(Why I love to watch ballroom dancing)
Kristina Rihanoff from the Far East city of Vladivostok has become England’s latest celebrity as she competes in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing contest.
Like many ladies who grew up in Post Soviet Russia she has a tough but inspiring story to tell.
So read the her story carefully.
Because Kristina is a classic “Good Russian Woman” and many of the things she talks about subtly illustrates this.
How I escaped a life of misery in Vladivostok and a father who wouldn’t speak to me to waltz with John Sergeant – by Strictly bombshell Kristina
By Antonia Hoyle – The Daily Mail
It was the most extraordinary scene witnessed on the Cobb at Lyme Regis since they filmed The French Lieutenant’s Woman there.
Portly and leaden-footed 64-year-old TV political correspondent John Sergeant was waltzing across the cobbles with a young, blonde Siberian sex symbol.
He had enticed long-suffering Kristina Rihanoff to go to the sedate Dorset resort with him so they could squeeze in some practice for the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing competition.
Sergeant had a long-standing engagement at the local theatre to perform his one-man show about his political experiences.
Now that chemistry forged at the seaside seems to be working, at least with the voting public, who continue to keep them in the Saturday night show against all expectations – particularly those of the judges.
Kristina’s hour-glass curves and glamorous Fifties hairstyle, coupled with Sergeant’s haplessly entertaining attempts at mastering ballroom dancing, have enthralled the nation.
And despite having her shoes trodden on in the street by Sergeant, 31-year-old Kristina was bowled over by Lyme.
‘The town was so gorgeous. It was like a fairy tale, with the open ocean in front of us,’ she says.
‘The people were so friendly and sweet and it was absolutely stunning.’
For Kristina, who has been too busy keeping Sergeant in the competition to explore much more of Britain, it was all part of an extraordinary emotional and physical journey.
She was born into a much bleaker environment, more than 8,000 miles away in Vladivostok, Russia’s largest port city on its remote Pacific coast.
Entering adolescence as the former Soviet Union crumbled, she became a member of the country’s ‘lost generation’ who grew up as the once-rigid Communist regime was suddenly pulled from under them.
It was a period of soaring unemployment, crime and drug abuse, with a huge personal cost for Kristina.
‘It was a dark and gloomy time,’ she says in her heavily accented English, ‘but it was difficult for everyone.
‘I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. At least I had the chances. Some people didn’t.
‘I used my love for dance to make a career for myself. I feel very fortunate.’
As she talks at the West London gym where she has been rehearsing this week’s cha-cha with Sergeant, she comes across as one of life’s survivors.
Her ruthless competitiveness would be off-putting were it not for her friendliness and intelligence.
In the flesh, without the fake tan and stiff retro curls, created after 16 years of peroxide abuse weakened her long hair, she looks more like Cameron Diaz than Marilyn Monroe.
Kristina says she is so tired from six-hour training days, she voted herself off a pre-recorded celebrity episode of TV’s The Weakest Link the previous day so she could go back to her rented London apartment to sleep.
But as she speaks, she is full of energy and enthusiasm.
It is her charm and Sergeant’s irrepressible confidence that have carried them into week eight of the contest.
He is hardly the next Gene Kelly and the show’s judges have been urging the public to vote him out for weeks.
‘We think every Saturday will be the last,’ she says. ‘We don’t have much time left.
‘John is not a good dancer and this week was tough for him. But he does his best. He’s not always technically correct but he is not wrong either.
‘I doubt he will be in the final. I don’t think he should be. But I think he deserves to be in the semi-final.’
We will learn tonight whether their endeavours yesterday evening were enough to keep them in.
Whatever the outcome, Sergeant, whose mother was Russian, has formed a new friendship.
‘He is sweet and caring, like a father,’ says Kristina.
‘You can share everything with him, all your problems and worries. You know he will help and won’t judge.’
Her story of triumph over adversity is likely to be as moving as anything Sergeant has encountered during his 40-year news career.
The only child of a musician father, Igor, and engineer mother, Larisa, her life was shattered when, aged ten, her parents split up.
‘They were too different,’ says Kristina. ‘Dad had his own band.
‘It was he who encouraged me to dance from the age of six and took me on stage for the first time.
‘But I felt he loved his music more than me and that, because he wasn’t there, I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t realise it wasn’t my fault.’
He remarried and, as she says was typical in Russia at the time, did not speak to her for six years.
Her problems were compounded the next year as the breakdown of communism spread to their corner of Russia.
The newly appointed Mikhail Gorbachev struggled to exercise control and subsequent leaders provided scant moral, political or financial frameworks for the population to fit into.
With two-thirds of Vladivostok’s suburbs so polluted they are classified a health hazard and the average January temperature minus 14C – similar to Alaska – residents struggled to make sense of their lives.
But in many ways it was an orderly society because of the hardships.
‘We had been brought up to be very respectful to older people, to not open our mouths and to always be on time,’ says Kristina.
‘You didn’t have an opinion, you did the same as everyone else. It was a very strict, black and white environment.
‘When everything broke up all of a sudden, you were left with no sense of direction. They didn’t replace our beliefs with anything.
‘As a kid, it was confusing. Many people never found themselves. Some went back to religion. Some I knew at school, who I was friendly with, turned to drugs.’
Her determination to make a success of herself meant that while others took heroin, she was never tempted.
‘I never even drank or smoked, even though my parents did,’ she says.
‘I kept myself busy with dancing. Because I went straight from school to dance school, I wasn’t wandering the streets.’
When she was 15 and a couple of classmates died of heroin overdoses, she was at a crossroads.
‘I was very lonely. I didn’t have many choices but I realised I had to decide what I wanted to do and work hard as I didn’t want to end up like one of them,’ she says.
So the talented ballet student developed a skill for ballroom dancing to try to escape her desperate situation.
Meanwhile, crime soared as poverty cloaked the city.
‘Sometimes people got mugged,’ she says. ‘A couple of times I had my purse stolen.
‘People would break into the lockers at school to steal. One winter, we lost our electricity supply, on and off, for weeks. We wore layers of jumpers and coats to keep warm.’
With factories closing daily in the 600,000-strong city, her mother lost her job.
The state had given them a two-bedroom flat and monthly benefits but it was still a struggle, Kristina says.
‘The institution of marriage was no longer supported,’ she says.
‘My mum got really sick from the stress and she was in hospital for a long time. Relatives looked after me and I earned money for us both by teaching dance.’
Job opportunities, she says, continued to decline. Her aunt, an ‘amazing’ paediatrician, lost her doctor’s post and is now a hotel receptionist.
‘I support her and my mother financially,’ says Kristina. ‘Unless you have some connection now, it is difficult to get work.’
Kristina’s mother created her pink dance costumes as there were no shops to buy them from in Vladivostok, even if they had had the money, and encouraged her to complete her education – so Kristina graduated with a degree in tourism and hospitality.
Her best friend in the city now works as a hair stylist and is married with a son of seven.
‘She was also very strong and we felt we had to achieve everything ourselves,’ says Kristina. ‘She got her dream and I got mine.’
At 21 and competing internationally in Latin dance competitions, she was invited to work in America by a Russian coach who had moved out there.
Within a couple of years, she joined the Dancing With The Stars tour, the U.S. version of Strictly Come Dancing.
Kristina now owns a one-bedroom flat in Los Angeles.
‘Moving was exciting and frightening. I love America,’ she says. ‘There are no boundaries for age or who you should be.’
A beneficiary, she says, is her mother Larisa who has a Green Card and is now staying with her in America.
‘She was alone in Russia and wanted to be with me,’ says Kristina.
‘I’ve seen such a change in her since she moved. She’s 52. In Russia, that means you’re supposed to be a grandmother at home, not thinking about yourself.
‘But in the U.S. she’s still a young woman. She can have a second marriage, open her own business.’
She adds: ‘It is great that Obama won. America is ready for someone young and open-minded who can lead the country to better days and make peace with the world.’
Kristina made peace with her father Igor a couple of years ago.
‘He was my idol and I was angry he left us,’ she says. ‘But I realised I don’t have another father and forgave him.
‘He is still living in Vladivostok and is now directing shows. He watches me on YouTube and calls to say he is very proud.’
No sooner had Larisa arrived in the States than Kristina, having been spotted by Strictly’s team, was off to Britain to start rehearsing for the current series.
‘In America, some of the girls were jealous but from the beginning the dancers here were nothing but supportive,’ she says.
‘We spend a lot of time together.’
After last Saturday’s show, they all went to West End nightclub Chinawhite together and last Sunday she saw the new Bond film Quantum Of Solace with fellow Russian dancer Lilia Kopylova, whom she first met in Vladivostok when she was 13.
‘Maybe one day I could be another Russian Bond girl,’ she says.
‘I’d like to get into acting. I’m not as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe but I love the whole Hollywood glamour era.’
But she adds: ‘It is a relief to get the make-up off and spend Sundays in tracksuit bottoms, looking horrible.’
She saves her criticism for acerbic judge Arlene Phillips, 64, who has been heavy-handed in her treatment of Sergeant, last week saying of him: ‘It’s all very well that people fall in love with a man but what his feet are doing isn’t a foxtrot.’
Kristina retorts: ‘I don’t want to fight but it surprises me Arlene is so negative about John as she’s the same age as him.
‘By having him on the show, they are sending out the message that dancing is good for everybody. He looks younger and healthier now.’
Kristina, who will join the other dancers in a tour of Britain in February and hopes to be invited back for next year’s TV series, adds: ‘The show isn’t really about dancing. It’s a Saturday night entertainment show.
‘We are still in it because we want to have fun. A lot of people feel they can relate to John.
‘Women love his kindness and he is pure entertainment. He jokes about being a sex symbol. I tell him I don’t think we women know what we want when it comes to men.’
Although she has had the same boyfriend for five years, an American dancer who lives in Los Angeles, Kristina is reluctant to name him.
‘He is very famous in our business but it is important for people to see me for who I am, not as his girlfriend,’ she says, adding: ‘It is hard to have a relationship in our business, so I am protective.
‘People are always talking behind our backs and it can be bitchy.’
She says she will settle down and have children in the next few years, though they won’t be raised in Russia.
‘I have been back a couple of times but I won’t live there,’ she says.
‘I feel sad because it is a beautiful country. From what my friends tell me, things are getting a little better.
‘It is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources and could be one of the best.’
Life is looking rosy for the girl who danced her way out of polluted, drug and crime-ridden Vladivostok – but how much longer she and Sergeant will grace our TV screens, only you can decide.
(original article is here)