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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukrainian Promises Smiles at Eurovision

ReutersUkraine's Verka Serdyuchka singing "Dancing Lasha Tumbai" during Eurovision rehearsals in Helsinki this week.
KIEV -- On stage, Verka Serdyuchka portrays herself as a simple village girl living her dream. Not all her countrymen are beguiled by her charms.

Serdyuchka, a drag queen whose real name is Andriy Danilko, takes her extravagant costumes and ribald song-and-dance routine to Helsinki on Saturday to compete for Ukraine in the annual Eurovision Song Contest.

A busload of Ukrainian protesters plan to confront her in Helsinki: Serdyuchka, they complain, makes the country look like a nation of philistines, tasteless peasants shaped like sacks of potatoes -- not sleek, chic Europeans.

"Guys, let's not quarrel," said an exasperated Danilko, a comedian who dresses like a man when he's not in character, adding that he was "sick" of all the criticism.

The 33-year-old performer, whom Ukrainians chose to represent them at Eurovision in a popular vote in March, said some Ukrainians are taking the annual pop song extravaganza -- and the fun-loving Serdyuchka -- too seriously.

"Let's dance," he said. "That's the message Serdyuchka is sending to Europe."

Danilko dreamed up his stage character more than 10 years ago, following a long Soviet tradition of male comedians impersonating over-the-top females for big laughs. He got them, and Serdyuchka became a hit across the former Soviet Union.

Audiences loved her risque humor, her bouncing dance routines and her colorful costumes -- she appears onstage laden with gaudy costume jewelry, heavy makeup and elaborate headgear, including rhinestone-studded berets.

Serdyuchka won hearts by making good-natured fun of her homely looks and large size, and singing about a single woman's yearning for love. In one song, Serdyuchka sings: "Beauties have it good, everybody likes them. ... But I am ugly. They ride in a car but I ride in the subway."

"She is a Ukrainian Cinderella," Danilko said.

And the way he sees it, this is her chance to go to the ball.

Olexander Lirchuk, a disc jockey in Kiev, fumes.

His Europa-FM radio station is leading the protest against Serdyuchka's appearance at Eurovision, arguing that Ukraine should send a band that can showcase the country's hip, young talent.

Lirchuk rallied about a dozen protesters and burned the performer in effigy.

Now he and some other Serdyuchka critics plan to continue their protests in Helsinki. "Serdyuchka is in poor taste," he said, motioning toward his svelte co-DJ, Yulia Vladina: "Look, that's a real Ukrainian woman."

Many Ukrainians, though, embrace the performer and his character, homely and awkward as she may be.

Some say Serdyuchka even has the best chance to win the Eurovision contest, which is judged by television viewers from all 42 countries that participate.

"Serdyuchka fits Eurovision 100 percent," lawmaker Dmytro Vydrin said.

The annual Eurovision contest is no stranger to outlandish acts. The Finnish band Lordi, which performs in monster masks, was the shock winner of the competition last year with "Hard Rock Hallelujah."

Israeli diva Dana International -- who was a man until a sex-change operation -- won the contest in 1998, triggering a bitter rift between Israel's secular majority and its ultrareligious minority.

Ukraine was thrilled to win in 2004, just a year after its debut in the contest; a singer called Ruslana -- known for her leather-and-fur outfits -- triumphed with an energetic piece called "Wild Dances."

As the winner, Ukraine got to host the event the following year, and as a measure of its importance for the country, President Viktor Yushchenko attended and presented the prize.

Ruslana later won a seat in the parliament.

Some accuse Danilko of dabbling in politics as well. He caused an uproar with the song he plans on performing.

Many listeners say the lyrics include a veiled insult to Russia. Some hear the words "Russia, Goodbye," -- but Danilko insists the phrase actually is "Lasha Tumbai," which is Mongolian for "Whipping Cream."

Russia this year is represented by Serebro. (Story, Context Page 2.)

Danilko insists that he and his alter ego just want to have fun.

As he prepared for the contest, he filmed a daring video in which Serdyuchka and her mother -- who wears a headscarf and goes by the name Mutter -- visit a disco where they take turns playing with special glasses that reveal the crowd of young dancers in their underwear.

"I wanted to show that Ukrainians have the best bodies in the world," Danilko said.