On 24 February, at about four in the morning, the Ukrainian actor and pop star Kamaliya Zahoor didn’t know if she was dreaming, or if the windows of her bedroom really were rattling.
She had been woken by an explosion. Another followed. The walls of her Kyiv mansion began to shake. Then the phone calls started.
Her friends were telling her the city was under attack. She hadn’t thought it was possible. It was supposed to be a bluff. Her husband had been right to play it safe. He’d flown away with their eight-year-old twins a couple of days earlier, just in case all their friends had been wrong to laugh at the idea of a Russian invasion.
He had felt a bit silly doing it, as if people might think him a coward, someone prone to overreaction, but they had a house in London, and children to protect. As she took the first of many video calls that morning and watched live as missiles rained down on Ukraine – missiles she could hear for herself as she fled to the basement – Kamaliya had no idea what to do.
‘So do you ever worry you’ll run out of chairs?’ I ask Kamaliya’s husband, Mohammad, the gently spoken British-Pakistani steel billionaire everyone just calls Zahoor. ‘Do you ever worry there’ll suddenly be nowhere to sit?’
‘No?’ he says, confused. ‘No, no.’
Five months on, we’re standing in one of the living rooms of the Zahoors’ palatial house in Hampstead, north London, absolutely surrounded by chairs. There are chairs everywhere. Golden chairs with leopards on. Big round velvet chairs. Small sofas, long sofas. Chaises longues. So far I’ve also counted 56 cushions in this room alone.
There are other rooms with chairs, too. Anterooms, side rooms, vestibules, bathrooms, each with very many cushions of their own. The dining room with 16 chairs. The downstairs toilet with just the two, though it’s rare you’d invite more than two guests into a downstairs toilet.
You get the feeling there are so many rooms here that at some point you’d have to give up coming up with ideas to fill them. ‘Just put some chairs in it,’ would become all you could suggest. Zahoor suddenly worries that this all looks a bit extravagant to outside eyes. He’s owned the house since 1996, he says, and he can’t change it now.
‘When you were in Kyiv with us,’ he says, because I stayed with the couple in Kyiv some years ago, the first time I interviewed them, ‘you saw it was all about luxury.’
It was. At the time Zahoor and Kamaliya were engaged in what they called Project Kamaliya – a campaign to ‘send Lady Gaga on to her pension’ and raise Kamaliya’s profile as a singer to global levels, using her operatic range and his chequebook to find the best songwriters, music producers and video directors they could. She found some chart success in Europe, with a Eurovision-ready sound, and supported Steps on their 2012 UK tour, apart from when she was in South Africa to headline Mr Gay World.
There were forays into television – a pilot for her own show on Ukrainian TV (Coffee with Kamaliya) plus starring roles for both of them on the Fox reality show Meet the Russians. Film work came, too, as Zahoor decided to move into film financing, finding projects that could do with money but which also might benefit from giving a part to – wink, wink – a certain singer he knew quite well.
There were cartoonish tales of £60,000 shopping sprees and of taking baths in nothing but Champagne, all designed to create a media-friendly image of unimaginable, enviable wealth. At their Kyiv home, which so far in this conflict still stands tall, I remember the expensive golden wallpapers. The marble. The massive murals of the Zahoors. It was a life of Bentleys and horses, of his and hers private jets and yachts ferrying bodyguards, nannies and make-up artists. And there were the adored pets. The cat with the entirely shaved body. The dog wearing earrings. The inexplicable falcon in the hallway.
But I also remember the love they clearly had for each other. Him, for the woman who as a young girl witnessed for herself the dark cloud of Chernobyl, who had been through lymph-node cancer quite possibly as a result, who had all this talent. Her, for the self-made man from Pakistan. Both, for the children they’d tried for so many years to conceive and worried they’d never have. And everybody, for the weird dog in earrings.
The week after we meet, the businessman and Mrs World 2008 will celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary. And Zahoor looks at Kamaliya slightly differently these days. With a subtly different sort of pride.
‘Are your animals here?’ I ask. ‘The dogs?’
‘No,’ he says, quickly. ‘They are not here.’
There’s only Millie, a furious-looking cat, who eyes me suspiciously and probably wonders why I’ve been here so long. Kamaliya’s make-up has taken a little longer than we’d anticipated today. It’s nearly 7pm and I’m assured that soon she will be ready for our 4pm interview.
‘Today it is not luxury that’s important,’ says Zahoor. ‘With eight million people out of their homes [in Ukraine], talking about luxury is too much. For us it’s no longer about luxury.’
It sounds odd, him saying this, as we stand in a house worth many millions. But there’s a reason.
Kamaliya did what she could in the basement of their house in Kyiv for days. She live-streamed, she made calls, she tried to tell her fans and family in Russia what was happening in Ukraine. They didn’t believe her. They said it was propaganda. Her own family in Moscow said soon she would be free of the Nazis on her streets, and that one day they would all live happily together.
As I sit with Zahoor in a side room, Kamaliya is in the kitchen. The nanny is out with the children but Kamaliya is desperate for some soup. The kitchen counter is full of snacks. Ukrainian sweets. A £1.99 pack of pastry puffs. A box of cake rusks. A jar of sugar-coated fennel seeds. Ukrainian cookbooks and HelloFresh ring binders. Potatoes for her soup.
‘As things got worse, as paratroopers came to Ukraine,’ Zahoor tells me quietly, ‘I told Kamaliya, you have to run. What are you doing in the basement that you can’t do here but better? We can help from here in London. But they will come, they will kill you, they will rape you. But she wanted to stay. She wanted to fight.’
After some days, with Russian jets roaring low over her roof, it was hearing her twins, Arabella and Mirabella, cry on the phone that changed her mind. She jumped into the car, a Ford Raptor, taking a friend with a newborn and four children under 10. They carried just two suitcases with very few valuables in case of looters.
The six-hour journey to the Polish border took four days. ‘The roads were choked,’ says Zahoor. ‘No petrol.’
‘And as we [lined up for] a bridge [in Vinnytsia],’ says Kamaliya, ‘I saw the rockets land. They destroyed the bridge. There were cars on the bridge.’ Kamaliya set about helping who she could. She started driving people to the borders.
‘She took kids, she took them to one border,’ says Zahoor. ‘She took some others to the Hungarian border. Then some young girls to the Romanian border.’
‘They were maybe 13 or 15 years old,’ says Kamaliya, sitting down. ‘We were in a [convoy], a lot of us, a lot of babies with mums.’
Zahoor told her to drive to Budapest. Ditch the car. He’d meet her there. ‘It was the first time I’d driven a car in Europe on my own!’ she says. ‘I’d never before driven the car in Europe! Anyway, I’ll take my soup now.’
Upstairs in their Hampstead home are 16 Ukrainian refugees. Understandably, they are not comfortable with exposure, and don’t want to speak to me. ‘Most are people we know,’ says Zahoor. ‘Friends, relatives, but also a couple of Ukrainian women we sponsored. There is no more space in the house. We have given all our rooms to whoever is coming. People are even sleeping on the couches. Myself, Kamaliya and the kids are sleeping in one room all together.’
It explains the Ukrainian snack counter. It explains the very many chairs.
‘We have to do what we can,’ says Zahoor at one point, and I tell him this is all very different from the days of Champagne baths. ‘Everybody always thought Kamaliya was this spendy, extravagant, flashy whatever. She has turned out to be very strong. When Russia took away part of our country in 2014, she changed. Before that she had been a frequent traveller to Russia, on TV in Russia, doing concerts in Russia. When that happened, a lot of artists moved out of Ukraine. She [had been in London but] moved back to Ukraine. She helped feed people. She helped repair pavements.’
‘You mean paid to, or…?’
‘No. She joined in. She picked up the bricks. She laid them on the ground. She fixed the pavements in Kyiv. Then after that, she is the only one who stopped going to Russia. No concerts, no performances, no TV… And since 24 February, she has stopped speaking in Russian, as a protest. She talks now only in Ukrainian.’
Nataliia Shmarenkova was born into a military family in a district of eastern Siberia, long before she became Kamaliya. Zahoor grew up the son of Pakistan’s auditor general and, having started engineering college around the time Pakistan started to build a steel mill with the Soviet Union, won a scholarship to go there.
At 19, he moved to Ukraine. When he later started his own steel business, it went pretty well. Well enough for him to sell it just before the financial crash of 2008 for a rumoured $1 billion. He diversified, moving into sectors such as commercial real estate. He bought the Kyiv Post and became a media figure in Ukraine (Zahoor sold the paper in 2018 for $3.5 million).
Today he means it when he says, ‘We have to do what we can,’ but even he was surprised to wake up one morning to global news reports that he had bought two fighter jets for the Ukrainian air force. ‘It was a misunderstanding!’ he says.
‘That’s quite a misunderstanding,’ I say.
‘In Ukraine, when people mention Pakistan, they think of me,’ he says. ‘And Kamaliya did an interview and told them Pakistan gave two planes full of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. And somehow the media got it wrong and now I was getting phone calls from my bankers asking me if I had bought two warplanes. And I was half asleep.’
‘You must have wondered if it was one of Kamaliya’s old shopping sprees.’
‘And then Russian media reported it! And Forbes was calling me, and BBC, Arab News, all saying I had bought two fighter jets!’
Kamaliya walks back in, laughing.
‘Did you not worry that would make you a target for Putin?’ I say.
‘I’m not afraid of Putin,’ says Zahoor, as if it’s nothing, as if I’ve asked him if he’s afraid of badgers. ‘I don’t care about him. We had already [spoken out] to say the world must support Ukraine, so we were personae non gratae with him.’
In the end, among other fundraising, Zahoor contacted high-ranking officials in Pakistan and helped arrange four C-130 aircrafts, packed with humanitarian aid. President Zelensky is said to be grateful for the support.
‘Do you know him?’ I ask, and Kamaliya laughs. ‘Have you performed for him?’
‘Not performed for him – performed with him! We performed on the same stage! We performed for the same people who attacked us!’
‘For Putin!’ she says, laughing at what now seems ridiculous. The two shared a stage at the Kremlin in the early 2000s. Kamaliya brought the songs, Zelensky brought the laughs.
‘Zelensky likes Zahoor a lot,’ she says proudly. ‘Whenever he sees us backstage, it’s every time kissing, [taking] photos with Zahoor, doing selfie. “Photo together!” he says. We never [imagined] he would be President!’
Kamaliya and Zahoor are continuing to do what they can, using whatever influence they have. The war has been bad for Zahoor’s businesses. ‘Our plastic-good manufacturing is working at 40 per cent capacity,’ he says. ‘Our commercial real-estate occupancy fell from 100 per cent to 30 per cent. Our trading activities are at a standstill. Our losses are roughly $5 million a month.’
He stopped all trade with Russia. But they’re busy. There are fundraising concerts planned in Germany and Poland for the refugees there, and Kamaliya is working with a children’s cardiac centre in Kyiv – through the Kamaliya Foundation she raises money for new equipment each year – though both agree they’ll stop short of fighter jets.
It’s just before 8pm now. The twins are back from tennis and want their parents’ attention. In the kitchen, I spot someone I haven’t seen before. Someone who’s been keeping herself to herself upstairs. I leave her be.
‘I guess that’s it,’ I say. ‘Unless there’s anything you want to add?’
Zahoor translates for Kamaliya, as he’s been doing from time to time, when she can’t quite find the right words, or when she just thinks it’s better said in Ukrainian. And at this, Kamaliya leans forward. She’s happy to answer questions politely, I see, but in reality, she has a lot she just wants to say herself.
A seriousness overtakes her. She’s still wearing the military fatigues she put on for the photo shoot, and for the first time, she looks like steel. She talks urgently, maintaining eye contact, for minutes at a time, as Zahoor struggles to keep up. She talks about her anger that some countries seem to think Ukraine should give up the fight. She rages that the bravery of its people should be downplayed, she promises that if Zelensky gives even an inch of land he will lose his presidency, she swears Ukrainians will fight to the last man, and will continue to stop tanks even with their bare hands; they are fighting for all of us.
Her eyes fill – not with sadness but anger – and her words are coming so fast and with such passion that Zahoor starts to give up. He stands, and encourages her to use her English, then wanders away. She tries to figure out where to start, this pop star dressed like a warrior.
‘This world should be… with flowers. With smiling. We should be close together and help each other.’ There is so much she wants to say but she can’t find the strong words she needs. She can do righteous anger in Ukrainian, but this is harder. ‘I want to thank the UK. You are such a close country. Our people feel very… thank you.’
She wipes away a tear; the make-up that took so long today is now irrelevant. She says that among all the horrors, she thinks of her horses in Bucha. ‘Russian soldiers occupied Bucha. My horses were in a stable there. They shot my horses dead. We found some others in the forest nearby. But why my horses?’
She’s crying now. ‘I understand you killing the Ukrainian people because you hate us. For some reason you hate us. But what did the animals do to you? Dogs on the street with bullets. Cats. Animals. This I can’t understand.’
Her mother has stayed in Ukraine. She stays indoors. Her father won’t move to a safer area. He is resigned: ‘He says, I’m at home. If God has written that I die, I die.’
Then, the guilt of being in London hits Kamaliya, in this big house with its garden and rooms and so very many chairs, even if she has filled it with people in need and the small comforts to make them feel at home.
‘I should be in Ukraine. I want to speak with the people [there]. I want to… breathe the air.’ She smiles. ‘Now it is dirty, the air. But it is my air.’