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Anti-Barbie Girl Wins Hearts in Beauty Contest

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It started out as a joke from a friend and ended with fame.

Alyona Pisklova, who would ordinarily never be confused with Miss Universe, nearly made the trip to Quito, Ecuador, as Russia's representative in this year's international competition.

The 15-year-old from the Moscow region turned the Miss Universe competition upside down for a few weeks as she swept ahead of all the long-legged favorites in an Internet poll designed to select Russia's delegate.

Instead, Alyona won't be among the 12 finalists competing this week in the final round of Internet voting.

Voting for Alyona quickly became a movement against society's views on beauty. Within a few days of her picture's arrival on the competition web site, anti-globalist activists had picked up on its peculiarity -- an ordinary picture of an ordinary teenager amidst a sea of tall, beautiful models posing in touched-up photos -- and made her a protest symbol for her generation.

Supporters of Alyona quickly launched a web site, www.stopbarbie.org, to whip up support and to express the manifesto behind voting for her.

This was a vote, as the web site spelled out, against the "Barbification" of society, against fake emotions and smiles in professional photos, against the accepted standards of beauty and size -- 90-60-90 -- against corporate goods and fake pop music and against cigarettes without nicotine and caffeine-free coffee.

The campaign worked. Alyona quickly stormed to the top of the Miss Universe competition, which was held at www.miss.rambler.ru. She received 10,000 hits on the first day, with most users giving her the top mark of five points.

This was the first time the Internet was used to choose Russia's Miss Universe candidate, and the Alyona episode came as a surprise and a worry.

"She came out of the blue," said Ivan Zassoursky, general producer of the Russian portion of the pageant and deputy general director of Rambler, one of Russia's biggest web portals. "I thought there was a problem with the programming."

Alyona's rise threatened to destabilize the entire competition.

"It was the biggest hit of the pageant and the biggest threat for us," said Zassoursky. Firebird Productions, the American company that had contracted Rambler to oversee the Russian selection process, began to see that it might end up with a teenager at least 10 centimeters shorter than the other competitors who would walk down the catwalk in Ecuador.

"I must admit that our American partners truly panicked," Zassoursky said. "It was my job to do some therapy on them. They have shown great nerve even as they have panicked."

Zassoursky himself realized how widespread the movement was when he found out that a number of people in his own office had also voted for Alyona.

At first, Alyona was unaware that she had been picked up as a symbol, she said in a telephone interview. Pisklova is actually the surname of a boy Alyona had a crush on. A school friend of Alyona's uploaded her picture onto the web site as a joke, attaching the bogus last name. (Alyona declined to give her real surname.)

"I went on the site and I was already in first place," she said. "I am very grateful to the rebyata who supported and voted for me."

For herself, Alyona was quite happy to be swept up by the anti-globalists -- although she doesn't agree with every aspect of the stopbarbie decree. She met with the stopbarbie organizers, who gave her a T-shirt with her face on it in the style of Che Guevara.

The only negative aspect was the attitude of the other contestants, who were not happy to see their limelight dimmed by a girl who they looked down on, and not just in the physical sense.

"They were very aggressive," said Alyona, who spoke to them via a web forum.

Alyona wearing the stopbarbie T-shirt

However, Alyona's 15 minutes were soon up. Once organizers found out that she was only 15 years old, they disqualified her; Miss Universe contestants must be at least 18.

Many of the anti-globalist activists cried foul, but Alyona was quite happy to exit the competition. She said that she wanted to opt out of the contest earlier, but that Rambler had convinced her to stay in. They awarded her with a prize -- a puppy, at her request -- and offered to take her to the Miss Universe finals in Ecuador. But she can't make it -- she has exams -- and she got a stereo system with karaoke instead.

Rambler even produced a touched-up photo of her, which is now on the competition web site.

Zassoursky is not convinced that Alyona would have won the final vote. As agitators used Yeltsin slogans -- rephrasing "Vote or You Lose" from the 1996 election to "Vote or She Will Lose" -- so he believes an alternative candidate would have been found.

The movement to vote Alyona the winner was stirring up a certain degree of opposition.

Other Internet forums had even begun agitating against Alyona.

"It is very good for the girl that she was not humiliated," he said. "She would have come to the final and she would have been in a hostile environment from the mainstream press and other girls. What's really nice about her is that she's not worried. She is a symbol of a generation, and a mass symbol of this movement against standards."

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