Super Freak

Googoosha: Uzbek Dictator's Daughter is a Disco Queen

Chris Lee on the startling double life of Googoosha, pop-star daughter of a Central Asian dictator.

Andreas Rentz / Nights In Monaco / AP Photo

Like so many single-named dance-music divas, the singer who performs under the hard-voweled alias Googoosha seems to exist in a cocoon of gauzy glamour shots, haute couture, and spot-lit soundstages. Unlike Ke$ha, Rihanna, Madonna, Shakira, Ciara, and Beyoncé, however, Googoosha’s output of grinding Euro disco and cheesy pop videos has barely registered on the cultural radar outside her homeland, Uzbekistan.

But with the American release of Googoosha’s debut English-language album earlier this month, the performer’s not-so-secret identity has been forced into the hard light of day. Who knew? Googoosha can out-shock even Lady Gaga when it comes to her unusual off-stage life.

Turns out Googoosha is more than just a fresh blast of Central Asian crunk. She is none other than Gulnara Karimova, eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s legendarily corrupt and bloodthirsty president, Islam Karimov.

A pariah to the international community who’s clung to power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the dictator’s authoritarian regime has been widely condemned for its institutionalized usage of torture, murder, and kidnapping, as well as draconian censorship and religious persecution of the Uzbek populace. In one particularly gruesome display of Karimov’s iron-fisted rule, his security forces executed two prisoners by boiling them alive.

This real-life Dr. Evil’s glamorous Harvard-educated daughter, meanwhile, boasts an estimated net worth of between $570 million to $665 million—a fortune she allegedly amassed by strong-arming a percentage of just about every lucrative business in Uzbekistan for herself.

The contradictions between Karimova’s public persona as an artistic free spirit and her allegedly nefarious business practices continue to create a cognitive dissonance in her life—one not entirely dissimilar from the jack-hammering stutter of Googoosha’s would-be club banger “Round Run.” (Attempts to reach Googoosha, who is reportedly based in Switzerland, were unsuccessful.) While her official résumé lists Karimova’s philanthropic initiatives including aiding a breast-cancer charity and helping raise money for foundations run by Bill Clinton and Prince Albert of Monaco, the pop songstress has been also linked to the Russian mafia. Labor-rights activists hold her family's government accountable for the reported forced labor of up to 2 million children who are reportedly pulled from school each autumn to harvest cotton under “horrible” conditions. And when she readied to unveil her line Guli at New York’s fashion week last year, protesters forced the show’s cancellation.

“Her Wikipedia page reads like a spy novel,” notes Charlie Amter, editor of the Europopped blog, which was one of the earliest American cultural outlets online to connect Googoosha with Uzbekistan’s first family.

Although she lists such artists as Kanye West, Adele, Massive Attack, and Sade as musical influences, Karimova can stand upon professional bona fides quite unlike those of, say, Kylie Minogue. Googoosha (the Uzbek dictator’s pet name for his favorite daughter) is also a professor at Tashkent’s University of World Economy and Diplomacy and has served as her country’s ambassador to Spain while remaining installed as Uzbekistan’s “permanent representative” to the United Nations in Geneva.

But the 39-year-old mother of two boasts a much more dubious distinction at home. According to classified documents from the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan that were made public by WikiLeaks in 2010, Karimova is viewed as a “robber baron” by the majority of Uzbeks and is considered “the single most-hated person in the country.”

It’s all enough to put Lana del Rey’s Saturday Night Live debacle and obfuscation of her pop-musical past into proper perspective.

According to Amter, who makes it his business to track euro zone acts attempting to infiltrate the mainstream at a time when electronic dance music has become the dominant sound of the U.S. Top 40, Googoosha fits into a small but growing musical sub-genre comprised of the spouses and children of Eastern bloc oligarchs who are using their staggering wealth to make a run at pop stardom. “They’re an extremely moneyed set who have hundreds of millions at their disposal, who can masquerade as pop stars until they become pop stars,” he says.

Ukraine’s Kamaliya Zahoor, for one, is a former Miss World now married to British-Pakistani businessman Mohammad Zahoor, a Ukrainian expat with an estimated worth of between $550 million and $1 billion. Singing in broken English under the mono-moniker Kamaliya, she released her debut U.K. single “Crazy in My Heart” last December with remix help from the British duo Digital Dogs, and has put out two more songs this year.

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Likewise, Azerbaijani singer-songwriter Emin Agalarov is the son of billionaire Russian national Aras Agalarov and son-in-law to Azerbaijan’s president Ilkham Aliyev. After an initial blush of pop success in Russia, the performer (who, not surprisingly, goes by the single name Emin—are we detecting a trend?) relocated to London in 2010 in a bid to crack the U.K. charts.

Last week, Googoosha graced the wrap cover of Billboard magazine—an honor for which she paid—and became a subject of interest on Twitter through a promoted tweets campaign. Her plans to tour the U.S. or sit down for interviews in support of the CD remain unknown. But even with production work on her eponymous album by Russia’s hitmaking producer Maksim Fadeev and remix assists by E.D.M. all-stars such as Razor & Guido and DJ White Shadow (who coproduced Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” and did not respond to an interview request by The Daily Beast), can Googoosha infiltrate the American market like no Uzbek pop act before her?

“In order for her to create any kind of buzz, it’s going to take more than ads,” says Amter, who specializes in signing dance and international-pop acts for Warner/Chappell Music as a staff A&R rep at the publishing company's Los Angeles headquarters. “The best way for her to promote her album is to actually be in America via a tour or at least promotional dates to try and have authentic interactions with fans.”

Or she can always remind them that Daddy boils people alive.