Katia Elizarova in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Katia Elizarova, is a young and beautiful model from Russia, who is the ambassador for the fashion House Leon Max. She also worked with some major fashion houses like Chanel and Versace and in the UK with Marks & Spencer and Top Shop.

At the mature age of 27, she graduated from Queen Mary University with a Law Degree and now has decided to venture into new pasture – acting. She decided that it might be time to fulfil her dream to make her name in Hollywood.

Her début performance in Sunstroke (based on a short story by Ivan Bunin) was an enormous challenge to a young lady, who started her modelling career at the age of 14.

She takes her acting very seriously and spent a great deal of time to immerse herself in the roll of The Woman who is described in the story as ‘everything was delightful about this little woman’.  She is grateful to Oleg Mirochnikov, the artistic director of Belka Productions, for giving her the opportunity to perform in his production of Sunstroke.

The play was performed at Platform Theatre, 28 August -21 September 2013.

Katia, shelving her modelling career for a few months, dedicated her time to the theatre. She had to perform – a young, beautiful, seductive and liberated woman who meets a lieutenant on board a steamer. Within hours, less than three, to be precise,  and at an overnight landing, the two are in a hotel where ‘both of them suffocated in such a delirious kiss, that for many years they remembered this moment, and neither one experienced anything like it for the rest of their lives’. Her character never discloses her name ‘(she …, jokingly calling herself a lovely stranger)’and is referred to as the woman.  Katia was the part.

We met at the Arts Club in Dover Street, London, where she was accompanied by her bashful younger sister. No vodka, just herbal tea.

When I commented on her good English, she explained that she has been living in the UK for the last 10 years.

RJ: Do you regard yourself as a supermodel? … or just a model?

KE: (Katia laughs.)  I don’t even know what a supermodel means, I suppose Kate Moss is a supermodel, well I think she’s way cooler than me. A supermodel? I don’t know… people refer to me as a supermodel and I take it as a compliment … but I don’t know it’s not for me to judge.

RJ: How did you started your modelling career?

KE: I started at the age of 14; I was discovered in the streets of my small town, Saratov.

It’s not very far from Volgograd, south of Moscow—and I had no idea what modelling was; I was spotted on the street and was asked if I wanted to go to Paris and be on covers of magazines. To me at that time it sounded impossible but I said ‘yeah, sure!’

RJ: Did it interrupt your education?

KE: I don’t think it has. In the sense that I couldn’t be in school all the time perhaps there were some challenges- but I was very dedicated to my school work and my parents and grandmother let me travel on condition that I went to school, completed my exams on time and did it well.

RJ: Did you travel during holiday time or during term time?

KE: I travelled during holiday time—and if I had to leave, if there was a job I had to attend to I would skip school.

RJ: What sort of modelling did you do at 14—women’s or children?

KE: Well you can’t do much when you’re 14 because they don’t allow you to work until the age of 16 but I first did tests, editorials- a lot of things that beginners do so small photo-shoots, just to see how it goes and then my biggest projects started at the age of 16 when I travelled to Japan. Sixteen was a great time.

RJ: What did you do in Japan?

KE: In Japan I worked with Kirin Beverages—they do beer, soups … I did soups—

RJ: Promoting the soups?

KE: Yeah. It was a funny experience. I worked for Lafayette, a big department store in Japan and Isetan department store—Japanese listeners might recognise these names. Japan was cool. I worked for Chanel, they showcased girls around Japan—that was Chanel for the first time.

RJ: When you promote food, do you have to act as if  you are enjoying eating it?

KE: (Katia laughs.)  Yes I had to act, I was a terrible actress but they didn’t expect much from a 16-year-old who knew no Japanese and very little English. It was the image they wanted; in Japan the ‘western’ image is quite popular. I think they put in subtitles anyway. So what I had to do was to taste a bit of soup, say how amazing it was—then fly into the ceiling, crash a hole in the roof…

RJ: In other words, be silly?

KE: Yes it was bonkers!

RJ: But the actual performance—did they give you any guidance?

KE: I was never given any guidance; it was just to “do what I liked!”

They just showed me pictures because not everyone was speaking English at that point—so they would show me pictures, tell me how to do it, and I just did what they told me to do.

RJ: No room for improvisation?

KE: You could have improvised a little but, but Japan isn’t a place to improvise—they are very particular about what they want and how they wanted it to happen. And I was 16, I didn’t disagree with them.

RJ: Did you finish high school in Russia?

KE: I did, absolutely.  I started law back in my country so the obvious choice was for me to continue. I enrolled here at Queen Mary in Mile End in 2006 to study Law. I graduated in 2009—it was quite challenging.

RJ: Why law?

KE: Well when I enrolled into University I never thought I would be doing law—to study in university was something I always wanted to do but I never thought of actually using my degree—it’s a good degree to have. But it was useful as a model who signed contracts all the time because people exploit you because you are young, inexperienced and you won’t fight back. So I learned how to fight back; how to fight for my friends who needed help. I found it absolutely fascinating.

RJ: Very interesting—do you see yourself working in the legal profession?

KE: (Katia laughs) Well who knows what will happen tomorrow—but having a law degree will definitely help me in terms of thinking logically. Knowing how law works, facing injustice -coming from a country where law is not something to rely on- and then coming to this country….it’s inspiring.

RJ: Why come to the UK?

KE: I was 16 years old, it was 2003—England was always the country I aspired to live in. I loved the language—I was born in 1986 in the middle of the Cold War. My father was always inspired by the West—books, music. He went to prison—

RJ: He went to prison for that?

KE: Yes. He collected music, films—and you were not allowed to own items like that.

RJ: How long was he in prison for?

KE: Four months. Nothing bad happened to him, but it just was to get him to stop.

RJ: When was that?

KE: Just before the fall.

RJ: So, in the 80’s?

KE: Yes. So western culture was something that interested me quite a lot—You know, Beatles music. I remember being really shocked at Alice Cooper and so dressed up like him, put on make-up—I memorised his songs and performed them for my friends. I realised English was always something I really liked and then when I came to the UK it was great.

RJ: Why move from successful career in modelling to pursue acting?

Katia explains that she is not moving away from modelling. Acting is a challenge and a dream come true.

KE: I always liked acting. – my mom wanted me to be an actress- she pushed me into lots of things: thought I should be a model, art classes, ballet. I wanted to act, paint, go to school—and be successful in everything.

 Modelling has definitely changed its face since I started, I do not see modelling fading away for me but right now I can work for more mature markets, which brings more money. I work with a lot of make-up brands, hair brands, and other beauty products … as well as underwear … etc. In modelling, this can be a lucrative area. You don’t earn much during shows. That’s why the younger girls are doing it because they are fine with it—but when you’re older you have more things to consider both financially and in life in general and  that’s why right now I enjoy being 27 in my industry because I’ve already developed my relationships with clients and we continue to work together.

RJ: Did ballet help you in your modelling career?

KE: Absolutely, it’s a lot about how to move in front of the camera- it’s not about you it’s about the clothes- you always have to remember that. You have to make things interesting so the movement is very, very important. That helps me now with acting—moving on stage.

RJ: What sort of things are you taking from the modelling career  into acting?

KE: Personality- being outgoing, friendly.

RJ: Confidence?

KE: Yes that’s a very good word, confidence. With members of the team, cast, director, choreographer, working in the team, how to move—just feeling all right in front of the camera. Loving yourself and your body.

RJ: So as a model you have to be at peace, happy with what you’ve got?

KE: Absolutely.

RJ: You can’t be a drug addict?

KE: No, drugs are not right in any career. I believe some models do drugs and drink—but that’s not just models, drugs problems exist across society.

RJ: Are you saying that you have to love your body and therefore not abuse it?

KE: Yes. Well this is a big thing for me—I don’t take drugs or drink alcohol whatsoever.  That was a promise I made my family at 14 when I left home—that I wasn’t going to do stupid things. My body is a temple and I take care of it. I have to keep it all my life. Loving myself, my body is important for modelling and acting.

RJ: Did ballet help you in any way?

KE: Absolutely, it’s a lot about how to move in front of the camera- it’s not about you it’s about the clothes- you always have to remember that.. You have to make things interesting so the movement is very, very important. That helps me now with acting—moving on stage.

RJ: How did you approach your role in Sunstroke?

KE: Well my friends who are actors said that I had to research; where my character lived, what she does, create the story of who she is, what her daughter would be dressed like, what I would be dressed like, what’s the name of her husband – although he’s never mentioned. Research the whole story—feed myself into that time.

There was researching, constant rehearsals, saying my lines in different ways—what features I wanted to deliver—that was part of my preparation for my role. I had a lot of help for my stage debut from the director, and choreographer, how to say things, how to project. It was terrifying, exciting tiring and challenging but I like challenging things.

RJ: Do you have empathy with your character?

KE: Yes of course I had empathy—I come from a country where women are still quite suppressed. There is a certain way that Russian women should be—and yes it is changing with globalisation, it has to—but there are certain men that expect women to do everything: give birth, love the man unconditionally, keep the family, and there is nothing that she can change. And that is my character.

RJ: But she’s quite liberated—

KE: She’s quite liberated indeed, which is what I sympathise with. She’s light and free. She is a representation of all the amazing things that Bunin and Chekov would love in women—this is what they would give to the most beautiful woman. In so being, she stands out from the women of the time, and the social expectations placed upon them. So I was grateful to be that woman.

RJ: Were you familiar with that story before you were asked to act this part?

KE: Of course, of course, it was one of my favourite stories. Dark Alleys is the whole cycle of the story—I have read it so many times. I couldn’t even imagine that one day I would be a character. It’s a dream come true.

RJ: Russian women are regarded as very liberated women—

KE: Are they? I really think that depends on perspective. I suppose the strong woman image was always very appealing as a view of women, and something perpetuated by the pseudo-equality of communist ideology – but there is much suppression of women, through defined gender roles in Russia. It is something which is a struggle, because there are so many women who would not fulfil the image of liberated – which is more about choice than anything else, and whom could certainly be considered subjugated still.

RJ: Do you see your role moving towards championing the weak woman’s rights or their position in society? Do you think society exploits women’s beauty, looks and body? I mean, they recruited you not because you’re ugly but because of your good looks.

KE: Absolutely Rivka, you’re right in the exploitation of young females in Russia—that has to change. Talking to Russian men often makes my hair stand up. They tell me I’m old and need to be married, fit their designated gender roles. I see lots of men with young women, age 18 or 17 and it’s really scary. I think that comes from a lack of education and not enough opportunity for women in my country, of course it is a generalisation – but many girls see security in marriage from a young age, as there is little else on offer to them still.

RJ: Do you think men are scared of women who are beautiful and successful?

KE: I think it depends on the personality of a man or woman—I guess we get put off by people who are better than us in one way or another; more wealthy, more beautiful, more brainy…it is true that men don’t like women who are very beautiful and can find them intimidating but I also know men who do go for those who are because they are confident in themselves and know they have nothing to worry about

RJ: What female actress inspired you?

KE: I would say Helen Mirren.

RJ: Have you met her?

KE: Well I’ve never had the chance to talk to her, I would be intimidated to say hello—not because she looks intimidating but because she’s such an amazing actress. She’s like a goddess—and the fact she has some Russian roots makes me like her more so I think that’s an inspiration for me.

RJ: Is Oleg Mirochnikov the first director that you’re working with? Did he choose you?

KE: Yes—I’ve known him for a long time. He discouraged me from being an actress—having a Russian accent is not helpful in acting. You have to learn how to get rid of it, which is difficult when you’ve come to the country at age 15 or 16. It’s difficult to break through that idea, and you have to be versatile: American, English, Chinese…not only Russian. At some point he was telling me about a play, I said I would help—and then he asked me if I wanted to try and be an actress with them because there was role for me. He said it would “suit me really well … it is a flirtatious young woman—and I’ve seen you in real life, you are like this.”

It was the rest of the team behind the production that had to be convinced, and thankfully I auditioned and they gave me the part.

RJ: How difficult was it for you to get into the role? After all the role is so “you”. Why did you have to prepare so hard?

KE: Katia laughs. You always have to work hard. I did not know how much this lady would be like me and how much she would be a complete opposite. I had to learn the character fully—and sometimes I moved too much, I was abrupt … so there were things that I had to work on. I had to work on my emotions as a Russian lady –  I lost a lot of that while living in this country. I had to be softer and gentler in what I did, but also quite cold.

RJ: How easy is it to get into your emotions as a woman and expose them on stage? How do you see yourself in other roles?

KE: Emotions are rarely valued in modelling where more is considered in terms of looks and beauty. I come from an industry where everyone is considered physically beautiful and indeed there are many whom I consider a great deal more beautiful than I, so I try to bring personality and depth to that part of my career. It really helped me in my acting work. I believe acting is where looks become even less important—it is what is inside of you, and it was refreshing for me to let emotions spill out. I look forward to the challenge of brining a variety of emotions to any performance.

RJ: As Katia, is it hard for you to express your emotions?

KE: She is generally not an angry person, nor does she have a desire to shout at anyone. I hate shouting; with my law degree I learned how to argue my way using facts and clever ways of influencing ways to change people’s minds. I think I’m more of a diplomatic person than someone who would shout. But give me a role where I need to shout-and because I have anger in me that I can’t express – I probably will do it.

RJ: As a model were you bullied? Told to do this and that?

KE: Absolutely. However in 12 years I’ve only walked out of a shoot once saying “I will not do it”—that was some underwear show, where they gave me some skimpy underwear, which was probably all right, but at that moment it felt so small and so embarrassing—and I had this really old man who kept asking me to come closer to him. I felt so humiliated that I called my agency and said “No”. I am comfortable with my body, I don’t think there is anything horrible about changing clothes in front of the cast but at that point I felt so stupid and small in front of this old man—they didn’t care about the actual underwear one bit…

RJ: Was it your female instinct that made you feel that way? That they were perverts looking at your body rather than at the underwear they were trying to sell?

KE: Absolutely, you do feel it. And I genuinely can suppress it easily, but there is a certain level after which you just break.

RJ: But you don’t mind doing underwear?

KE: No I love doing underwear.  And I know it is sexy, and will attract attention for some very different reasons. There is light-hearted sexiness and then there is seedy, and seedy is way off of my tolerance scale. I’m doing underwear modelling for the women who will also buy the garments and wear them, first and foremost.

RJ: So with acting—are you thinking of your audience or feeling your character?

KE: Mostly feeling my character, but the bigger the audience and the more energy it has, the better I perform.

RJ: What are your plans after Sunstroke?

KE: Well, I’m working on some campaigning issues that I am going to be raising in a Westminster Parliamentary forum soon.. It’s in mid-October and I’ll be talking about vulnerable people in my industry. When I told you that I studied law and it has proved useful in my modelling career I meant it. There is a need to ensure that some long-standing issues in the fashion industry are addressed now, to better ensure a safe working environment for vulnerable talent in the future.

RJ: Vulnerable women or vulnerable men and women?

KE: Vulnerable everybody. We also have very young men in modelling. If I can help to change things for the better, making the industry more open, regulated and safe, then I want to be heard and to make the changes that will lead to that.

RJ: What will you say? Are people being exploited in your industry?

KE: Absolutely. It hasn’t been addressed entirely; there are still so many flaws. There is not much attention paid to the relationship between agencies and boys/girls. We do sign contracts but we don’t understand what we are signing. And even if it’s in our language, we don’t understand all the terms. The transparency in accounting is bad—we don’t understand when we are paid, how we are paid. Quite often we are not paid.

RJ: Looking back can you say you were exploited?

KE: So many times I have not been paid; so many times I did not see the contracts, unscrupulous agents that I no longer work with lied to me. —Quite often I work for big money and sometimes it has never gone to me. When questions are asked of unscrupulous agency accountants do not have an answer or they are skilful and get around it—most sixteen year olds just feel intimidated stop asking questions in the end.

RJ: So are you supporting better pay or transparency?

KE: Transparency—and there should be someone supervising and monitoring the industry. The UK has the opportunity to take the lead in this, not only for home-grown, but also foreign talent working in the industry. There is a slight discrepancy in how talent is treated, if you come from the Western countries: US, France, Germany—they have much stronger support than less wealthy countries, Third world countries

RJ: In your personal bad experiences, were they in Russia, France, the UK?

KE: Many were in France.

RJ: So it was in France where exploitation was more evident?  

KE: Yes. Despite paying up to 500 euros for accommodation in a shared apartment arranged by agencies, girls had to sleep on the floor, without sheets, in apartments with broken toilets and infested with insects. We had horrible conditions.

RJ: Now back to acting, which playwright inspired you most?

KE: Well Chekov obviously, as I have seen so many performances of Chekov in Russia—so taking part in another one of his plays would be interesting. Shakespeare of course, but Shakespeare to me is like an ultimate challenge —if only to understand the language —but if I’m ever trusted with Shakespeare I feel confident that with hard work – it would go well.

RJ: So you see yourself performing more in the future? Are you thinking of going to drama school?

KE: I am actively studying drama now, and my choreographer and director have agreed to help me find additional support if I need it. For now, it is not permanent classes, as it’s very time consuming—but it is very rewarding when you do it well. You may not earn much initially, and so I shall keep my modelling up,  but I’d like to do films. I did films in Russia, but they were small features; saying small things, pretty much playing myself. I am receiving a lot of scripts and offers at the moment, so when I can get my head around the right role to take on next, I hope you’ll see me again?

RJ: Would you consider going to Hollywood or would you prefer being here in the UK?

KE: I would like to try Hollywood if there is some interest or some support for me there—but I need to see what is happening here. It’s all very new to me and I don’t necessarily know what to do with it. I’m suddenly doing something that I never thought I had guts to do. If people think I’m actually interesting on stage, then I am up for taking on any challenge!