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Schoolgirl becomes unlikely feminist icon in Russia

Russia's search for its next Miss Universe contestant took a surprise turn last week when a 15-year-old schoolgirl swept  a majority of votes in an on-line beauty contest and became an overnight feminist icon. NBC News' Judy Augsburger reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Russia's search for its next Miss Universe contestant took a surprise turn last week when a 15-year-old schoolgirl swept up a majority of votes in an online beauty contest and became an overnight feminist heroine.

"Alyona Pisklova's" photo was an immediate hit in Russia's first and largest competition designed to let the public choose its representative to the famous annual pageant.

The Moscow schoolgirl was surprised that her picture had been entered. Friends sent in her photo as a joke, replacing her last name, which she has withheld, with the name of a boy she had a crush on.

When Pisklova logged on to the site for the first time, she discovered she was already in the lead.

Joke created Internet movement
Voting for Pisklova turned into an Internet phenomonen in Russia, as web users expressed their views on much more than on the choice of a regular-looking girl over long-legged models with touched up photos.

Her supporters quickly launched their own website, to attract votes and launch a broad-based manifesto.

The website declared that a vote for Pisklova was a vote against the "Barbification" of society, against "unnatural beauties who cannot be distinguished from each other, fake emotions, smiles and gazes in the lenses of profession photographers” and other accepted standards of beauty.

Pisklova's measurements, according to her entry, did not match the model standard of 35-23-35, the site proudly pointed out.

In addition, the backers maintained that a vote for Pisklova represented a vote against other Western imports, such as large faceless corporations as well as a protest against such oddities such as cigarettes without nicotine, and coffee without caffeine.

Start of protest culture
As far as the head of the beauty pagent is concerned, the popularity of the "Stop Barbie" campaign represents the start of a protest culture in Russia.

“It's the first ever clearly manifested reaction to the media industry and advertising industry in Russia, because we have no spring in Paris, we have no hippies,” Ivan Zassoursky, the beauty pageant's producer said.

“We didn't have a protest generation, because we have the media and advertising industry only for a decade or so," a reference to the nation's recent embrace of capitalism after decades of communist rule.

The online pageant was the first beauty pageant run like an election, with no jury of fashion moguls to choose the winner. 

"If there would have been a jury, there would have been no Alyona,” Zassoursky explained.

"People in Russia don't believe in free and fair elections. When you don't believe you always play around, you try to prove that you have the strength. And to prove that you have the strength you have to vote for something that cannot be in any way considered a projection of the system, as a creation of the system. This is the so-called protest electorate. And this is definitely Alyona," he said.

The Pisklova cause drew plenty of discussion in Russia chat rooms, mostly from supporters such as "Boris" who claimed that she had become the symbol for a new revolutionary movement.

"We're all tired of hearing 'live with Coca-Cola,’ tired of some corporation creating stereotypes that everyone follows,” he wrote. “But we are all individuals. We won't be Kens to the Barbies."

'Viewers choice award'
Pisklova received 10,000 votes on the first day alone, and had gathered 39,000 total before she was disqualified due to her age. Contestants to Miss Universe must be at least 18, and Pisklova is only 15.

However the pageant producers awarded her the "viewers choice award" and have kept a new photo of her on the official website.

In the photo, Pisklova is wearing a red Che Guevara-esque t-shirt given to her by supporters with her own likeness beside the slogan "Barbie no pasaran.” (The latter is an old anti-Fascist slogon from the Spanish Civil War that is embraced by anti-globalists and means "they shall not pass.")

Pisklova told the "Moscow Times" that she was quite happy to have been swept up by the anti-globalists, even if she doesn't believe in all the points of the anti-Barbie manifesto.

The pageant was not only a world first in terms of a popular vote for a beauty queen; it was also the largest Russian Internet-based election to date, according to Zassoursky.

Internet use remains in its infancy in Russia, but it has increased rapidly over the past three years.

A report released last year by a Moscow-based consultancy company reports Internet penetration in Russia at about 11 percent of the population. In the United States, by contrast, more than half the nation’s households have access to the Internet.

As of Thursday, 869,000 votes had been cast in the pagent. The producers are hoping to reach a million votes before Friday evening, when the winner will be announced. "We are going into the Guinness Book of Records with this, and the Russian Book of Records. Not with Alyona. Or maybe because of her."

The pageant organizers also offered to fly Pisklova to the Miss Universe competition in Ecuador this June as an observer. She turned down the chance, because it conflicted with her school exams, according to Zassoursky. She did however, demand a prize. She requested and was given a puppy.

“In the end, this whole thing is about Internet communities,” Zassoursky explained. “This political effort has been completely organized as a kind of internet community.”