Valeria Lukyanova, the Human Barbie Doll (2024)

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.

"Yes."

When seated across the table from a living Barbie and stuck for topics, by all means go for collegiate bullsh*t. "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 circ*mstances, this budding nonconformism could have brought her straight into puss* 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.

Valeria Lukyanova, the Human Barbie Doll (2024)
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