Ukrainian makeup artist Aliona Antonova had little idea when she fled her hometown the morning of the Russian invasion that she would soon find herself among the stars at the world’s top film festival.
Antonova’s made-for-Hollywood odyssey to Cannes began at dawn on February 24, with the first bombs going off in Odessa not far from her beauty salon and makeup school.
Now the 31-year-old single mum finds herself doing cosmetics for guests bound for the festival’s vaunted red carpet.
“I believe in my destiny,” she told AFP.
“When I decided to come here I didn’t know: would I have clients here or students? But I just knew that I should come here.”
– ‘In shock’ –
Antonova’s story began that frightening morning three months ago.
“One day before the war started I was arguing with my uncle because he told me soon the war would start. I didn’t believe him but I went to sleep and I felt something unusual — it was fear,” she said.
The next morning at 6:00 am her brother woke her with the news, telling her to prepare to flee the country.
“I called a taxi to check on my salon and heard a bomb and was in shock,” she said.
Although she hated to leave her home, employees and beloved city, her quick escape to Moldova proved a wise decision given the massive queues that soon appeared at the border.
By chance, her four-year-old son Micha was already with her parents in the Moldovan capital Chisinau for a family celebration.
Harnessing the power of her 72,000 Instagram followers, she quickly landed work in western European countries which had opened their borders to Ukrainians, doing makeovers and tutorials in cities like Brussels and Berlin.
Even back in Odessa she had set her sights on Cannes one day because “all stars are usually in America but it’s very far away — this is the closest place with so many stars” in one place at one time.
She contacted local beauty salons and the first one she wrote to offered her a spot as a freelancer during the festival.
“I was in shock because it was very easy,” she said. “So easy that until the date to come here, I didn’t believe that it will be true.”
Since she set up shop she’s been doing a brisk business, with the protagonists of the Netflix documentary “The Tinder Swindler” among her favourite Cannes clients. “They were so fun!”
– ‘How brave’ –
Stargazing on Cannes’s famed Croisette seaside promenade, she’s already spotted Julia Roberts and Anne Hathaway, as well as Brazilian model and actress Adriana Lima.
Antonova doesn’t tell people she’s Ukrainian because she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her, unless they ask.
“All people who know that I am from Ukraine give support. They always ask, ‘How are you? How is your family?’ That’s very kind,” she said.
By charging up to 300 euros ($320) per person for evening makeup and seeking investors for her own line of cosmetic products, she’s hopeful of soon flying Micha and her mother to Cannes to join her.
As far as what the future will bring, Antonova fights back tears, admitting the anxiety sometimes gets the better of her.
“I think all the world is surprised how brave our people are,” she said.
“I hope it will finish very soon. But anyway when the war will be finished, it will be very hard for our people to (rebuild) everything.
“No one knows what will happen tomorrow. Now I’m on my way but I want to feel light. I’m trying to be optimistic.”