Here She Comes, Miss U.S.S.R.! And Yulia Sukhanova Even Wins a Fight to Visit the Decadent West

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"Americans imagine a Russian woman as ugly and fat and evil," says Yulia Sukhanova with a giggle and a bat of her blue-gray eyes. While she is certifiably a Soviet woman, Sukhanova, 17, is none of those other things. Her face—and a form that's 5'10" tall and runs to 38-23-36 in between—helped her make history this year as the first woman ever chosen Miss U.S.S.R. Now Yulia is visiting the United States, doing her beauteous best to dispel some of those hoary iron-curtain biases left over from pre-perestroika days.

Sukhanova won her crown in Moscow last spring, triumphing over 35 finalists from throughout the Soviet Union in a two-day contest modeled on the annual Miss America rites in Atlantic City. Shaping up for the competition, she endured a pageant-sponsored beauty boot camp for a month of rigorous gymnastics, aerobics and weight training. In the end Yulia sashayed easily through the swimsuit and evening-wear competition, and at her anointment looked every inch a Romanov princess in a black strapless sequined gown. With appropriate socialist rectitude, however, she says she doesn't like to wear her crown because it makes her uncomfortable to act "like a queen."

Otherwise, Yulia's victory was a virtual copy of a Western beauty contest, down to the requisite hint of scandal. Though loftily billed as a "festival of adoration of the ideal woman," the Moscow pageant took a dubious turn when director Yuri Kushnerev allegedly threatened to prevent Yulia from visiting the U.S. unless he accompanied her—alone. Not intimidated, Miss U.S.S.R. took the revolutionary step of going public. In a letter published in a Soviet newspaper she reportedly called his contract terms "bondage." With the attendant publicity, Kushnerev retreated. Yulia traveled on her own.

A recent high school graduate, Yulia shares a two-room house in Moscow with her mother, a retired office worker. (Her father died of a heart attack when she was 9.) Like teens everywhere, she likes to hang out with friends, though she admits to no steady date. She has two older sisters and a brother, all with families of their own.

She started down the beauty competition runway by entering the first-ever Miss Moscow competition in 1988, though by contest rules she was a year underage. Still, even after that inconvenient fact was discovered, she was not disqualified and made it to the semifinals. It was excellent training for her Miss U.S.S.R. bid, but Yulia confesses she still finds the pageant process embarrassing. The worst part, she says, "was standing in front of the cameras for 10 minutes while everyone watched you, and then having to rush back and change clothes and do it all over again." And, like her American counterparts, she had to field her share of inane questions. ("Do you like animals? What kind?") Her prizes included a large-screen TV and a large hint—a white dress suitable for a wedding.

Currently in the U.S. on a 45-day tourist visa—the trip is sponsored by Seline, an American talent agency—Yulia visited New York City, then flew to Washington, D.C., where she was poked, prodded and painted at an Elizabeth Arden salon. Another highlight was a scheduled meeting with Sting after his opening in The Threepenny Opera at the National Theater. Her itinerary will also take her to the West Coast, where she wants to visit a movie studio. Yulia intends to pursue a career as a fashion model and actress, but probably in her homeland. "All my friends are in the Soviet Union," Miss U.S.S.R. says, sounding like a patriot or possibly showing a first sign of homesickness. "It's my native land."

—Harriet Shapiro, Sarah Skolnik in Washington, D.C.

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