Soviet star is born - and she's a natural. Young journalist says she understood herself better after US visit
New York — SHE arrived three months ago, a wide-eyed young journalist from Moscow News, eager to find out what it's like to work for an American newspaper. But it never quite worked out that way. Yelena Hanga got famous instead.
``The pile of articles about me is so thick, I'll have to pay more for overweight luggage when I leave,'' Ms. Hanga joked in a final interview with her host newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, before her departure for home Sunday.
She was a natural for the American media - the granddaughter of a black American communist cotton farmer who emigrated to the Soviet Union with his white wife in the 1930s. Most Americans didn't know there are blacks in the Soviet Union, and the media were more than happy to get the word out.
The ``Today'' show and ``Good Morning America'' competed for an appearance (``Today'' won - it called first). Several major dailies gushed at length about her. Essence magazine threw a bash for her in New York. ABC's ``20/20'' has been filming her in action for the past six weeks and will travel to Moscow this spring for more footage in her native milieu, all for a 15-minute piece. There have even been film offers.
Hanga chuckles about all the attention - most of it, anyway. It was a lesson in how the American media operate, for better or worse. She marvels at their doggedness (``When I said no, they would keep asking over and over again'') and fumes over a journalist she says invented a quotation.
``Every person knew what they wanted to see in me, and they looked for it,'' she says, shifting effortlessly between English and Russian. ``In many of these articles, everybody exaggerated about me. For example, they wrote that I am pretty. I have never been pretty - I know that very well! When I arrived, I had such an inferiority complex, there are so many pretty black girls.''
Then there were the offers to give talks, have dinner, attend conferences, or just plain get together, which poured in from around the country. The names of the people she rubbed elbows with read like a guest list from ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' - the Jacksons Michael and Jesse, Arthur Ashe, Michael Dukakis, and Edward Kennedy. Recalling her phone chat with Stevie Wonder, Hanga melts into youthful adoration.
Meeting Michael Jackson also fits in the wait-till-I-tell-the-folks-back-home category. She was on a boat ride at Disneyland, and Mr. Jackson happened to be behind her. She didn't recognize him.
But when the crowds started to gather and she saw the bodyguards and big white limousine, she knew who it was. When Jackson heard that a black Soviet journalist wanted to talk to him, he emerged from his limo.
Later that weekend, when she visited a Los Angeles radio station, word got around that she had met Michael Jackson. They put her right on the air. Hanga recounts the interview:
``Tell us all about him - isn't he beautiful?'' the deejay asked.
``Well, not like in the films...,'' Hanga responded, to which the deejay shot a very disapproving glance at her. ``Oh, yes, I mean sure, he was beautiful.''
Score one for freedom of expression.
``It's very uncomfortable to be a celebrity,'' Hanga remarked later. ``It's clear from their eyes that you're not saying what they want you to say....
``It puts such a great responsibility on you. And then if you disappoint someone, they will say, `Oh, those Soviets!'''
Hanga did find some time to get out of the spotlight and ask a few of her own questions.
``I made an investigation about the attitudes of blacks and whites to the Soviet Union,'' she declares.
``I think that well-to-do blacks are more conservative toward the Soviet Union than well-to-do whites. But among average people, the blacks are more progressive....
``I talked with young black college students in Los Angeles. Among them, they have much more favorable feelings about the Soviet Union than white Americans [do], because the American press feeds people with stereotypes - that's not a secret to anybody. If they use photographs, they show a fat grandmother.
``If you say to a white person, `Communists are going to take everything from you,' he'll believe it, because that's what he reads. If you say the same thing to a black person, he'll think about whether it's true or not, because so many bad things have been written about blacks.
``Also, black people relate better to the Soviet Union, because they know there is no racism there.''
Wait a minute, I interject. No racism in the Soviet Union? With little effort, I recall half a dozen instances of prejudice against blacks (mainly African students) in the Soviet Union that I had seen or heard about. Other Americans who have spent time in the Soviet Union can cite similar examples, I explain.
``That's your opinion,'' Hanga replies.
We agree to disagree.
On more than one occasion, Hanga's combination of Soviet upbringing and natural feistiness shows in encounters with the homeless, a theme the Soviet press likes to focus on.
She describes with gusto her conversation with a young homeless man in New York. ``I asked him with a sassy tone of voice, `Why don't you work?' And he answered, `Who'd give me a job when I smell like this? I have nothing nice to wear.' So I said to him, `You could go to a shelter and bathe. I saw it on television.' And he said, `Do you know that it's dangerous to sleep there? There are diseases....'
``He didn't seem mentally strange, or drunk. But I didn't stay with him for a week, so I can't really judge.''
Throughout our discussion, Hanga insists she's not prepared to draw any conclusions about America. But in animated bursts she has much to say on a lot of issues.
Television, for example: ``You have more couch potatoes than we do.''
And yuppies: ``They're like a caste. I talked to yuppies ... but not one of them admits to being a yuppie.''
Rap music: ``This is a very important phenomenon. As important as yuppies. I plan to tell Soviets about this.''
She also says she did come to understand herself better while in the United States. ``At home and here, people always tell me I am so full of life, and now I know why,'' she explains. ``It's because I have a black American grandfather. I have the genes. This ability to enjoy life - it's typical for blacks.''
That spunk came through in a later phone discussion.
``Essence magazine is going to do my hair, my makeup, my clothes, even my fingernails, and then take my picture! Maybe I can be beautiful after all!''