On stage, Russian drag stars leave fears behind

In a modest dressing room, Russian men apply their eye shadow with an expert touch, slide on fishnet stockings or thigh-high boots, then take to the stage with an uninhibited freedom that they can only enjoy within the walls of a gay nightclub. 

In a country where gay "propaganda" is banned and LGBT rights routinely repressed, the Fame Club in Yekaterinburg is a refuge. 

While football fans attend a World Cup match in the city's stadium, singers and dancers who call themselves Bomba, Star Vasha, Africa and others prepare to perform. 

 Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha strikes a pose backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha strikes a pose backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Choosing from hundreds of shades of lip tones and eye color, pulling up leotards with tattooed arms, they design a new persona. 

Bomba dons an embroidered Slavic-style blouse and headgear topped with a silver star, reminiscent of the stars perched on the towers of the Kremlin. When she performs a Russian traditional dance, the crowd goes wild. 

 Sergey, left, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb), and Andrei, who goes by the name of Star Vasha apply make-up backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Sergey, left, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb), and Andrei, who goes by the name of Star Vasha apply make-up backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Star Vasha squeezes into a shimmering yellow gown, wrists draped in strings of pearls. Africa slips on a fire-red wig, and smokes quietly. 

Waiting to take the stage, one checks a cell phone. Two performers share a pre-show kiss, barely touching so as not to smudge their flawless lipstick. 

Outside, the men lead a different life, where they don't advertise their sexual preferences for fear of professional, personal or even physical backlash. 

 Andrei, center background, who goes by the stage name of Star Vasha and Dmitry, who performs under the name of Africa, apply make-up backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Andrei, center background, who goes by the stage name of Star Vasha and Dmitry, who performs under the name of Africa, apply make-up backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A rainbow-colored card tucked in a dressing-room mirror is both a political statement and a reminder that, while Pride marches took place this weekend in London, Madrid and other European capitals, displaying rainbow flags in public in Russia can violate the law. 

"In the company of friends you can say whatever you want, but in society you don't," says Star Vasha, whose real first name is Andrei, and who has a crush on Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Africa, aka Dmitry, describes how he stays safe in the face of a mentality of "pitchforks and torches" toward Russia's LGBT community: "When people talk about homosexuality, you try to change the subject." And leave your bright-colored sneakers at home. 

 Make-up kits lie on a desk backstage at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Make-up kits lie on a desk backstage at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Sergey, left, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb), and Andrei, who goes by the name of Star Vasha, share a pre-show kiss, barely touching so as not to smudge their flawless lipstick, at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Sergey, left, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb), and Andrei, who goes by the name of Star Vasha, share a pre-show kiss, barely touching so as not to smudge their flawless lipstick, at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

He fears kissing his boyfriend in public, but dreams of one day being able to marry and pleads for more "human understanding" toward people like him. "I understood from my very birth that I'm not like others," he said. "You were born heterosexual, and I don't detest you for that." 

As long as the World Cup is under way and the international spotlight is shining on Russia, authorities are forced to ease their pressure on the LGBT community. But some worry about what happens after the tournament ends. Others hope hosting the World Cup will open minds and encourage more tolerance among the conservative populace. 

 Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

At the Fame Club, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains deep in Russia's interior, no one judges anyone. Everyone is comfortable, and gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples mingle. 

Backstage, performers are sometimes pensive. But sometimes laughter takes over, and broad smiles are all you see.

 Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) checks an outfit before performing a traditional Russian dance at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) checks an outfit before performing a traditional Russian dance at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Andrei, or Star Vasha, right, Johan, center, and Dmitry, or Africa on stage, share a laugh during a break in the show at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Andrei, or Star Vasha, right, Johan, center, and Dmitry, or Africa on stage, share a laugh during a break in the show at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Andrei, who goes by the name of Star Vasha applies lip liner backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Andrei, who goes by the name of Star Vasha applies lip liner backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Dancers Dinara, left, and Johan, stretch backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Dancers Dinara, left, and Johan, stretch backstage before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Dmitry, or Africa on stage, left, checks an outfit, standing backstage next to, dancer Dinara, before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Dmitry, or Africa on stage, left, checks an outfit, standing backstage next to, dancer Dinara, before performing at the Fame gay club during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) applies finishing touches to make-up at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) applies finishing touches to make-up at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) puts on a necklace before performing a traditional Russian dance at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) puts on a necklace before performing a traditional Russian dance at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Dmitry, or Africa, on stage, left, and Sergey, or Bomba (the bomb) smoke backstage at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Dmitry, or Africa, on stage, left, and Sergey, or Bomba (the bomb) smoke backstage at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) wears thigh-high boots at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) wears thigh-high boots at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Markus, who uses the stage name Linda Fox, performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Markus, who uses the stage name Linda Fox, performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha, checks a wig at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha, checks a wig at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha, looks in the mirror during a break between performances at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha, looks in the mirror during a break between performances at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Dmitry, or Africa, on stage, checks an outfit at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Dmitry, or Africa, on stage, checks an outfit at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Markus, who uses the stage name Linda Fox, laughs backstage at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Markus, who uses the stage name Linda Fox, laughs backstage at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Sergey, who uses the stage name Bomba (the bomb) performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Andrei, who uses the stage name Star Vasha performs at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

 Johan goes up on stage at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Johan goes up on stage at the Fame gay club, during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia on Sunday, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


Text from AP news story, AP PHOTOS: On stage, Russian drag stars leave fears behind, by Vadim Ghirda and Natacha Pisarenko.