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Olga, the Viking Queen of the Rus

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This article originally appeared on a new site about the Christian renaissance in Russia, called Russian Faith. Their introductory video is at end of this article.


It seems that Vikings, and everything Viking-related, is internationally popular right now. Take the multi-season History Channel hit “The Vikings” or the BBC show “The Last Kingdom.” The Swedes got in on it with “The Last King.” Even Russia couldn’t help titling its recent blockbuster about the early years of St. Vladimir’s life “Viking” (A good movie, by the way, but avoid the 18+ rated version. See if you can find the 12+ version, it’s much better).

So it’s not so surprising that a screenplay about St. Olga of Kiev that I’m writing with Ryan Jaroncyk is getting some early interest from production companies from Santa Monica to Russia.

Olga was a fascinating figure, her life dramatic and even cinematic. Her character arc, from Igor’s wife to Igor’s avenging fury to a diplomat with international importance lends itself easily to the imagination. Since I’m expecting to be working on this screen play for a while, I thought now would be a good time to explore the contours of her life. The rest of this post is primarily translated from a Russian post, which you can find here.

THE WIFE OF IGOR

After the death of the great warrior Oleg, the unstable polity of Rus began to fall apart. The Drevliane rose against their Varengian overlords, trying to separate from Kiev’s control. It didn’t help that a new horde of Pechenegs approached the borders of Rus at the same time. But Igor took care of both problems with a sure hand. He reconquered the Drevliane and lay a heavy tribute on them (Igor became their new and most hated enemy after that). As for the Pechenegs, he managed to use diplomacy, backed with a faithful and powerful army.

Igor’s rule saw the continuing unification of the East Slavic tribes. Now all of Rus paid tribute to Kiev directly.

By this time, Igor was married to the Varengian Olga, who was a member of a prominent family (some versions even have her as Oleg’s daughter, which is the version I am exploring in the screenplay). Some stories say that Igor saw her when he was hunting in the forests near Pskov as a young man, and he was captivated by her beauty and her sharp mind. Again, this is exactly the line I’m following in the screenplay.

An interesting historical point about their married life: they were monogamous. This wasn’t all that common in early Rus, when princes were allowed many wives. But it was a testament to the strength of their bond and their humaneness in general.

Her Varengian name was Helga, and the Slavic version (Olga) is the feminized version of “Oleg,” which means “holy.” Though the pagan understanding of holiness is completely different from the Christian one, it still does assume a special spiritual disposition, chastity and sobriety, intelligence and even prescience. Not surprisingly, the people came to call Oleg a “Farseer,” while they came to call Olga “the Wise.”

IGOR’S AVENGING FURY

Olga

Igor was killed by treachery in the middle of the day while he was gathering tribute from the Drevliane, one of the tribes of the Rus. It seemed that his death would lead to the complete dissolution of Rus, especially since Olga was left as regent in Kiev for her small son, the future Prince Sviatoslav. Immediately, the Drevliane separated from Kiev and refused to pay any more tribute. However, the rest of the Russian elite united around Olga and not only acknowledged her right to rule as regent, but followed her lead without demur.

Olga

By that time, Olga was in the prime of her physical and spiritual powers. Legends were told of her beauty and her wit, even in surrounding countries, as far as Byzantium itself.

From the first moment of her rule, Olga showed herself to be confident, authoritative, visionary, and even cruel. First of all, she had her revenge against the Drevliane.

The chronicles relate a fascinating and dramatic story. The Drevliane, perhaps realizing how tenuous their position was, decided to entice Olga with an offer of marriage to their own ruler, named Mal. This embassy had another meaning as well, clearly understood to any politician of the time. It was an olive branch—Olga was being offered a new husband, and in return she would not avenge the murdered one.

Olga pretended to accept the ambassadors with honors. She invited them to the court on the next day. They were to be carried in boats by her own warriors as a special honor. But instead, she had a ditch dug near her own palace, and when the ambassadors, filled with their own significance, were carried in on longboats, she ordered them thrown into the ditch and buried alive.

Olga

Immediately after that, Olga required that the Drevliane send another embassy. It was the custom in Rus to offer ambassadors the use of a steam room to wash before official proceedings began. After a long road, the wash was a pleasant thing, and it also carried a hint of ritual ablution before an important event. No sooner had these new ambassadors entered the steam room than the doors were locked and the house was set on fire. They were burned alive.

Olga

Finally, Olga herself traveled to the land of the Drevliane to celebrate a pagan ritual feast over the grave of her killed husband and to mourn him. When the nobles of the Drevliane had drunk a large amount of alcoholic beverages, Olga ordered all of her warriors, who were sober, to kill them all where they sat, at the foot of the mound where her husband was interred.

Olga, the pagan, had her revenge like a pagan. There was something of the ritual in it. This triple revenge followed the usual pattern for Slavic burial customs. Bodies were typically laid in boats after death—an old Russian tradition. Cremation was also typical for all Russian lands. Sometimes, human sacrifices during the ritual feast over the grave of the dead were practiced as well.

But now, once the ritual vengeance was concluded, Olga began her personal vendetta.

She had her armies attack the main city of the Drevliane, Iskorosten’. In open battle, the Drevliane were routed. The chronicle vividly describes how Sviatoslav, still a boy, began the battle by hurling his small spear in the direction of the enemy. The remainder of their army and the rest of the civilians hid behind the walls of the city. The siege lasted several months. Finally, only guile managed to bring the city down.

Olga seemed to soften in her demands by asking a small tribute—three sparrows and three pigeons from each household. She promised to leave soon afterward. As soon as the tribute was collected, Olga had her warriors tie burning tinder to the feet of the birds. Then they were released. Since all the birds were homing, they returned to their households. Soon the entire city was ablaze, and the Kievan army began their assault.

Olga

OLGA THE WISE POLITICIAN

But Olga unified the tribes not only with cruelty and guile. As a wise and far-seeing ruler, she realized that the pagan ways of vendetta didn’t make for any lasting unity. So she instituted reforms, including a new system of tribute. From now on, the tribute amount couldn’t randomly be changed by the ruling authority, and the cities themselves had to bring it to special collecting agencies once a year. From there, the tribute made its way to Kiev.

Then Olga and her armies traveled all through the rest of the cities, instituting this standardized from of tribute and the collection agencies throughout Rus. This was the first organized system of taxation in Rus. According to the chronicles, this led to a flourishing period for the newly unified Rus.

These collection agencies also served as local courts and as official representatives of the princely power in Kiev. Perhaps not surprisingly, the places these agencies were organized were most often in the centers of cities, the places where markets gathered. So these spots, associated with Kiev’s power, became the nexuses for ethnic and cultural unity for the Russian tribes.

Later, when Olga became Christian, she built Rus’s first churches right next to these government outposts. During Vladimir’s time, they even became conflated in the newly formed unit called the parish. Olga also put a lot of money and effort at improving infrastructure throughout Rus. Of course, any regularly enforced system of taxation takes a little time to become accepted throughout, so Olga made sure to live on one of Kiev’s hills, surrounded by a wall and her best warrior band near her at all times.

OLGA THE DIPLOMAT

Olga

Having put the foundation for unity at home, Olga turned to international affairs. She had to show that the time of difficulty following Igor’s death did not weaken Rus’s international authority. Historians note that during her reign, the first border between Poland and Rus was formed. Massive frontier outposts in the south guraded that part of Rus from invasion by nomadic Asiatic tribes. More and more foreigners came to Rus to trade.

This new influx of money allowed Kiev to start building in stone. As I mention in a different article, eventually Kiev was a kind of wonder of the ancient world known throughout the East and West.

But Olga realized that all this was only window dressing. While the different tribes followed different religious traditions, there was always the threat of disunity. Rus was becoming a major international player, and she thought that a single religion would go a long way to encourage Rus’s continued growth, especially with the Roman Empire and the Saxon kingdom to contend with.

Olga saw that, culturally speaking, both the Romans and the Saxons were far more advanced than the Rus, and she understood that the bedrock of that culture was the Christian religion. She began to be convinced more and more that Rus’s future path of greatness lay not only in military exploits, but through spiritual achievements.

Leaving Kiev to Sviatoslav, who had grown up already, Olga traveled in 954 with a large fleet bound for Constantinople. This was a peaceful fleet (unlike her father Oleg’s famous attack on the Emperor’s City), which was both diplomatic and religious in nature. However, political expediency demanded a show of military force in the Black Sea, so that the proud Romans would remember Oleg and not simply brush off his daughter as insignificant.

It had the desired result. Olga was admitted into the Emperor’s presence, with Constantine VII Porphyrogenites even organizing a feast in her honor. During their conversations, Olga and the Emperor confirmed the previous treaty struck between Constantinople and Rus in Igor’s time.

THE QUESTION OF BAPTISM

Olga

At the same time, Olga was dumbfounded by the luxury and grandeur of Constantinople, as well as by its cosmopolitan nature. Many nations spoke many languages in its streets. But more than anything she was astounded by the spiritual richness of Christianity, its churches and the holy objects held in them. She was present at liturgies in all the major churches, including Hagia Sophia. This was what she wanted for her land; this grandeur and this holiness.

One of the major questions discussed with the Emperor ended up being Olga’s baptism into the Christian faith.

Most nations of Western Europe had accepted Christianity by this point, either from Rome or Constantinople. These nations, having accepted baptism 300-600 years before the Rus, had outgained the Rus culturally by a significant margin. However, paganism held fast in Eastern Europe and wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Olga understood that Christianity was necessary if she wanted the cultural riches of the Romans and the West. Still, she recognized the power of paganism and the strength it held over her people’s imaginations. Therefore, she chose a moderate path. She decided to become a Christian alone, hoping by her example to inspire her fellow countrymen.

Finally, it’s important to note that for Olga, accepting Christianity was not merely a political decision. It was an answer for many of her internal questions and worries. She had suffered a good amount in her life—the death of a beloved husband, a violent series of acts to avenge his death, burning an entire city of civilians—all this couldn’t help but leave its mark on her soul. After all, Olga was always one to strive for rightness. She tried always to be fair and humane to all.

Some of the Chronicles even go so far as to suggest that the Emperor was besotted by her beauty and intelligence, even asking for her hand in marriage. That is highly unlikely—the Romans, for all their diplomacy, considered the barbarian Rus as little more than talking animals. But it does make for a  good story. Ultimatley, Olga refused his hand, the story goes, instead asking him to be her godfather.

That part at least seems to have been historically possible. She was given the name Helen after the mother of Constantine the Great. Constantine VII’s wife was also name Helen. This moment, with Olga bowing her head before the God who had captured her heart, is immortalized in a miniature painting accompanying the Chronicle of Ioannis Skilitis, with the note,

The ruler of the Rus, a woman named Helga, who came to the Emperor Constantine and was baptized.”

In this chronicle, she is drawn in a special headdress “as a newly baptized Christian and honored deaconess of the Russian Church.” Next to her was baptized a young woman named Malusha, who later became the mother of St. Vladimir.

It should be noted Constantine VII was no fan of the Rus. It must have been difficult to induce him to become the godfather of Olga. The Russian Chronicles wax poetic about Olga’s conversations with the Emperor, in which his counselors are amazed at her probing mind and spiritual maturity. In any case, she did manage to convince the proud Romans that the Rus would be capable of taking on and absorbing the genius of Christian spirituality and culture. In this way, Olga was able to “conquer” Constantinople more completely than any of her military forefathers.

Constantine VII, a prolific writer, actually left an account of Olga’s reception at court. He describes the majestic throne of the emperor with its mechanical singing bronze birds and roaring lions that accosted the incoming embassy of the Rus, which numbered 108 people. Then he wrote about the more intimate meetings in the chamber of the Empress, as well as the official feast in the hall of Justinian.

A DISAPPOINTING END

Olga

Sviatoslav, Olga’s pagan son

Diplomatically speaking, however, Olga’s trip was not quite successful. She was unable to secure a dynastic marriage of Sviatoslav with one of Constantine’s daughters. Nor was she able to get the Romans to agree to an establishment of a Metropolitan’s see in Kiev.

Her disappointments continued when she returned home. She tried to convince Sviatoslav to convert, but he was a confirmed pagan. He worshiped Perun, the Slavic counterpart to Thor, and refused to abandon his military faith. Their relationship began to cool after her conversion.

Unperturbed, Olga began a project of building churches in Rus. She founded the great Church of the Wisdom of God in Kiev soon after her return from Constantinople. It was consecrated on May 11, 960. This day is still commemorated as a feast day of the Russian Church. The most important holy relic in the church was a cross she received at her baptism. On it was engraved the phrase:

The land of Rus is renewed by the Holy Cross, accepted by Olga, the noble princess.”

However, her Christian zeal angered some among the elites, who were still pagan. They looked with hope at Sviatoslav, who resented his mother’s attempts to convert him. By this time, he was around twenty years old. His pagan entourage managed to remove Olga from any influence in the government of the Rus. Sviatoslav took all power to himself. He even killed some Christians and destroyed some of the churches Olga built.

It must have been difficult for Olga, who was so active and intelligent, to be relegated to the women’s quarters. However, she was still respected. Whenever Sviatoslav went on a military campaign (which he did often), she took over as regent. However, there was now no possibility of even considering a large-scale conversion to Christianity, which upset Olga greatly.

As she grew old and sickly, Olga, who had been baptized by one of the greatest dignitaries of the Christian church, was forced to keep a priest by her side in secret, lest she inspire a new wave of persecutions against Christians. She was buried in the Christian rite, having forbidden that any pagan feasts be performed in her honor.

She didn’t manage to see it during her life, but her efforts were instrumental in her grandson’s decision to unify the Rus under Christianity, a decision that did indeed lead to a flowering of a nation. Eventually, Rus took the reins of Christendom in the East from the Romans. This “Third Rome” lasted until the twentieth century.


A video introducing Russian Faith

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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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