As the lights went down on a stage full of international beauty queens at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, former Spice Girl Mel B and NBC anchor Thomas Roberts announced a musical performer recognizable to few outside of Russia and Azerbaijan. The show’s bookings weren’t always A-listers, but they were often respectable: Gavin DeGraw, Seal, Lady Gaga.
Instead, Mel B announced, the forthcoming act was “international recording artist… Emin!”
The pageant was meant to be the first major international platform for Emin Agalarov, the 37-year-old Azeri pop singer (then 32) and heir to the $1.91 billion fortune of real estate baron Aras Agalarov. The 2013 Miss Universe pageant now is notable for a much different reason: special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Trumpworld connections to Russia has reportedly expanded to investigate President Trump’s Russia-related business transactions, including the Moscow pageant, which was bankrolled by Aras Agalarov.
Though the younger Agalarov’s role in his family’s political dealings has all but vanished in his father’s long shadow, oligarchs and politicians in Russia and the former Soviet bloc often see pop singers as power brokers. Emin himself admitted in an Irish Examiner interview that “I end up singing songs that I believe in — that don’t necessarily need to earn me a living,” which puts the onus on his father’s real estate businesses to support his singing career. But it doesn’t follow that Emin is a joke outside the music world: though it didn’t rocket the singer to international fame, the $20 million deal between the Agalarovs and the Trumps bring Miss Universe to Moscow is a familiar sight to those in the region who have often seen pop stars at the center of political power.
Emin has made headlines recently for brokering the meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian lawyer promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government campaign of support for the elder Trump’s presidential bid. But he began making overtures to the Trump family on his own behalf through Olivia Culpo, Miss Universe 2012, who appeared in one of Emin’s music videos. The Miss Universe organization must have felt it had something to gain from the relationship: Erin Brady, Miss USA 2013, told the New York Times that she and other contestants were required to appear without pay in that same video as part of the competition.
Emin explained in an interview on the Crocus Group’s website, after filming the music video with Culpo “we met with her managers [Miss Universe head Paula Shugart, according to Mother Jones], they came to Russia and met with Aras [Agalarov]. Then we all met with Donald Trump and shook hands.” Emin and Trump remained friends. Trump appeared in another music video for Emin the next year, again alongside pageant contestants, this time clad in their sashes, and Trump also sent him a happy birthday video.
The Miss Universe pageant came to the Agalarovs’ Crocus City Hall at a hefty price: $20 million, which Aras Agalarov said at the time included nearly $7m—a third of of the total outlay—in license fees to the Trump businesses.
The 37-year-old singer, handsome and compact, is “unerringly nice,” according to Michael Idov, a Russian-American journalist who wrote about his brief encounter with Emin in his forthcoming book “Dressed for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow.” But even when Emin’s career trappings have to be purchased, they are lavish, despite the singer’s extremely small footprint outside Russia—his American album sales number 700, total, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
“I obviously didn’t peek into his finances, but it stands to reason that his music career is an investment, not a business,” Idov told TPM.
Pop acts are a familiar lever of control in Russia and in former Soviet bloc countries. Philip Kirkorov, who appears on Aras Agalarov’s Instagram with the billionaire and his son, notably campaigned in 2004 for Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin-friendly Ukrainian ruler who was successfully installed with the help of Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Kirkorov was one of many stars recruited to stump for Yanukovych, the BBC reported, but he was the only one to get the candidate’s name wrong and accidentally call for the election of his opponent, the pro-Western Viktor Yuschenko, instead. Grigory Lepsveridze, known as Grigory Leps on stage, has sung several duets with Emin; in 2013 the U.S. treasury imposed sanctions on Lepsveritdze for acting as a courier for Vladislav Leontyev, an accused Russian drug lord.
American pop stars sometimes work for strongmen as well: Also in 2013, Jennifer Lopez sang Happy Birthday to Turkmen ruler Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, notable for forced labor in his country’s cotton-picking industry and disappearing his political rivals, according to Amnesty International. Lopez apologized after the fact, though she had also performed for wealthy Uzbek and Azeri businessmen for million-dollar fees.
Aras Agalarov’s posts to Instagram show a man firmly in Vladimir Putin’s good graces in the weeks before Miss Universe in Moscow. In October 2013, Aras posted pictures of Putin pinning a medal, the Order of Honor, on his chest. Two weeks afterward, he posted another picture of himself, his son, and the future American president, sitting in front of a backdrop branded with the the name of the Agalarovs’ Crocus Group, the Mercedes-Benz logo, the logo of state-owned Russian bank Sberbank, and of course, in all capitals, TRUMP.
Emin’s career continues, although Miss Universe didn’t launch him to stardom the way he’d reportedly hoped. He played a set with eye-popping technical effects in front of the Winter Palace in December 2016 with 16-time Grammy winner David Foster playing the piano. A few PBS affiliates bought the recording of the concert to play during pledge drives.
Foster did not respond to a request for comment. A publicist for Emin directed TPM to Scott Balber, a lawyer retained by the Agalarovs to address questions raised by their contact with the Trumps; Balber did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A media representative for the December concert confirmed his identity before saying TPM had the wrong number and hanging up. He did not respond to a follow-up text.