For a long time, people questioned whether Valeria Lukyanova really existed. But here she is, perched on a sofa at Kama Sutra, Odessa's premier Oriental cafe, sitting up with her back perfectly straight and her long eyelashes fluttering. She slightly inclines her thin, fragile neck in a dainty gesture of greeting and chirps a "hello" in Russian.
To her followers, she is the spiritual leader Amatue, named after the Goddess of the Sun, and brings light into their lives. To her detractors, she is a grotesque reflection of much that is wrong with the modern world. To everyone else, she is a viral internet sensation: the human Barbie doll.
Lukyanova's rise from niche internet freak show to worldwide sensation has been rapid. Glossy magazines and tabloids the world over have begun to follow her every step as relayed on her online blogs and she has become the most prominent member of a new movement of "living dolls" that has emerged in Odessa, a hypersexualised Ukrainian port city filled with Western internet-bride hunters and hedonistic beach clubs.
After much persuasion, Lukyanova agreed to meet for lunch, stipulating that the meeting must take place at Kama Sutra and that there would be strictly no photography; she would provide her own pictures.
"Lunch," in her case, is a glass of freshly squeezed celery and carrot juice, mixed together with a trio of gloopy Indian chutneys into a devilish cocktail. "I've been on a liquid diet for a year now," she says, taking small sips of the slimy drink. "In recent weeks I have not been hungry at all; I'm hoping it's the final stage before I can subsist on air and light alone."
Her face is subsumed in a thick layer of makeup; her eyes turned into two deep turquoise pools by coloured lenses and augmented with swirls of mascara. She says that the only operation she has undergone is a breast enlargement, though many have speculated that she may have had ribs removed in order to achieve the almost implausible tapering of her figure from a voluminous bust to a waist that measures just 43cm. The rumours that she was merely a computer-generated fantasy were blown away last northern summer when she made an appearance on a prime-time Russian chat show.
There are still websites devoted to proving that Lukyanova is a fake and that her plasticky skin and unlikely curves are purely a product of Adobe Photoshop. They are wrong. Her appearance in the flesh (if "flesh" is quite the right word) is no less striking and no less unsettling than it is in the photographs.
She denies claims that her diet might push some of her young, impressionable followers towards anorexia. "Anorexia is when your bones stick out," she says. "Look at me everything is in order with my breasts, my rear. I'm healthy."
The biggest question is why a woman who says she is happily married (her husband, a construction magnate, "fully supports my lifestyle choices", she claims) has taken the decision to live her life as a Barbie doll. "My exterior look is a reflection of my spiritual, interior qualities," she says.
Lukyanova's spirituality, which she propagates online and teaches in a series of lectures and seminars, is based on vegetarianism and meditation. It is not linked to any religion, though she admits it draws much from Buddhism. Next month, Lukyanova will give a two-day seminar in Moscow involving group meditation and lifestyle advice on "being sincere with oneself" and "finding a life partner". Entrance is £60 ($113), but she is not in it for the money, she says. "My husband finances my life fully, I do not need to make a profit."
The combination of her pronouncements of spiritual depth with her meretricious Barbie appearance is incongruous. As she explains it: "I always try to perfect myself further both inside and outside, because I think perfection has no limits."
Lukyanova's "spiritual teachings" have found a receptive audience among many young women, like Natalia Konovalchuk, a softly spoken 14-year-old from Odessa. "I started off just seeing her as a pretty girl, but then I realised I liked her attitude to the world as well."
She also wanted to look more like a doll and for a time wore coloured contact lenses and thick makeup. "But people at school didn't take it very well, so I have stopped," says the teenager. Now she merely follows Lukyanova's meditation techniques.
"This is all a form of getting away from reality," says Olga Khryshtanovskaya, a Russian sociologist, on the same chat show.
Others were more blunt, calling Lukyanova a "sex doll", a "human freak show" and a "schizophrenic".
Lukyanova says: "I don't listen to the critics. They are women who are unhappy with their lives. They don't have husbands or children. They see me travelling the world and giving seminars, and they are sitting at home and making cabbage soup. I feel sorry for them."
Valley of the dolls
Valeria Lukyanova is not the only human doll but remains the best known.
She is now inseparable from Domenika, her "spiritual sister", who also sports a Barbie look, to only a slightly less eye-boggling effect. They met online and now do everything together, says Domenika, who on questioning admits her "earth name" is Olga.
Then there is Anastasia Shpagina, who also hails from Odessa. She dresses as a Japanese anime character with disturbing aesthetic results and has also attracted a huge online following. Briefly, the dolls functioned as a trio, but now they have fallen out. "She behaved very badly," Lukyanova says. "She's just in it for the PR. She doesn't have a beautiful spiritual interior."