It all started, like so many things connected to Donald Trump, with a display of glitzy, low-brow entertainment. On a music video production set in Los Angeles, Russian pop singer Emin Agalarov shimmies down dark alleys shining a flashlight as he pursues a beautiful woman into an abandoned warehouse.
He gyrates past a black Chevy muscle car and, inexplicably, a black stallion before finally locking on the gaze of the woman he was looking for: Olivia Culpo, the 2012 Miss Universe.
The four-minute music video, shot in the course of a single day in the spring of 2013, marked the start of what would become a critical — and now, problematic — relationship between Donald Trump and a Russian family at the center of allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 election.
Culpo was part of the Trump entertainment empire through her contract with the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump owned and produced. So Agalarov’s desire to have the international symbol of beauty perform with him in his video led him to the doorstep of the Miss Universe Organization, a block away from Trump Tower.
The video would in short order lead to a deal to produce the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, at an Agalarov-owned theater. The deals heralded a deeper relationship between Trump and the Agalarovs, a family with a fortune built on real estate and entertainment that has ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The bond over the subsequent few years would grow so strong that Donald Trump Jr. evidently would not think twice when an offer came, in an e-mail from Agalarov's representative, to meet with a Russian lawyer and accept the Russian government’s offer of help for Trump’s presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Trump officials and attorneys have denied any improprieties since news of the e-mail broke last week. They characterized the subsequent meeting with the Russian lawyer as an event so inconsequential that Donald Jr. never even mentioned it to his father.
Were it not for his oligarch pedigree, Agalarov, an aspiring pop star with a fondness for tight-fitting T-shirts, jeans, and sunglasses, would seem an unlikely conduit for a Russian effort to subvert American democracy and influence the election. Yet the tale of his association with Trump — pieced together through social media feeds, interviews, and public news accounts — fills in a crucial, if almost surreal, part of the backstory of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Emin Agalarov was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and spent the early years of his life in Moscow, where his father started a business importing computers into Russia before making a fortune as a developer. But as Emin grew older, his father sent him abroad — first to Switzerland, then to New Jersey, where he became fluent in English and attended public high school in suburban Tenafly.
“I was riding a moped, listening to Elvis and trying to look like him,” he told the Chicago Tribune in May. “The whole school made fun of me because I thought I was the new Russian Elvis in town.”
While studying business at Marymount Manhattan College, he began pursuing twin careers, one of them following in the footsteps of a father who made it big in real estate, the other a passion to be an entertainer and develop a jet-setting global brand. It was a path to business power not dissimilar to Trump’s.
As a performer, he wanted to be known by a single name: Emin.
It was, in part, this flamboyance and flair that led Emin and his agent, Rob Goldstone, to pay a visit to the Miss Universe Organization in New York in March 2013.
They met with president Paula Shugart and proposed having Emin perform at a future pageant, according to sources familiar with the meeting. And they also wanted permission to use a pageant model in one of Emin’s upcoming music videos to promote his new song, “Amor.”
‘These are the most powerful people in all of Russia, the richest men in Russia.’Donald Trump, in Las Vegas, speaking of Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin
“Me and my manager wanted to find the most beautiful woman — model — in the world that we could,” Emin said in an interview earlier this year with Forbes. “And at the time we figured we should reach out to the Miss Universe Organization and contact the current Miss Universe. So we did so.”
Miss Universe at the time was Olivia Culpo, a Cranston, R.I., native who was thrust to the national stage when, as a sophomore at Boston University, she won the Miss USA pageant.
Shugart gave Emin permission to use Culpo for the video, according to a source associated with the Miss Universe Organization who confirmed the broad outlines of its dealings with Emin. Shugart declined to comment further, including whether Trump was involved in the early decisions. Culpo also declined to comment.
That May, Emin and his associates — including his constant sidekick Goldstone and a music producer, Ali Dee — met in Los Angeles with video producers over a lavish meal and sketched out the video. It was shot in one day and only cost about $100,000 to produce, low-budget by music video standards.
“I had no knowledge of any Trump connections at the time,” said a person involved in making the video. “It was more like Emin’s crush [on Culpo]. Like, ‘We gotta get clearance from whoever runs the pageant.’ ”
Within a few weeks, the party moved to Moscow. Emin’s family was opening a new nightclub called the Rose Bar — which has a retractable roof and is designed to feel like a yacht — and he planned to formally release the video the same night.
A big bash was planned, with alcohol flowing and Russian celebrities showing up and posing for the cameras outside. Culpo and Shugart flew in for the release.
It was a chance for Emin and his family to show off their development, Crocus City Hall, where they hoped the next Miss Universe could be held.
Two weeks after the video release in Moscow, Emin and his entire family arrived in Las Vegas. Emin — a fan of posing on his social media feeds with hats that say things like “Surprise I’m Drunk Again” or “If You Had a Bad Day Let’s Get Naked” — wore a hat that said, “You’re Fired!” He stood outside the Trump International Hotel, just off the Vegas strip, in a tank-top with the hotel’s logo.
Later, upstairs in a boardroom for a business meeting, Trump sat at the center of the table. Emin was beside him, his father, Aras, across from him. Goldstone was one seat away from Trump, and sat next to Trump’s longtime close associate and lawyer, Michael Cohen.
With wine flowing, it was a night of celebration: The Miss Universe pageant would soon be heading to Moscow for the first time.
Posing on a Las Vegas red carpet later with Emin and his father, Trump boasted to the cameras, “These are the most powerful people in all of Russia, the richest men in Russia.”
Once the announcement was made, Trump tweeted: “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow — if so, will he become my new best friend?”
Emin responded with a tweet of his own: “Mr. @realDonaldTrump anyone you meet becomes your best friend — so I’m sure Mr. Putin will not be an exception in Moscow.”
Trump had extra incentive to work with the Agalarov family. For decades, he had hoped to build some of his signature buildings in Russia. But he had never cracked into the region.
Emin’s father, who founded a real estate company, is one of the wealthiest developers in the country. Some have called him the “Trump of Russia.” But he had something the American Trump lacked: ties to Putin, and the ability to cut through red tape in a society run by wealthy Russian oligarchs. Shortly before the Miss Universe pageant, Putin personally gave the elder Agalarov the Order of Honor of the Russian Federation.
In a round of interviews before the November 2013 pageant, Trump openly discussed his own potential run for president. He criticized President Obama’s health care law, and said that the world was laughing at the United States. He praised Putin numerous times as he touted his relationship with the Russian president.
“If you look at so many of the different things, he has really eaten our president’s lunch. Let’s not kid ourselves. He’s done an amazing job,” Trump told Thomas Roberts of NBC, who was master of ceremonies for the pageant that year. “I think that Putin has done an amazing job of showing certain leadership that our people have not been able to match.”
Despite Trump’s lavish praise, Putin never showed up for the Miss Universe festivities. But he later sent a decorative box and a note to Trump. According to the Daily Mail, that gift was delivered by Emin’s sister, Sheila.
Sheila Agalarova, who runs a jewelry company in New Jersey, did not return several messages seeking comment.
Trump returned to the United States triumphant.
“The Russian market is attracted to me,” he told Real Estate Weekly just after his trip, citing a dinner meeting the Agalarovs organized with powerful Russian bankers. “I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”
But where Aras Agalarov provided the power and the connections, it was his son, Emin, fluent in English, with whom Trump formed an easier bond. Like Trump, Emin had a flare for the world of entertainment. While Trump was in Moscow, Emin asked if he would star in a music video for his new single, “In Another Life.”
In the video, Emin dozes off in a boardroom and imagines himself roaming around his house, seeing Miss Universe contestants playfully appear and then disappear.
His dream is interrupted at the end by Trump saying, “Emin, wake up. C’mon. What’s wrong with you?”
“Emin, let’s get with it. You’re always late. You’re just another pretty face. I’m really tired of you. You’re fired!”
But in real life, Trump hardly seemed to be tired of Emin.
Within a few months, Emin was performing at the World Golf Championships held at Trump National Doral, in Florida, posing for photos with Trump as well as his daughter Ivanka.
Trump would tape a video wishing Emin a happy 35th birthday, and Emin would drop by Trump Tower whenever he was in Manhattan. “My New York highlight,” Emin wrote on Instagram after a visit in May 2015, just four weeks before Trump announced his presidential campaign.
During a segment on Emin that appeared on one of Russia’s state-owned television stations, Trump sat for an interview in August 2014 and heaped praise on Emin. He also expressed hope that they could partner a major development.
“We were discussing with Emin and his father a project, a development of a really big building in Russia. So we’ll see what happens. I am very excited about it,” Trump said. “For business, it doesn’t matter where you live, in America or Russia. The most important thing is to understand each other.”
But the real estate deal never progressed. Trump announced his bid for president, and Emin would offer words of encouragement on his social media feeds.
Then, just as Trump secured the nomination, his younger Russian friend reached out to the campaign through his intermediary with the offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton, compliments of the Russian government. Goldstone, Emin’s agent, sent an e-mail to Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
“Good morning,” he wrote on June 3, 2016. “Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.