The lights have gone out at a community hall in Bila Tserkva, central Ukraine. A missile attack by Russians a day earlier hit the energy infrastructure and a blackout ensued.
The residents of this city, about 80 kilometres from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, have turned out en masse for an evening concert – a defiant show of national pride against Russian invaders.
The pews are filled with hundreds of soldiers in camouflage uniforms. Women and refugees sit alongside them, the occasional head scarf standing out in the shadows.
The face of Kamaliya Zahoor, the night’s main attraction, is lit only by the torches of smartphones as she breaks into song; her white suit shining in their reflection.
By the time she hits the top note, her arms spread like an eagle, the audience is on its feet in applause. Chants of “bravo!” come from the back of the room. No one is cowering in silence just because the Russians are nearby, even if they can hardly see one another.
They are scenes reminiscent of the late Dame Vera Lynn, who would sing in London Underground stations and air raid shelters, broadcast around the country by radio, to keep spirits high during the dark days of the Second World War.
Now they are spread around the world online – Kamaliya shows i a video of the night on her Instagram feed, where she has amassed a quarter of a million followers.
“I hold my tears inside, I don’t want to show them my upset, because I am coming to support them. After that I go on to cry,” the singer, whose first language is Russian, says of her performances on the frontline.
“I’m singing for the soldiers, for the refugees, for the people. I want people to forget about the rockets, about the bombs, to meet with each other, for new ideas, and for helping the army.
“I am not just sitting in Kyiv, I am going around Ukraine. We have a lot of refugees from Mariupol, from Donetsk, from Bucha, the cities that have been occupied by Russia. We have a lot of people in Kyiv and different cities and I am supporting these people.
“I am supporting the morale and helping and singing and talking with children who lost their parents in the war.”
Kamaliya, the single name she performs under, is a 45-year-old pop star, former Mrs World, and a few short years ago was filling her evenings dancing on Ukraine’s version of Strictly Come Dancing. Born in the USSR, she survived lymph node cancer, likely a result of growing up under the shadow of Chernobyl.
Today we are sitting in the £10m north London mansion of her steel magnate husband, the Pakistan-born billionaire Mohammad Zahoor, known simply as Zahoor.
This house has enough sofas to seat half of Leeds. Some with gold quilt, some in fuschia, others with leopard print. In the middle of them all a pouffe in tiger print, to mix things up. Candelabras and small marble statues of women fill table tops. Lamps sit on waist-height pillars.
The curtains are all closed, with the outside windows covered by electronic shutters to protect the house from burglars in search of a new sofa. They could probably lose two or three before anyone noticed.
Kamaliya jokes that the karaoke machine at the centre of the room isn’t for her, but 67-year-old Zahoor’s renditions of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on a Friday night.
Eventually, she sits down at their 16-seat dining table for our interview. At times it’s like she is auditioning for Stars in their Eyes, her face disappearing into a plume of smoke from constant vaping.
Despite the luxury, she doesn’t want to be here. Kamaliya is only in the UK to spend time with her nine-year-old twin daughters before heading back to support the war effort.
“I’m living in Kyiv. I go back to Ukraine and start working with the army, and cooperate with the army, with the people and the children. Since September I started living again in Ukraine.
“My home is in Kyiv, if I stay in Ukraine, the people see me, and they see things more positively, they are feeling the support.”
Zahoor adds: “People think that if she, who has the chance to live outside, is living there, that means there’s no threat of losing the war. It helps morale.”
Amid speculation last February that Putin’s tanks were to roll into Ukraine – the first war on European soil since the Balkans in the 1990s – Zahoor and the children fled to London.
But Kamaliya refused to leave as the bombs landed.
“My house was shaking, the windows, ceiling, from bombs and rockets. Every few minutes, boom, boom, boom,” she says of the 4am assault, hands illustrating the explosions across Kyiv.
“I was very scared. I can’t imagine what I should do… I start waking my mama, everybody is gathering together. We’re taking the water and going underground.”
A week later she reluctantly headed for London.
“[On the phone] the children were crying and worried about me. Then I decided to go,” she said, welling up as she recalls the incident.
“When I crossed the border, I crossed to Romania, I drive myself, and there were a lot of different cars and women with small children. I stopped my car and I start crying. I crying all my way.”
The billionaire’s spouse had been afforded the use of a VIP lane to safety. But rather than speeding through, she stayed for hours to help others seeking refuge get through first.
Life was not always like this. I first met Kamaliya in 2014 at the couple’s home on the outskirts of Kyiv. If their Hampstead pad is a mansion, then their residence in Ukraine is positively palatial.
Back then Zahoor was in need of a project on which to spend his endless wealth, and opted for trying to “send Lady Gaga into retirement” by helping his wife achieve her pop stardom dreams.
Despite expensive publicity blitzes – she bagged an MTV reality series, performed at gay prides around Europe and even gave away her album for free with OK! magazine – Lady Gaga is firmly still in employment.
The pair were the image of gratuitous wealth: decorating the pillars of their palace with gold wallpaper, bathing in champagne (but “not so expensive champagne”) and flying around the world in not one, but two private jets.
I witnessed a parade of six housekeepers dressed in identical pink Juicy Couture tracksuits scurry around the Kyiv home, among their chores the task of dusting a 10-foot Biblical painting of the happy couple.
Now she has given up the luxury and the staff are gone. Days after we meet she posts a video online of her sitting in economy class seats onboard a WizzAir flight to Poland.
“I don’t have bodyguards. I self-drive. Our drivers, our bodyguards, they are in the army now. They are in Donetsk fighting.”
Zahoor adds: “If you’re asking about the gap between rich and poor, when they can see Kamaliya not showing off, no bright dresses – she wears camouflage now or Ukrainian flag dresses. It’s important not to be avant-garde. It’s important we do our bit, whoever we are.”
Indeed, Zahoor admits finding a new use for his vast wealth: spending millions on funding protective gear for soldiers and accommodation for displaced people, as well as keeping his businesses in the country afloat, despite suffering seven-figure losses each month.
“When you are running out you cannot take everything – just your documents, some money, some jeans,” Kamaliya says, dressed in simple jeans and a black top. “You can take with you just few suitcases, not all your home.”
It’s not just the trappings of super wealth which have faded with the war. Family life also has its challenges. “It’s difficult, yes, because we are a parted family,” Zahoor admits. “She is there [Ukraine] helping her countrymen, while I am here [London] with our daughters. We go there for half-term, to Kyiv, even our kids miss it there.”
Zahoor’s first wife, the mother of his eldest two children, is Russian, so they simply do not discuss the war to avoid tensions.
Kamilya has cut off much of her Russian family, unable to tolerate their support for Putin’s invasion of her homeland.
“When the war started, we fight, because they did not believe what I tell them, that Russia attacked us. The rockets are flying and bombing. ‘No it’s not true!’ they say. It’s yourself. It’s a fake,” she recalls of their arguments.
“For me, they are dead. It’s sad, but it’s not hard, because I don’t need bad people.”
‘I performed for Putin – with Zelensky’
Vladimir Putin may be at war with Volodomyr Zelensky today, but two decades ago he was being entertained by the now Ukrainian president, his sworn enemy, alongside Kamaliya.
Zelensky performed a comedy routine for Putin, while Kamaliya brought her pop music to elaborate variety shows for senior politicians.
“I performed for Putin many times,” she says, her face amused by how absurd the recollection is today. “Life has a lot of surprises! You can’t imagine it now.”
She adds: “I met Putin in Kyiv, and then Putin started calling me to Crimea to sing. He [had been] calling me since 2005, and then suddenly he stopped calling me. I don’t know why. After that, I saw a change in the president, he looked different.
“All artists, we would sit together and eat together after the performances or during the conferences. He looked kind. At that time, if somebody told me Putin will attack Ukraine, I couldn’t believe it. Because I know he loves Ukraine. He said every time that Ukraine and Russia should be together, but he wants the new USSR.”
Kamaliya and Zahoor have known the comedian-turned-politician Zelensky for decades as a fellow performer and associate.
“We would have photos together every time. The smiling, the parties, we communicate in show business. Every time he was very positive. He joked, he smiled, he was a very open person.”
The Ukrainian president has been using the internationally connected couple to help resource the country’s war effort. He has even tried to use Pakistan-born Zahoor to push for Pakistan to come off the fence over the conflict.
“We have been having conversations, not directly to him but through his team and through his envoys, when he needs some help from anywhere. I’m not the only person he’s contacting, but if something comes from Pakistan people talk to me on his behalf.
“He knows we are doing a lot on our own, so they never ask for any money. But asking Pakistan not to be neutral but to be on Ukraine’s side, pushing the Pakistan establishment to help with some of the donations and whatever. Sometimes they use back door channels.”