In an old photo in her native Saransk, an industrial town in Ukraine, Oksana Grigorieva covers her eyes and smiles as she teeters awkwardly in a Bettie Page-style bikini and heels.
But shying away from the spotlight is hardly how friends, acquaintances, and ex-boyfriends have described the 40-year-old pop star with the cascading hair, Angelina Jolie lips, and hammer-and-sickle ankle tattoo, who is currently in an ugly blow-up with Mel Gibson—the father of her 8-month-old daughter, Lucia, and, until last month, her romantic partner of three years. Rather, they describe her as a resolutely self-determined woman who willed herself from rags to riches, along the way progressing through a number of male suitors in order to get where she wanted to be.
Oksana Grigorieva grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine, where her father sold potatoes and her mother conducted an orchestra at the local chicken factory (she was paid in eggs).
Until now, little has been known about Grigorieva, who first surfaced in connection with the 54-year-old Gibson when photos were published last year, showing them embracing on a beach in Costa Rica. A month later, after it was revealed that Grigorieva was pregnant, Gibson's wife of 28 years, Robyn, filed for divorce. (The couple had been separated since 2006.)
• Rebecca Dana Conservatives and Evangelicals Ditch Mel, Too• Nicole LaPorte— Mel Gibson: Classic Batterer• More Mel Gibson Coverage From The Daily BeastBut if there were any bliss between the leggy brunette and the Braveheart star, it was short-lived. In April, Grigorieva and Gibson called it quits and subsequently filed mutual restraining orders. And in the past few days, Grigorieva claimed that Gibson was brutal with her, punching her in the face and knocking out teeth. Meanwhile, Gibson's camp says that such accusations are an example of " deceitful conduct" and stem from Grigorieva's unhappiness over a custody agreement she agreed to, and a ploy to get money.
Mel Gibson's lawyer, Stephen Kolodny, did not respond to a message left by The Daily Beast. Grigorieva's publicist, Victor Krugman, similarly did not respond to a voice message left late Monday.
Despite her high-profile relationship with a controversial star, Grigorieva has remained mostly in the shadows. She has a career in music, but her first album, Beautiful Heartache, which was released on Gibson's Icon Records label last year, has sold so poorly that it doesn't register on Nielsen SoundScan, which only collects data for albums that sell more than 1,000 copies. (According to a source with knowledge of Icon Records sales, fewer than 200 copies of Beautiful Heartache have sold.)
Grigorieva's claims against Gibson are serious. And if they are true, she is yet another victim in a domestic disturbance with a Hollywood star—one who has a rather rich history of losing his cool.
But until now, some former acquaintances of the Ukrainian beauty would never describe her as a victim. Alan Bergman, a former ballet dancer and businessman, whom Grigorieva lived with for two years in London in the mid-1990s, has flat-out called her "an opportunist" for ditching him for James Bond star Timothy Dalton, after meeting him at a party. (He claimed that she had left her second husband for him.)
"Within a week, she had moved in with [Dalton] and I never saw her again. She was a very lovely girl, but a bit of an opportunist. Many Russian young women are. She came from a tiny town," Bergman, who clearly has reason to be bitter, told the Telegraph.
When British socialite Basia Briggs, a former neighbor of Grigorieva's, heard this claim, she said, "Things happen in life, but Oksana isn't an opportunist… It's just unfortunate that she has had bad luck with men."
Grigorieva grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine, where her father sold potatoes and her mother conducted an orchestra at the local chicken factory (she was paid in eggs). From a young age, she saw a future for herself on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
"She was always determined to get to the West," Valentina Yeltsova, a former teacher of Grigorieva's, told The Mirror. "Oksana used to like English at school. It seemed like she was preparing herself for a better future and aiming to study as much as she could to escape from this country."
Grigorieva's first husband, a man from her town whom she married when she was 19, resented her aspirational yearnings. When she won a local beauty contest and was asked to participate in one in Moscow, he refused to let her go. He was also reportedly a drug addict. After six months, the marriage was over.
"She decided she had no more use for him and cast him aside," Yeltsova said.
At 20, Grigorieva received a visa to work for Elisabeth Hoodless of the Community Service Volunteers, in the U.K., looking after Hoodless' elderly parents. While in Shoreham, she began dating Matthew Simmons, the son of a vicar, who introduced her to the finer things in life, taking her on trips to London where "she loved looking at designer clothes shops," Simmons, who said he called her "Sana," told the Daily Mail. "When she first arrived, her dress was very Russian, but by the time she left, she was wearing fashionable jeans and tops."
Next was, in 1992, a short-lived marriage to Nicholas Rowland, a graphic designer, followed by a stint at the Royal College of Music, where she met the much older Bergman, who brought her to the film premiere party where she met Dalton.
Grigorieva's mother, Lyudmilla, has described the encounter in fairy tale terms to The Daily Mail: "The prince noticed Cinderella leaving and asked if she would be coming back. Later, they spent the whole night talking to each other. Timothy had to go to Japan but kept calling Oksana. When he came back, he found her."
Although they did not marry, Grigorieva and Dalton had a son together, Alexander, whom Grigorieva has been raising in her Sherman Oaks home. (She's maintained a separate residence from Gibson's Malibu residence in order to record her music and be close to her son's school.)
It was in 2006—in the wake of Gibson's public-relations implosion over drunken, anti-Semitic slurs—that Grigorieva met the actor. Grigorieva had a hit on her hands—the song "Un Dia Llegara," which she co-wrote, became a hit for Josh Groban—which led to recording contract offers, including one from Icon Records.
A professional relationship progressed to romance. "It's not like I was planning to meet Mel, specifically," Grigorieva told Reuters. "Life happens. There was a working relationship for a long time. I thought he was happily married until I was reassured otherwise. And then it happened."
In the same interview, Grigorieva said, "I'd like to be judged if so, by my art, by my music. That's primarily why I'm here. Of course, if the tabloids wrote the truth about most of people, maybe it would be really boring."
Perhaps, though Grigorieva seems to be an exception to that rule.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.