Before Katy Perry kissed a girl, before Lady Gaga’s fans were born this way, there was t.A.T.u., the Russian duo famous for their rain-soaked, schoolyard kiss in the controversial video for “All the Things She Said.”
The pop-y, love-torn single and the PG-13 video launched the teenagers (who were only 16 when they shot it) into superstardom. In America, they did the unthinkable as a Russian act and cracked the Billboard Top 20, even nabbing a New Yorker article.
The kiss—between Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova—and the song’s lyrics turned the duo into lesbian icons, even though years later they admitted it was all an act.
The single and video were released in America 10 years ago this year—and t.A.T.u.’s two stars have mostly gone their separate ways. Though Lena Katina and Julia Volkova reunite occasionally, both have embarked on solo careers. Volkova is exploring acting as well as music.
From her chair in Moscow, Katina seems relaxed even though she’s about to get married—with two completely different ceremonies—and about to release another single and video, “Lift Me Up,” and a Spanish EP. Dave Aude’s remix of her single “Never Forget” scored a No. 1 on Billboard’s dance chart last year.
“It feels weird, because the song is so old and I’m so young,” said Katina, now 28, of “All the Things She Said.”
Even though she’s an old hand in the music industry, the solo outing is Katina’s first try at actually writing her own lyrics. It’s not just a new beginning. It’s like she’s finding herself for the first time.
“In t.A.T.u , it just happened like that. We didn’t have the long road to success. We were created. We were not creating,” she said in heavily accented English. It’s different now. “I have possibility to create my music and collaboration with different people, with different songwriters. I think I grew up a lot since then. I am more secure now.”
Katina is wise beyond her years. Superstardom at the tender age of 17 will do that to you. She’s come out of it stronger than her Hollywood peers—no head shaving or repeated trips to rehab, here. t.A.T.u’s mega success at such a young age reminds one of another teen idol—Justin Bieber. She had some sage advice for Bieber and other young stars.
“I hope they will be smart enough not to take it for granted and understand that it’s a lot of work in the future to keep it on the level,” she said. “Because you shoot like a bomb or a shooting star, but then it falls down.”
For Katina, one of the biggest struggles was to keep grounded: “You get this feeling, when you have all this love around you and everyone admires you and you are role model for so many people, it is going to affect you,” she said. “It’s really a dangerous period of time.”
The singer said that she was lucky—her mother and best friend confronted her when she was becoming difficult: “They told me really painful things. I didn’t like what I heard, but I understood what they wanted to tell me,” she said. “It goes so quickly. It goes away, and who knows where I will be or Justin Bieber will be in 5, 10, 15 years. Have this moment and appreciate what you have and stay down to earth.”
Katina is still in Russia, where she is a straight girl who is a gay icon in a country where being gay in public is illegal. “The government not a long time ago made a new rule you can’t show that you are gay in public, which is weird—a lot of people from the government with the big positions are gay. Why people can’t be free?” she said. “In Russia the situation with the LGBT is still really tough. I think we changed this a little bit.”
Though she wasn’t a lesbian, Katina said she had no problem playing one. “I looked at it as my role … like a movie. We play in a role in a movie. That was my role. I never was a lesbian. I never was attracted to a girl. I never had that,” she said. “I had some thoughts, because I was pretending to be who I wasn’t. And then, I was thinking about it a lot, ‘Why am I concerned?’ There are so many actors playing different roles in movies. I will just look at it as a movie. If I am helping people with this role, then why not.”
Even though she and Volkova weren’t gay, for many Russian teenagers, their visibility was more important than the actual fact. To see two girls kissing on screen, singing about unrequited love between two women? Positively revolutionary for Russia.
“I think we did a great job on that, because we received so many thank-you letters, especially if you are a teenager when everything is over the top, and then you understand you are different and society doesn’t support you, it’s really tough, a lot of people commit suicide,” she said. “I was so surprised by those letters.”
As for any future t.A.T.u outings, Katina doesn’t rule it out, but said she’d rather move to phase two of her career.
“Going back to t.A.T.u. would be a step back, and I want to move forward,” she said. “My goal is to be recognized as a solo artist, too. I’m responsible for myself, I’m responsible for every single decision. And if I’m going to fuck up, it’s gonna be my fuck up. If I’m going to be successful, it’s going to be my success. And I love it that way.”