Sultry red-head sensationalizes spy story
Talk about your American Dream.
One day you’re a 28-year-old red-haired beauty from Russia trying to make it as a “businesswoman” in New York City. The next, your name and sexy Facebook profile photo are splashed all over the world, your every status update — “Pain is only weakness leaving the body,” for instance — the subject of international fascination. You are a femme fatale.
And all you did was allegedly participate in a Russian spy ring.
Every good Cold-War-style spy scandal needs a Natasha, and Anna Chapman, who appeared in court Monday in designer jeans and a white T-shirt, has emerged as the tale’s sexy antagonist.
With all manner of minor players having capitalized on the fame that comes with a fall, is it much of a stretch to think that Chapman may be looking at a lucrative future? If not an American Dream, then a publicist’s dream?
“Story has ‘blockbuster’ written all over it,” said New York publicist Peggy Siegal. " Sandra Bullock in a red wig!”
On her Facebook page, Chapman once wrote, perhaps presciently: “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.”
If Chapman, who is also known as Anya Kushchenko, is found guilty of what the government has charged — conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation — she faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison. In court Monday, her attorney described the charges against her as “innocuous” and asked the judge to dismiss them.
The judge refused. Chapman is scheduled to be back in court July 27.
Her alleged co-conspirators appeared to lead classically suburban lives — selling real estate, attending school barbecues, driving Hondas.
But to the tabloids, with their lust for the alliterative label, Chapman’s story is what the word “frenzy” was invented for. “ ‘Secret’ sexpot partied, shopped & schmoozed way through ‘free country,’ ” rejoiced a headline in Wednesday’s New York Post.
The Post called her a “modern-day Mata Hari,” a “vivacious vixen” and reported that she is divorced from a French supermarket heir. The Guardian in London reported that her father became Russia’s ambassador to Kenya when she was in eighth grade.
Unnamed friends (anonymous for fear of “possible retaliation by Russian interests”) told ABC News that Chapman was a regular on the downtown New York club scene and was thought to be “either a billionaire or a hooker.”
The federal prosecutor was less poetic. To Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Farbiarz, Chapman is a “practiced deceiver.”
Chris Giglio, who runs crisis management at the HL Group, a New York public relations and communications firm, said if Chapman has a compelling story, she stands to cash in.
“People will want to hear her speak and tell her side of this story,” said Giglio, a former producer for NBC’s Dateline. The public will judge whether she is an “attention-seeking sensationalist bimbo” or a beauty with a captivating tale.
“We’re talking a reality TV star versus a someone worthy of bio pic,” Giglio said.
Giglio recalled the prostitute seen by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. “Look at Ashley Dupre; today she has a [sex advice] column in the [New York] Post,” he said.
According to the government’s complaint, starting in January, Chapman covertly exchanged information 10 times in various New York locales with a Russian government official. She used a private wireless network run from her laptop.
They always met on a Wednesday, at least once in a coffee shop and once in a bookstore. On April 7, their meeting was “aborted” when the Russian official appeared to notice the FBI surveillance team that had followed him from his office in midtown Manhattan.
The complaint includes excerpts of Chapman’s conversations with an undercover FBI agent, who posed as a Russian consulate employee in order to smoke her out. The FBI agent described how Chapman was to hand off a fraudulent passport to an unidentified woman who would recognize Chapman by a magazine she was instructed to hold just so.
Sounding like a bad Hollywood script — or maybe a brilliant one, who knows? — the unidentified passport recipient was to say, “Excuse me, but haven’t we met in California last summer?” Chapman was instructed to reply, “No, I think it was the Hamptons.”
Much of what is known about Chapman comes from her use of Facebook and LinkedIn. While her Facebook postings depict a romantic young woman (“The moon is amazing tonight in New York,” she posted in April), her LinkedIn page describes a serious businesswoman with either an impressive job trajectory or a great imagination. She said she earned a master’s degree in economics from Rossiysky Universitet Družby Narodov in 2005.
Her current job, she says on LinkedIn, is “CEO at PropertyFinder Ltd.,” an online real estate company. She says she was a vice president at KIT Fortis Investments, head of IPO at Navigator Hedge Fund in London and (jokingly, one would guess) “Slave” at Barclays Bank, also in London.
“Love launching innovative high tech start ups and building passionate teams to bring value into market!” she says in her LinkedIn summary.
The government, in its complaint, said Chapman, and the 10 others who have been charged as part of the alleged spy ring, were instructed by their handlers on their “main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in U.S. and send intels” to Moscow.
If she was part of the suspected ring, was she up to the task? Hard to say. But on her Facebook page, Chapman posted a video of herself being interviewed in Russian about living in the U.S. It’s unclear who is interviewing her, but she is asked about how she’s settling into New York. She extols the virtues and the possibilities of America’s egalitarian tradition:
“America has a very free atmosphere. Here you can easily meet the most talented and successful people on the planet. In Moscow, that is practically impossible.”
She adds that in Russia, the business elite keep to themselves, whereas in New York, you can be invited to a neighbor’s home and meet someone you’d never meet in Moscow.
Like an FBI agent.
Times staff writers Matea Gold in New York and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.