Photos by Henrik Halvarsson
Text by Aleksei Yevgeniyev
Uzbekistan is a former Soviet republic which borders Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and ever-warring Afghanistan. Cotton, gas, and uranium are some of the things that pop into mind once the country is mentioned. Gulnara has grown accustomed to the fact that her interviews always start in this way. “They speak to me to study political geography,” she sighs. But this is only because Gulnara, the daughter of President Islam Karimov, is a perfect representation. Many countries know Uzbekistan today because she represents it – not only as a diplomat and UN functionary, but also as a beautiful woman able to enchant the west, if this is what the east needs. Besides, she is a fashion desinger and jeweller who tries to combine European style and traditional eastern lustre, at least in her own persona.
We first saw her at Fashion Week in Paris. She seemed familiar with everyone and, switching from French to English, spoke with coutures as an all-time customer and colleague. She is a big “fan” of Dior, Chanel, and Christian Lacroix. With them, she doesn’t have to have her measurements taken as they know her every centimeter, while for final touches there are trusted seamstresses in Tashkent. “I disagree that a clothing item lives no longer than a year. “How could I miss such a wonderful thing in this season?,” people say to me, and I respond that it is a collection from three years ago, but that I added my own decorations or some national element, and the dress has become unrecognizably different.”
What does her wardrobe consist of? “First, it is something for official life, I don’t like that, but I have to have that.”
The first thing I do at the beginning of each season is I pick something similar to official attire, something that is not necessarily starkly official. Cocktail dresses are predominant in my wardrobe. I love dresses, both long and short. Then I just try to find what is right for me in each season. Oftentimes, I mix styles: If I don’t like classical Dior, why not put on something crazy made by John Galliano?”. Asked what her first couture dress was, she says: “A splendid pink Donna Karan skirt, a huge fluffy “balloon” made from silk.”
One may want to observe this tigress in her natural habitat. And here we are, in Tashkent, where Gulnara’s Fund Forum is holding a Festival of Traditional Culture Asrlar sadosi (The echo of centuries). The day before, she had received guests for an event. But she was not in her best shape to pose for our photographer. She was with the sister of Nicolas Sarkozy, Carolin, Irina Vinner, foreign guests (an old gay with a bunch of young people, and fashionably clad ladies). She refused to change her clothes, get a make-up and do her hair as it was not the right moment: guests, children, people – a hectic mixture, in a word.
But the next day she arrived almost on time, driving her own Lexus. Well-trained security made its presence at the background. Gulnara’s demeanor showed her friendliness, she smiled all the time, and of course she was reserved. She worked fast and showed no whim. She wasted no time in picking the clothes to her liking, easily accepted the hairstyle and makeup that were offered to her.
Several suggestions have come that she become a model, and she could have become one if she wanted to, but Gulnara prefers not to make her hobbies a profession. She keeps the distance: “Either you have to involve yourself in something seriously, or keep yourself out of it. Professionals devote a lot to what they do, not just their time, not just their lives – I can’t do that…” It may appear that she even parades her amateurism. She creates her jewelry under Guli brand, writes poems, which she publishes on a website under the famous pseudonym “Googoosha”, composes music, and sings. Just as notably, she was once engaged in classical singing. The truth of the matter is that she simply hurries to live- the personal life of a princess is very short. “I want to do it today, because life is in constant change. Each day brings something new, and I may not have enough time to achieve some of the things.”
A graduate of a Tashkent university, New York Fashion Institute of Technology as well as Harvard University, Gulnara served as envoy and advisor for the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow for two years and these 730 days did not get lost in the whirpool of Uzbek history. The influential friends Gulnara has made in Moscow are legion. The list of countless guests invited to her receptions has included the then prime minister Medvedev. “Who is the first person you phone and say “Hey, I am here in Moscow, let’s meet”, we ask Gulnara. She laughs: “I’d rather not name anyone as there are many of them. I’m afraid of forgetting someone and offending them. After the magazine is out, I will get phone calls saying “Good bye, sweety we’ll never meet again!”
She now has as many friends in Geneva, where she is working and where her children, 16-year-old son Islam and 11-year-old daughter Iman, are attending school. Very often, Gulnara says she wishes there were 25 hours in a day. But she never saves time on her children. Their time is priority number one in the planning of the daily routine. “When I am asked where my home is, I always say it is where my children are. We try to spend our evenings together, not to mention our dinners which we hold sacred. Sometimes it so happens that I have to be somewhere in the evening, but I try devote some time to them anyway: either they wait for me, or I make early dinner or late lunch.”
“Dinner is something I can’t do without,” Gulnara continues. “I almost never eat meat. Instead, I replace it with fish and chicken. I love salads and I usually come up with my own salad ideas. When we eat out, I normally order a salad and dessert, lots of dessert. My friends say: “are you going to have your usual herbs and sugar?! However, my breakfasts are very light: soy-bean shake with bilberries and steamed veggies. My lunch tends to be fragmentary, on the go, and I make sure it includes several glasses of juice”.
Quite remarkably for an eastern woman, she is bringing up her kids on her own, without a husband. Gulnara was married to Mansur Maksudy, an Afghan businessman who lives in the United States. And her divorce caused quite a scandal. Gulnara answered the questions calmly… this is not a taboo subject. But apparently, she doesn’t take any delight in talking about custody battle over her children. The American court awarded custody to her husband. There was no way that she would comply with the court’s decision and she risked becoming unable to leave the country for a long time. Arrest and penalty awaited her in the U.S. while arrest and trial awaited her husband in Uzbekistan.
She still feels hurt by people who attempted to take advantage of the scandal in an effort to talk about authorities in Uzbekistan. Now, after eight years, she has achieved her goal: “the same U.S. court decided to grant custody of my children to me and I can forget about this problem – my children are now free to move, travel, study and so on… including in the U.S. Perhaps, it is impossible to forget, but I can breathe and live.”
When we ask her whether she is disappointed with marriage as such, she replies: “I don’t know… With this “wonderful” experience, which almost knocks you down, I’m most unlikely to plunge back into marriage”.
In this sense, Gulnara is a completely western woman, although she prefers to explain this by Uzbek family traditions: “In our country people believe that children cannot live without a mother; there’s no option allowing children to live only with their father, and in this sense, our society is a lot wiser than American society. I feel great when I am with my kids, we call it “our little family”.
Perhaps, it is this little family that helps her keep in good shape. Well-groomed, athletic, energetic, and feminine at the same time, she looks like someone who is used to taking care of herself. “I am not fanatical about make-up. I’m more into medical stuff, creams and oils. I like cosmetics that contain hyaluronan. For my body, I use an ordinary cream which I once found in London. It’s pharmaceutical and is based on herbs, wheat and oats. It is sold in practically all drugstores. Very good stuff.”
When she talks about cosmetics, the eastern princess turns into a western diva. But when she gets up after a particular concert and prepares to leave, the entire hall rushes forward in order to take a closer look at her. This can be quite a spectacle, sometimes a frightening one. “This is nothing,” says Rezida, Gulnara’s assistant. “Last year, an open-air concert took place at night. The scenario was develop in advance. All of a sudden, Gulnara says she will go down and dance… The security men are shocked- wouldn’t she get trampled underfoot in the crowd?! But she gave 15 minutes so that everyone would digest the idea, then she got up and went to the dance area!”
“It wasn’t risky at all,” says Gulnara. “The trajectory of any event should go up, but not down. What would they think of me? A beautiful woman from Tashkent, handed over prizes, grants and… left! And I said I wanted to dance with everyone. But even those who first opposed to my dancing later said that this part should have been included in the scenario from the very beginning, didn’t they?!”, she said turning to her assistant.
She is not shy about speaking of herself as a beauty, but such is her official role, a role that is way more important than any position she has held. She is the daughter of her father, the daughter of the president of Uzbekistan, who was recently re-elected for a new term. “A smart, cunning, and complex interlocutor”, a Russian diplomat says of him. “He knows he can’t afford to show any weakness”. Such is Karimov as a politician. Only Gulnara and her younger sister Lola are aware what he is like as a father. If Gulnara loves her country, her father, the president, and her mother, a PhD of economic sciences, her home and her language, she is by all means a princess – in the east, rulers do not retire. Today, she is the face of Uzbekistan, and this is a small glamorous revolution.
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