Once upon a time, the rich were content to be rolling in it quietly. Rather than advertising their enormous wealth, the aristocracy preferred, by and large, to live lives of obscure luxury.
Then came the Russians.
The result? A totally unreserved display of wealth, splatter-gunning ostentation around the world for global consumption on a scale that would have shocked the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and left aghast P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional Earl of Emsworth, Clarence, who, despite being the owner of a vast inherited fortune, was frequently mistaken for the gardener at his ancestral home, Blandings Castle, owing to his reluctance to buy new clothes.
The sine qua non of this new bracket of oversharing billionaires is Elena Perminova, a Russian model blessed with high cheekbones, a snub nose, elfin looks, and a phenomenally wealthy husband almost twice her age, press baron Alexander Lebedev (he’s 55, she’s 28).
Unlike many of the Russian set, Lebedev is unusually well thought of in London society. Not only is he a patron of the arts and a prolific philanthropist, but his family trust also is credited with saving a much-loved London institution, the Evening Standard, from closure.
However, this week, it is his wife who is writing the headlines.
Perminova went viral this weekend after she posed for photos showing that within just 60 days of giving birth to her third child, she had regained her pre-baby physique.
In an accompanying interview with Russian Vogue, she speaks extensively about the exercise regimen she adopted to regain her pre-pregnancy figure, saying, “I started [exercising] just two weeks afterward, even though I had a Caesarian. There were no breaks at weekends.”
Perminova claims she did her body toning routine as her infant child slept, saying, “I ‘stand’ on my knees and elbows and lift my legs one by one.”
Her Instagram boasts a snap of her doing just this, along with many other torturous exercises, in some or other richly furnished drawing room, which could as well be in St. Petersburg as London, with the eldest of her two sons, Nikita, 5, looking on in the role of boot camp coach.
Her extreme mummy tummy program has divided opinion. Fans say she looks great. Critics say she is just another unrealistic paradigm making the rest of us mere mortals feel terrible.
One told the Telegraph, “You know that she is privileged, and probably does have extra help, but the real issue is that it’s society perverting her body shape, telling us that that is how we should look.”
Maybe that critic is just jealous—but then again, who wouldn’t be?
Whatever you think of Perminova’s toned tummy, it is the very concept of posing for photos—let alone naked photos—that is indicative of a massive schism in attitudes to publicity between the quietly discreet mega-rich of the U.K. and America, and the Russian billionaire set.
Such reservations do not apply to many of the Russian billionaire class, of whom a surprising number —or, more specifically, their young and very attractive wives—are more than happy to flaunt their lifestyles and wealth in print and social media.
Indeed, a brief perusal of Perminova’s Instagram page indicates that she is happy for the world to know she spends an inordinate amount of time on beaches in the Maldives and at five-star hotels in Paris and the front rows of haute couture fashion shows.
In fact, Perminova’s life, as revealed by her posted snaps of it, appears to be completely dominated by fashion, exercise, and travel.
First, the fashion: All last week, for example, as her Instagrams attest, she was at Paris Fashion Week, claiming front row seats at Chanel (she is an informal muse of Karl Lagerfeld, as well as being one of his better customers), Atelier Versace, Armani, Giambattista Valli, Emilio Pucci (she is friends with the label’s visionary creative director, Peter Dundas).
On Thursday night she attended the glitzy Paris Fashion Week finale, the Sidaction Gala Dinner AIDS fundraiser at Pavillon d’Armenonville.
When she’s home in Russia, she posts pictures of herself shopping at the expensive Babochka boutique in St. Petersburg.
Then, the exercise.
Her page is littered with pictures of her in grueling poses, smiling blithely through the toning sessions. In the Vogue interview, citing the account of Instagram star Kayla Itsines, Perminova says, “Thanks to the social networks, you do not need to hire a celebrity coach. It is enough to follow their account and watch a couple of videos.”
Don’t you love money-saving tips from billionaires’ wives?
The third string of Perminova’s social media gloating is her holidays. There seem to be a never-ending succession of sexy beach snaps, or pictures hashtagged, for example, “Four Seasons Maldives.”
“It seems incredibly flamboyant to us but it’s just a cultural difference,” says one Londoner who knows and works with the Russian set. “The money is just so new that there is none of that reserved attitude of the British upper classes.”
Such an opinion is borne out by the fact that many of Perminova’s close, rich friends are also just as happy as the rich kids of Instagram to competitively share the opulence of their lives.
Take for example the couture designer Ulyana Sergeenko, wife of billionaire businessman Danil Khachaturov, whom she met in a dentist’s waiting room.
Sergeenko, who before she became a designer was prized by the couture houses as a free-spending customer, also uses her account to chronicle a glitzy lifestyle of yachts and villas.
Model Natalia Vodianova (or “Supernova,” as she is known on the scene) is another friend with a penchant for chronicling her life’s more glamorous moments on instagram.
However, Perminova is probably the wildest of the Russian glossy pack—she met her husband after she was arrested for distributing drugs in a disco in Novosibirsk.
“She cooperated with the authorities, and she almost got killed,” Lebedev told TIME magazine in 2009. Lebedev, at the time a deputy in the Russian parliament who was lobbying for a witness-protection program, reportedly stepped in to offer her protection.
A little dose of Perminova and her pals, and one can’t help but be struck by how quaint it is that the British upper classes still believe one should only be in a newspaper three times in one’s life: hatching, matching, and dispatching.
But hey, it’s good to share. Right?