Editor’s note: Today La Pelanga inaugurates what we hope will be an occasional series of special guest pelangueros. Our first is Bulgarian poet and journalist Dimiter Kenarov. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Nation, Boston Review, and VQR. He is also the author of two collections of poetry, Patuvane kum kuhniata [A Journey to the Kitchen] and Apokrifni zhivotni [Apocryphal Animals].
“Azis is what every man fears to be and what every woman dreams of becoming. Something in between Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Manson. Azis is an institution, Azis is a factor, Azis is the most interesting personality in this country,” said the Bulgarian singer Azis in 2007 before he entered the second season of VIP Brother, a reality TV show featuring local celebrities. According to polls, slightly more than two million Bulgarians, or about a quarter of the entire population, watched the opening night of the show.
Vassil Boyanov, a.k.a. Azis, is a thirty-two year old Bulgarian Romany turned superstar, a performer of chalga – a hybrid pop-folk genre that blends oriental maqams and occidental dance-beats – and a flamboyant showman with transvestite tendencies. His concerts sell out the largest venues, including stadiums, within hours. He tours the Bulgarian communities in Europe and the US like a messiah, sowing mass hysteria and mayhem along the way. Tabloids and serious publications alike vie for his interviews. In a recently conducted poll on the most important Bulgarians of all time he ranked 21st—the only other contemporary Bulgarian that high on the list was soccer legend Hristo Stoichkov. Azis even dabbled with politics as an honorary head of the Euroroma party and ran for parliament in 2005, though conceding a narrow defeat.
To know Azis is an epistemological impossibility. Aside from his heavily-penciled, mesmerizing blue-lensed eyes and platinum-bleached goatee and mustache, his identity shifts from song to song, video to video. Now he is dressed in leather, sporting curly blond locks; now he wears lingerie; now his widow’s black veil billows in the wind, while all around him – and this requires a leap of the imagination – brawny, depilated construction workers with picks and sledgehammers are busily tearing down an old abandoned house. “My entire life,” Azis said in an interview, “I’ve wanted to have the breasts of a Victoria Secret girl. In any case, I have great legs and it’s a crime to keep them to myself.” Azis may as well be the only person in Bulgaria whose simulations of male-on-male fellatio boost his popularity. He thrives on scandal, wallows in it, tracking down like a hound the time-proven “no publicity is bad publicity” maxim.
What has been really difficult to explain is his rise to prominence in a Balkan country historically rife with homophobia and racism against the Roma minority. Azis is far from secretive about his sexuality and ethnic origin, oftentimes referring to himself in the female. In the capital city Sofia, a centrally located billboard advertising one of his albums, in which he exposed a fair part of his buttocks, caused a major uproar and was the food of TV and radio commentators for several weeks, until the macho-oriented mayor of the city, Boyko Borissov, ordered it removed. Undaunted, in 2006 Azis issued his autobiography Az, Azis – Bulgarian for I, Azis – and in October of the same year, in a heavily publicized symbolic ceremony, married his burly boyfriend Nikolai Parvanov, a.k.a. the Chinese. (Bulgaria does not officially sanction same-sex marriages.) That same evening, almost every news channel broadcasted what the country had never seen before: two men exchanging wedding vows and a kiss.
In case his gay marriage was deemed too old-fashioned, Azis also announced plans to adopt a child together with his new partner. When Veneta Raykova, the celebrity gossip hostess of the Bulgarian TV show “Hot,” asked him about the adoption, he replied, “It’s absolutely normal. We are, or appear to be, in the European Union now, and we should accept certain things more calmly.”
Calm is, of course, the last thing Azis is looking for, and his talent for controversy has won him a number of foes as dedicated as his fans. In a country where the pop-folk genre is generally stigmatized as low-culture, the kitsch territory of saccharine, sexually suggestive lyrics performed by well-endowed peroxide blondes in tacky clothing, Azis holds a special place in the minds of his compatriots. He has been accused of almost every sin imaginable. Some believe that Azis is exploiting the transvestite/gay/transsexual persona simply for commercial purposes, while avidly practicing heterosexuality; others bewail the downfall of contemporary culture and blame him for moral degradation of the young. Whatever the truth, Azis maintains the equanimity, if not exactly the opinions, of a Socrates: “I’ve not become a superstar to teach people morality. I’ve become a star to entertain them, to make them laugh, but not to teach them anything. What did Madonna teach people? Everybody’s falling at her feet. What was Michael Jackson’s teaching? People are crazy for him. It’s quite strange why Bulgarians want a singer to be a math teacher and lecture them on fractions.”
— Dimiter Kenarov