The Strange And Homophobic History Of “Queer Icons” t.A.T.u

t.A.T.u inspired a generation of young queers by being out-and-proud lesbians - but it was all a lie.

t.A.T.u. photo

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It’s 2006 and I’m sitting cross-legged, my face about 30cm from the lounge room television.

I’ve plugged my headphones into the AUX jack at the front of the unit and I’m clutching the VCR remote close to my chest. I’d managed to record the music video for ‘All The Things She Said’ and was watching it on repeat. I was fixated by this clip; the spooky green lighting, chaotic camera movement and of course, the hot lesbian schoolgirls making out in the rain in front of a crowd.

I couldn’t stop watching it. I’d plugged my headphones in to keep it quiet from my parents in the next room. At 12 years old, I figured my obsession with the video was because of its crass content — it was shocking, scandalous, and thrilling to watch.

In heterospect (the art of looking back on your life and reflecting on the moments you should have known you’re gay), I was addicted because it was the first time I’d seen lesbians on screen. It was the first time I’d seen two girls kiss, and my world was about to change.

At the time, ‘All The Things She Said’ was one of the most controversial music videos ever recorded. Released in 2002 by Russian pop duo t.A.T.u, it was a worldwide success, peaking at the top of the charts in Australia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

It immediately made waves — it was banned on ITV in the UK, and other campaigns to get it censured claimed it pandered to lesbians and pedophiles. It was the hot topic at my primary school, as teachers warned parents not to have rage on family televisions, lest the sinful music video play. Thank god for VCR recorders.

The controversy around this song, however, would be only the beginning of a long, problematic and complex legacy of the duo — a story that, even after they had broken up, continued to unfold.

This Girl Loves That Girl

T.A.T.u was formed in 1999 by music producer Ivan Shapovalov and his business partner, who wanted to create a Russian musical project with teenage girls at the centre. They apparently drew inspiration from the Swedish film Show Me Love, which centres around two schoolgirls who find themselves in an unexpected romantic relationship.

The name was chosen to sound like ‘tattoo’, while being a shortened version the Russian phrase “Та любит ту”, meaning “this girl loves that girl”. The lesbian iconography of t.A.T.u was intentional from the start — epitomised in ‘All The Things She Said’.

T.A.T.u, made up of Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, leaned heavily into the band’s controversial persona. In 2003, they were asked to appear on NBC, but under the condition they didn’t make out or comment on the Iraq War. They protested by performing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno with white shirts with “Хуй войне!” sprawled across in black text; a phrase translating to “fuck the war”. Katina and Volkova then made out behind their hands during a break in their performance (in the video below, the cameras cut away for around 20 seconds).

They went on to represent Russia in Eurovision in 2003, placing third. By then they were considered gay icons, and their queerness on a public stage was a huge deal to those in the closet, like myself. They were a stark contrast to the overwhelmingly hetero pop scene of the time. But then things took a turn.

Gay For Pay

In December 2003, the behing-the-scenes documentary Anatomy of t.A.T.u aired on Russia television. The girls’ sexuality was officially confirmed: Katina and Volkova weren’t actually lesbians, their apparent queerness was simply a marketing strategy driven by Shapovalov.

The documentary also revealed that Katina was pregnant and that she visited religious confession regularly, believing that her career forced her to act sinfully very often.

Immediately, t.A.T.u’s legacy suddenly became very murky. Clearly, their calculated use of queerness for money was tasteless and offensive. At the same time, the impact of a music video with two femmes making out being shown on screens around the globe can’t be tossed aside. Personally, it was groundbreaking.

TA.T.u’s ‘secret’ was revealed over a year after their infamous song came out, on Russian TV nonetheless. I, being one of their most devoted (read: horniest) fan, was none the wiser to the fact they weren’t queer. We had no reason not to believe them: why would you lie about being a lesbian in 2003, when homophobic stigma was even more aggressive than it is today?

The group then swerved from one controversy to another — some about last-minute gig cancellations, and many about the ongoing issues of co-opting queerness to sell records. They continued making records that did reasonably well across the globe, but none to the level of the album that ‘All The Things She Said’ was on, 200 Po Vstrechnoy (200 km/h in the Wrong Lane).

Katina was pregnant and that she visited religious confession regularly, believing that her career forced her to act sinfully very often.

In a particularly disgraceful moment, the duo faced a lawsuit in 2006 over their song ‘Lyudi Invalidy’ (literal translation: ‘disabled people’). The liner notes accompanying the CD stated that “[Lyudi Invalidy] do not know what it means to be a human being. They are fakes inside the human form. They do not live, but — function”. Katina tried to clarify that they were speaking about “moral invalids, people who do not have [a] soul and human feelings.”

T.A.T.u was straying further from the righteous activist image they had cultivated so well at the start of their career. They had solidified themselves in the queer canon, influencing a generation of young queers, only to proceed to blow up their legacy over and over again.

Perhaps catching wind of their struggling personal brand, Katina and Volkova released a statement in 2007. “Many of our fans of alternative sexual orientation thought that we lied and betrayed them,” they wrote. “This is not true! We’ve never done that and we’ve always advocated love without boundaries.”

A few weeks later, they performed at the Moscow’s Pride celebrations.

It Didn’t Stop There

The group disbanded in 2011 over internal conflict, but that didn’t stop them from further muddying their legacy.

In a 2011 interview, Volkova stated that she wouldn’t accept having a gay son. “God created man for procreation, it is the nature. The man for me is the support…I won’t accept a gay son,” she said on Russian TV. “A man has no right to be a fag…I just want my son to be a real man, not a fag.”

She then tried to ‘backpedal’, saying, “I have many gay friends. I believe that being gay is all still better than murderers, thieves or drug addicts. If you choose out of all this, being gay a little better than the rest.’ For what it’s worth, Katina publicly condemned Volkova’s statements.

The years after involved reported attempts at a comeback, as well as each member stating there would never be a comeback. Then they did briefly comeback — they performed at the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, a games which, appropriately enough, was marked by controversy over Russia’s exceptionally poor record on LGBTIQ rights.

Katina has since attempted to restart her singing career, while Volkova has largely faded from sight. For a generation of young queer people, their legacy is one of confusion and betrayal.

My mum told me in 2007 that the AUX jack on the front of the TV means that the sound goes into your headphones and plays out loud. The whole time I was playing ‘All The Things She Said’ on repeat, she was well aware of what was happening.

Dani Leever is a pop culture writer based in Melbourne. They tweet about their dogs, feelings, and gay stuff at @danileever 

Photo Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic