”

Those so-called friends, however, should never be confused with the friends who know McCain had a point when he called the Supreme Court’s recent habeas corpus ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” “We made it very clear that these are enemy combatants, these are people who are not citizens, they do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country have,” McCain explained. “And my friends, there are some bad people down there. There are some bad people.” And, to clarify, these “people” are not friends who, obviously, do have such rights.

This speechifier seems to be a recent acquisition, however. McCain rarely used the phrase before his failed 2000 presidential bid and, back when he was a first-term Congressman, he was quite spartan in his use, referring to “my friends who didn’t return” in a 1985 Vietnam War special with Walter Cronkite called “Honor, Duty, and a War Called Vietnam.”

But I won’t leave you on such a dour note, my friends. Instead, please enjoy the following montage, courtesy of the Internet, which John McCain has yet to befriend.

Why, Looky Here

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Tired of justifying his slalom toward the center, fed up with endless charges of betrayal, Barack Obama finally rolled his sleeves up and put his foot down. “Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” he told a town-hall-ish gathering in Georgia last week. “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me…the notion that this is me trying to look” — he paused, flummoxed, waving his hands about his head — “centrist is not true.”

Look, he seemed to be saying, it’s obvious. I’m the same old beacon of hope, and if you can’t see that, well, you’re just not listening.

That’s the dismissive, frustrated “look.” During Obama’s jet-packed ascent to the Democratic nomination, there have been many others—small cues that word-happy journalists would do well to pay attention to. There’s the concerned and caring “look,” as when he pledged to defend American workers from outsourcing and NAFTA in a February Democratic Debate (“Look, you know, when I go to these plants, I meet people who are proud of their jobs.”); the let’s-everybody-just-calm-down “look,” as when another round of bloodying primary nights came to an end (“Well, look, you know, we just completed a very hard fought contest… I think all our supporters need to just sit back and let things sink in.”); the combative “look,” as when he challenged HRC’s resume back in November (“Well, look, you know, if this a resume contest, then she certainly doesn’t have the strongest resume of the people on the stage.”); the exasperated “look,” on display when he was asked to apologize for a donor’s attack on Hillary (“Look, you know, I can’t be responsible for the statements of every single individual who contributes to our campaign.”); the devil-may-care “look” (“Look, I can’t spend my time worrying about that.”); the self-assured “look” (“Look. You know, what we’ve done has been successful throughout.”); the rhetorical straw-man “look” (“Whoever is the nominee, I think the Democratic Party will say, ‘Look, we’ve got a big fight ahead of us in November, and we are going to be unified to take the country in a different direction.’”); and, of course, there’s the conspiratorial, cool-cat “look” (“Oh, look, you know, when I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.”).

This one magic word offers such range, such depth, it’s no wonder become Obama’s rhetorical flourish of choice. While promoting Dreams from My Father way back in 2004, the juniorest senator from Illinois was already wielding it with confidence: eight times in one sitting. But perhaps no flavor can top my personal favorite, the getting-real “look,” as when he explained to NPR’s Michele Norris how he can truly “get” the plight of the hurting average American: “Well, look, you know, just listen.”