Whatever happened to the Russian 'lesbian' pop duo t.A.T.u.?
It was the year 2000, the beginning of a century that had so much promise, when Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova turned up and revolutionised the already turbulent music scene.
At a time when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera symbolised the image of pop music, two Russian teenagers kicked stereotypes to the curb with a revolutionary, transgressive and rebellious image.
t.A.T.u. was born.
Lena Katina and Yulia Vólkova were going for it: t.A.T.u. was an acronym meaning "This girl loves this girl" and the two presented themselves to the world as a couple, showing off their relationship at every performance, even throwing in a passionate kiss on stage.
In case it wasn't clear, their single and biggest hit, 'All the Things She Said', featured them (almost) kissing at the school gates, dressed in their school uniforms. The impact was instantaneous and t.A.T.u. became a worldwide name and iconic for the LGTBIQ+ community.
In 2001 the full album, called '200 Po Vstrechnoy' (200 km/h in the Wrong Lane), hit the charts and went on to sell 13 million units worldwide. The world was crazy for t.A.T.u.
But everything started to go wrong when, in 2004, the reality of t.A.T.u. became public. They were neither a couple, nor lesbians. It had all been a marketing ploy, one concocted by their publicist Ivan Shapovalov and producer Alexander Dimayuga.
These talent scouts had held a casting call in Russia in 1998, looking for new female faces to launch them into the international music scene. Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova stood out above the rest, even though the initial bet was on Lena Katina alone.
Believe it or not, Shapovalov saw a film in which two female high school students fell in love and decided to adapt that idea to a girl group. That's how t.A.T.u. was born.
Lena Katina recalled on 'Story Caravan' in 2011 how the charade about their relationship began: "We were in front of the microphone and Ivan told us to kiss. Vólkova and I laughed but he got angry. Somehow, it worked out naturally. Yulia approached me first and it generated strange and interesting feelings," she recalls.
The test convinced Ivan Shapovalov and he went ahead with the editing of the video of 'All the Things She Said' in such a way that implied a romantic interest and tension between the two, without actually kissing.
With same sex relationships legalised in Russia only a few years earlier, the appearance of t.A.T.u. had been an unexpected revolution and a hymn to the freedom to love, a notion formerly unknown in the country.
Obviously, Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova exploited their role to the hilt. Every interview, every performance, every concert, every event had the expected passionate kiss of the two singers. The audience could not get enough of them.
In fact, in 2003 they came within a whisker of winning Eurovision - finishing third - in the same year that the Turkish Sertab Erener won with her 'Everyway that I Can'.
t.A.T.u.'s 'Ne ver, ne boysia' came within three points (164) of the Turkish winner (167). In between came Belgium (165). It was a close and memorable final.
Eurovision was their highest peak of success. From then on, the only direction was down.
Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova's private life became public and it finally came out that they were not, in fact, a couple. On top of that, in 2004, Yulia Volkova became pregnant with her boyfriend, making it clear that her tastes (also) included men.
Despite the controversy, t.A.T.u. moved on after Yulia Volkova gave birth. Nothing was ever the same again though.
The millions of fans they had generated in a short time no longer trusted them and took what had happened as a betrayal. "We have always stood for love without limits," they tried to argue in a statement in 2007. It was of little use.
However, before they split up in 2011, they had released six albums and sold more than 40 million albums. It made them one of the most profitable and best-selling groups in history.
Five years later, in early 2016, Lena Katina and Yulia Vólkova gave each other a second chance and prepared to release a new album together: 'Love in Every Moment'. It didn't work out as planned.
Lena Katina released a statement on social media, accusing Yulia Vólkova of wanting to be the one calling the shots within the group. "I must announce that our future collaboration has become absolutely impossible," the statement began.
As if that were not enough, Yulia Volkova, who had declared herself openly bisexual, said on Russian television that she could never love a gay son. "I would condemn him because a man must be a real man. God created man to procreate, it is his nature."
The statements were the final nail in the coffin of a possible comeback of the group. Or so the world thought... Until early October 2021. In an Instagram live, Lena Katina confirmed that t.A.T.u. would be given a third chance.
The singer announced that they will reunite in the spring of 2022, in a tribute to celebrate now more than 20 years since they created the group. Without knowing too many details, one may assume that they will also include some of the singers' solo hits.
They will both return as mothers, with one and three children, respectively.
Their looks are strikingly different. On the one hand, Lena Katina looks much the same, recognisable by her red hair and resembling the girl she was 20 years ago.
Yulia Vólkova has changed quite a bit from her early days in the singing world. Gone is her short, flowing hair. It gave to a jet-black mane. In addition, her schoolgirl look has changed to that of a femme fatale.
It will certainly be interesting to see how they perform on stage after their previous attempt at a reunion. What's more, it remains to be seen whether the reunion will, in fact, be successful at all.