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.
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!
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.