ODESSA, Ukraine—Disgust flashed across Kristina Goncharova’s delicate features when she heard the name Peter Listerman.
In Odessa, Ukraine’s graceful Black Sea resort, every local fashion agency and beauty contest organizer knows Listerman, a man always looking to hire Russian and Ukrainian models for his VIP escort agencies. And to 24-year-old Goncharova, Listerman’s name brings a whole storm of associations with dubious big-money characters treating teenage girls as if they were animals at a pet store.
Even back in 2016, sources familiar with the beauty business were not surprised to see a report on the New York Post’s gossipy Page Six site connecting Listerman to Jeffrey Epstein: “Instead of having his assistants troll local high schools, the billionaire money manager—and registered sex offender—is importing his playmates from Russia.” The article suggested Listerman had been seen visiting Epstein’s apartment and noted a TV interview in which Listerman said he introduced many oligarchs to Russian models, but insisted: “I’m not a pimp, just [a] matchmaker.”
Now Epstein is held in a federal lockup in Manhattan, facing up to 45 years in prison for molesting and trafficking minors. And Listerman appeared to be running scared as soon as we started asking questions.
Earlier this month, celebrities arrived here from all over the world for the 10th annual Odesa International Film Festival. Young Ukrainian models took part in the Fashion Weekend events, with photo shoots on the beach. And sure enough, Listerman showed up as well. We found him drinking in the company of some young women by the pool at the Palace Del Mar hotel. (He was easy to track: he kept posting bawdy videos of himself at the Del Mar or the Dacha restaurant talking about... sex.)
When asked about his dealings with Epstein, Listerman tried to turn his activities into a joke: “I invented myths and fairy tales to entertain people,” Listerman told The Daily Beast. But when pressed to explain the details about the alleged traffic of teen models, he declined to answer and subsequently blocked a reporter on his Instagram and Facebook pages.
What’s certain is that Listerman’s pursuit of potential “matchmaking” talent is notorious, and for decades the activities of Listerman, a Russian citizen, were an open book. He often bragged about his business on Russian TV, referring to the women he hooked up with rich men as “chickens” or “tyolki,” which means heifers, young cows that have never been bred. He also called women his “shaggy gold,” alluding to pubic hair.
Here is how he described the type he is searching for in an interview with a Russian tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, during his visit to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in 2009: “My Hollywood clients and oligarchs are sick of emancipated Muscovites, European and American women, who resemble robots. Everybody is sick of these evil women, they want gentle and romantic!”
Russian and Ukrainian organizers of beauty contests try to distance themselves from Listerman as if from a contagious infection. Earlier this year Listerman was noticed outside the luxurious Borvikha concert hall in Moscow right before the Miss Russia 2019 beauty contest. “The scandalous matchmaker was not allowed even to cross the threshold,” Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.
In the early 2000s, Moscow’s glamorous world of wild oil money embraced the cynical philosophy of “Uncle Petia,” as Listerman is sometimes called: “God created 50 percent of people who are ready to sell their guts and 50 percent of those who just pretend they cannot but secretly they are ready for anything,” he said in one of his interviews. In a 2007 movie, Gloss, by Andrei Konchalovsky, a procurer seemingly modeled on Listerman is named Petia. He checks if young women’s feet are gentle and agile enough before sending them off for consideration as mistresses for “a very serious client in Sardinia.” One of the models Petia sells to an English lord is a virgin.
For years, Tatiana Savchenko, the founder of Odessa’s first modeling school, has seen the real-life Listerman cruising for her students at fashion shows and beauty contests. “I have heard him approach women at our agency with his usual, ‘Hey, beautiful, I have a client for you!’” Savchenko told The Daily Beast. “It took a lot of work to keep him from tricking our teen models in his traps.”
Goncharova, who was one of Savchenko’s students, actually trained from the time she was five to become a beauty queen. She attended ballet, singing, painting and chess classes; she learned to speak French and English, to move gracefully, and answer questions about her ambitions. In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Goncharova said that “the world’s famous seller of young models to oligarchs”—Listerman—had been writing “What’s up, Bride-to-Be?” messages to her for years.
The young model won the Miss Teen Ukraine contest in 2010 and her dream came true: she was invited to take part in Miss Teen World in Houston. That was when she received the first, “Hey, Beautiful,” message from Listerman, who wanted to meet with her. She was 14 years old.
Goncharova, a tall, long-limbed Ukrainian model with big doe eyes is gentle, romantic—and horrified to hear about Epstein’s case with such details as the “orgy island” and the alleged connection to Listerman.
“I had enough of a brain to turn him down when I was a minor but many girls look for a chance to meet with him, say yes to his offers, as he is paying them much more than €300 [$334], the average of what we make per day working as professional models in Europe,” she said.
And Listerman is relentless. In 2016, he sent her private messages on Facebook every few months. “Hi, Mama, how is Odessa?”; “Is Leonardo DiCaprio with you now?” and then four months later: “Hi, Bride-to-Be, have you been successful?”
He knew that as a beauty queen she was. In 2017 Goncharova won Miss Tourism International, a contest of models from 20 countries. But clearly Listerman had another notion of success—hooking up with someone very rich.
Today, Goncharova says, she realizes that she has been surrounded with girls obsessed with dreams of American wealth and luxury since her childhood. The daughter of a model, when she came to Savchenko’s school, Savrox Models, at the age of five her first teacher was none other than Oleksandra Nikolayenko, who won Miss Ukraine in 2001.
Later that same Nikolayenko met Donald Trump’s friend, casino and hotel owner Phil Ruffin. “Ukrainian models and American billionaires found their way to each other at beauty contests,” Savchenko, who had met Trump and Ruffin at several international competitions, told The Daily Beast. “Not everybody needed Listerman’s services.”
Savchenko went to the Nikolayenko-Ruffin wedding at Mar-a-Lago and remembers vividly her encounter with the future U.S. president: “Donald grabbed me by my waist and whispered compliments that made me blush.”
Teenagers from poor Ukrainian regions, where five years of war and economic crises have wrought widespread devastation, imagine themselves escaping to a modeling career, maybe marrying a political leader, a rich businessman, or a foreign sugar daddy.
On a recent scouting trip in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the managing organizer of Miss Ukraine Universe, Aleksey Diveyev-Tserkovny, announced the organizers could turn any woman into a model. “When 2,000 beauties showed up, we decided to just let them quickly go past us so we could pull the most beautiful ones from the crowd,” Diveyev-Tserkovny said last week. “But there were so many beautiful girls that my head was spinning.”
When asked about Listerman and Epstein, Diveyev-Tserkovny shook his head in disapproval. “To speak to me about Listerman’s hunt for girls is the same as to speak about porn films to an expert in art-house film festivals,” he said. “Listerman has been chasing me, trying to make friends for a long time, since the beauty contest we organize is No. 1 in Ukraine.”
Awareness of the role procurers play in Russia and Ukraine is slowly on the rise. Some young women have spoken out about sexual abuse and suffering. But others are posting their nude and semi-nude pictures on Instagram.
“I am not sure how to stop girls flocking into escort agencies—just search for love in Odessa or in Ukraine and you will see tons of young women revealing their bodies,” said Savchenko. “The number of girls interested in beauty contests is shrinking, replaced by an Instagram race for popularity.”
Modeling schools organizing beauty contests check every participant’s page on social media. “We play the role of a filter: if some girl posts her nude pictures on Instagram we immediately reject her,” Savchenko added.
Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician and critic of Vladimir Putin assassinated in 2015, wrote about Listerman in his book Confession of a Rebel. Soon after Putin’s first election in 2000, Nemtsov, a Russian parliament member at the time, stayed in the same hotel as Putin and businessman Vladimir Potanin in the French ski resort of Courchevel.
“We come downstairs and see around 10 long-legged girls. Potanin and I were in shock. It turns out Petia Listerman, a famous ‘promoter’ brought them.” Nemtsov asked Listerman why he brought the women to the hotel: “But you are also men, after all,” Listerman said, assuming that explained everything.
The “promoter” has bragged in multiple interviews about finding Russian model wives for big name stars, claiming soccer champion Cristiano Ronaldo and NHL star Alex Ovechkin met their spouses through him. He claimed he had a contract with Tatiana Akhmadova for half of all her divorce proceedings after introducing her to billionaire Farkhad Akhmadov. None of those claims have been substantiated in any detail.
In any case, there’s more—or less—than matrimony on offer for a prospective "bride-to-be."
“Listerman’s business is surely not just about marriage—we are aware that there is an international market of models supplied to escorts around casinos, yachts and resorts,” Savchenko told The Daily Beast.
It’s doubtful that any of the Russians or Ukrainians that Page Six noticed around Epstein were there to be life partners.
The problem of human trafficking from and through Ukraine is huge, and not limited to would-be models. According to the International Organization for Migration, 230,000 Ukrainian women, men and children have become victims since 1991. But Goncharova, for one, thinks that Ukraine’s new first lady Olena Zelenskaya could do great service leading the anti-sex-traffic campaign and increasing awareness among young people.
As for Goncharova herself, after a lifetime of modeling, at 24 she is disillusioned and says she is planning to quit the business.