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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reigning Over Russian Blues

Viktoria Pier-Mari, a half-Cameroonian Russian singer, has a quick, throaty laugh and breaks into song at unexpected moments. She calls herself the "Russian queen of the blues," and is on the cusp of stardom. But inside there's a knot of pain, a place where old grudges burn fierce and steady.

Her father arrived from Kribi, Cameroon, in 1970 to study medicine. He married a Russian, took a prestigious job at a government hospital -- and died in April 1990 of a liver disease. A month later his wife overdosed on sleeping pills to escape the stigma of parenting a black child, Pier-Mari said. At the age of 12, she was moved from her large Moscow apartment to an orphanage, and languished in care for six years.

"Together with the death of my parents, I buried all the remaining relatives that forgot me," she said. She chuckled as she recalled how she had calmly excised them from her life. "My relatives knew about the existence of my father's child, and when he died it was their job to find the child left in an orphanage. And now I'm grown up, I don't need any of them."

Pier-Mari, who says she's 27, sings raucous rock versions of jazz and blues favorites, her mezzo soprano-alto voice powerful and rich. She appeared in a pair of imported Western musicals, "Chicago" and "We Will Rock You," and regularly performs at private events, where Russian musicians make most of their money.

In her shiny apartment, a modest symbol of her success refitted with wall-length mirrors and a small bedroom she calls the "sexodrome," Pier-Mari speaks arrogantly without a hint of self-consciousness. Perhaps to save herself from despair during difficult times, she's evolved the idea she was born for stardom. Her genes are superb, she says. She claims her soul is that of a queen, and that her tastes -- which include riding an Arabian horse named Caesar -- are royal.

"A queen lives in me in my upbringing, in my education, in my habits," Pier-Mari said, deadly serious.

Boris Barabanov, music critic at Kommersant newspaper, was skeptical of Pier-Mari's plans to take jazz and blues mainstream here.

"I can't say that because of her influence, tomorrow all the kiosks and stores will sell Nina Simone," he said, though he added: "What I heard [of her singing] was an excellent standard of work for clubs and restaurants."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Pier-Mari in her pristine apartment. She's named the bedroom the "sexodrome."

A few other black people have made it in Moscow showbusiness despite the increasing visibility of racism, including television personality Yelena Khanga, singer Pier Nartsiss and actor Grigory Siyatvinda.

Pier-Mari's childhood home in the Baumanskaya district, east of the center, was filled with jazz and blues music. She visited Cameroon almost every year, and watched a birth at the hospital where her father worked. They told her of her mother's death while she was at a Pioneer youth camp. Her maternal grandmother wanted to take her in, but authorities wouldn't let a pensioner adopt.

As Pier-Mari moved from one orphanage to another, she lost all but a handful of photographs of her earlier life. She never had counseling. Ten to 12 children -- many disturbed or brain-damaged, all neglected -- lived in each room, fed on stewed cabbage, carrots, potatoes and poor cuts of meat. She said other kids beat her.

One of the orphanages had a music class, and Pier-Mari played the tuba. She was encouraged to sing, and won a place at the prestigious Gnesin Academy. With money earned from giving singing and elocution lessons, about $1,000 a month, she competed at music festivals abroad. She said that at a Los Angeles competition in 1997, she was presented two gold medals by Liza Minnelli.

Pier-Mari said she's never auditioned for work, and that the producers of the musicals, which came to Moscow in 2002 and 2004, approached her. Her skin color helps: "My chocolate appearance only gives me more chances to be bright and individual. ... They call me the chocolate Marilyn."

Still, as if not to crack the glamorous facade she's created, Pier-Mari paints over any racial unpleasantness. Last year she was let go from a TV job after the channel received hate e-mails from viewers, she said; bosses claimed it was because she was too cheerful. Glossy magazines use stereotypes when describing her: She's "exotic" and "colorful." And she doesn't flaunt her past; her web site biography mentions her parents, though not their deaths or her years in orphanages.

To a point that seems dangerous, Pier-Mari proposes trying to understand the faults of others -- she says skinheads are just unhappy, and that she once went out with one. "Can a hungry wolf be kind?" she posed.

In 2005, Pier-Mari released an album of covers titled "Victoria Pierre-Marie. I Feel Good."

Her plans are fantastical, though it strikes you that she's already come a long way. She hopes to be as famous as Elton John, and to record an album of her own songs -- she's written one about a homeless cat and wants to propagandize the idea that big bodies are beautiful. She's also meeting with a scriptwriter twice a week to work on an autobiographical film.

If it doesn't work out, what might sustain her is that exaggerated self-belief. Watching music clips on her large TV, she remarked of Jennifer Lopez: "I'm much more beautiful. Isn't it obvious?"