IF THERE WAS ONE THING THE RED ARMY always hated, it was soldiers who dressed up like Marilyn Monroe. Vladik Mamyshev, a draftee from Leningrad serving a hitch in Kazakhstan, learned this lesson in 1988 when an officer stumbled on some photographs of him wearing a peroxide wig and a Seven-Year Itch-inspired dress. "It was the biggest scandal," says Vladik, now 23. "The KGB called my mother and asked her if she knew her son was like this."
In the old days under Stalin, Vladik's adventure in celebrity cross-dressing would have probably earned him a one-way ticket to the gulag. But the warming winds of perestroika were already beginning to blow, and besides, his mother was a high-ranking Communist Party official. So after four months in a mental hospital, Vladik was discharged. "I only had to serve one and a half years in the army instead of two," he says gleefully.
And now, of course, progress being what it is in the old Evil Empire, Vladik—who prefers to be called Vladik Monroe and whom most Russians know simply as Monroe—may be on his way to becoming a big star, just like his tragic love-goddess role model. An impersonator and performance artist, Vladik has appeared on TV and in avant-garde films and is a popular figure in the new any-thing-goes Russia. "People love Marilyn Monroe," says Vladik. "She is beautiful and positive, and she makes people happy."
Vladik fell in love with Marilyn when he was 14 and Some Like It Hot finally made it to Leningrad (now St, Petersburg). "I was like a maniac," he says. "I went from theater to theater in the city to see that film." Viadik's passion carried over into the army. Ordered to decorate the base canteen, he painted life-size pictures of heroic peasant women, all of them with Monroe's face—and nobody noticed. Then, using the army's own art supplies, he began to experiment with the Monroe look on himself. First he made a wig from dolls' hair. Next he fashioned a dress from collage fabric and earrings from Christmas-tree ornaments. Then he got caught.
Free of the army, Vladik began to pursue his calling in earnest. Starting in 1989 his face—and wig and dress—became a familiar sight in magazines and on TV with his dramatic re-enactments of moments from Marilyn's life. In 1989, too, he made his first trip to the West with a performance group called Leningrad Experimental Mannequins. The highlight of that trip was a performance in Strasbourg for an audience that included Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand.
Vladik has found his growing fame to be character-building. Now he intersperses his Marilyn turns with bits of Hitler and Nikita Khrushchev, among others. But his great love is still an American movie star who has been dead more than 30 years. "Marilyn," he says, "is pure woman."
CONSTANCE RICHARDS in Moscow
- Constance Richards.
Only red squares would say 'Nyet!' to Monroe