While most companies in Latvia struggled in the face of the credit crisis, one charitable foundation has gone from strength to strength. Jared Grellet this week caught up with one of the faces behind the hugely successful Riga Blonde Parade. For 51 weeks of the year a thick cloud of depression makes itself a permanent fixture over Latvia, as the country continues to come to terms with the long lasting repercussions of the global economic crisis. The news continues to be filled with stories of bankruptcies and emigration, as Latvians move abroad in record numbers as they search for brighter futures and bigger incomes than what they could currently hope to get here.
But for one week, at the end of May every year, the cloud thins somewhat as two events do their part to lift the doom and gloom of Latvians and bring some much needed tourist dollars into the country. The first is the Nordea Bank Riga Marathon, which on Sunday attracted a record attendance of 16,358 participants – a figure that has swelled considerably every year following the race gaining international status in 2007. The participatory numbers for this year were up 42 percent on last year, which in turn were up 25 percent on 2009. This year at least 1,500 of the participants traveled from abroad – a significant number of tourists for a single weekend in Riga. This statistic does not take into account the support teams, friends and family that also traveled to Riga with the runners.
Now Riga is once more gearing itself up for its second big weekend and another influx of tourists as its prepares for the ‘Go Blonde Parade,’ set to take place on 11 Novembra Krastmala, the right bank of the Daugava river, this Saturday afternoon. Starting from nothing more than an idea to bring smiles to the faces of Latvians in 2008 and raise money for charity in the process, the parade has rapidly become the biggest of its kind in the world, attracting media, fans and participants from as far afield as New Zealand, offering another significant boost for the Latvian tourism sector. Last year over 800 males and females took part in the parade, with hundreds lining the streets of the Old Town to witness the spectacle. The official event Web site, www.goblonde.lv, believes that the number of 800 is set to double this year as word of the parade continues to spread around the globe.
When the idea of a blonde parade was first brought up, back in 2008, Dace Denava was on hand, becoming one of the people responsible for taking the parade from being nothing more than an idea, and making it a reality. Looking ahead to this year’s edition, Dace took some time out to discuss those early days with TBT, reflecting on how the event has turned into the phenomenon that it now is, while breaking down one or two blonde stereotypes along the way.
Can you tell us a little bit about how this all began?
Three years ago Marika [Gederte – president of the Latvian Association of Blondes] told myself and four other ‘blondes’ (Guna Geikina, Kristine Samusa, Laura Everte, Zane Pallo) her idea for the parade and we decided to support it and accomplish the goal together. As mentioned, at first the idea was a procession of beautiful resplendent Blondes, to trigger happy thoughts and more smiles – something which at that time was very much missing from Latvia. Gradually, through negotiations, there came a lot of other ideas. We realized that not only could we produce happy thoughts and smiles, but there were also a number of other realistic things we could achieve together.
For Marika, where did the idea come from?
Marika was involved in a blondes walk in Bulgaria and confirmed that a great many people – including the participants – felt very positive emotions from the beautiful girls and women who were there participating.
What was your initial response to the idea?
At the time when Marika approached us I was working as restaurant division manager of LVRA. I saw this project as a successful measure for attracting more tourists to Latvia.
The parade now does a lot for charity, namely for children with special needs – how did you come upon a charity to support?
Initially there were many different ideas about who we could help. In the initial year we decided to help children with special needs. Personally, I would have been sympathetic to a broader ‘eligibility list’ and felt that each year we could support a different cause. But most of the girls strongly supported the idea to stay with one group, and that has been babies with special needs.
How was the response from the public?
The response was even better than I could have imagined. We really wanted to attract attention, and we did. I personally was a little amazed by the amount of reporters and the amount of attention that the first parade created. The first time I stood with the other girls, it is no exaggeration to say, there were about 40 photographers in front of us, immortalizing us and beaming our pictures around the world. The six of us girls had totally done it. The parade, of course, got much attention at home, but the greatest response came from the fact that we were capitalizing directly on attention from around the world. At the same time, we realize that many laugh at the idea, or that it can be perceived negatively. But at the same time it already has this phenomenon – that the idea is ‘easy’ – beautiful girls, gorgeous costumes, smiles all around. In my opinion, we have eased into finding the right target and that we are actually out doing positive things and that this is the key to our success. As blondes, we are not always taken seriously. But as for us who are organizing the parade, we are all serious women who have life experience. We are educated and industrious with a sense of obligation.
How did you find the experience in that first year?
I think that it was our enthusiasm and our laughter that made it. During the organization process we had so much fun together – so many jokes about blondes (Why is the blonde standing watching the lightning at the window? Because she thinks that someone is taking her photograph). So many funny situations occurred. Suddenly we saw ourselves as the real examples of Blondes. In reality, it is a pity that a lot of this went unrecorded.
‘Go blonde’ does a lot to assist in liberating females and increasing their confidence. While you are doing so much to improve the image of females, we see France introducing new laws, which could be argued as going against that. How do you feel about the banning of Islamic burkas in France?
You need to assume the viewpoint of the women directly affected. I can only answer for myself – I am currently working for the organization AFS (American Field Service) Latvia, and the organization’s mission statement and purpose summarize my feeling toward this question. We must learn to be tolerant, open, and aware of each other. So that we don’t come to a situation like this - where something has to be approved or banned.
To you, what does it mean to not only be blonde, but to be able to utilize that and turn it into this phenomenon which is the blonde parade?
It is now a seriously important part of our lives – the foundation to us is now everything. It is now deeply ingrained in us. Whether there should be a serious slogan for ‘go blonde’ – to work hard, etc. – I do not know, but maybe. We just do and offer everything – this is our way. We are all blondes with all our hearts. But at the same time we are all very different people throughout. But the one thing we do share is laughter. In reality, one of the great strengths is our craziness. If we can think of ideas, even if they are crazy, we can achieve them.