Archive for November, 2012

Celebrities, Opinion, Writers

Private Eye and on Have I Got News For You for quarter of a century. How does he fare when the focus is on him?

By Ginny Dougary
29 Nov 2012
(Daily Telegraph Magazine)


Ian Hislop is in the first-floor dining-room of the Coach and Horses, a defiantly unreconstructed pub in Soho, London, greeting his guests at the Private Eye lunch he has hosted for the past 26 years, ever since Richard Ingrams made the initially controversial decision to hand over the editorship of the satirical magazine to what the old guard considered a young upstart.

Norman Balon, the notoriously rude proprietor of the pub – who used to slap down the plates of melon followed by meat and two veg, then spotted dick and custard – has moved on, and Hislop is anxious about the new ‘midlife crisis’ menu, which is exclusively vegetarian with haute-gastronomy ambitions – the foodie equivalent, perhaps, of Pseuds Corner, all twiddles and towers and puddles of intense colour.

I have been to a number of these Wednesday lunches over the years as a guest, but on this occasion I am here to observe how our host works the room, which he does in his convivial, eye-twinkling way. The number of women around the table has increased over the decades; Hislop is sandwiched between two of the four here today: a newspaper editor and a television foreign correspondent. He is very protective of the identities of all his guests and story sources of his journalists, so no names, no pack-drill.

Hislop says that the lunches, held fortnightly, are good for making contacts – he would never use the dread word networking – and have often led to stories, although the Eye tends to get beaten to it (gallingly, because of its long lead times) by his journalist guests, rushing off to file the news for the next day’s paper. A case in point was John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP, who got ‘hogwhimperingly drunk’ at one lunch, as a fellow guest described it (the wine does flow), and confessed to the assembled company that his mistress was pregnant and the story was about to be exposed in the News of the World. Cue mass exodus of hacks, clutching notebooks.

At one end of the table today is the dashing writer and journalist Francis Wheen, who was Hislop’s first recruit, and is now deputy editor (although Wheen resists the title). As Hislop recalls in last year’s book by Adam Macqueen, Private Eye: the First 50 Years, ‘Getting Francis was a very important early thing [swiftly followed by the rehiring of Paul Foot]. He was always streets ahead. You could give him stories that were difficult or controversial or tough without him thinking, “Oooh, well… I can’t really make the phone call,” or “I’m a bit worried about my anonymity…”’

At the other end of the table is the only full-time journalist on the Eye, Jane Mackenzie. The rest of the table is made up of young journalists on national newspapers who are telling disobliging stories about their bosses, which may or may not find their way into the Street of Shame column. There is also an academic who may be good for an item on a colleague who has behaved shabbily. There is a leading Conservative politician, who leaves before the main course, and various other diners. Hislop writes notes in full view. He used to be more coy about it, he says, and would scribble away with his hand under the table.

A couple of weeks earlier I had been in the studio audience for the first programme in the new series of Have I Got News For You, on which Hislop has appeared for all of its 22 years: there is nothing fly-by-night about Hislop. The host is Clare Balding on her debut HIGNFY appearance; she is intro-duced as the ‘hero of the summer’ on the back of her new post-Olympics popularity. On Hislop’s team is the Father Ted scriptwriter Graham Linehan, and on Paul Merton’s team, Ken Livingstone. There’s some amusing pre-recording chit-chat. Balding says that she is sometimes mistaken for Sue Barker, to which she usually responds, ‘F***, yeah,’ so at least she has the satisfaction of members of the public thinking the goody-goody Barker ‘has a hell of a mouth on her’. Hislop comments that when he was on a train, a woman said, ‘“Are you Ian Hislop?” And her friend said, “Leave him alone, he doesn’t look anything like him.”’ Big laugh from the audience, who adore Hislop. Paul Merton tops it, with a typically surreal statement. ‘I was in Ireland and someone said to me, “Are you who you think you are?”’
The programme is dominated by Jimmy Savile/ BBC stories, and Abu Hamza and his prosthetic arm. There’s a long chat about Livingstone’s chum Hugo Chávez, whom Linehan is keen on, too, which gets cut right back in the edit that appears on television. The only hitch is at the end, when Balding has to do repeated retakes of her farewells as she keeps pronouncing Ian’s surname in the abbreviated way, as ‘Hizlp’.

After the show we all meet up in the hospitality room on the top floor of the old London Weekend Television building, where HIGNFY is filmed, close to the Southbank Centre. This is a lot more glam – with spectacular views of London lit up at night – than the usual BBC Green Room spread of sandwiches and bowls of crisps. Hislop is drinking Guinness. His wife, Victoria, is there (she is a journalist turned bestselling novelist, and they have been married for 24 years) as is Balding’s civil partner, the newsreader Alice Arnold. Paul Merton is moody, and only wants to talk shop with his director and Linehan. Livingstone is moany, and keeps saying that this is the most difficult HIGNFY he has been on because of the depressing subject matter (later, Hislop tells me that Livingstone, who has been on a dozen times, always says that). The following night, when the show goes out, it zips along with all its customary sparkle and repartee.

The afternoon after the filming, I go to Private Eye’s office, which is in an old house on Carlisle Street in Soho, to interview its editor. This has been the magazine’s home since 1984. It was built in about 1685 and, according to the journalist Tim Minogue, who writes the Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, exposing corruption in local authorities, has variously been home to a hatter, a wigmaker, a lacemaker, a goldsmith, a dance academy and, directly before the magazine moved in, a firm of architects. In the dark hallway is what is apparently known as ‘the wall of death’ – photographs of departed Eye stalwarts: Peter Cook, Willie Rushton, John Wells and Paul Foot. There are two secretaries in the first room you enter, including Hilary Lowinger – who is also the office manager and joined the magazine in 1986. The designers and sub-editors work in a large, light room at the back.
Hislop is wearing a suit from Marks & Spencer, which looks rather well cut. ‘This is from that nice range, Autograph,’ he says. ‘I always wear a suit because you don’t have to think what to wear. It’s a very easy, convenient uniform.’ He flicks through a pile of typed paper with the chief sub-editor, Tristan Davies, delivering rapid-fire instructions: ‘That’s good for HP [Sauce, the parliamentary news section]’; ‘That’s a Wheen’; ‘Condense these two for the books pages’; ‘That’s his Lance Armstrong piece, we have to run that.’ Afterwards he turns to Tony Rushton, the art director, who has been with the mag for all of its 51 years. There’s a Savile and Boris lookalike photo spread, and various cartoons laid out on the pages. They have a bit of a chat about a cartoonist they like but think they are possibly using too much.

Then we go on a quick tour of the rest of the building. Up the narrow staircase, with walls of large high-quality prints of Hogarth’s four 1754 Election paintings; a gift from Sir John Soane’s Museum, after Private Eye sponsored a show of political art – Hogarth’s Election Entertainment – in 2001. In one room on the top floor there is a female lawyer from Matrix Chambers scrutinising the contents of the next issue for libel, next door to Jane Mackenzie and the journalist Heather Mills (who has had some amusing conversations at Eye lunches, with the guests assuming, what with her long blond hair, that she is Paul McCartney’s ex).
We go back to the first floor to Hislop’s office, which he inherited from Ingrams, who is famous for his untidiness. His successor is rather orderly in comparison. Behind his desk, there’s a framed photo of Peter Cook (17.11.37 – 9.1.95, So Farewell Then), and posters of Denis Thatcher and ‘Grocer’ Heath, which have been there for ever. On a noticeboard are thank-you letters for Eye lunches including one from the MP Tom Watson, which is remarkably effusive. ‘It was a milestone in what I regard as my curious parliamentary career… if I can ever reciprocate…’ and a droll one from Kirsty Young, saying how much she enjoyed herself, ‘although my placement opposite Grayson [Perry] did leave me feeling somewhat underdressed.’

Ian Hislop was born in Mumbles, south Wales, in July 1960. His father, David, was a civil engineer who worked on projects around the world, taking his wife, Helen, as well as his two children (Ian has an older sister, Anne) with him. The Hislops moved to Nigeria, then Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. His parents revelled in the warm climate and pleasantly cushioned lifestyle. ‘Both my parents had lived through austerity… my father was from Scotland, which I imagine in the 1950s was quite bleak, and my mother was from Jersey, which had been occupied in the Second World War and had gone through austerity-plus.
‘And then they were working abroad and my dad had a speedboat and we had a bar in the living-room, with a sort of leather top and stools and I remember looking at my father and thinking, “With your DJ, you’re wearing a frilly dress shirt?” and then, “But it’s the 1970s! You can do what you like!” I also remember Burns Night and there being a lot of Scottish engineers around who were good fun. My father used to dress in shorts and long socks; my mother in sundresses with very pointy sunglasses. For them, the expat life was extraordinary and very glamorous.’

David Hislop sounds like quite a character. Ian Hislop was sent a photo of his late father – ‘one of the good things about being in the public eye is that people just write to you’ – diving into a swimming-pool that he had just opened (the arresting fact being that he was fully clothed). ‘And I thought, “You must have been the one they asked to make a speech and do something quite silly.”’ In fact, Hislop senior didn’t need to be asked to do daft things. On a trip back to Hong Kong, on a quest to discover more about his father as part of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? Hislop met his father’s old secretary, who said, ‘“Have I shown you the photo of your dad leading a conga through the fountains outside the Hilton?” and I said, “No, you haven’t! Can I see it please?” It did look like a lot of fun.’

When Hislop was 12, his mother came to his school – Ardingly College in Sussex, where he had boarded since he was eight – to tell him that his father had died of stomach cancer. The family had known that David had been ill but it was only a few brief months between diagnosis and death, at the age of 45. How did his mother handle the loss? ‘She was pretty devastated; I don’t think she ever really recovered. My mother was fab and a very capable and strong woman but she was, well, you know, very much in love with my father and missed him for the rest of her life.’

Hislop is famously reserved and private. In his late 20s, his mother – still in her 60s – was dying, at the same time that his wife, Victoria, was in hospital having suffered a miscarriage, and yet no one at Private Eye had a clue. Part of the Hislop mythology is the true story about him recording an episode of Have I Got News For You while suffering from acute appendicitis. He seems to be the living embodiment of the stiff upper lip, which was the title of his most recent television series, exploring how this phrase came to be seen as the defining English characteristic when we had started out as a nation of wusses and emotional incontinents. He admits that the series – a perfect example of erudition worn lightly – was a way of considering his own attitude to this fascinating subject.

Now that he has revealed something of his feelings in this series (although it’s hardly Oprah), it makes it easier to ask more sensitive questions than would normally feel appropriate. We have known one another, I should say, as friendly acquaintances for two decades, but have never talked about anything deep and meaningful. I ask him how well he felt he knew his father and what effect that early death had on him as a boy. He replies that he didn’t know him nearly well enough (something he hopes to have remedied with his two children, Emily, 22, and William, 19, neither of whom were sent to boarding school – ‘It was a selfish thing. I wanted them to be near me and around’) and as for the other matter, ‘I think losing a close relative early is a fairly hardening blow – in that my childhood sort of ended when my father died. Once that’s happened you haven’t got a huge illusion about what life may or may not hold. I think it made me increasingly independent, because I had to be.’

In Stiff Upper Lip, Hislop returns to Ardingly, where he was head boy, and tries to reconnect with what it felt like to be sent to boarding school at such a young age, saying that he wants to try and ascertain what that experience had done to him. Did he find out? ‘Well, as I said, with distance the nature of those boarding schools does begin to look like a very odd thing to do – and most people who come through it don’t do it to their own children. I mean, they’re much more parent-friendly now – everyone has a room of their own and goes home every afternoon,’ he laughs, ‘but when we were there, there was just one large Victorian room with 30 boys in it, and it didn’t have any curtains and it was cold.

‘So, yes, I was always homesick, but usually I was flying from somewhere like Hong Kong and there was quite a time-lag – which meant I did the being homesick on the plane, then I arrived and there was this world of friends and excitement and interest.’

Does he think the experience has made it harder for him to express himself emotionally? Would he say, for instance, that he has been scarred by it? ‘Er, well, I am trying to answer that honestly… I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to do that programme was to have a look at that – and it ends up being a very nuanced answer, rather than, “No, no, I’m fine. It never affected me.” It obviously did affect me. It moulded a certain sort of Englishness and a certain sort of response to things. It’s that British thing – in that it’s not that we don’t feel it but we don’t think it’s appropriate to show that feeling in public, or at all times, or with people we don’t know. So I still probably behave like that – but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on. I am not without emotion.’

Is he able to examine himself with any depth? ‘Erm… probably being very busy suggests that I am not doing so.’
In such a rationalist age – where the prevailing culture among media types tends to be aggressively atheist – Hislop’s Anglican faith is an intriguing anomaly. The avowed raison d’être of his two main gigs – HIGNFY and Private Eye – is to knock bullies off their perch, expose idiocy, corruption and moral weakness. While I am extremely grateful for its existence (the Eye goes from strength to strength – with recent record sales figures of 267,834 for its anniversary issue, and 253,000 for the Gotcha – Murdoch Goes Down issue) it hardly fosters a warm feeling towards one’s fellow man and the human condition. I wonder how harmoniously his religious beliefs sit with his love of satire. Ingrams, before him, shared a similar duality, and there are notable antecedents, such as, for instance, Jonathan Swift. He starts by telling me about a funny phase at his Anglican school, when two old boys came back on an evangelical mission as born-again Christians, and metaphorically set the whole school on fire, swelling the membership of the Christian Union from a membership of 12 to 300.

‘It was very, very bizarre – we didn’t go to bed, and people were having prayer meetings in dormitories, and the staff were terribly worried because most of them were Anglicans and they were thinking, “What if this is the real thing?” and not knowing whether or not to stop it because it was getting completely out of hand.

‘You know, being sort of C of E, people want a very quiet and moderate faith. They don’t want hundreds of boys singing Kumbaya and getting up in the middle of chapel services and confessing that they’ve seen the light.’
What did his mother think about all of this?
‘She was marvellous. I had told her, “I have to see you because something incredibly exciting has happened – I’ve been converted! We’ve all been converted!” And my mother asked me two things. She said, “You didn’t sign anything, did you?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “They didn’t ask you for any money?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Oh, that’s fine, dear.” Because she was brilliant, my mother, she realised it was all fine and that it would probably die down and there was nothing to worry about. And after everyone went away for the summer holidays and came back, it did die down.’

I ask him about how he feels surrounded by so many Dawkinsian non-believers. He remembers going to the launch of Francis Wheen’s book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and Martin Rowson, the cartoonist, drew a picture of all the people there ‘and there was an arrow next to me in the middle of all these ultra-rationalists and it just said, “Anomalous God-botherer”.’

His faith waxes and wanes and it is going through the latter phase at the moment. Hislop sounds a tiny bit downhearted about the whole subject. He goes to church but not very often, and at the moment, not at all. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt… it’s not a great, confident, burning faith, really. I can’t do the ultra-rationalism denial of it all and all the sort of human bits that I feel come through that but then, you know, sometimes I worry that my faith is so vague as to be sort of not really there at all. I’m so lukewarm I’m about to be spat out, I think.’

What comforts him in times of sadness? He laughs. ‘I thought you were going to do the Simon and Garfunkel song… well, all the normal things.’
Like? ‘Oh – family, friends. Other human beings.’ His voice becomes a bit curt. Not nature or music or books? ‘Any of those things can, but it’s the people first.’ So not faith, in that regard? ‘Yes, it can – but faith is often shown through other people. Faith working through other people tends to be goodness working through them or sympathy even if it’s not declared as religion… it doesn’t have to be the vicar coming round.

‘But I do like the rituals of the Church and, yes, I have found them comforting.’
Hilary Lowinger and her colleague had been joking with me, while I waited for Hislop to appear, about the deranged people who sometimes insist on coming into the office, with this or that conspiracy theory. Shortly before the conclusion of our interview, a wild-haired man bursts into the office and I fear, for a moment, that the lady gatekeepers have not been able to keep the lunatics at bay. ‘So sorry to barge in like this,’ the man begins with elaborate courtesy. ‘It’s so, so rude of me. I’m ever, ever so sorry…’ and then he proceeds to tell Hislop that if the editor ever has the opportunity to commission a nice oil painting for the magazine, he’s the man.

It turns out that the interloper does draw for the Eye and is feeling the pinch; he needs more money, he needs a bigger byline, he is a man full of all-too-recognisable needs in these tricky times. Hislop listens to him, doesn’t make him feel uncomfortable or shoo him away and, actually, seems to care.

It is this sense of decency that, I think, is a strong motivating force in Hislop. He’s by no means perfect; for instance, for a Christian – even a rather half-hearted one – he seems incapable of forgiving his enemies (Piers Morgan, and the diarists Peter McKay and the late Nigel Dempster among them). But his instincts are always about picking on the powerful, not the weak. For this reason, he is pretty scathing about a lot of today’s comedians in the Ricky Gervais vein (with whom he had a well-publicised spat). ‘I do have a residual belief that, if at all possible, you should try not to mock the weak. There seems to be a slight tendency in contemporary stand-up to have a go at the weak and say you’re being edgy. You know, attacking the disabled. I think you should go for stronger targets.’

He is not a political tribalist, having voted for all the three main parties, as well as the Greens. ‘Most of your judgments are about whether people are behaving well or not in your eyes – and that doesn’t matter whether they are left or right. You know, are they corrupt or are they bent or are they trying to make things better or worse for people? That is where my bottom line is, and so that must be what drives me.’

I ask him what he is insecure about. ‘Oh, health,’ he says quickly. Is his health OK? ‘I think so, but you never know. If you have a history of your family keeling over you’re never sure how much time you’ve got left yourself. That may be another reason why I try to cram a lot in.’
We part on a more upbeat note. I ask him what he considers to be his most lowbrow tastes, and he struggles to answer. Later he calls me to say that it is Toy Story 3. ‘It’s incredibly funny, beautifully made and very good on being a boy.’ And also: ‘I’m quite big on Elvis. I went to a show in Las Vegas with three Elvis impersonators – young, middle and old – and it was one of the best nights of my life.’ Who knew?

But in his office, he says that it’s box sets of Clint Eastwood westerns and ‘sort of terrible war films’. Do you blub when watching the latter? ‘Oh, no, I’m taking my example from Brief Encounter!’ I beg to differ, saying that I have even seen him get moist-eyed on television.
‘Surely not. No. I’m going to end the interview now, and I’m going to storm out!’

Celebrities, Women

Dasha’s next move

Ginny Dougary
FT MAGAZINE
November 2012


Dasha Zhukova addressed a roomful of architecture critics at the ICA in London earlier this year, announcing the latest move in her mission to bring contemporary art and culture to Moscow. It was the first time, she tells me afterwards, that she hadn’t read from notes, and although this seemed to improve her performance – she reckoned – it was still pretty nerve-wracking for her.

There was something almost school-girlish about her demeanour as she answered questions from the audience. She wore her hair in a long pigtail on one side, a white shirt with a buttoned-up collar under an orange sweater, orange tweed Capri trousers and high-heeled white patent shoes. She speaks in perfect English with a faint Russian intonation, as well as an occasional upwards Californian lilt. She is very beautiful, as has often been noted, but her face has an open, appealing quality about it; her critics have called it blank, but there is nothing vacant at all about her steely gaze.

The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Zhukova’s initial cultural foray into her birthplace, which opened in Moscow in 2008 – housed in a vast former bus terminal designed by the constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov in 1926 – was an encouraging first move on her part. It announced an approach, which now seems to be her modus operandi, of taking over ruined Soviet architectural masterpieces and working with world-class architects to create sympathetic restorations. That Garage lease has come to an end, and the exhibition space is now moving to Gorky Park.

The Garage’s first home was in the northern, semi-industrial outskirts of town and attracted about 300,000 visitors a year. The new site will accommodate 3.6 million annually, and after Gorky Park has been renovated that number is expected to rise to nine million. The job of transforming the 1960s concrete prefab building in the park, which was a popular restaurant until it was abandoned in the 1990s, has been entrusted to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Zhukova has a cold and asks her assistant to get her something to soothe it. At 31, she looks younger and has a son – Aaron Alexander, who will be three in December – by her 46-year-old partner, Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and Chelsea Football Club owner.

She explains that she is not restricting her sights to Moscow. Zhukova and her partner have big plans for St Petersburg, too – namely, transforming New Holland, a 19-acre island and former naval yard in the heart of the city, into a creative hub.

When this is completed in 2018, she is hoping that New Holland will be part of the international must-see arts chain linking MoMA in New York, Tate Modern and the Pompidou Centre. It is Zhukova and her non-profit Iris Foundation, dedicated to promoting contemporary culture, which are behind the overall design. (She has just received an award from Independent Curators International for her work.)

“Both these projects share the same backbone. What kind of drives me to do these works is to really progress contemporary culture in Russia,” she says. “I think a good term for it is ‘cultural urbanisation’. It’s entertainment as well as education. I’d like to set up a school of design, which doesn’t exist yet in Russia, and do a lot with technology there as well. The internet can give young people a fantastic platform to become financially independent and have global businesses without leaving Russia.”

I tell her how much I like the idea of keeping the original faded-but-beautiful fabric of the Gorky Park building. “I’m very proud of Soviet aesthetics,” she says. “I guess that once the Soviet system collapsed, it wasn’t a very desired design feature. I don’t know if it was because I was too young or … well, I don’t know why, but I really like that aesthetic. It’s so important for what we are doing in Russia [by “we”, she means the foundation, presumably, as well as Abramovich, but it does rather add to her arts tsarina aura] – and for Russia in general to find itself in the contemporary world. It’s good not to turn our back on such a beautiful history …”

Zhukova has a large vision of what she wants to accomplish and pulling it off cannot be easy in Russia, despite her partner’s influence and connections. “We have bureaucratic problems like everyone else – but, you know, it’s important to know how to operate within the system you are existing in,” she says pragmatically. “You can yell and complain about it all you want, but that’s not going to help you.”

Is she impatient? “I can be, but if something captures my attention, I am completely absorbed. I am very determined; I tunnel-vision straight to where I need to go. I guess that’s the thing I really know how to do.”

So does she never have hissy fits? “I don’t. I never yell or scream. I mean, definitely not at work,” she grins, and her face opens like a flower. “I never yell at anyone I work with. I get frustrated, but I have this survival instinct – whenever I have a hurdle, I figure out how to solve it.”

Zhukova is circumspect. She cannot afford to alienate those in control of the country, but she is, one suspects, naturally non-committal. This may be the ingrained suspicion of opening up to strangers that can come with being born into extreme wealth, or perhaps partly a sort of historic defensiveness in her Soviet DNA. At any rate, if you long for her to be a bit more spontaneous and less of a controlled diplomat, you long mostly in vain.

Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981 – christened Daria (Dasha is a nickname) – the only child of Elena, a molecular biologist, and Alexander, who became an oil magnate. Her family was well connected – largely scientists, writers and linguists: “It was the usual, normal Moscow intelligentsia,” Elena has said. She was three when her parents divorced, and her mother left the USSR in 1990, with nine-year-old Dasha, because she had been offered a good position at the Baylor College of Medicine, a leading centre of biomedical research in Houston, where she had some family.

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother found it very difficult to be in this quite aggressive environment and she couldn’t really handle the abrupt changes,” Zhukova explains. “So we didn’t actually emigrate to America, we thought we were just going for a year or two and then, I guess, she decided to stay. You know, I can’t imagine what it takes to get up in your thirties, with a child, and say, ‘OK, now I’m leaving and going somewhere I don’t know.’”

Elena is Jewish and Zhukova identifies herself as Jewish, although her father is a Christian. Zhukova’s first school in the US was a Hebrew college, which she attended for three years. It must have been tough not speaking a word of English when she arrived. “I’m a quick learner,” she says. “When you’re in a situation that is foreign to you, you just have to pull yourself together and adapt.”
Elena was then offered an opportunity at UCLA – “which was a huge honour” says her daughter – and mother and daughter moved to California. By the time Elena retired, she was a professor of molecular biology there, as well as an authority on diabetes. “My mother is quite a serious person, who is more interested in substance than aesthetics. We always had very serious scientists hanging out at our house,” Zhukova says, before correcting herself. “That sounds a bit silly. What I mean is she had all these graduate students who would constantly come by the house – and I always thought that was very funny, because they were so studious and a bit geeky.” Zhukova went to a small, sporty private school – Pacific Hills – in West Hollywood (alumni include Monica Lewinsky and Drew Barrymore), which she loved and describes as “a kind of weird utopian community. I still stay in touch with some of my friends, which is one of the reasons why I’m on Facebook.”

She had a great college experience, too, she says, at UC Santa Barbara, where she considered following in her mother and grandmother’s steps in medicine but graduated in 2003, instead, in Slavic studies and literature: “Although I’m very interested in science and technology, I guess I couldn’t sit still long enough to be a doctor.”

At 22, she moved to London to study homeopathic medicine, a course she didn’t complete. She was living in one of her father’s penthouses in Kensington, dating a tennis player and generally living the kind of life that earned her the label “glamorous socialite”. It was also where she first began to take an interest in contemporary art.

In 2005, she met Abramovich – a friend of her father’s from his oil-trading days – at a dinner party in Moscow. Abramovich, who was born into poverty and orphaned at the age of four, had just sold his stake in the Russian oil giant Sibneft for $13bn and was moving into steel, gold and real estate, which he still invests in through his Millhouse company. He divorced his second wife, Irina, in 2007.

Despite the couple’s properties all over the world – three in London alone, as well as three yachts, houses in the south of France, Moscow and St Barts, where Abramovich made headlines, in January, for spending £5m on a New Year’s eve party – Zhukova has said that it is her mother’s home in Los Angeles that still feels like home to her.

It is striking that Zhukova is at her most open when talking about her family (her partner, of course, is another matter; the closest I get to that subject is to ask if she likes football; “I’m the last person you should be talking to,” she replies).

When I ask her which parent she is most like, she says probably her father – who lives in Moscow now – although as she was brought up by her mother, she figures it balances out. “My Dad is a very optimistic person,” she says. “He’s very positive, he loves people, he’s very clever and he’s very funny. He’s a great dad. Obviously I saw less of him when we were in America, but it always just felt normal when I saw him again.”

Both her parents remarried and both had twins – her mother, a boy and girl, now aged 19; her father, twin boys aged 16: “My parents have always stayed good friends and I feel like I’m part of a huge family. I don’t think of any of my siblings as half-siblings – I’m actually very close to all of them.”
Her mother is “very affectionate. She was and is very reasonable with me. I always felt like I had independence but enough structure not to fly off the deep end. I always felt that I never wanted to disappoint my parents, so that kept me on track.”

Sometimes, she admits, this involvement can be a bit annoying: “[My mother] is just involved with everything that I am doing. She will probably read this interview, for instance. I’ll speak to her just casually about a project, and she will come back the next day and say, ‘You know, honey, you should also consider this.’ Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, Mum, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but a lot of the time it stays in the back of my head.”

Does her mother have a say about her private life? “Not so much about my private life! I draw the line there!”

I ask her if she is affectionate to her son in the same way that her mother was to her? “Oh I just want to bite him and kiss him and hug him … He runs away from me when he sees me. The older he gets, the more obsessed I become because you can really communicate now.” So is it time for another one? She grins: “These controversial questions!” Zhukova’s first child is her partner’s sixth: “I would like to have a big family,” she says.

Zhukova has made some mistakes in the past when talking to journalists. On one occasion, when asked who her favourite artists were, she sounded as clueless as a valley girl, saying that she couldn’t, like, really remember any of their names. “I was new to this whole world. I thought I shouldn’t name names because it might seem like giving preferences. I was just getting started and didn’t know how to handle it. I feel a bit more confident now and feel that it’s OK to have personal preferences. I’m also less shy than I was.”

So what has been her favourite show at the Garage? “Let me think if I want to answer this.” Can she at least name one of her favourite pieces? “I will say that my favourite installation was Dan Flavin’s long, wide corridor of multicoloured light installations. That was just so beautiful …”
Although she may be associated with the monumental splash of her partner’s big buys in 2008, when Abramovich spent £43m on Francis Bacon’s 1976 “Triptych” and £17m on Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, Zhukova’s personal taste seems to be quirky and modest. “I am drawn to humorous art that is ironic,” she says.

She also has a rebellious streak and a love of the outré and extreme. One of her ambitions, she said in an interview, was “to push the boundaries of publishing”. Garage, the magazine – with Zhukova as editor-in-chief, and former Paris Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck as editorial consultant – has certainly published some firsts. The inaugural issue last year commissioned a number of big-name artists to design tattoos, which would then be grafted on to the bodies of various “living canvases”. Damien Hirst came up with a butterfly tattoo for a vagina, which was one of the covers of the magazine (even with a concealing sticker, this was still banned by WH Smith). “I was slightly hesitant, because it’s very provocative,” she says. “But I just love the image and I love the extra dimension that the sticker gave it. It’s not offensive at all, it’s quite beautiful. I’m glad we did it.”

In the same issue, there is a profile of her maternal grandmother, “Soviet Scientist, Maria Rudnitskaya”, written by her granddaughter. Zhukova’s granny, who moved to the US in 1992 to help her daughter with her family, looks brilliant – small and plump, with a lovely smile – wearing an animal-print kaftan, massive earrings and leaning on her walking stick. She remembers the war, spending shifts on the roof, picking up the hissing balls from the firebombs dropped by the German planes. Then the evacuation to Tashkent, working in the military plant during the day and in the evening working for her chemistry degree. Back in Moscow, she worked as a clerk in the naval ministry, then as a technician at the Institute of Haematology and Blood Transfusion, completing her PhD. During her career she developed therapies for infertility and gangrene, for haemophiliacs and diabetics. In trying to understand what motivates Zhukova, with her pioneering zeal to make a difference to her old country, I don’t think one can underestimate the influence her mother and grandmother must have had on her growing up.

Zhukova’s looks and her relationship with such a wealthy man make it easy for her critics to dismiss her. For instance, when she first appeared on the London scene, she was always described as a model. But when I couldn’t find any modelling stints in her CV, I asked her about this. She sent back an email, saying: “When I was 14 I tried modelling, but my career lasted exactly one month. I was more interested in playing volleyball!”

Not long after we met, the news from Russia was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. I did try to get Zhukova to comment on the unfolding story of Pussy Riot but she declined. However, one of the two issues of the Garage magazines she had sent me was a celebration of gay marriage: “With same-sex marriage now enshrined in state law [in New York], Garage celebrated by inviting designers and artists to collaborate on special wedding outfits and cast real life couples to wear them.”

At the end of our conversation, I read back something she had once said: “I definitely see the Garage as an institution that can implement social change in the country.” How did she feel about a country that bans Gay Pride demonstrations on the grounds that gays are satanic? “You know, I’m very bothered by any kind of intolerance, and I think that comes from ignorance and from being part of a very closed-off society. It is something we are definitely fighting, indirectly, at the Garage. But there’s no point just sitting and criticising Russia; what we are doing is the opposite of complaining about what’s wrong. We are trying to give choices, to educate people and make a positive change.”

Dasha Zhukova is only 31. If she wants to change the world, she has plenty of time ahead of her.

Dasha Zhukova is expanding her Garage arts centre in Moscow, and now has designs on St Petersburg. Her critics in the art world may still not take her seriously, but they can’t ignore her.