‘This Pageant Is Anti-Aging’

In February, the babushkas of Brighton Beach selected their queens.

Photo: Jen Steele

We have a Russian, we have a Muslim, we have a Jewish, we have Ukraine, and nobody fight!” says Raisa Chernina, who organizes Brooklyn’s only Your Highness Grandmother pageant alongside her husband, Alexander “Sasha” Sirotin. The pageant culls the best and the brightest of Brighton Beach’s Soviet émigrés and other assorted grandmothers under two conditions: “She needs to be grandmother, of course, and she has to love life,” says Chernina.

Chernina and Sirotin have been together for 32 years, and it’s almost impossible to quote them separately because they speak in a near-constant duet. Their humor is impeccably dry (think if Lucy and Ricky had been Soviet defectors). For 19 of those 32 years, they have been putting on this pageant. “It was idea of my mom,” she says. Chernina immigrated to America with her mother in 1979. “When Raisa’s mom first saw Miss America, she said, ‘Let’s do the same thing but with our grandmothers,’ ” Sirotin says, then pauses. “ ‘Without bikini, of course!’ ”

Each year, the pageant is slightly different, but it always includes the grandmothers singing a rendition of the pageant’s theme song, “Friendship,” popularized by Vadim Kozin (who was thrown into a Soviet labor camp for being a homosexual); there is a last-minute “secret competition” revealed by envelope; and the grandmothers perform their talents in front of a panel of grandfathers. Beyond that, Chernina likes to drum up different challenges for the contestants. The first year, she asked everyone to make a chicken soup. “We had to try every soup,” says Sirotin, who was a judge that year. “It was like 15 or more. First was nice, pretty hot, but then last one was cold like a freezer.” The contestants are often asked to sport their “national costume,” which for some means dusting off their hand-embroidered Uzbek folk costumes. For others, it was not as easy. “Some contestants from Leningrad were confused. They asked me, ‘What is our national costume? What do we even wear?’ ” says Chernina. “And I told them, with all due respect, ‘Just put on mink coat.’ ”

In its almost 20 years, the pageant has facilitated more than one marriage, and, in 2009, a man even infiltrated. (He was disqualified when his skirt fell during his performance of the “White Swan.”) For years, its home was the now-shuttered National Restaurant on Brighton Beach. It’s since moved to Signature restaurant in Sheepshead Bay.

The MC introduces each grandmother by reading a short bio she has provided. There is an almost willful omission of some fairly important information in these introductions. For example, in lieu of something as significant as “She survived the Holocaust,” Mara Goldshtein prefers “Mara has two granddaughters and loves to read and dance.” They lead with their passions, not with their hardships.

When pressed, contestants admit that the transition to America was not easy. “I immigrated to America at an age where it was difficult to grow into myself. Like when you repot a plant that’s been growing roots somewhere else, it was difficult to find new soil. But this pageant makes me feel like I am repotted well now. I can bloom,” says Anna Malkina Shumayeva, who, at 82, has participated in the contest for 16 years.

The joyful scenes from this year’s pageant, which took place in February, now appear as some sort of sci-fi fantasy where a room full of octogenarians embrace, eat shoulder to shoulder, and dance cheek to cheek. They kiss and drink Champagne. They hold hands with their friends as they walk home. When Sirotin tries to imagine the pageant after the pandemic ends, he grows introspective. “To say the truth, it is hard to tell, because I don’t know how many people will survive.” Chernina chimes in: “Everybody survive for now; all the grandmothers survive for now.”

“Our marriage survive, too!” jokes Sirotin.

“Our marriage alive because we sleep on different floors,” says Chernina. “We have a different bedroom, different bathroom, everybody got television. We see each other in the kitchen!”

*This article appears in the May 25, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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