The below editorial features the opinions and views of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision, or the EBU.
On the night of February 25, 2003, Russian teenagers Julia Volkova and Lena Katina of t.A.T.u. made their United States-television debut on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The pair, sporting white t-shirts with the phrase “Хуй войне!” branded across them, were there to perform “All the Things She Said”, their first English-language single.
After a short introduction from the host, Julia and Lena began. The audience was excited and audibly singing along. The girls seemed to be enjoying themselves. Their live vocals were mostly spot on. A minute and a half into the performance, the climactic moment arrived, the climactic moment in every performance of ‘All the Things She Said’. Julia approached Lena from behind, grabbed her hand, and pulled her close. The girls looked into each other’s eyes, and …
… the camera cut to t.A.T.u.’s backing guitarist for a full 25 seconds of screen time.
How did we get here? Let’s rewind.
Part I: Beginnings
t.A.T.u. was the brainchild of Russian music producer Ivan Shapalov. In 1999, he held auditions for a new teenage, sapphic pop duo. Julia Volkova and Lena Katina, both 14-year-old former members of Russian children’s singing group Neposedi, were selected. Their first and biggest single, “Ya Soshla S Uma”, was released in December of 2000, with their debut album, 200 Po Vstrechnoy, hitting shelves on May 21, 2001. The album and its three singles were hits, and the girls toured Eastern Europe in support of the album through the rest of that year.
“Ya Soshla S Uma”, later reworked in English as “All the Things She Said”, is an angsty, electronic track about a teenager’s sexual awakening, recognizing her burgeoning same-sex attraction and fearing judgment from the world around her. The music video, directed by Shapalov, features Julia and Lena trapped behind a schoolyard fence in the rain. Clad in school uniforms, the girls shout and look for an escape. A group of onlookers stand on the other side of the fence with blank expressions. The camera leers as the two of them kiss. The rain slows. The sun rises. Holding hands, Julia and Lena walk off into the bright distance.
As with all things involving t.A.T.u., the music video stirred up a fair amount of controversy. Russian tabloids were full of speculation on the girls’ sexuality. Were they lesbians, or was this all a marketing ploy by a twisted music-Machiavelli? Some critics worried the music video promoted pedophilia, particularly since both Julia and Lena were 16 years old at the time. Regardless, the video only raised t.A.T.u.‘s profile, winning the viewer’s choice category at the MTV Russia Video Music Awards.
t.A.T.u. made quite a splash in the United States, as well. 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane, their debut English-language album, was released in The US in December of 2002. It eventually sold over 800,000 copies and was certified gold. “All the Things Said” spent 20 weeks on the US Billboard singles chart, peaking at #20, and its music video scandalized and titillated a generation of repressed MTV watchers. It seems absurd in retrospect, but it is hard to explain to people who weren’t consuming popular culture in the early ’00s just how dangerous and edgy t.A.T.u. seemed in comparison to everything else.
Needless to say, their brand of angry girl pop in a queer-coded package was unusual for the US market at the time. Most infamously, the girls had a habit of french kissing on stage.
Part II: The Tonight Show
The Tonight Show is an American late-night institution. It has aired on NBC since 1954, hosting movie stars, heads of state, rock gods, and zoo animals. Just about every kind of famous or infamous person had passed through those proverbial halls, and t.A.T.u. was joining the list.
When booking t.A.T.u., the producers of The Tonight Show had been very clear: no political messages and no french kissing. But t.A.T.u.‘s management had other ideas. In footage from Anatomy of t.A.T.u., a behind the scenes documentary made for Russian television that followed the duo’s US promotional tour, Shapalov and the band’s American promoter are shown discussing strategies for the girls’ North American TV appearances.
“What do we want for the American media,” Shapalov asks, “what kind of reaction?”
The promoter answered with one word.
Onstage at The Tonight Show, Julia and Lena were performing “All the Things She Said” for an enthusiastic audience. The girls had reportedly requested to lip-sync to a backing track, but bookers on the show insisted all the vocals be live. The message across their chests, “Хуй войне!”, roughly translates as ‘Fuck war!, not ‘No to war!’ as Shapalov had led Tonight Show producers to believe. The climactic moment arrived. Julia approached Lena from behind, grabbed her hand, and pulled her close. The girls looked into each other’s eyes, and …
The Tonight Show does not air live. The show is traditionally filmed in the afternoon and edited into the broadcast that airs later, after the local news. Julia and Lena did indeed french kiss on stage during their Tonight Show appearance, but NBC edited around it, showing a 25-second-long, unbroken shot of the band’s backing guitarist instead.
“The record company made an agreement at the time of the booking for the girls not to french kiss,” according to an NBC spokesperson in a statement to Entertainment Weekly. ”The girls broke the agreement, which The Tonight Show found unacceptable.”
Relationship with NBC? Burned.
Part III: Jimmy Kimmel Live
Jimmy Kimmel Live was, as the name suggests, live. ABC’s late-night alternative to The Tonight Show was barely one-month old and struggling in the ratings. In more recent years, Jimmy Kimmel has evolved and become a mainstream figure in American comedy and discourse. Videos like, “I’m F*cking Matt Damon” have gone viral. He hosted The Academy Awards twice. His teary monologues on things like his newborn son’s heart complications and the American healthcare system have publicly pitted him against Republican politicians and commentators.
But, in 2003, Kimmel was primarily known as co-host and co-creator of Comedy Central’s The Man Show, a quasi-satirical sketch show that ended every episode with footage of women jumping on trampolines.
ABC had always struggled to compete in late-night. Politically Incorrect, the Bill Maher-hosted political chat show that had previously aired in that time slot, was cancelled quickly after Maher made controversial comments about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jimmy Kimmel Live was ABC’s first attempt at a traditional late-night show since the ’80s, and the pressure was on for Kimmel and his staff to make noise, get headlines, and grow in the ratings.
After the media circus that greeted their Tonight Show debut, Jimmy Kimmel Live immediately booked t.A.T.u. for the following night. If The Tonight Show wouldn’t treat its audience to footage of two teenage girls french kissing, they would. And they would interview Julia and Lena as well.
So, on the night of February 26, 2003, t.A.T.u. appeared on the show. What followed was 10 minutes of excruciatingly uncomfortable television. Watch at your own risk.
Julia and Lena walked on stage for their interview, wearing white T-shirts with ‘CENSORED’ branded across their chests. Disney-owned ABC signed off on the explicit french kissing, but profanity, even in Cyrillic letters, was a no-go.
Seemingly, no one at Jimmy Kimmel Live knew or cared that Julia barely spoke English. She spent the majority of the interview smiling, whispering to Lena in Russian, and laughing at inside jokes. Lena, for her part, seemed to already be over the experience. Though her English was much more fluent than Julia‘s, her answer to Kimmel‘s very first question was a terse, “yeah.” It didn’t get much better from there.
The reactions of the three other celebrity guests on stage that night were a fair representation of the different ways American media reacted to t.A.T.u. at the time. Actor Vince Vaughn, there to promote his new comedy ‘Old School’, told the girls, “I’m so proud of you guys, just for being who you are,” and then quickly retreated. Italian actress Monica Bellucci was mostly just overwhelmed. Silently staring at the ceiling, she shrank back into the couch like her soul was dying. Infamous boxing promoter Don King was NOT silent, telling the duo, “I want you to be in the Red-light district.” This insinuation that Julia and Lena were glorified sex workers was greeted with enthusiastic support from the studio audience.
At the end of the interview, while Kimmel was attempting to send the show to commercial and tease the full, uncensored t.A.T.u. experience to come, Julia produced a sharpie and began writing on the back of his hand. Interestingly, she had insisted he take his suit jacket off earlier in the segment, a sign this was, perhaps, her plan all along. Once she was finished, Julia held up Kimmel‘s hand and insisted that the camera do a close-up shot. On the back of his hand, in black sharpie, was “Хуй войне”, the very message ABC had forbidden the girls to wear on their T-shirts. When Kimmel asked what it meant, Lena was more than happy to oblige.
“Fuck war,” she said, giving the network censors just enough time to bleep her answer.
Part IV: The Kiss
As should be fairly obvious by now, t.A.T.u. had been booked on Jimmy Kimmel Live for one reason, and one reason only. The episode that night had been full of sexual innuendo and titillation. Kimmel had asked Lena to sit on his lap when she first came on stage and later implied that he had drilled a hole in the wall to watch them in their dressing room. The audience had been coached to hoot and holler at every sexual insinuation. And throughout the entire show, Kimmel had been teasing the kiss, counting down to it like the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.
This language was emblematic of the way American media treated and talked about women, especially young women, especially sexual young women, at the time. Anyone who has been following the recent cultural reevaluation of Britney Spears and her legacy is, at this point, more than familiar with this moment in American pop culture. The thinking seemed to be, “well, if their management is exploiting them and their sexuality, it’s fair game for us.”
After moving the show to the outside performance stage. Kimmel introduced the girls.
“People are always asking me, ‘why not have more hot Russian teenage lesbian pop stars on the show?’ Alright, ladies, you have our permission … do whatever you want on stage.”
These famous last words were greeted with whistles and cheers.
This performance was different than the one they gave on The Tonight Show, but not for any of the reasons Jimmy Kimmel Live had hoped. As the song started, Lena in particular looked incredibly annoyed. Instead of singing live, as they had the night before, the girls were very clearly lip syncing to a backing track, and doing it badly. Julia had a bit more playful energy than Lena, but, then again, she had barely understood any of the sexually leering comments made at their expense that night. The crowd was excited at first, but not about the song. The song was a means to an end, 220 seconds of foreplay for 5 seconds of french kissing.
Then, a minute and a half into the performance, the climactic moment arrived, the climactic moment in every performance of ‘All the Things She Said’. Julia and Lena grasped hands, looked into each other’s eyes, moved their bodies close together, and …
Part V: Aftermath
“I’m so pissed off at this whole thing,” Jimmy Kimmel Live executive producer Daniel Kellison said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “They showed up 15 minutes before the show, with all sorts of attitude, all sorts of tantrums. And then they don’t even kiss! The whole thing was a farce.”
After producers had spent the whole day promoting it, after the host had spent an entire broadcast teasing it, after the studio audience had spent the whole show waiting for it … The kiss, if there even was a kiss, was blocked from view by Julia‘s hand. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the french kiss the audience had been promised.
“It sounds like the real issue is that they didn’t kiss, and Kimmel is mad,” a source close to the duo told Entertainment Weekly. “There was a lot of horndog leering about the kiss, and the girls got pissed, so they didn’t do it.”
t.A.T.u. and its management were not concerned about the opinions of leering late-night talk show producers or network executives. They had gotten what they wanted, that one word their American promoter had spoken only a few days earlier.
Julia and Lena knew why they had been booked for Jimmy Kimmel Live, and, if they didn’t initially, they certainly figured it out on the night. There would be nothing shocking about french kissing for an audience of leering American men. The show, the audience, the network … none of them cared about the song or the girls. The most provocative thing the duo could do in that moment was refuse to give the show and its audience what they wanted.
This wasn’t t.A.T.u.‘s last appearance on US television. They later made several appearances on American basic cable, including a truly wild set at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards, but they had effectively salted the earth at ABC and NBC.
t.A.T.u. was too busy to care. The girls were gearing up for the biggest performance of their careers. In just three months, they’d be on stage at Skonto Hall in Latvia, representing Russia at Eurovision. And by the end of the year, their kisses would be old news in The US. Madonna would infamously kiss both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on stage at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards that August, perhaps in some way responding to t.A.T.u.‘s cultural impact.
And that, my friends is the story of t.A.T.u., the original Russian trolls, burning bridges with two American TV networks in just 48 hours.
P.S. This entire saga was later parodied on an episode of Saturday Night Live, with Lindsay Lohan and Rachel Dratch playing a faux-lesbian teen singing duo from Russia named ‘D.A.D.I.’
Do #YOU have a forgotten story from Eurovision or Eurovision-artists past that you think is worth telling? Reach out in the comments below, in our forum, or on social media @ESCUnited. We may want to share it in an article just like this one.