In northern Turkey in recent years, Russian prostitutes have been so prevalent they have even been given a nickname: Natashas. The Russian girls now so visible in New York started from the same sleepy towns and with essentially the same impulse, but they don't do anything so crude as turn tricks. They're Ultra-Natashas: Clever as well as beautiful, they pursue their goals with mercenary precision.
"These girls aren't one-night hookers; they're sink-the-teeth-in hookers," says a television producer who knows them. "They're playing chess. They're looking No. 1 for freedom, No. 2 for lots of money by a quickie marriage or, failing that, a lawsuit. They're very adept with credit cards, and they know you don't get those the first night."
"They're very passionate, very beautiful, but very tough," says a bachelor known from Bilboquet to Balthazar. "They want the big life, the money, and they give sex to get it. For a guy with a lot of money, it's great. The girls don't mind if you're older, if you're fat."
Says another East Side swain, laughing: "They are the most coldhearted girls I've ever met."
The gold-digger pipeline begins in small towns in the former Soviet heartland, whence girls migrate to Moscow or St. Petersburg, "places you can use as a trampoline," says a Russian-born model scout. Once there, they seek out men who can help them bounce up, economically or, better yet, out of the East altogether. In many cases, these men "would not be as effective in the United States at attracting that caliber of woman," says Richard Dean, who opened the first American law office in Moscow. "Girls started to qualify foreigners," the scout continues. "What's he good for? Is he a boyfriend? A potential husband?"
The path from Moscow to New York cut through the modeling business. In May 1988, the first Miss Moscow contest was held. A year later came the first Miss USSR, Yulia Sukhanova, a rangy 17-year-old Moscow schoolgirl with gray-blue eyes, blonde hair, and a beauty mark over one eyebrow.
Though she didn't know it, her modeling career was facilitated by Richard Fuisz (pronounced fuse), a former actor, psychiatrist, pediatrician, congressional candidate, whistle-blower, and entrepreneur who declines to comment on a published report that he has intelligence ties. Fuisz, who owned a company that did joint ventures in Moscow, was approached by the then-Soviet ambassador to Washington, Yuri V. Dubinin, to set up a modeling agency to prepare the first waves of Soviet beauties for American commerce (which often meant substantial dental work) and protect them from "adverse influences" and bad publicity like magazine "spreads about their teeth," Fuisz says.
Sukhanova was the first of ten girls he would oversee. But first, he had to free her from the Soviet Union. He did it with the help of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now one of Russia's oil billionaires but then the head of the Komsomol, or Young Communist League, and beginning his business career in a computer venture with Fuisz. "Each time Yulia tried to leave, the Moscow City Council canceled her visa," Fuisz reports. The hard-liners were opposed. "With Khodorkovsky's help, I escorted her to the airport and onto a plane to get her out." Soon, she was meeting Miss America, Nancy Reagan, and Sting, shooting the cover of Details, and filming a yogurt commercial. That's when international model agents like John Casablancas started sniffing around Moscow like pigs after truffles.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, Yulia Sukhanova's Americanization was proceeding apace. She left her first agent, Fuisz, and ended up in litigation with him over commissions. Her second agency, Click, soon became a sort of salon for Eastern Bloc model wannabes. Not only was the first Miss USSR there, but it was also the only agency in New York with a Russian-speaking booker. Inna (pronounced Eena) de Silva would become the linchpin of the Ultra-Natasha circle.
She was born Inna Sokolovsky in Odessa, on the Black Sea, where her family lived with three others in a communal apartment. Her mother was a department-store buyer and her father an appliance repairman, "but in Russia, everybody had to rely a bit on their wits," she says in a gravelly whiskey voice over a late lunch and brandy at "44." "You couldn't survive unless you were doing something on the side. We have larcenous minds. We distrust authority. We like getting over on people. And we settle things among ourselves -- sort of like Sicilians." She laughs darkly.
De Silva learned about sex early. "Drinking and sex were the most important things," she says. The Sokolovskys moved to America when Inna was 12, first settling in a Coney Island project, then moving up-island to Massapequa. In the eighties, after a failed marriage, Inna hit Miami's South Beach, where she married a Brazilian surfer -- the eponymous De Silva -- and sold wholesale travel packages to fashion photographers. In 1990, Frances Grill, founder of Click Models, gave her a job as a booker.
The young Russians who now began heading for New York could talk to De Silva -- in their native tongue. "Inna would tell them that the agency was interested, and they would just arrive," Sukhanova recalls. "Imagine a girl from Moscow or a little town -- she is in New York at the airport, and she's like, 'Oh, I have no ticket back.' So Inna had to bring them here and try to give them jobs. And I guess when they didn't work, I don't know . . ."
De Silva would arrange visas and get the Russians tested by photographers. "They were very attractive girls of a certain kind, attractive enough to look like models in dark clubs," says Grill, who called them "Almosts." Her son, Joey Grill, who runs Click with her, thought of them as "Inna's private test board, working little jobs." Then he adds, "Apparently, they were going out on other jobs too."