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15 Great Russian Expressions You’ve Never Heard Of

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About the authorFor lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.

He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.

He has an excellent Pinterest page, and you can follow him on Facebook. Here is an archive of his work published on Russia Insider.


I’m having a great time getting into the exciting bits of my new novel. Bear-riders have appeared, my main character is in the middle of a huge dilemma, two other characters have lost their families, and another is getting himself stuck in some very dark, bad business (it may or may not involve giants. Or dragons. Or both!)

My second novel, I’m be honest, is a tad dark. So even as I’m writing it, feel the need to lighten it up a bit. In my first novel, unexpected bits of comedy came from secondary characters. I’m trying to do the same in this one. There’s one character, a kind of royal bodyguard named Bhuk, who’s modeled on a guy I worked with in the kitchens of a monastery in north Russia (true story).

Bhuk can hardly say a single sentence without having some kind of folksy expression in it. It’s a very Russian thing. So I thought it might be interesting to find and translate some of the more colorful Russian expressions and find out what they actually mean. Here we go:

The hidden meanings of Russian folk sayings: part 1.

  1. Иван родства не помнящийIvan who doesn’t remember his family

Literally, it means someone who doesn’t like to follow traditions or rules. An innovator (not in a good way). The historical meaning is this. During Tsarist times, police had to deal with runaway prisoners, serfs who were trying to escape hard masters, soldiers who couldn’t finish boot camp, various sectarians, and other wanderers with no official papers. These people often hid their real names and places of residence. If asked about their names, they all call themselves “Ivan,” and claimed they didn’t remember their families.

  1. Толочь воду в ступеTo beat water in a mortar

It means “to beat the air,” to waste time doing something useless. The hidden meaning has to do with the supposedly miraculous properties of water. From pagan times, Russians were in awe of water. People used to whisper blessings on water and wait for miracles. But what if someone already mumbled something over the water? Especially if that someone swore when he dropped a jug of it? Water remembers everything!

So the old pagan druids found a way to “erase” the negative information from water. They used to beat water in a vessel for a long time. After a few days of torturing the water, the water was ready to be whispered over and used for magical rites. The druids would use the supposedly magic water for barter. But eventually, people realized that the water didn’t do anything special. So after a long time, it became an expression meaning “to waste your time.”

  1. Шут гороховый—A pea-green jester

It’s a derogatory expression: “stupid idiot,” or “moron.” The image of the jester of Medieval Europe is well known—wearing motley, a hat with donkey ears, holding a rattle in his hand (the rattle was often a bull bladder filled with dried peas). He would always begin his performances by rattling the peas. In Russia, jesters liked to decorate themselves with dried stalks of pea plants. During the folk celebrations before Lent, an effigy of a pea-green jester was carried around on the streets.

  1. Тянуть канительTo spin gold thread

Literally, it means to do humdrum work. To work a long time at a monotonous task. So why do you need to spin gold thread? Metal threads, whether of silver or gold, were used in decorations of clothing and rugs. To make it “sewable,” you had to make it extremely thin by beating it and pulling it through smaller and smaller holes. The process was laborious and very, very boring.

  1. Делить шкуру неубитого медведяTo divide the pelt of a living bear

An English equivalent might be “to count your chickens before they hatch.” The older version of this phrase is “to sell the pelt of a living bear.” The meaning is pretty clear—you shouldn’t build plans before you know they’re going to come through. The source of the bear image is actually from a French fable called “The Bear and Two Companions” by Jean de La Fontaine. The story concerns two fur traders who make a bargain for the pelt of a bear they haven’t killed yet. Hilarity ensues. Here’s the full fable online.

  1. Съесть СобакуTo eat a dog

The phrase now means to go through bitter experience, and come out the wiser. But originally, the phrase was ironic. Here’s the full version: “He ate the dog, but choked on the tail.” The expression was used to laugh at someone who had finished a very difficult job, but tripped up at the end over some trifle.

  1. Кричать во всю ИвановскуюTo scream over all Ivanovskoe

Literally: “to scream bloody murder.” Inside the Moscow Kremlin, the square that has the famous bell tower of Ivan the Great is called “Ivanovskoe”. In old times, sextons would announce all public laws, documents, and other official business concerning Moscow and all other cities. These sextons had very loud voices, apparently.

  1. Выносить сор из избыTo carry the garbage out of the hut

Literally: “to air dirty laundry”. This one also goes back to pagan rites. The thing is, garbage was never carried out of the hut. It was burned in the stove. Why? People believed that a magician could find out a family’s secrets by smelling their garbage. If he really wanted to harm them, he could even bury the garbage in a cemetery (not good!)

  1. Делу время и потехе часThere’s a time for work, and a time for play

This one might seem obvious, but there’s an interesting historical episode here. In 17th century Russia, the most popular way for a noble to spend his free time was hunting with falcons. Even Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich loved it—he hunted almost every day, except for winter. He even published a set of rules for proper falconry.

In this rulebook, the hunt was praised as an occupation that was very good at banishing sorrow and misfortunes. However, ultimately the Tsar decided that people had started enjoying it toomuch, and government business was suffering. So at the end of his rulebook, he added a warning: “Do not forget the business of government: there is a time for work, and a time for play.”

  1. Куда Макар телят не гоняетWhere even Makar won’t take his cows

Literally: very, very far away. Here’s one version of this saying’s provenance. Peter the Great was traveling through Riazan’. He liked to talk to the common people incognito. It so happened that on a certain day, every peasant he met just happened to be named “Makar”. The Tsar was surprised by this, then was reputed to say, “From this day forth, you shall all be called Makar!” From that time, the name “Makar” was used as a catchphrase for “peasant man.”

  1. Танцевать от печкиTo dance from the stove

Strangely enough, this expression means “to act always in the same way, never changing based on newly acquired knowledge.” Funny story. A certain man named Sergei Terebenev returned to Russia after a long absence. When he returned, full of nostalgia, he recalled his childhood memories of taking dance classes.

So he’s standing at the stove, his feet in “position three.” His parents and servants are standing around watching him. The teacher gives the command: “One, two, three.” Sergei does the first step, but loses his beat, and his feet get tangled up.

His father says, “O, what a mess! Well, get back to the stove, start dancing again!”

  1. Зарубить на носуTo hack at the nose

This one sounds more violent than it actually is. It means to remember something forever. The image that comes to mind is a poor schoolboy that’s standing in front of an angry teacher who threatens him with a finger again and again. The poor boy imagines it’s an axe hacking away at his nose. But that’s not it at all. Actually, a “nose” is a small wooden board notched by illiterate peasants as a way of remembering important tasks.

  1. Семь пятниц на неделеSeven Fridays a week

This describes a person who constantly changes his mind. Someone you can’t trust. In old times, Friday was market day. Everyone shopped on a Friday. Friday was the day that the goods arrived, and payment was arranged for the followed market day (Friday). Whoever did not come through with the payment was branded with this expression: “For that guy, it’s seven Fridays a week!”

But there’s a different explanation too. Workers were usually allowed to leave early on a Friday, so a lazy bum was also given this expression. For him, every day was a day off, so to speak.

  1. Вилами на воде написаноWritten on water with a pitchfork

Literally: “a very doubtful event.” There are actually two explanations for this expression. “Vila” (the Russian word for pitchfork) is also another name for Russian mermaids, dangerous spirits who were said to drown young men (they also show up in chapter 3 of my new novel). If you saw them writing on the water, you could be sure that what they wrote would come true.

The second meaning refers to pitchforks as ritual objects used by druids. The three points of the fork were said to symbolize the essence of the god Triglav (literally, three-headed one). Druids would use them to “draw” runes on water as part of their magic rites. Of course, when nothing happened, people started to give the action its opposite meaning.

  1. Отрезанный ломотьA cut-off piece of bread

This refers to someone who has become independent—a daughter given to a husband who lives very far away, or a son whose started his own family and never comes to visit his parents.

Interestingly, in old times bread was never cut, because it symbolized life. You should only ever break pieces off. So the expression “cut-off piece of bread” is a real historical oxymoron.

Stay tuned next week for more linguistic madness from the Russians! The original Russian article can be found here.

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New book reveals the true story of how the Oscars got their name | Culture

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The most coveted trophy in cinema is called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award, but it was dubbed the Oscar several years after it was first presented on May 16, 1929, at the Roosevelt Hotel, just a block away from the gala’s current venue, the Dolby Theater.

The Hollywood Academy has it all on record. The nickname, the official name – the whole shebang. But where does the nickname come from? Well, from a “straight and tall” Norwegian sailor, in fact. A book on the first 50 years of the Academy, to be published in the US in October, mentions the origins of the name and singles out Academy assistant, Eleanore Lilleberg, as the creator of the alias.

Until now, it was commonly believed that Margaret Herrick had given the name to the award, which is not, in fact, solid gold, but britannia – an alloy of copper, tin and antimony – bathed in gold. This story had it that, in 1931, Herrick, who was then Margaret Gledhill, joined the Academy’s library and on her first day of work came across a statuette, of which she said, “It reminds me of my uncle Oscar.” According to the 1947/1948 Hollywood Academy Almanac, a journalist got wind of the anecdote and put it in print the following day.

In 1943, Herrick became executive director of the Academy and was the first to negotiate with a television network for the live broadcast of the gala in 1953. This gave the Academy financial independence, freeing it from reliance on membership fees, and allowed it to expand its educational programs and cultural activities.

Margaret Herrick, librarian and first female executive director of the Hollywood Academy.
Margaret Herrick, librarian and first female executive director of the Hollywood Academy.

But in the forthcoming book The Academy and the Award, due out in October, author Bruce Davis tells it differently and he should know, as for 22 years, he was the Academy’s executive director until his retirement in 2011. In other words, he has had access to the archives, which is what he has devoted himself to since leaving office. Davis is not just any executive either: some time ago, he came up with the idea of investing some of the Academy’s savings in the museum that has now become one of the jewels in its crown.

According to the website Deadline, which has had access to the 521-page tome, Davis’ research has been thorough. Regarding Herrick’s story, he found a 1938 Los Angeles Examiner report in which Herrick offered a different version of the tale, namely that she and her first husband, Donald Gledhill, used to have a private joke between them that went, “How’s your Uncle Oscar?”

In a bid to get to the bottom of the matter, Davis then brings in the 1970 memoirs of columnist Sidney Skolsky, Don’t Get Me Wrong – I Love Hollywood. Skolsky also took credit for the name, recalling that, under deadline pressure in 1934, he used it in mocking tribute to Vaudeville comedians who liked to say to the conductor of the orchestra, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?”

Bruce Davis, at an academy event in November 2010.
Bruce Davis, at an academy event in November 2010.Amanda Edwards (Getty Images)

However, on March 16, 1934, Skolsky himself wrote in the New York Daily News: “Among the profession, statuettes are called Oscars.” So, both Skolsky’s initial claim and Herrick’s claim were unseated, leaving that of actress Bette Davis.

In January 1941, Bette Davis became the first woman to preside over the Hollywood Academy, a position she resigned from a few months later after a stand-off between her and the board of directors. However, in her memoirs The Lonely Life, published in 1962, she maintained that she was the one who thought of the epithet when holding her first Oscar for Dangerous in 1936: “His back view was the spit of my husband’s. Since the ‘O’ in Harmon O. Nelson stood for Oscar, Oscar it has been ever since,” she wrote. When it was pointed out that the term had already been in use for two years by then, the actress recanted.

So, Bruce Davis kept digging. And he found that the Oscars were actually probably named by Eleanore Lilleberg, a secretary and office assistant in the early days of the Academy who was in charge of looking after the statuettes in the run-up to the ceremonies. She had been previously mooted as responsible for the name Oscar, though not how it came about.

Bette Davis, in 1936, with her Oscar for 'Dangerous' in hand.
Bette Davis, in 1936, with her Oscar for ‘Dangerous’ in hand.

But in a small museum in Green Valley, California, dedicated to Lilleberg and her gemologist brother Einar, Davis found Einar’s unfinished memoirs in which he explains that it was Eleanore who named the award Oscar, after a Navy veteran from Norway, the Lilleberg family’s country of origin. Together, they had met this sailor in Chicago and noted that, like the statuette, he “stood straight and tall.” A 1944 newspaper interview with a colleague and an oral account back up this theory.

Which puts this particular mystery to rest, though there are plenty more Oscar secrets in the book…

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Back in Action: The return of Cameron Diaz, the once-highest-paid actress in Hollywood | Culture

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In an interview with her close friend Gwyneth Paltrow, actress Cameron Diaz explained how it felt to leap from the Olympus of Hollywood into the abyss, leaving behind a career full of blockbuster movies. “I’m at peace. I got a peace in my soul. Because I was finally taking care of myself. I feel like my feet are on the ground. I’m lighter.” The actress starred in romantic comedies from the mid-1990s through the first decade of the 2000s, including the hit There’s Something About Mary. For several years, she was the best-paid actress in Los Angeles, making up to $20 million per film. But at age 40, with no warning, she decided to “semi-retire” from the industry. Diaz was focused on enjoying her personal life: she is married to musician Benji Madden, and she gave birth to her first daughter, Raddix, at age 47. But she never closed the door on a possible return. Now, eight years after her last movie, America’s blondest sweetheart is back.

The Californian was the second actress in history, after Julia Roberts, to be paid $20 million for a movie.
The Californian was the second actress in history, after Julia Roberts, to be paid $20 million for a movie.Getty

“I’m excited, but I don’t know how to do this, you know?” Cameron Diaz admits in the video in which she announced the end of her retirement and confirmed her return to the industry. Simulating a call with her fellow cast member Jamie Foxx, the 49-year-old actress revealed that she will play the lead in a new action comedy for Netflix, titled Back in Action. In the clip, Foxx – who won an Oscar for the movie Ray – seeks help from football player Tom Brady, who this year announced his retirement and changed his mind a month later, in order to prepare Diaz for her return to the big screen. On social media, other entertainers, including Jennifer Aniston and Kim Cattrall, received the news with enthusiasm. Nancy Meyers, who directed Cameron Diaz in The Holiday, wrote: “Finally! Some good news!” Still, in keeping with her decision to avoid the buzz of stardom as much as possible, the Californian actress didn’t even share the news with her nearly 10 million Instagram followers.

During her time outside the public eye, Cameron Diaz, like peers such as Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, has attempted to follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s path, using her platform to establish herself as a wellness guru. She published two books on well-being and longevity – The Body Book and The Longevity Book. She has also invested in emerging alternative medicine companies, including Modern Acupuncture and Lyra Health, which helps companies improve the mental health of their employees. In 2020, she also became the founder of the Avaline wine brand, which sells wines made with organic, pesticide-free grapes. The line includes eight varieties, and the starting price for a bottle is €23 ($23.6). “Avaline is the only day-to-day work that I’m doing other than being a wife and a mother. It really has been the most fulfilling part of my life so far,” she said in an interview last year.

Cameron Diaz married Benji Madden, a member of the band Good Charlotte, in 2015.
Cameron Diaz married Benji Madden, a member of the band Good Charlotte, in 2015.MICHAEL NELSON (EFE)

The resurgence of the romantic comedy could be behind Diaz’s return to film. The genre reached its box office peak in the mid-1990s. Earlier this year, Sandra Bullock found unexpected success with her return to the genre in The Lost City. Andy Garcia and Gloria Estefan gave the latest remake of Father of the Bride a Latin twist. And in September, Julia Roberts will return to theaters in September after four years of absence: in Journey to Paradise, she will join George Clooney to play a divorced couple who team up to torpedo their daughter’s wedding in Bali. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise is enjoying the success of Top Gun: Maverick, Laura Dern and Sam Neill are returning to the Jurassic Park franchise, and Brad Pitt is preparing for the release of his new action film Bullet Train. After being slammed by the effects of the pandemics, movie theaters are finding that old stars are the best way to get viewers back in their seats.

Cameron Diaz has limited her public appearances in the last decade to a handful of promotional interviews.
Cameron Diaz has limited her public appearances in the last decade to a handful of promotional interviews.NBC (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

During her hiatus, Diaz has avoided spotlights and red carpets, appearing only on programs hosted by colleagues such as Paltrow and Drew Barrymore. The actress has spoken unequivocally about the elements that have hampered her professional career, from the abuse of power exercised by Hollywood studios over their stars to the dictatorship of beauty standards. “Every day I sat in front of the mirror for hours. It ended up being toxic […] You start criticizing yourself and you think, why am I sitting here being mean to myself?” she said in a BBC podcast, calling herself a “victim of the objectification and social exploitation that women are subjected to.” In deciding to return to the spotlight, Diaz follows the example of other contemporaries who have recently come out of similar semi-retirements, such as Renée Zellweger, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Judy Garland, and Lindsay Lohan, who will premiere a Christmas-themed movie on Netflix at the end of this year.



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Today’s leading Tik Tok influencer creates fashion parodies from one of the world’s poorest islands | Culture

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Shaheel Shermont Flair is 24 years old, and he wants to be a comedic actor. On his social media, where he showcases his talent for comedy through videos/reels, he describes himself as a “public figure” and “artist.” On June 20, he shared his latest witty idea online: a fashion show parody. “Fashion shows be like this,” he declared (alongside the emoji of a face crying with laughter). Then, barefoot and dressed in a T-shirt and sport shorts, he started walking like Linda, Naomi, or Christy through what looks like the backyard of his house. Each trip displayed a style created with all sorts of knickknacks, junk, utensils and household furnishings. In an unintentionally Rickowensian moment (or not), he even used his little sister, Riharika, who was accessorized and off to the side, as a complement. On TikTok, where he has been appearing as @shermont22 for a little more than a year, the short video has racked up over five million views and counting. He continues to gain followers as well; he has nearly 350,000 right now and 13 million or so “likes.” Viewers keep asking him for more. At popular request, he uploaded his most recent video a few hours ago. It is the ninth installment of a viral saga that, in reality, is not so ironic and hilarious.

By today’s standards, Shermont is already a star in terms of fame and glory. In a recent story on his Instagram profile (@shermont_22, which has considerably fewer followers, although one assumes that his viewership there will eventually grow), he confessed to having googled his name and was in disbelief about how far-reaching his performance was. “I’m in the news!” He was amazed and posted screenshots from different digital media, especially from Southeast Asian outlets. On Twitter, he is being hailed as the week’s hero for making fun of, mocking, and deriding that silly and increasingly absurd thing: fashion (of course).

The same thing happened just two months ago, when a video on Douyin (a social network) went viral on its Western counterpart, TikTok, giving rise to the turn-your-grandmother-into-an-international-supermodel challenge. In the video, a venerable elderly Chinese woman was dressed as the personification of Balenciaga, Gucci and Prada by a little boy (presumably her grandson) with what he had on hand in his yurt, including chicken. The results of the challenge—images done in the style of luxury advertising campaigns with brand logos superimposed on them—tell us that we are all Demna Gvasalia, Alessandro Michele, or the tandem Miuccia-Raf Simons, or at least we can be.

An elderly woman dressed by her grandson, who used everyday objects to recreate a Balenciaga advertisement.
An elderly woman dressed by her grandson, who used everyday objects to recreate a Balenciaga advertisement.RR.SS

For a long time, people have complained repeatedly about how bad fashion is, now more than ever. Not only does fashion pollute the planet and exploit its workers, but it also mocks consumers. Are these designers crazy? No, they are just pulling our leg with so much aesthetic arbitrariness/ugliness/stupidity. It’s only fair, then, to return the favor in jaw-droppingly funny ways. In fact, trolling the fashion industry—like Shermont and the Chinese grandmothers (there are quite a few of them)—may be evidence of a certain social disgust with its three-ring circus and its trainers, illusionists, and clowns, whose extravagances are understood as nonsense and, even worse, insults or near-insults. Vetements’s DHL uniform. Virgil Abloh’s Ikea bag. JW Anderson’s broken-skateboard-encrusted sweater. Balenciaga’s shredded sneakers. All of Balenciaga, the brand inevitably referred to in comments on the young comedian’s reels. There are more than a few comments that also praise Shermont’s attitude and stylish model’s trot; they ask to see his fashion show in Paris and Milan already. And then there are those who attempt to be funnier and more sarcastic and ironic than the video itself, which is typical on Twitter. But none of the commenters have taken issue—or even tried to take issue—with the video’s deeper premise.

Shaheel Shermont Flair is a Fijian of Indian descent; his ancestors were Indian girmtyas who went to British-colonized Fiji in the mid-nineteenth century as slave labor. He is also gay. “Welcome the queen to Instagram,” he urged in April 2021, when he debuted on the social media site. In November, he posted that “[m]y sexuality isn’t the problem, your bigotry is.” In April of this year, he returned to the fray: “There are those who hate me for being different and not living by society’s standards, but deep down they wish they had my courage.” Before his phenomenal fashion show, he was already doing “low cosplay” of Indian women by using waste—toilet paper for the sari, a bottle cap for a nath on the nose, and a tea bag for the maang tikka on the forehead, for example—to create an Indian bride’s trousseau in the playful post, “Getting ready for my lover.” In another, he straps on two water-filled balloons as swaying breasts under his T-shirt. “The things I do for TikTok,” he wrote. Indeed, Shermont has made comedy his path to escape bullying and discrimination (prejudice is double in his case) and turned his social media accounts into a highway to heaven. Just like Apichet Madaew Atirattana did back in his day.

Thai Dovima turns everyday objects, twigs, and garbage into original garments.
Thai Dovima turns everyday objects, twigs, and garbage into original garments.

Except for its glamorous intent, everything about Shermont’s catwalk recalls that of the so-called Thai Dovima. In 2016, before Tik Tok’s one-track mind took over, a teenager from the rice-growing region of Isaan—one of Thailand’s poorest areas—astonished the world by turning everyday objects, twigs, and trash into fabulous outfits. He filmed himself modeling those clothes at different locations in his village; his grandmother acted as a styling assistant. Facebook and Instagram went wild over what was termed the “break down of barriers between gender identity, fashion and recycling.” At the time, Madaew (a nom de guerre) explained it this way: “I want people to see that ugly things that don’t fit in can be transformed into something beautiful. And that dressing well is not about money.” Just a few months later, Asia’s Next Top Model, the South Asian edition of the U.S. talent show, called him to be a guest designer during the program’s fourth season. The following year, Time magazine put him on its list of new generational leaders. His example spread. Soon, new stars made their appearance: Suchanatda Kaewsanga, a fellow Thai who is openly trans, and the Chinese Lu Kaigang, whose offerings for fashion shows in his village—located in Guangxi province—unironically included dresses made of garbage can lids and old air-conditioner bags.

Here, we have a response from the poor and marginalized to fashion’s global impact as a mass phenomenon ascribed to the culture of leisure/entertainment. It is a practice that resonates with the button-down politics of Patrick Kelly, the first African American designer to join the ranks of the Parisian ready-to-wear trade association in the mid-1980s; the clothing activities of the swenkas (workers of Zulu origin) and skhothanes (post-apartheid image-obsessed youth) in Johannesburg; and the young Ghanaians who exploit the city-sized textile dumps surrounding the capital, Accra, as sources for their creativity. The narratives of the designers who establish the industry’s current direction, amplified as never before by digital media, also show that it is indeed possible to dress as stylishly as Balenciaga, Gucci or Prada without breaking the bank. That’s why TikTok’s Chinese supermodel grandmothers reflect aspiration and not scorn; they are proof that fashion has something for everyone, even the most socially disadvantaged (one can’t miss the proud hashtag that usually accompanies them, #chinastreetstyle). That’s why Apichet Madaew Atirattana, Suchanatda Kaewsanga and Li Kaigang have made careers as creators, bloggers or influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’ve come so far, propelled by the dreamy fuel that the magazines in village hair salons and satellite TV offer. “It’s very easy to blame fashion for all the problems it creates, but I’d like to think it’s also capable of helping people in many ways, in positive ways,” says Minh-Ha T. Pham, a professor of media studies at Pratt Institute in New York and the author of Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet (2016), an essay about the dynamics of race, gender and class among the young Asians who have found a way to express their identity through fashion, and in the process pushed the system to finally recognize them as a socioeconomic and cultural force. Shaheel Shermont Flair laughs, but he does fashion shows because he also knows what fashion can do for his ambition to become an actor.

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