On a wall in Lili Ivanova’s Sofia apartment hangs a painting. Actually, on the walls of Lili Ivanova’s Sofia apartment hang dozens of paintings, but one in particular catches the eye. It’s a portrait of the singer, dating from 1973. It shows Ivanova as a Balkan Mona Lisa – a young, pretty woman in traditional costume. She clutches a red rose, symbol of her homeland, and sheet music for “Mila Rodino”, Bulgaria’s national anthem.
Behind her jostles a backdrop of triumphal Soviet imagery – the Kremlin, a rocket, the headquarters of Bulgaria’s Communist Party (still an imposing Sofia landmark), and the mausoleum of Bulgaria’s first communist leader Georgi Dimitrov (no longer an imposing Sofia landmark, having been demolished in a fit of revisionist zeal in 1999). The nightingale depicted perching on one of her wrists is not the most subtle exercise in symbolism, but it sums up what Ivanova once was: a pre-eminent songbird of the eastern bloc, a voice heard and adored from Checkpoint Charlie to Vladivostok.
“It’s kitschy, I know,” giggles Ivanova, prompting several pointed questions regarding her criteria for such judgements. Her penthouse on Sofia’s Oborishte Street is a riot of gaudy art and doll’s-house furniture, festooned with a forest of bouquets, all presented at recent concerts, a birthday party (her 70th, she says, though some ungentlemanly local commentators question this estimate), and the previous night’s launch of her autobiography. Though the initial impression of chez Ivanova is George Orwell’s Room 101 for a hay fever sufferer, the décor suits its owner: lively, vibrant, endearingly unabashed, unwearied by the years – however many of them there may have been.
Ivanova occupies an unusual – perhaps unique – position in modern European culture. She was a star back when artists were approved, employed and regulated by the communist state, and she survived and prospered amid the free-for-all of capitalism. She still records, still tours – in January 2009 she realised a lifelong ambition by headlining the Olympia in Paris – and still elicits the bewildering tumults of adulation and derision, praise and mockery, that are the lot of the inescapably famous. It is inconceivable that there is a Bulgarian who does not possess an opinion about her.
Ivanova began singing in the early 1960s, encouraged by friends and colleagues in her hometown of Kubrat, in northeast Bulgaria. Her first album, of largely Italian-style balladry, was released in 1963 by a Romanian label. Since then, she has recorded 33 further albums, in 10 languages and at least as many variations on Europop. During Bulgaria’s decades behind the iron curtain she was one of a select coterie of approved pop singers, her career managed by Ministry of Culture’s Concert Directorate.
“They would say go there, this is your tour; or sing this, this is your record,” she recalls. “I’d get a small fee.” She performed at state occasions, and became friendly with the family of Todor Zhivkov, the dictator who ruled Bulgaria from 1954 to 1989. “His wife was very smart,” she says. “And his daughter helped me a lot.” She travelled widely, inside the Warsaw Pact and – always accompanied by secret-police minders, vigilant for hints of defection – outside. She says, however, she never felt artistically compromised.
“I was never a thorn in their side,” she says, “because I was singing about love. I always sing about love. I never sang revolutionary music. Of course, I took care with what I wore, and things like that.” Ivanova’s ardour for her homeland has not changed. The red, white and green Bulgarian flag flies from her balcony – and, she says, she has two more in reserve should one get damaged by wind or rain.
Her simple patriotism helped her rebuild her appeal after the old order was swept away by the revolutions of 1989 (post-communist Bulgaria has garlanded her with several entrancingly arcane awards, including the Order of St Nicholas the Miracle Maker, for “doing good to the Earth”). She concedes that she was also helped by a measure of nostalgia for the old certainties.
“Yes,” she nods. “I also miss some things. Values have been destroyed. Spiritual values. Intellectual values. We wanted the new times, but we are disappointed. Everyone in the government steals. The laws are not implemented. This never used to happen. People didn’t lock their flats. We were afraid to speak against the government, yes. But now, people are afraid to walk the streets.”
Would she want communism back? “No,” she says. “Some things are better. Not just money. Under communism, there were very few artists, so that’s whose records you bought. Now, competition is high, and people have a choice – and I’m always sold out. I’m overjoyed about that.”
It’s not hard to see why Bulgaria sees some of itself in Ivanova – big-hearted, indomitable, somewhat vainglorious. Every time she steps onto a stage, she says, she feels like she’s singing for her country. “I never lose that,” she says. “Much to my joy this is the case. Though much to the regret of many Bulgarians.”
Lili Ivanova’s CV
1939: Born, according to official accounts, in Kubrat, Bulgaria.
1956: Trains to become a nurse in Varna.
1961: Wins the official approval of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, and begins touring eastern bloc.
1963: Releases first album, Amore Twist, through Romanian label Electrecord.
1967: Sea Of Youth is the first Bulgarian-language pop album.
1981-87: Based largely in East Berlin, where she stars in local productions of Cats and Evita, among others.
1999: Appointed to the Order Stara Planina, granted for exceptional contributions to Bulgaria.
2002: Features in the sell-out launch issue of Bulgarian Playboy.
2009: Publishes ghost-written autobiography, The Truth, on a date decided with her astrologer.