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Ukraine’s camera-shy first lady steps onto global stage

She is a screenwriter by profession, but war-torn Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska has emerged from the wings to take centre stage, finding her voice as a powerful advocate for her people.

Initially a reluctant public figure, the 44-year-old spent weeks in hiding at the start of the war, moving with her two children from one safehouse to the next as Russia cut its deadly swathe through her country.  

But she has since returned to the spotlight on an international charm offensive, addressing the US Congress this week as part of Ukraine’s outreach for Western support in its struggle for survival.

“Help us to stop this terror against Ukrainians,” she implored lawmakers as she appeared in person to show them images of children maimed by Russia, four months after a virtual appearance by her husband, President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelenska noted she was the first wife of a foreign leader to address Congress in an impassioned appeal that earned her a standing ovation and plaudits from the wider political establishment.

But the diplomacy does not come easily.

“I have always been a non-public person and did not like the additional attention to myself,” she told Elle magazine a few months before the February 24 invasion.

“But in two and a half years as the first lady a lot has changed for me… I understand well that fate gave me a unique chance to communicate with people.”

An architecture graduate, Olena Kiyashko was brought up in Kryvyi Rig, the city of 650,000 in central Ukraine that was also the hometown of her future husband.

The couple met when they were 17-year-olds at the same college and friendship blossomed into romance as they began careers in the entertainment industry, he as a comic actor and she writing his jokes.

– ‘I will not panic’ –

They married in 2003 and moved to Kyiv to make a life together, becoming parents to Oleksandra, now 17, and her little brother Kyrylo, who has turned nine. 

Largely unknown before 2019 — and happy that way — Zelenska has recalled in interviews how she was “not too happy” when her husband forgot to tell her he was running for the nation’s highest office. 

She had to find out like everyone else — on social media.

Anna Chaplygina, a Ukrainian etiquette expert, contrasts Zelenska — a “person of duty” who has “never tried to pretend to please” — with first ladies such as Michelle Obama who were more at home in the limelight.

“She never dreamed and never aspired to become first lady and she found herself there accidentally — and in the midst of a planetary crisis,” Chaplygina told AFP.

It wasn’t until a year after the election that the family moved into the presidential mansion, the president saying he had been persuaded of the need for the kind of security one might expect for the first family of a country threatened by a giant neighbour.

When Zelenska went to bed on February 23, she could not possibly have known she would not sleep alongside her husband…

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