Born in Ukraine, model and photographer Sergey Sheptun must witness helplessly as his home country, family and friends whether a truly dire situation. What can the NYC queer nightlife community do to help? [Cover photo: @bluephotonyc]
Thotyssey: Hello Sergey, thanks so much for finding time to talk to us today. I know these are incredibly stressful and scary times for you. Have you been able to stay in touch with family and friends back in Ukraine recently?
Sergey Sheptun: It’s terrible times. Yes, I have been in touch with family a few times a day. Checking on them and lots of my friends from Kharkiv and Kyiv all the time, to see if everyone is still alive and safe.
I watched a recent news clip of you being interviewed, and you really conveyed more than anything that you and your family (and most of the world, frankly) were just in complete shock and disbelief that this was happening. It must still feel like you are in a bad dream.
It feels like a horrifying dream! It’s hard to describe. Every morning I wake up and think if everyone I love are still alive, then seeing my hometown getting destroyed every day, more and more. To see so many people dying, some of them I might have known before… to see the great historical center of the city burning in ruins… it’s impossible to imagine. And it’s even harder to believe that my county is being attacked that violently by it’s neighbor, where I also have friends and family.
It seems that many of the Russian people for are against this action, even coming out to protest it–which puts them in great danger with Putin’s military. But it still must be indescribably strange and awful to see one country that you have blood ties to at war with another.
You would be surprised, but even after everything that’s going on I have relatives who still believe there is no war, that the Russian army doesn’t attack civilians, that there are neo-Nazis [in Ukraine] and they’re trying to stop them. It’s just insane. Russian media is totally controlled by government, and for many decades they have a very different perspective of the news from all over the world. And lots of people in Russia believe those sources, and Putin. I think he is a 21st century version of Hitler, and he did turn a big part of the Russian population into zombies who will believe everything he says. It’s a tragedy! There is no democracy or any freedom of speech. There is no choice, only dictatorship.
Of course there are people who trying to go against [Putin], who are brave to protest and go against the regime. Unfortunately they’re getting arrested, scared, and ruined or killed.
That’s so horrifying. Is your Ukrainian family seeing the devastation happening in real time–the missiles and gunfire–or are they a safe distance from that?
They are not [safe]; my mom’s neighborhood was attacked this night by a tank [patrol]. Residential buildings, cinema, two supermarkets: all ruined, only two streets away from my home.
I understand that you were back home for a visit recently. That must make everything seem that much more raw for you.
I was there this August. It’s all surreal, it’s hard to believe, seeing now the city falling apart. My family decided not to leave home; there are not many ways to go, everything is under attack. Only woman and children are allowed to cross the border; my mom won’t leave my brother and her husband. And they don’t want to leave their home.
The Ukrainian people have really proven themselves to be incredibly brave, including President Zelenskyy who’s defiance against Putin is really such an inspiration (and a humiliation for Putin).
Ukrainians are strong and brave, and showing this to the rest of the world every new day more and more. The Ukrainian nation throughout history has always been under some occupation, and when we finally got our freedom 30 years ago we would never give up to fight for it and protect it.
Tell us a bit about growing up in Ukraine, if you will.
Growing up in Ukraine was a challenging experience, I wasn’t from a wealthy family, and I was raised during a very hard time for Ukraine–the 90s, after the country just got her independence and was making her first steps. It wasn’t easy; we hadn’t had hot water for many years, no elevator on the eighth floor, and some evenings meal without protein–only carbs, lol. Than it got slowly better. Plus, my mom was working three jobs to support the family, after my father left. But that’s how we learn how to live through struggles–it makes us stronger.
Than I got into my journey. I had started meeting guys and discovering being gay, but I was doing it by myself–alone. While meeting people, they helped me out to understand a lot of things. Gay life in Ukraine wasn’t great, like in any other ex-USSR country, but in years Ukraine was one that went in the right direction and become more and more progressive, become part of Europe. I was visiting in September Kyiv and Kharkiv, and was impressed: variety of restaurants, nightlife, gay bars , big parties. So much fun. Great places to visit as a tourist, and you’d spend very little money. Unfortunately now it’s all gone, Russia took this away…
But back to my childhood. I started seeing guys when I was 14, and some men were using my age for their benefit. But I was having fun, so don’t wanna blame anyone. It’s just that a lack of information for gay people–gay kids–can put us into trouble. Nothing bad happened to me, but lots of young boys were badly hurt by not-good people. I came out at high school very early, and again I was lucky that I had a very good school and very supportive friends who always covered my back if someone wanted to offend me. I was being a very bright, spotlighted gay character; I thought that being loud protects you from being bullied. It worked! Same in college. The only people who didn’t know that I was gay were my parents. I wasn’t ready yet.
Anyways I was surrounded by good people, but I know many stories about other LGBTQ children who struggled a lot. In general, being gay in Ukraine isn’t something wrong– it’s even supported and protected by the government. But a society raised in the USSR isn’t ready for open-minded, “different” people. So you can be yourself, but “don’t act like a gay” in public or at work. Don’t hold hands, don’t kiss, don’t dress too gay, etc. unless you’re in gay parties, clubs or other open-minded places. But it was getting slowly better.
I was working since I was 16. When I was 17, I started working in a drag show called “Marlen Scandals” that totally changed my life, I was happy to do what I did, being myself. We were traveling to cities in Ukraine and Russia to perform in clubs, gay bars, or any other events. And crowds were not only gay–straight, too. Doing drag isn’t being gay in Ukraine–it was called being an artist. One of the biggest celebrities and stars in Ukraine is Verka Serduchka (she came second in Eurovision 2006); publicly she wasn’t gay, and my parents and all generations of Ukrainians love her!
Than I was working in a club dancing, and met my first boyfriend, who was jazz vocalist and well-known performer. We end up being together four years , and that’s how I moved to Kyiv from Kharkiv. Kyiv was different, more open to gay life–a very fun, bright city.
Step by step, my life was changing for the better. I was able to help my family financially, my mother got married again, my relationships with my family got closer. I had issues in childhood with my older brother, who wasn’t happy with my views of life. We were close when I was a child, but when our father left he was hurt and become a bully, mostly towards to me. So I was getting a hard hand sometimes, especially when he was drunk. But years passed, and we learn how to forgive and grow. My family went through a lot of ups and downs, but I’m happy we did. Life and challenges do make you stronger! They make you learn to not take anything for granted, and appreciate everything you have, and your loved ones.
Before I moved to the States I had a chance to reunite with my father, who I hadn’t seen for twelve years, I just showed up at his door, and we began our relationship. People make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes, but we should do better and know how to forgive. We’re still in touch, he’s still in Ukraine–Kharkiv. Both my parents now know that I am gay, and are very supportive… I was surprised. I was married in the States when I came out to them. They told me they always knew, and it doesn’t matter who I am with and what my life path is; what matters is that I am happy, and have a roof [over my head] and meals and work.
I do love Ukraine! It’s gonna be always my home, the place that brought me so many experiences and lessons and happy moments. It’s sad what’s happening to everyone in Ukraine. It’s one of the most beautiful countries, with a huge history of thousands years, and incredibly intelligent, creative people full of bright hearts and minds.
In addition to being a model and a host of adult content sites, you’re known here in New York for your gorgeous and erotic photography. How did that start, and what ultimately brought you here to New York?
I came to New York because I meet a guy in Ukraine from the States. We had been dating for a year distantly, than I applied for fiancé visa, and got married. It all happened very fast! I had been married four, five years. Unfortunately, we’re separated now.
When I came to New York, I started doing modeling a lot. A few years after, I got the camera into my hands for the first time when a friend of mine, Richard Rothstein, a photographer who I modeled for many, many times, invited me for to his shoots to shoot from behind scenes. He started mentoring me in photography, and after a while I started doing my first shoots as a photographer. I loved it, and am loving it more and more each day. Now I managing both modeling and photography.
I love to work with male physique, crating beautiful artistic images of men, playing with light, shades, lines of the body. I think male beauty is one of the greatest things in the world. Also each model is unique, having different types energy, beauty. They’re performing when they model. Expressing themselves while being nude helps the model to discover freedom more like never before, and show their story.
[all above photos by Sergey Sheptun]
Creatively, is there anything specific coming up for you?
I am currently working on a book of my photography, and still putting together my website. As soon as I’m done with the book, I want to make an exhibit happen.
There is also coming a new edition of the book created by Ukrainian photographer Igor Yermakov. In 2019 he photographed me; later he published a book from a photoshoot. And in the last few years he coordinated with 400 queer artists from all over the world–every country. They made wonderful paintings and drawings of different styles, based on photographs of me. This book is celebrating queer unity of the world; it’s something to be really honored and proud about.
Looking forward to that! What can New York’s queer community do to help Ukraine?
There are a few LGBTQ organizations in Ukraine who need support. Lots of guys cannot leave the country–some of them joined the army or the civilian territorial patrol. One of my drag queen friends joined one of those, and is spending nights to protect her neighborhood. Any support provided to those organizations and cooperation with them would be helpful. Also, bring more media attention. And, help close the air above Ukraine! Ukraine needs our help.
Thank you, Sergey. Our hearts and hopes go out to your family and the people of Ukraine!