She's the biggest thing to come out of the East since the Red Army. LISA VERRICO meets Alsou, the next teen singing sensation.
You know Russia is changing when you spend Saturday night in the Kremlin, watching a Spice Girl perform with a local teen queen hailed as the next Britney Spears. Last month, MTV Russia hired part of the Kremlin to host what it was calling a "girl-power gig". It was headlined by Mel C, but the star attraction was Alsou, a 17-year-old Russian who, in her homeland, is bigger than Britney, Limp Bizkit and the Backstreet Boys rolled into one.
Modern Moscow looks like a cross between Salford and St Moritz. Between derelict buildings and concrete tower blocks, you'll find shiny, five-star hotels and classy nightclubs with gambling rooms. On street stalls, shady traders sell counterfeit CDs and videos. In Milanese - style malls behind them, you can buy MaxMara mittens, Fendi furs, Gucci, Versace, Dior and more diamonds than even Puff Daddy would know what to do with.
The uneasy juxtaposition of old and new styles was epitomised by Alsou's concert at the Kremlin. As gig venues go, the Kremlin has to rate pretty highly, not least because the bouncers - who check your passport as well as your ticket - are armed guards in gorgeous grey uniforms and big furry hats.
Inside, things got even odder. After some dire Russian singers, two dressed as schoolgirls, two as Las Vegas showgirls, Alsou strode on stage looking like a sexy extra from "The Matrix". The teenager, wearing tight black trousers and a bra top, began with a couple of Russian Mariah Carey -like ballads, to which the crowd sang along. Then something strange happened. Without warning, Alsou morphed into a slick, R&B babe, performing funky, uptempo tracks in English, backed by a group of choreographed dancers. She looked like Aaliyah, sounded like Christina Aguilera and did a dance routine with chairs. Her fans couldn't believe their eyes.
"I guess I shocked some people," she says afterwards, in a small dressing room backstage, with every appearance of satisfaction. "In Russia, I'm known only for old-fashioned ballads, which people seem to love. My fans range from five-year-old kids to grandparents. They're used to seeing me in long skirts, not dancing in tight trousers. I don't know what they'll think of me now."
In just two years, Alsou has become a phenomenon in Russia, selling more singles than anyone else, appearing on the covers of magazines such as Russian "Elle" and "Cosmopolitan", duetting with Enrique Iglesias and even winning the country second place in last year's "Eurovision Song Contest" with her first-ever English song, "Solo". Now she has her sights set on the West.
Since becoming the first Russian singer in pop history to sign an international record deal, however, Alsou has undergone a dramatic transformation. She lost 2st, took dance classes and hired a designer to overhaul her wardrobe. With her debut UK single, "Before You Love Me", released next week, and an album due out in July, she is also set to swap the romantic ballads that made her famous for funky, teen pop - hence the schizophrenic show.
"I love ballads," she says. "But I always wanted to do uptempo music, too, because I'm young and it's good to be current. I listen to a lot of R&B, so that's the music I've made. My new album is just for Europe. My second album will be different, because I want it to break into the States. That's my aim, to be big in America."
What Alsou wants, you suspect, Alsou gets. After all, she's used to it. Born in the mainly Muslim Tatar Republic in East European Russia, but brought up in Siberia, she belongs to one of the country's wealthiest families. Her father runs Russia's largest oil company. His work saw Alsou move to Moscow at eight, New York at nine and Denmark at 11, before settling in London at 13, where she went to boarding school. She liked the city so much, she stayed, and now has her own flat in Mayfair, which she shares with her brother.
Despite her privileged upbringing, Alsou insists she's not spoilt. While she doesn't seem like the type to throw tantrums - she's polite, softly spoken and surprisingly shy - she's wearing a diamond-studded Gucci watch and being watched over by Mariah Carey's former minder, poached from the star by her father, who never appears in public without his own bodyguards.
Later, someone tells me that, in Russia, most people think Alsou's father paid for her to become famous. They even make unfounded snide comments about him buying her second place in the "Eurovision". In fact, Alsou was discovered by accident. "Singing is all I've ever wanted to do. I took piano lessons from the age of five, and bought every Whitney and Mariah songbook. I planned to wait until I'd finished school before I started a singing career. Then, three years ago, I sang Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" at my brother's wedding in Moscow. It was just for fun, but a friend of my mum's heard me and said he knew a manager I could talk to in Russia. I met the manager, sang for him and he loved my voice. We started working on an album straightaway."
The following year, Alsou's first single was a huge hit. She had two more successful singles and a big album before someone from a record label saw her on MTV and signed her up. The first English song she recorded was put forward for "Eurovision".
"I didn't even know I was entered for that," says Alsou. "My manager sent the song in. It won the competition in Russia and I went to Sweden for the contest. It was the most nerve-racking week of my life, because in Russia, everyone watches "Eurovision". I was pleased to come second. I didn't think I'd win, but I knew I'd do well, because I'd heard the other songs. I'm not being mean, but some of them were awful."
Since then, Alsou has released a duet with Enrique Iglesias, a ballad called "You're My #1", which became Russia's biggest-selling single ever. For her album, she has worked with top pop producers such as Sturken & Rodgers (Britney, N' Sync), Brian Rawlins (Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera) and Artful Dodger's Mark Hill. Incredibly, she has even lured Wham!'s former manager, Simon Napier-Bell, out of retirement to manage her over here.
"I know a friend of her father," says Napier-Bell. "He asked me to help Alsou find a manager, but as soon as I met her, I decided to do the job myself. She has a sensational voice and a charming manner. She's not like those awful stage-school kids with no character".
Is she spoilt? No, but she knows what she wants and she'll get it. Just wait and see."
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