At well over six feet tall with flame-coloured hair and porcelain skin, former fashion model Danila Polyakov, 30, would stand out anywhere in the world. Especially as, depending on his mood, you might find him sporting anything from a pair of leather trousers to a sequinned dress. His fluid sexuality, gender-bending style and androgynous looks have meant that, in his heyday in the early Noughties, he served as the perfect canvas for a host of designers from John Galliano to Ann Demeulemeester. “During the New Year period I was amusing everyone with my outfits,” he recalls. “I remember at some point I was standing by a huge garbage bin wearing stiletto heels, a long red dress and a feather boa … It was such a painting!”
When I meet him inside Prazhskaya metro station, his attire is far more understated: light green jeans, leather vest with a zip across the chest and padded khaki jacket make him look like a cross between a Forties Soviet relic and a Comme des Garçons model. We emerge into the grey Moscow suburb of Chertanovo and head towards one of the many drab, uniform apartment blocks where his parents, now deceased, used to live and where he spends some of his time. I’m there to talk about his latest work, Natura, a mix of art, photography and fashion, and have been told that one of the rooms holds the key to understanding the project. The room has been transformed into a mood board, its concrete walls and cupboards plastered with photographs and images torn out from magazines and books.
Natura is an exploration of nature and the impact that the phenomena of the physical world has on human beings. When describing the project, Polyakov draws parallels to the somewhat disturbing worlds of Grimms’ fairy tales or the films of Terry Gilliam. “How Natura affects you depends on how sensitive your imagination is,” he says. But the project is also about death and rebirth. After his mother died, Polyakov returned to the apartment to sort through her belongings. “I threw away everything, leaving only things, which inspired me,” he says. “I made objects, dresses from bin bags, masks and paintings.” This outpouring of creativity was not only cathartic but left him with a body of work that is currently on show at RuArts Gallery in Moscow. Through his art, and with the help of fashion photographer Dmitry Zhuravlev, Polyakov plays on the image of himself as some kind of oddity. He accentuates his whippet-like waist with tightly-pulled corsets, paints himself green, colours his eyes demon-red and dresses up in any number of animal accessories from fur to rabbit ears.
“I love it when people express themselves through me but there was too much I wanted to express myself”
The experience allowed Polyakov to get back on his feet after an alcohol-soaked spiral of self-destruction that followed a heady ascent in the world of modelling. After being spotted by a scout at Storm in 2000, Polyakov became a regular at fashion weeks from Paris to Milan to Tokyo, modelling for the likes of photographer Steven Meisel and for publications such as Italian Vogue. This period of success was capped in 2008 by The Naughty Noughties, a limited edition book of photography by Alexey Kiselev in which Polyakov is used to explore themes such as the body and sexuality.
It was during this time that Polyakov began to drink heavily. Those in Moscow fashion circles grew used to seeing him walking around parties, naked, with his penis tucked between his legs. “I was such a diva. I mean a real diva. I was shameless. And then you fall, fall fall,” says Polyakov; minutes later he suggests we head to a nearby shop to buy a couple bottles of Soviet champagne. It wasn’t long before he was consigned to oblivion and deemed a lost cause who ruined his chances at a great career through recklessness and alcoholism. “I was very hard-working and had a bright future,” he says. “But I later realised that I could either make money or follow the path of self-expression. I love it when people express themselves through me but there was too much I wanted to express myself.” Five years after the publication of The Naughty Noughties, this need for self-expression has resulted in Natura.
The turbulence of the past decade years is inextricably linked to Polyakov’s dysfunctional childhood, including a history of mental illness among family members. Intolerance within Russian society towards transgender and gay issues hasn’t helped either. Most recently this has manifested itself in the passage of an anti-gay law in St Petersburg. The legislation purportedly seeks to protect minors from “the propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism”; a similar bill, which proposes to take the law nationwide is currently making its way through parliament. “I think this law stops society from developing. It makes people radically mistrust the state,” says Polyakov. “It’s well known that you go through many phases in life. Sometimes you think you’re gay, sometimes you don’t … Why be scared of that?”
It’s no surprise to discover that when Polyakov walks around the suburbs in drag, the response can be less than favourable. What irks him the most is not the open aggression towards him but the herd mentality that stops people from forming their own opinions. Whether it’s living in the suburbs or appearing on Russian national television, Polyakov does not shy away from challenging perceptions. Nor does he eschew the money that comes with fame and notoriety.
“Sometimes you think you’re gay, sometimes you don’t … Why be scared of that?”
“I’m sort of a celebrity in Moscow. Everybody thinks that I’m a very rich, successful model leading an eccentric lifestyle and working abroad,” he says. “I’m invited to participate in TV shows as a celebrity and a freak and I ask for money. Sometimes it’s 500 roubles, sometimes 10,000, sometimes 20,000. And, they pay.” But adds Polyakov, it’s more than just money. “I care about what’s happening in Russia,” he says. “What I’m trying to say on TV is not a myth. I want people to know that with a little effort, they too can live a colourful life. I paint my nails bright because it’s more fun. And I want them to know that they won’t be struck by lightning if you paint they nails too.”
The experience of the past decade has been an edifying one for Polyakov. While he’d like to return to the world of fashion, he says it would have to be under new terms: as a strictly male model. On the way back to the station, he suggests drinking some cognac. We go into the supermarket and buy a bottle for the journey.
Natura is on show at RuArts Gallery until 6 April