Mohammad Zahoor wouldn't exactly call himself an oligarch, he says, but there's an unmistakably oligarchical quality to the way he is speeding along the Kiev expressway. His blue Bentley is slicing through traffic at 90 miles per hour (145 km per hour) in a 50 mile-per-hour zone, followed bumper-to-bumper by a Mercedes SUV. Both vehicles are parting the Ukrainian traffic like it's the proverbial Red Sea, while socialist-era apartment complexes whiz by outside.
Zahoor is sprawled on the backseat next to his wife Kamaliya. She looks gorgeous, he says, in her white diamond-studded dress. Next to the driver sits Igor, the bodyguard. Igor was once a member of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's personal security team. He glares at every driver who fails to get out of the way quickly enough.
In just 10 minutes, Kamaliya is due to perform at the Palace of Arts in Kiev -- a gala in honor of late Ukrainian fashion designer Mikhail Voronin, who is such an admired icon in Ukraine that 4,000 people are expected to attend the event. Kamaliya will sing one of her songs there. She has opted to perform a ballad.
But Kamaliya the singer is more than just Zahoor's wife -- she's also his pet project. In Ukraine she is a fairly well-known pop star. She combines traditional opera singing with dance pop, which can take some getting used to for Western European ears. She also won the Mrs. World pageant in 2008 and appeared in a film with Sharon Stone, although the movie hasn't been released. Zahoor sees a great deal of potential here. He has finally found something worthwhile to do with his money.
Living the Dream
Zahoor, who is in his late 50s, once owned five steel mills in Ukraine, and when he sold them in 2008 he netted roughly $1 billion (750 million), although he would rather not divulge the exact amount. What does one do with $1 billion in the bank in the midst of the financial crisis? Zahoor invested in two hotels in Kiev and a number of office buildings. He purchased the liberal English-language weekly the Kyiv Post -- along with a TV studio, an airplane, a yacht, two Bentleys, two Mercedes, an Audi S8 and a Range Rover. So what now?
His fellow oligarchs have bought football clubs. That would be one option. Ukrainian top oligarch Rinat Ackhmetov, for instance, owns Shakhtar Donetsk. Ackhmetov brought in a string of Brazilians and in 2009 the team became the first Ukrainian club to win the UEFA Cup. Football isn't Zahoor's cup of tea, but what if, instead of Brazilians, he brought together the best producers, dancers and PR people and made his wife into a top European pop star? Indeed that very night, on the way to the gala, Zahoor revealed his goal: "We intend to send Lady Gaga into retirement."
That might sound fairly outrageous, but Zahoor has been no stranger to success since he left Karachi at the age of 19 and arrived penniless in the Soviet Union to acquire a degree in metallurgical engineering. At the time, it was certainly just as unlikely that he would today become one of the richest men in Ukraine. Kamaliya has talent and has been singing professionally since the age of 11. The rest can be bought.
Return of the Patron
It's quite possible that Zahoor's approach is merely the logical next step, or perhaps even a visionary venture in today's post-financial crisis era, in which the traditional cultural and entertainment models of postwar capitalism depend on patrons of the arts. Most of the films nominated for an Oscar this year received significant financial backing from billionaires and wealthy heirs, including "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty." Large art exhibitions would simply cease to exist without private donors, and numerous football clubs in the Champions League depend upon the support of billionaires. Moscow businessman Vladislav Doronin launched a Russian and a German version of the Andy Warhol magazine "Interview," most likely as a plaything for his then-girlfriend, supermodel Naomi Campbell. In an era when even rich Russians consider private yachts and jets passé, the pact made by sheikhs and oligarchs remains the same: money in exchange for recognition -- and a sense of purpose in life.
Zahoor says that as a steel magnate he used to spend his free time at dinner parties with other steel magnates. Today, he enjoys waiting for two hours while his wife gets dressed, so he and Igor the bodyguard can accompany her across the red carpet. Igor's job is to gesture in a broad Russian manner, as if he wanted to drive off the photographers and cameramen, although they are actually an essential part of the game.
It's a shame that it didn't work out today with the red carpet. Despite doing 90 miles per hour on the expressway, they arrived too late. This time it took Kamaliya four hours to put on her makeup.
A Star is Born
Kamaliya, 36, won her first singing contest at the age of 11, back in the days of the Soviet Union. Afterwards, she received a classical musical education including singing and violin lessons. She can sing over three octaves. In 1997, she released her first album, called "Techno Style," which made her popular in Ukraine. Her mother assumed the role of manager. Kamaliya sang duets with Russian crooner Philipp Kirkorov, but her career stagnated. In 2008, she nevertheless managed to become Mrs. World, yet she still oddly resembles one of Zahoor's steel mills: There must be enormous untapped potential somewhere there, but first everything needs to be revamped.
Back at Zahoor's estate, located just outside of Kiev, Kamaliya immediately wants to hear the latest figures from her German manager. Although she sings in English, her pronunciation needs some work.
"This week you're the most-clicked video on YouTube in Spain -- as well as in Poland," says the manager. "In Germany you still have 15,000 clicks a week, which is a lot," he adds, but later it turns out that all of these figures are rather difficult to check. It's this new shadowy world of pop, with its page hits on YouTube, that Zahoor first needs to come to terms with. These new units of measurement are becoming increasingly important, but sadly there's not much money to be earned from clicks. Fortunately that's only of secondary importance here. Furthermore, in the UK, often referred to as the motherland of pop, Kamaliya has made it to the top 40, reaching number six on the charts. That was last year.
To achieve this coup, Zahoor hired London producers Digital Dog, who have worked with Cyndi Lauper, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. For her latest album, "Club Opera," which was released a few weeks ago and is primarily designed to take Germany and Western Europe by storm, Zahoor hired Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, a former member of the now defunct German New Wave band Nena, primarily known for its 1983 hit song "99 Luftballons." Zahoor also hired German singer and entertainer Thomas Anders, who is revered as a big star in Ukraine, to sing a duet with Kamaliya. It's a similar story with Spanish tenor José Carreras, who has been engaged to sing two tracks with the Ukrainian. Zahoor has elaborate videos made in locations like Miami and Mumbai to promote his wife's songs. The billionaire also helped finance the Hollywood film "What About Love" with Sharon Stone. His condition for investing in the project: Kamaliya had to be given a part.
"We can do this," says Zahoor. The pop business isn't that difficult, he figures. So far, he has invested $5 million, but that's just the beginning.
The Diva and the Oligarch
He met the singer back in 2003, when he was still a steel merchant -- already fabulously well-to-do, but uninteresting for a Ukrainian pop diva. He sent her flowers every day until she agreed to marry him.
On the day before the gala, Zahoor returned from the UK with Kamaliya. They had been collaborating on a film about the superrich -- after all, Zahoor knows that his wealth makes his wife more interesting.
That evening in Kiev, yet another TV camera crew is on hand -- this time from Rossiya 1, the pro-Putin channel. They have flown in from Moscow for a few days. The main reason for this is that Zahoor has hired a producer from the Russian network to work as Kamaliya's publicist. That kind of thing is possible in Russia, and since the station enjoys close ties with the government, Kamaliya has already sung for Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.