Arts, Culture & Media

The two faces of Verka Serduchka

Verka Serduchka is one of Ukraine's biggest pop stars. She's not really a singer�or an actress. In fact, she's not even a she. This is a star with identity issues. And that makes her � or him � an appropriate representative of Ukraine itself. Reporter Brigid McCarthy in Kiev has this profile of Verka Serduchka.

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VERKA: “Hello, hello, hello. My name is Verka Serduchka. Superstar! Mama! Mega star!…”

Verka Serduchka is a pop culture phenomenon in Ukraine. She’s all over magazine covers, on billboards, and for a while, even on jars of mayonnaise and vodka. But what is she exactly?

DANILKO: “Ukrainian Cinderella.”

This Cinderella wears gaudy sequined dresses, big sunglasses, and flamboyant hats. Her favorite these days is a sparkly silver swim cap with a huge star on top. And then there’s Verka’s bust. To call it huge really doesn’t do it justice. Alas, it’s fake, because this Cinderella is actually a fella…a 37-year-old comedian named Andrei Danilko. But Danilko insists …. Verka Serduchka is NOT a man in drag.

DANILKO: “And I really don’t like it when people say I perform as a woman. I don’t. I perform characters and characters can be any type of character, it doesn’t really matter.”

Out of costume, Andrei Danilko is soft spoken and shy, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. He says ever since he was a kid, he had the urge to make people smile.

“But it wasn’t easy to perform as myself. I always wanted to perform as some character.”

Starting as a teenager, he brought to life, onstage, characters that are pulled straight from the daily tribulations of Ukrainian life. A semi-literate policeman; a surly cafeteria worker dishing out slop in a factory canteen.

But Verka Serduchka has always been the crowd favorite — and a barometer of the national mood. In her own brassy, proudly ignorant way, Serduchka takes on some of Ukraine’s most polarizing issues. She tramples all over the country’s sore spots — turning them into the stuff of comedy.

And as Ukraine has changed … so has Verka Serduchka. Eighteen years ago, she was a classic Soviet character—a bossy, middle-aged train conductor.

She wore bright blue eye shadow, an ill-fitting brown skirt and baggy cotton tights. She prowled the aisles, harassing riders. She confronts a passenger without a ticket who offers her a bribe instead…

“Verka Serduchka would never take your money! Olga in car 6 just got out of jail for doing that. How much? For that, you can run after the car and wave happily. Go away!

Part of the humor in those early skits was linguistic. Verka spoke a mangled mixture of Ukrainian and Russian known as “surzhyk” … a dialect common among rural and working class Ukrainians.

“That’s how people talked at school and I still keep talking that way. Sometimes I get really confused; I can’t separate the two languages in my head.”

Verka made surzhyk funny, not shameful. No one had ever done that. In the late l990′s, Verka Serduchka got her own TV show. As Ukraine evolved into a bilingual nation, Verka cleaned up her language, speaking either proper Russian or Ukrainian. And she ditched her train whistle for a feather boa and sunglasses — becoming a parody of Ukraine’s embrace of kitschy consumerism.

A few years ago, Danilko discovered that this girl of his could sing. Verka Serduchka has sold more than 2 million CD’s in Ukraine and Russia and her songs have become standards at Ukrainian weddings.

Poor Verka has never had much luck with men; in her skits and music videos, her wide-eyed peasant mother is her most frequent sidekick. Still….Verka once danced with President Lukashenko of Belarus, and, she *almost* kissed Vladimir Putin.

“I was at a party where Putin was and I was as Verka, and during my skit I beckoned to him to come over, but he said, no, YOU come over HERE…”

Maybe it was a symbolic moment; Verka, like Ukraine, has had some trouble figuring out this business of independence from Russia.

For years, Russians were her biggest audience; they loved to laugh at Verka Serduchka’s parodies of Ukrainian stereotypes … but some Ukrainian patriots hated it. Three years ago, Verka actually got to represent Ukraine in the Eurovision song contest. Ukrainian nationalists staged protests, and burned her in effigy.

“And when I was watching this on TV I was shocked.”

But an even bigger shock came AFTER her Eurovision performance.
*Russian* nationalists claimed to hear the words “Russia Goodbye.” Danilko says that’s not what he said. No matter. Verka was blacklisted on Russian TV, and had lucrative concert tours there cancelled. Suddenly, Danilko was forced to take sides.

“I always considered myself a Ukrainian artist; I was never a Russian artist.”

At the same time, he says …. Ukrainians and Russians are profoundly shaped by a common culture; They’re all children of the Soviet Union.

These days, though, Verka’s no longer just looking East. It’s not clear what her next act is. But she…or rather Andrei Danilko…is learning English, so he can bring his wacky, Ukrainian brand of humor to audiences in Europe and America.

VERKA: “See you soon! See you soon, bye bye…

For The World, I’m Brigid McCarthy in Kiev, Ukraine.

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