Natalie Glebova – An Interview with Miss Universe

When Natalie Glebova decided to enter the Miss Canada pageant, some of her friends discouraged the idea. “You’ve no shot of winning.” they told her.

Why the dismal forecast? Unlike most contestants. Glebova wasn’t a native Canadian-she was born in Russia and had moved to Toronto with her family when she was 12. Despite her foreign origins, the striking 23-year-old proved her doubters wrong and snared the Canadian crown-in her first-ever pageant competition, no less. Not long thereafter Glebova scaled even grander heights when she was crowned the new Miss Universe at the international pageant in Bangkok, Thailand, an event that was broadcast live to a TV viewing audience of more than 600 million people.

Since accepting the crown, it’s been a dizzying time for the new Miss Universe. After moving to New York, the multi-talented Glebova-a classically trained pianist and composer who has worked as a motivational speaker. model and fundraiser-embarked on her year-long reign representing the Miss Universe organization. Glebova has traveled to numerous countries and passionately immersed herself in a campaign to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS, the ongoing platform of the Miss Universe title bearer.

Recently, Glebova talked with ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and managing health editor Gillian Friedman, MD, about her experiences as Miss Universe, the heart wrenching sights she’s witnessed and the ongoing efforts to curb the onslaught of AIDS on a global basis.

Gillian Friedman, MD: I know you’re currently preparing for a rather extensive tour promoting World AIDS Day. and we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us.

Natalie Glebova: Thank you.

Friedman: Where have you traveled most recently?

Glebova: I went to the Ukraine to promote the new Miss Ukraine pageant, and then to the Bahamas to support some organizations that are making efforts to educate people about HIV and AIDS.

Chet Cooper: In the Bahamas, what were some of the activities you participated in?

Glebova: I attended a fundraiser for the AIDS Foundation of the Bahamas. The next day I attended a youth rally for more than 300 junior high school students, where I gave a speech about the dangers of unprotected sex and about being aware of AIDS.

Friedman: I’m sure you’ve seen that discussions about sex-and particularly protected sex versus unprotected sex-can be very different in other cultures. In some places, it’s okay to talk about these subjects; in others, it’s taboo. What have you found in the places you have visited?

Glebova: That is definitely a problem I’ve seen in some countries. For example, in South Africa these issues are seldom talked about because of the community’s conservative nature. On the contrary, in Thailand they are very open about discussing sex, and that is probably why Thailand has one of the lowest HIV transmission rates in the world right now.

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Cooper: What is the extent of the AIDS crisis and AIDS awareness in the Ukraine?

Glebova: Well, there is a problem there just like in every country in the world. I hope to continue my work in Eastern Europe because that area of the world is seldom talked about. Right now Eastern Europe is showing the same danger signs that Africa did 10 years ago. If nothing is done, then the same problems will occur there.

Friedman: How do you handle it when you’re in a place that is very conservative? How can you talk about AIDS awareness when you can’t talk about sex?

Glebova: Sex is an important issue to talk about, so I do discuss it. I say exactly what needs to be said: “You have to protect yourself.” Talking like this is the only way you can reach out to people; you can’t really cover the issues up with something else. People need to know the facts and to be more open about the subject.

Friedman: Have you received any criticism for that approach?

Glebova: No, I haven’t. I think people appreciate that I am being honest and I am doing something to help other people.

Cooper: There is an opposing movement that says abstinence is the best policy, and that’s where they want to leave it. They don’t want to discuss alternatives such as condoms. I think it’s great you’re able to use the Miss Universe platform to openly discuss the issue in communities and countries that would normally suppress that information. What do you typically say in your talks?

Glebova: Well, basically I have three lessons I try to get across when I talk about HIV and AIDS. Number one is to get tested and know your status. I try to give that message everywhere I go, because people in many countries are afraid to get tested, or they just don’t know that they should.

The second message is that once you know your status. you have to adjust your behavior. Whether you are HIV negative or HIV-positive, you have to engage in a responsible relationship. So if you are having sex, protect yourself and your partner.

The third thing I talk about the stigma associated with the disease. Many people think you can contract HIV by hugging somebody, holding hands or just talking to a person. So I try to reduce the fear of people with HIV by visiting places like hospices or orphanages and inter acting with the people there, showing that it’s okay to hold the babies or to kiss them on the cheek, and that you can hold hands with a person and you’re not going to get AIDS.

Friedman: In places such as Thailand, Africa and other Third World countries you have visited, how does the stigma attached to people who are HIV-positive or who have AIDS manifest itself?

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Glebova: The mindset is that people with HIV and AIDS shouldn’t be touched, that they have done something wrong and that is why they have been punished with this disease. That attitude prevails in a lot of places, even in Thailand where the issues surrounding sex are so openly talked about. People sometimes drop off their family members at a temple or a hospice and just drive away, leaving them abandoned.

Friedman: You recently returned from Thailand, where you visited an orphanage and had children clinging to your legs. I can only imagine how moving the experience must have been. Is there any one event or image that has really stayed with you?

Glebova: I think the biggest thing that affected me was the number of orphans I met-orphans whose parents have died of AIDS and who are themselves infected with HIV. AIDS has really taken a toll on people between their 20s and 40s, so many children are left alone. It is really sad because you know these babies haven’t done anything to get into this situation.

Friedman: That kind of devastation isn’t seen so much in the United States, where there is more public information and treatment is much more available. Access to treatment is improving in other parts of the world, but I’m sure you’ve seen there are many other factors that contribute to the severity and complexity of the epidemic.

Glebova: That’s true. There are many reasons, including stigma, that continue to make AIDS a worldwide problem.

Cooper: At one point, you publicly took an HIV test. What went into that decision?

Glebova: Well, I decided to do that to bring attention to the importance of getting tested. I chose to get tested in one of the most highly populated areas of Johannesburg. South Africa. I took a test in public and it was reported by the media the next day. My hope, of course, was to show that it’s okay to get tested and that everybody should do it.

Friedman: Have you witnessed instances where the community is being proactive in encouraging its residents to get tested?

Glebova: Well, I’ve talked about some of the problems in South Africa, but many good things have happened there as well-for example, in the mining communities. South Africa has a lot of gold and diamond mines, and in the towns where people live and work, companies have established programs to monitor the rate of HIV and to help people get tested and treated. In some places they have tested about 80 percent of the workforce. And from the statistics, it appears that the conditions for people with HIV are improving. They are gaining weight and they are healthier.

Cooper: It has probably been a business necessity for companies to develop programs there because they need to have a healthy workforce. So it actually works well for both the company and the community.

Friedman: Statistics show that the groups most at risk for HIV in places like Africa are different from the groups at highest risk in the United States. In some areas of Africa, for instance, AIDS is extremely prevalent among married women because there is wide cultural acceptance for extramarital sex by men. Have you had to tailor your message to what is happening in those particular cultures?

Glebova: Well, I have heard about this problem. Married women are at a great risk because infidelity rates are very high and women don’t have a say in whether or not the man wears a condom. So in my message to women I always try to emphasize that they do have a choice-they do have the right to insist the man wear a condom. And I just keep repeating this message in the hope that women realize it is very dangerous if they don’t insist on protection.

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Cooper: Have you seen a general improvement in the availability of medication in poorer areas?

Glebova: I have seen a lot of good programs all over the world. Many governments and pharmaceutical companies offer programs that provide drugs for free. There are many communities where people have a lot of opportunities to get tested and receive treatment.

Of course, that is not the case all over the world. I know in some remote places in Africa people have to travel many miles to even get tested, and some Lack of access to testing and treatment is still a big problem in Africa.

Cooper: Are condoms available there?

Glebova: We visited a lot of clinics, hospitals and offices for organizations that educate people about HIV and AIDS, and all these places have condoms right there for anyone who wants them.

Friedman: Prior to becoming Miss Universe, did you have any background or experience with HIV awareness?

Glebova: Not really. I knew the basic facts of transmission, but I really didn’t know a lot of details, and I didn’t realize what kind of devastation HIV and AIDS cause all over the world. I learned so much after becoming Miss Universe and seeing the devastation first-hand.

Cooper: Have you changed the way you talk to your friends-do you find yourself educating everyone around you now?

Glebova: I guess in some ways I do. HIV has become a very personal issue to me because I have met so many people who have the illness. And I do talk a lot about it with my friends and with anybody I meet, anywhere in the world.

Cooper: With taxi drivers?

Glebova: (laughs) If the topic comes up, sure. But I don’t just start into it with random people.

Cooper: You don’t just introduce yourself and say, “Hello, let me tell you about HIV?”

Glebova: (laughs) No, not usually.

Friedman: What is the level of awareness of these issues in Russia, where you were born and raised?

Glebova: Well, I wouldn’t be able to tell you that: I haven’t been there in 11 years.

Friedman: What part of Russia are you from?

Glebova: I come from a small town right on the coast of the Black Sea. Very beautiful, with warm weather. almost a Mediterranean type of climate.

Cooper: And from Russia your family moved to Canada?

Glebova: Yes, we moved to Toronto, and that is where I have lived for the past 11 years until recently.

Cooper: What led your parents to emigrate?

Glebova: They wanted a better opportunity for our family and a better future for me. My dad was a radio specialist for ships, so he traveled a lot. But with the advancements in technology his job basically became obsolete.

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My mom was a teacher of Russian language and literature, but when my parents moved they went back to school in Canada and became computer specialists. Now they are both computer software testers.

Friedman: What was it like moving to Canada?

Glebova: It was quite a change. It turned our life around almost 100 percent. We had to start from scratch because when we came to Canada we didn’t know anybody, we didn’t speak the language very well, and we didn’t have a place to live. It was really difficult to adjust to a new country, new culture and new language.

Cooper: You didn’t learn English until after you moved?

Glebova: Well, I learned some when I was in Russia.

Cooper: Because we can’t understand a word you’re saying.

Glebova: (laughs) Of course. Nothing this whole past hour, right?

Friedman: (laughs) Nothing at all.

Cooper: You went to college in Canada?

Glebova: Yes. I studied information technology management. I got my bachelor’s degree last year from Ryerson University in Toronto.

Cooper: How do you plan to use your degree?

Glebova: Well, it covers a pretty broad field because the degree is a bachelor’s of commerce. It’s a business program, and I really wanted to become a project manager in a company. But I don’t see myself in that field right now because I like working with people more than working with computers, I see myself continuing with my education in the future, maybe getting into marketing. communications or public relations.

Cooper: Do you like public speaking?

Glebova: I like it a lot, and of course I get a lot of experience these days. I think it’s great for future opportunities.

Friedman: How did you happen to enter the Miss Uni verse pageant?

Glebova: I had always heard about the Miss Universe competition, but I had never seen it on TV until about two years ago. When I saw it, I really became interested because I have always liked performing. I always liked being on stage in high school and even back in grade school-in fact, ever since I can remember.

When I saw the competition, I thought I would love to be a part of it and to represent Canada. So I entered.

Cooper: Was that your first foray into the pageant world?

Glebova: Yes. A lot of people said I would never win Miss Canada because I was Russian. They said I shouldn’t even try because I’d be wasting my time. And I knew there was only a remote possibility I would win. But at the same time, I thought I could get so much out of it-life experience, a chance to challenge myself, knowledge, new relationships, positive contacts and opportunities for the future. That is why I did it.

Cooper: When you won Miss Canada, what did you hear from those naysayers who had said you shouldn’t even try?

Glebova: (laughs) Well, what could they say, except “Congratulations”?

Cooper: And from there you went on to represent Canada in the Miss Universe pageant.

Glebova: Yes. Again, I didn’t go to Miss Universe with a goal to win. I had already achieved my dream by just being there.

Friedman: What organizations have you had a chance to work with in serving as Miss Universe?

Glebova: One organization I work with throughout the year is the Global Health Council, which is coming to South Africa and to Russia in 2006. Other groups are the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research.

Friedman: I read that you had a meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What was that like?

Glebova: That was a fantastic experience. When I was in South Africa we were invited to a private reception at his house to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary with his family, and we also got a chance to attend the ceremony at his church. It was amazing to see how he addressed the congregation. He talked about the dangers of AIDS, and it was inspiring to see his work in that regard. He is such a compassionate person.

Cooper: Does he talk about preventing AIDS in ways other than abstinence?

Glebova: Yes. He gave a big speech about using condoms.

Friedman: You mentioned that you have been to the Ukraine recently. Will your Miss Universe travels take you to Russia?

Glebova: Yes. It will be the first opportunity I’ve had to return since moving to Toronto.

Friedman: You must have relatives there, I would guess?

Glebova: My grandparents still live there.

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Friedman: What are your feelings about going back for the first time?

Glebova: It is probably the trip I am looking forward to the most because I will get to be in the place where I was born and raised. And hopefully I will see my grandparents, see all of the changes in the country and see what life is like now.

I look forward to addressing the issues of HIV and AIDS there. I am very interested to see what is being done in Russia to combat the illness. I have learned so much about what’s being done in Africa and Asia and North America, but I don’t know much about what’s happening in the country where I was born.

Cooper: When we interviewed Justine Pasek, the 2001 Miss Universe, she was headed off to four countries in almost as many days. How much time do you have to prepare for your trips?

Glebova: My exact schedule arrives one day in advance, telling me what I am doing the next day. I have a tentative schedule for the next few months, but everything changes.

Cooper: How many miles do you think you traveled during 2005?

Glebova: I don’t know-(laughs) maybe I’d be able to tell you if you asked me about kilometers.

Cooper: (laughs) When the organization first gave you your orientation, did they say how many kilometers you would be traveling during the year?

Glebova: They say that Miss Universe usually travels to more than 20 countries in a year.

Friedman: What else would you like to share with us?

Glebova: The only question you didn’t ask-which surprises me, because everybody asks it-is whether I have a boyfriend. That is the most frequent question I’m asked.

Cooper: And I was surprised you didn’t ask if I had a girlfriend, or if Gillian had a boyfriend.

Glebova: (laughs) Well, I don’t want to pry.

Friedman: But now that you have opened the door, please go ahead and share with us-do you have a significant other?

Glebova: Well, I am sorry to say that I don’t have any juicy details about a boyfriend-because I don’t have one.

Cooper: I heard you are dating a celebrity but you’re not willing to name names.

Glebova: You heard that?

Cooper: No, no, I’m just kidding. Although we do have pictures of you kissing someone on the beach.

Glebova: (laughs) Now I know you are kidding, because I know that’s not possible.

I think it would be impossible right now for me to start a relationship, even if I did find somebody I wanted to have one with. I really can’t make anything work because I am not in one country for more than two weeks at a time.

Cooper: Maybe you should consider dating an airline pilot?

Glebova: (laughs) Again, that wouldn’t work. We’d probably be flying in different directions.

Friedman: So in the last relationship you had, who broke things off-you or him?

Glebova: I did.

Cooper: Does he now kick himself and say, “Oh my gosh, I was dating Miss Universe!”

Glebova: (laughs) No, I don’t think so.

Cooper: Why did you break it off?

Glebova: Because he wasn’t understanding of my schedule. When I was Miss Canada, he couldn’t understand that I couldn’t devote more time to our relationship, and I couldn’t understand that he didn’t understand that.

Cooper: Well, I understand that you didn’t understand that he didn’t understand.

Glebova: (laughs) Thank goodness that someone understands.

Cooper: (laughs) Well, that is too bad for him. You seem like a very nice, well-rounded person.

Glebova: Thank you.

Friedman: Where are you going on your next trip?

Glebova: I am going to Puerto Rico in a few weeks, where I’ll attend the Miss Puerto Rico pageant.

Cooper: I can’t imagine too many other positions that allow you to travel the way you are. What a great opportunity. When you finish this year, are you moving back to Toronto or are you planning to stay in New York?

Glebova: I could actually end up anywhere in the world. I might stay in the United States, I might go to Asia, I might go back to Canada-we’ll see where life takes me.

Friedman: What do you think is next in your career when your reign as Miss Universe is over?

Glebova: I hope to continue my work increasing awareness of HIV and AIDS on a global scale. I would like to continue my travels and continue working with the same organizations I do now.

foreword by Paul Sterman

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