Before vanishing from public view last year, Vladimir Putin’s rumored long-time lover had glittered under a spotlight for two decades, first as a talented gymnast and later as a Russian model, politician, and media mogul.
But it would be as Putin’s reputed paramour for the past dozen years — and as the rumored mother to four of his children — that the spotlight on beautiful Alina Kabaeva would flare its hottest.
Now 37, Kabaeva was a teenager when she first backflipped onto the world stage in a burst of sequins.
Her strength, limberness and skill with the ball and ribbons of rhythmic gymnastics earned her praise as “the most supple woman in Russia.”
It was at the height of her athletic fame — notching a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and a gold medal in Athens four years later — that the then-married Putin, himself a judo and ice hockey enthusiast, first met Kabaeva, The Sunday Times has reported.
Since retiring from gymnastics in 2005, the Uzbekistan-born Kabaeva has tried out a succession of new careers, all capitalizing on her gymnastics stardom.
A singing career was attempted and abandoned.
She modeled occasionally, once appearing in a $33,000 gold gown on the cover of Vogue Russia.
For eight years, she held a seat on Russia’s lower level of parliament, the Duma, recruited by and running under Putin’s United Russia party.
But it was in 2008 that she first became Russia’s rumored “Secret First Lady.”
A Russian tabloid broke the news that Putin was dating a woman half his age — Kabaeva — and that he would seek a divorce from his wife of 30 years so that they could be married.
The paper was forced to close shortly after its exclusive, its billionaire owner citing “financial difficulties.”
Since then, the Kremlin has flatly denied any relationship and Putin has been belligerently mum on the subject.
Among the Russian press, it’s considered risky to even ask.
“I’ve always had a negative feeling about people poking their snotty noses and erotic fantasies into other people’s lives,” Putin snapped once, The Sunday Times has reported.
It has been left largely to Europe’s tabloids to keep the rumor mill churning.