Maria Kiselyova, sports commentator

Sometimes it happens that someone sacrifices their entire life to one thing, never to emerge in the limelight, then they switch professions and become famous overnight. The career of former synchronous swimmer Maria Kiselyova is a case in point. Kiselyova dedicated sixteen years to her sport, but was always in the shadow of her more famous partner, Olga Brusnikina (see Russian Life, July/Aug 2001). Her sports career certainly was not a failure—in Sydney she won two gold medals. But Brusnikina (who continues to compete) was always the “headline attraction.”

At the end of 2000, Kiselyova decided to quit sports and take a chance as a sports commentator with NTV channel. Former athlete-turned-sportscaster is hardly an outstanding phenomenon, and Kiselyova was a fine professional. But her big break was yet to come.

Shortly after Kiselyova became an evening sports commentator on NTV, ORT channel decided to create a knock-off of the hit British (and American) game show, The Weakest Link. Kiselyova decided to go through the casting for the show’s host, playing one round of the game. She did not hold out much hope of getting the position, and anyway, a few days later, more important things held sway: Kiselyova was married and went off on her honeymoon.

When Kiselyova returned, she found her answering machine full of messages from her former sports partner, Brusnikina, saying that The Weakest Link’s producers were desperately trying to find Kiselyova, to offer her the job as the show’s host.

At first glance, it would not seem that there was a more unlikely host for the show than Kiselyova. The program’s format requires the anchor to be a domineering and obnoxious snob, a constantly nit-picking schoolmaster with a razor-sharp wit. So it is a tribute to Kiselyova’s acting skills that she could transform her persona from a smiling and charming synchronous swimmer into a pusillanimous witch who intones nasally: “Who is the weakest link?”

Indeed, Kiselyova seems to fit so naturally in her new role that many of her former fans were a bit shocked. “I do have character,” Kiselyova said, “though maybe not such a tough one. But then I can be totally different in life, depending on the situation.”

When she watched the video of the original program with the famously rude Anne Robinson, Kiselyova said from the outset that she “would not be able to be like that.” But the show’s director didn’t insist on an exact copy. He just told her: “To begin with, try not to smile.” Challenge enough for a long-time synchronous swimmer.

Kiselyova’s sports training comes in handy during the show, where she demonstrates a remarkable ability to rapidly adjust to any development in the game, commenting on each player’s performance and always finding grounds for criticism. “Prior to the game we look through people’s resumes,” Kiselyova explained. “If, say, a teacher of biology can’t answer a question on this topic, you can’t help teasing him.”

Her incarnation as The Weakest Link host is so striking that many viewers cannot believe that she is the same person who anchors sports news at NTV (she holds down both jobs). Kiselyova said that “NTV’s sports editor was once asked, ‘That Masha Kiselyova who is the moderator of The Weakest Link, is she a relative to our Masha Kiselyova or something?’ Sometimes they even think we are twins and wonder: ‘Why did their parents give them the same names?’”

Kiselyova’s popularity led her to be picked in late 2001 as one of the moderators of the prestigious TEFI award ceremony—the Russian equivalent of the Emmys. It is recognition that Kiselyova is herself one of the best finds on Russian TV in 2001. Of course, she cast off her dark mask for the ceremony, displaying an excellent sense of humor and charm. In fact, some TV critics were quick to say that, if Kiselyova’s TV career continues to develop at this same pace, she may well soon be a TEFI nominee herself.

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