The Queen Of Ukraine's Image Machine

LONDON, UK -- Three years after Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko is being tipped for high office again after dominating an election campaign with the help of one of the slickest image-making machines in Europe.

The one and only Yulia Tymoshenko

Her ability to stand out among all the men in the country's power struggles is one that she and her team have honed to perfection.

"Orange princess", "gas princess", "goddess of the Revolution", the "Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics", "a Slavic Joan of Arc" - her nicknames over the years have acquired mythological proportions.

She has cast herself as a fighter for justice, the conscience of the nation, the saviour of Ukraine, and succeeding in looking the part as well as talking the talk.

World-wide recognition

She has become instantly recognisable the world over for that hair: the artful arrangement of traditional braids - sometimes dubbed "the Yulia".

The style has been replicated on the catwalks of Milan, in an international perfume ad and, as Ms Tymoshenko proudly boasts on her website, by Kylie Minogue in a recent calendar.

All of this has a serious political message. The style evoking an idealised Ukrainian peasant girl chimes with her uncompromising nationalist views.

Her former image consultant Oleh Pokalchuk - who says he came up with the idea in the early 2000s - explains that the idea was to project Ms Tymoshenko as a Ukrainian archetype.

"It was necessary to work out and implement an image that would block out the image formed by Kuchma propagandists, one of wealth, of envy, hatred," the social psychologist told the BBC News website.

Ms Tymoshenko's stinging attacks on the oligarchs who prospered under the former administration of president Leonid Kuchma has boosted her popularity among many Ukrainians frustrated by years of economic stagnation and corruption.

"I created an image of a modest village teacher. A visual type, clothes and haircut, a retro image evoking memories of childhood and schooldays... simple clothes, simple haircut, a Ukrainian archetype," he says.

Ms Tymoshenko, 46, was born in the industrial city of Dnipropetrivsk, in the mainly Russian-speaking east.

"She didn't speak Ukrainian so well then and it was necessary for parts of the country, where nationalism is a powerful force, that she should appear one of us," says Mr Pokalchuk.

"It was the image of the poetess Lesya Ukrainka, who had a similar haircut and who is a positive image for all Ukrainians. I was looking at a monument of Lesya every day, from my office window, so I didn't have to go far to find the image"

He says her image is constantly being reworked.

Originally, he says, the hair was brunette and the image modest. Now, the hair is lighter - almost the colour of corn - and the clothes "far more sumptuous".

At one point, such was the national interest in her hair that she was provoked into letting it down on national television, in front of millions of viewers.

"Kuchma's people were putting it about that her hair was not genuine," says Mr Pokalchuk.

In an interview with the Jersualem Post earlier this year, Ms Tymoshenko referred to the amount of interest her hair has attracted:

"Let me state for the record that I invented this hairstyle. And I do it by myself every day. It has been the subject of endless attention in my country. Everybody has something to say about it. But I've noticed that it's catching on in all kinds of fashion circles in Europe. That makes me happy - at least my hair is calling attention to Ukraine."

She has also revealed that it only takes her seven minutes to do.

Slick campaign

The look was key to the former prime minister's slick campaign in the latest election.

The campaign for the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYT) took white as its colour of choice, a red heart as its symbol.

"Her image-making is very interesting and delicately balanced," says Andrew Wilson an expert on Ukraine at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES).

"She comes across as feminine but forceful, glamorous but national - and instantly recognisable.

"The heart is a political message - hers is the politics of moral principle as opposed to grubby compromise. In a way, she is the heart - the conscience of the nation. It follows on from the way that she campaigned last year," he says.

Some say her peasant look is somewhat misleading. Critics say she made a billion-dollar fortune in the privatisation of Ukraine's oil and gas industry in the 1990s.

"There is certainly a contradiction," says Mr Wilson. "She is a kind of Eva Peron figure - on the side of the poor but in a fur coat."

Ms Tymoshenko's love of expensive, French designer clothes is legendary. But, in the latest campaign, she had incorporated traditional Ukrainian designs into her mainly white wardrobe.

"Image is very important in Ukraine," says Mr Wilson. "It's a very TV-based society, and television was the primary medium of the campaign."

Detractors have scathingly described her metamorphosis as pretentious: a near biblical transformation, her hair wrapped on top of her head like a halo, complemented by flowing white angelic dresses.

But it seems to have worked magic on Ukrainian voters.

BYT's share of the vote - at nearly 31% according to incomplete results - was entirely unexpected, and gives her every chance of forming the next government.

Source: BBC News