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Up Close & Personal with Russia's World Cup ambassador Victoria Lopyreva

Victoria Lopyreva

Television presenter, actress, model, blogger, former Miss Russia, UNAIDS ambassador, and, today, Russia’s official ambassador of the FIFA World Cup 2018, Victoria Lopyreva is a force to be reckoned with. At just 34 years of age, there is no denying that this much-loved personality (with over 2 million followers on Instagram) possesses it all – brains, beauty, and boldness. Lopyreva is a woman who strongly identifies as a perfectionist and, minutes after sitting down with her, it’s easy to understand why. We caught up with Lopyreva to discuss her early years pursuing music and gymnastics, her time on the popular TV show “Survivor,” her favourite city, stadiums, and football personalities, and her journey to becoming a FIFA ambassador.

Would you consider yourself shy?
I am shy. This is something people probably won’t believe. When I say something like, “I’m shy to do that,” I see people’s reaction, like, “What? You, shy? We can’t imagine that.” But by nature, I’m very shy. When I was in school, they selected 10 kids to recite a poem in front of a lot of people. You can’t imagine how nervous I was. I need everything to be perfect — I’m a perfectionist — so I was telling myself, I have to remember this, I have to remember that, and one minute before I was set to go on, I completely forgot the words and I started to cry. I think that was the worst moment of my childhood because it was in front of a lot of people. I was just standing there and I remember someone, I think my mom, took my hand and told me to come off stage and the other kids covered for me and continued on. But after that, I think that was the moment—how do I say it?--when you face your fear. It was my fear to do public speeches, to be in front of a lot of people, and now it’s my lifestyle.

How did you go from that to presenting a TV show, being in front of a camera the whole time?
When I lived in my native city, in Rostov-on-don—I’m very proud to be not just from Russia but from this city because they say this is the capital, it’s a very big city, and we are like the Lebanese, smiling, warm, we know how to enjoy life, we know how to cook, how to host and treat guests, it’s not far from the sea—growing up there was wonderful but it wasn’t even in my dreams to be a host on one of the main TV channels in Russia. It’s not that I didn’t want it, I just didn’t think about it. I studied economics in university, I had family there, a boyfriend, I had my friends—my life was perfect for me at that time. So I wasn’t one of those who grew up thinking, I’m going to be one of these pageant kids wanting to be the first FIFA woman! Never! But life pushed me, even without my knowing it sometimes. It happened and here we are.

What are you most passionate about? As a kid, what did you love?
I loved to dance. I was a busy kid. My mom signed me up for additional lessons at music school, for English, for math, for everything. I was always doing a lot. The only thing I liked was dancing. I never danced professionally but I still really like to dance.

Why didn’t you?
Because I was very busy—with music school, with my studies and I did some sports. I was actually trying to be a gymnast. My mom, who used to be a supermodel, took me to the gym and the coach is looking at my mom, who is 1.78 m. And after that, the next day, there’s my dad, who’s 180-something. And the coach said listen, I think it’s better if you try her in basketball. She’ll probably be too tall for gymnastics—that’s why that didn’t happen.

If you could give your 16-year-old self any advice, what would it be?
Be less shy. I believe that everything comes when it has to come. No regrets. And I never complain. But I think some things could’ve happened faster or in a different way if I had been more—not arrogant—confident. Even still, sometimes, I’m less confident than I should be. I’m a human being. I can do motivational speeches and all these things but I’m still a big kid inside. And even my mom, when she sees me sitting at home in jeans and a t-shirt, she says, “You’re still a kid!” She’s so worried about me all the time. She’s so stressed because things happen all the time. And I say, “Mom, I’m a 34-year-old woman, you don’t need to worry!” And she just repeats: “You are still a kid to me!”

What’s one of the best compliments you’ve been given?
I think the most important compliment comes from someone who cares and who can say not just something pleasant but who criticizes me. The best compliments are from my mom. She’s always criticized me, but not because she doesn’t love me—it’s constructive criticism. It’s important. Sometimes I’m very passionate—my star sign is Leo—so I’m like [hits palm with fist]. I have a lot of emotions. And sometimes I’m offended. “You’re my mom,” I’d say, “how can you tell me these things?” And she would say, “If I don’t tell you, who will?” Normally, everyone in this business will tell you “You look amazing! You look amazing!” and meanwhile there’s a hole in your dress. I really appreciate my team. They’re all doing great and they’re super professional. They have an opinion about me and they’re not afraid to tell me. “OK, today, I prefer you to be this way.” And I really appreciate that because sometimes the way you look at yourself and the way others look at you is different. It’s very important to catch different opinions, and to make a decision.

Let’s talk about style. That Ralph & Russo dress you wore at Cannes was incredible.
That was amazing. I was really impressed by this dress. I felt like a princess! And I got so many compliments that night. It’s a couture dress and I love the brand.

What about fashion designers. Do you have any favourites?
Well, we are in Lebanon now, and I am a big fan of Zuhair Murad and what he’s doing. And Elie Saab. He’s doing amazing and they’re world famous. I was wearing a lot of Hussain Bazaza. Yesterday I met Nicolas Jebran. You have so many talents here! And if you’re talking about the brands, it’s always very important to follow your style. I’m not a fashion victim. I’m not the girl who wants the total look from the magazine. I think that every woman has her style, and style is much more remarkable and has much more charm if you have your style than just completely follow the fashion. You can mix things; you can wear something to personalize your look, to let people see yourself. Let’s remember Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy Onassis—those women really followed their style and we still remember them as fashion icons after all these years.

You were chosen to present a TV show about sports. Were you familiar with the sport before? Are you into football?
So I was Miss Russia and I was invited to host this show about football. It was not my choice—football chose me. It was a TV show copied from Italian television. I said to myself, if I’m going to host a show about football, I’m going to know everything about football and after a few months, I’ll be better than anybody. For me, it was so difficult, all those surnames, positions, teams. And the worst thing is it kept changing because, after the regular season, it’s the Euro Cup, the World Cup—people who were against each other are now playing together. Now I’m proud to say I understand everything, but how many years, 10? A little more than 10 years ago it was a disaster. Now I am a person who’s really respected in the profession. First and foremost it was my personal ambitions, because I’m not in a competition with someone, I’m in a competition with myself. This perfectionism that we’re always talking about—I’m always trying to improve myself, my skills, my knowledge, everything.

Do you have a favourite footballer?
As a Russian, I have to support the Russian national team. As a FIFA ambassador, I travel a lot, visit different football federations, see different clubs and games. And I would say in every country I have my favourite team, but it’s very difficult to choose one in the whole world. In Argentina the stadium is amazing! La Bombonera stadium, there my heart was beating in the same rhythm with the whole stadium, the singing to support the team! If someone asked me why I am in football I would say go visit La Bombonera stadium. You will understand—you’ll have Goosebumps. It’s crazy. At the same time, if we’re talking about my visit to Manchester United, this was an unforgettable experience because I met Sir Alex Ferguson in person. He’s a living legend. This is the community, the lifestyle, the passion. So it’s difficult to pick just one. I know them in person. I respect Lemar a lot because he supports my Zero Discrimination project which I’m running for the World Cup and this is the World Cup again, supported by the project. So it’s super important. And I prefer not to be in competition and I just would like to say thank you to all the people who hosted me during my tour, during my official visits places around the world, and that I really appreciate their support and their warm welcome.

What about kicking off the Confederation’s Cup? What was that like?
Actually, it was during the Russian Cup but the point is the team who asked me to do that had been waiting 60 years and is the most popular football club in Russia. And, you know, I host a lot of events—on the square, in front of 100,000 people—but this is my job. We talked before about how as a kid it was hard for me to do this but now I’m a professional so I do it very well. But you can’t imagine how thrilled I was! I was shaking! I came to the pitch and it was the full stadium, 50,000 people, and they were silent at the beginning because they didn’t understand what was happening. And I had on sport shoes, leggings, a sports jacket. And I came to the pitch and I remembered that I had to go to the middle of the pitch to do this symbolic kick. I said, OK, I have to do it. And I was so stressed! It was so scary, it’s unimaginable. I was walking like a supermodel and I was trying to listen to what people were saying, whistling, what people’s reaction was. And I kicked—it wasn’t that strong. And this guy, he’s from my home city, he was joking: OK, Victoria, we’ll be waiting for you at training in the morning. And I just turned and went back. And they won this game and became the champions of the Russian Cup. And they even invited me to the team celebration!

Of course, you’re like their good luck charm now.
I hope so. Can you imagine if they hadn’t won?

Do you have any predictions as to who is going to win the FIFA 2018 World Cup?
I always answer: we like football because football is unpredictable. We never know what’s going to happen in the next moment. And if you remember, in the Euro Cup, who expected such a brilliant game from Iceland. But the rest of the world supported them. And, I don’t know, maybe there is a dark horse among these teams. You never know. I’m very realistic—I’m not of the conviction that Russia is going to win. But Russia is going to host and going to do our best and support our team up to the very last second they play. And I don’t know if it’s political that I have to choose a team, but I think Brazil has a great maturation to win, because the results of the previous World Cup show that they almost deserved to be the winner. Something went wrong. But maybe this is the cup where it’ll happen. For Argentina as well, because this is probably the last Cup for Messi and this is the only trophy he doesn’t have. By the way, on Instagram, the second place biggest audience is Brazilians. I was in Brazil just once and decided now to celebrate my birthday there. So if the Brazilian team wins? It’ll be a present.

What about causes—you’ve mentioned the Zero Discrimination project?
Yes, it means that everyone is welcome. This World Cup is for everyone. Because we’re about football! For football, it doesn’t matter what nationality, confession, or skin colour you are. If you have a passion, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of Sudan, you can find people who like football. We did the trophy tour there and it was unbelievable how many people wanted a photo with it. It’s the most desirable cup in the world, the FIFA Coca-Cola World Cup. It’s amazing! And even though not all the older people can go to the World Cup, it’s amazing to see the cup that the team will win in one month, two months. It’s amazing, just the mood the world over.

What do you seek to achieve, being appointed by the UNAIDS?
It’s meant a lot for me. I’m the first Russian who was appointed a UNAIDS ambassador. It’s a big responsibility. It’s not just about being appointed. You have to do the work and I think our team achieved a lot—we asked for support from different people the world over. And every football player is an icon for a huge amount of people. They have a lot of fans. And I think to be a role model, this is the big responsibility, because you’re delivering a message. And if the message is right, a lot of people are going to follow your direction. But can you imagine if the message is wrong? This is the big responsibility of being a UNAIDS ambassador, because you cannot just promote. When there’s fear, there is misinformation. And if there is no information, there is fear. So let people know about AIDS—explain something about it, let them know this is not a verdict. Yes, this has happened, but you need to know what to do, where to go, not to hide this problem from society, which is, I understand, not easy, but we’re all human beings and ultimately equal. Yes, we have the same feelings, our hearts beat in the same way, we struggle in the same way, we love in the same way, and we live in the same way. I think this is very important. And I’m very happy to be the person who linked up the World Cup and the Zero Discrimination program. And finally we have the main message from FIFA: Everyone is welcome. I’m so proud.

Are you familiar with the changes that are taking place in Saudi Arabia?
As a person of course I follow the news, but I’ve never visited Saudi Arabia. I hope I will someday. I have some friends from Saudi Arabia. As for the changes, it’s nice when a country is growing and developing. I always support this type of change. But let politics do political stuff. I believe football is outside of politics and football is for everyone.

What would you say has been your life’s most defining moment, the biggest moment of your career?
I think becoming FIFA ambassador of the World Cup. It’s the first time this is happening for my country. And this is even bigger for me than becoming Miss Russia.

What’s it like being on-the-go all the time? Traveling the world? How do you find balance?
It’s not easy, but I think I’ve gotten used to it. There’s something about it I’m going to miss when I have to stop. And I’m asking myself now: “OK, there will be a time you have to stop one day. How are you going to do that?” Because I complain, oh, I’m tired, every two or three days I open my eyes in a new country—another continent sometimes, because just imagine: Sudan, Rio de Janeiro, Argentina, New York, Japan, Beirut, Cannes, Dubai! But no complaints. I’m really grateful for this moment in my life and for this opportunity to meet so many nice people who are involved in football. So we have the same passion, the same lifestyle—it’s really amazing. Just: thank god.

So, if you forget Russia for a moment, what’s your favourite city? Which city is the one that you keep going back to?
Beirut! To be honest, it’s very difficult to surprise me because I travel all the time. I always mention that I grew up not in Moscow but in Rostov-on-Don. But I moved so many years ago that Moscow is like a second home for me. Dubai is also a city I like a lot and have spent a lot of time in. I have a lot of friends there. But if you’re asking me what city really surprised me, I would say Beirut. I fell in love! Because of the climate, the views, people, food, hospitality, sightseeing—it’s amazing. But it’s the personal touch that’s so important. The Lebanese have this personal touch! Such warm people. And that’s really important, because above all else, the place is the people. I’m not attached to the place physically—I fly and run around the world every two or three days—but people really make a place special. And Beirut, to me, always, is a very special place.

What are three things you can’t live without?
I’d say my phone, obviously, but the truth is; I had an experience that changed my perspective. I participated in a project many years ago called “Survivor.” So I stayed on this uninhabited island for 24 days. The winner stayed 30 days. We lived without food, phones, showers—it was a very complicated and interesting challenge. I was pretty sure I was going to be the first person to leave, but I was removed after 24 days – and that was after I convinced everyone to vote me out. They didn’t want me to leave the island because I cook very well. I was very useful to them. They liked the way I cooked. It was very funny. I remember going to the gathering where they choose the next person to leave, and I said, OK, I have to go home—it was the 21st day—and I had prepared everything, I had packed my small bag, I was pretty ready. I came up and I was waiting because it’s in a hiding place and you have to go one-by-one to write the name and show the camera. So the presenter has to say, “Victoria, unfortunately, we have to say good-bye. You have to go.” And I was expecting that because I was begging them to. I was trying to be beautiful because it was the last moment of my TV appearance. And the presenter said another name of another woman. And I was like, “What?!” I stopped talking with them. And I said, “If I don’t go next, I will stop cooking for you. You’ll be hungry all the time.” And finally they did it.

It’s times like these that you realize that things don’t matter in life. Your personal values, the way you are as a person, is much more important. Believe me, when you are on an uninhabited island and 10 of you are celebrities and 10 of you are not, and you say, OK, we’ll probably be friends because I know them from such-and-such, but after that, I became friends with 10 non-famous people and we’re still in touch. And when the series was airing, I invited all of them to my house and I cooked for them every Sunday. I think it’s possible to live without everything but it’s not possible to live without people. For me, it was interesting, but I can now say I could live without a phone. Everyone can live without their phone.

Photography: Joseph Abi Raad

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