In-Depth Discussion: Kristina Makushenko
Dress on, hair done, makeup flawless… most would be heading off for a night out, but not Kristina Makusenko, she’s ready to dive in. We speak to the underwater dancer about her extraordinary talent and huge social following
By Imogen Clark
Emerging out of her local swimming pool in a cocktail dress, high heels and a full face of makeup is not an unusual occurrence for Kristina Makushenko. Earning herself the title of ‘Aqua Queen on heels’, the former professional synchronised swimmer has taken her wardrobe, flexibility and dance moves to the water, accumulating hundreds of millions of views for her viral videos.
“People don’t understand how I can stay for so long underwater, how I open my mouth and don’t choke, how come my eyes aren’t squished together, and how I’m very flexible – those are the main questions,” lists the 27-year-old about why she believes people have become fascinated with her. “People watch and wonder how I can do all of those dances and I’m still alive.” The word superhuman certainly makes its way into most of those answers but Makushenko’s aqua ability is innate and it didn’t take her long to discover it either. At the age of six, her parents were picking what extracurricular activity suited their daughter best but with her tall height and bad posture, it was recommended to swap the popular ballet class option for swimming lessons. “The teacher saw that I was very flexible, like my shoulders can roll all the way to the back, so they suggested to my mum that I should try synchronised swimming,” she remembers. “I went to the try-outs and the coaches loved me.”
Her natural buoyancy, flexible limbs and body length became the perfect combination for this particular sport, helping her quickly move up the age categories where she found herself competing with those far older than her. It was after obtaining a spot in the Russian national team for 12 and under, that the young athlete put her all into becoming the best, practising ballet and gymnastics twice a week and speed swimming five times a week.
“I didn’t really have time for school,” Kristina says, recalling nights spent eating dinner with her mother, reading out the most important facts she needed to know from what she had missed in lessons due to practice sessions. Physically she was continually tested, trying to ensure her position amongst those older than her didn’t slip due to her age but she felt jealousy emanating from those wanting to sabotage her place. “None of the older girls liked me so I didn’t have any friends. They would do things like put me in the wrong place or blame me for their mistakes, so the couch would always get mad at me.”
“It was tough mentally,” affirms Kristina. “The coaches would always put you down on purpose and say that you’re bad so that you’d cry and be upset in order to get better.” Building an impenetrable exterior, the teenage girl became World Champion for the first time at the age of just 13 years old, placing the gold medal around her neck in Serbia and in turn simultaneously disproving the negative affirmations around her. “I couldn’t understand what the feeling was like to be the best in the whole world. It took me a while to understand.”
Going on to win the title of World Champion three more times as well as becoming a two-time European winner, Kristina decided to walk away from the sport when she was 19 years old. “I just didn’t want to compete anymore, it came out of nowhere,” she tries to explain. “I was not upset, I had done it for 15 years and I was just finished with it. It was tough mentally and that was the worst part. Not even physically, just mentally. I started crying at my practice every day.” Content with all that she had achieved, the athlete moved from Moscow to Florida with the intention of bringing a slower and happier regime to her daily life. Despite continuing to travel, for enjoyment rather than for competitions, and now enjoying the sea rather than the pool, what was assumed to be a stereotypical brand partnership with Nike Swim turned into a viral video that would result in a frenetic change to her trajectory.
“I walked on the surface of the water. It didn’t seem like a big deal but it got 100,000 views,” she says. “I had TikTok but I never really used it, I just wanted to have Instagram and take pictures during my travels. But after that, I posted maybe two, three videos and then I went viral. I put heels on and walked 360°, like a clock perfectly to the beat from one spot. I got a million views on TikTok within 15 minutes and a couple of days later I had reached 30 million.”
Channelling the control she had learnt from synchronised swimming and building her own underwater niche, Kristina has now cultivated an audience of over 2 million followers all intrigued by her ever-evolving content. And despite never failing to fall short on views, the underwater performer understands the importance of maintaining this high level she has set for herself. “It usually takes me five to ten tries, which is about two to two and a half hours,” she says. “The Wednesday dance, my latest viral video, took me four hours. It just wasn’t going right but I wouldn’t give up and I stayed in the pool until I was satisfied.”
Although Kristina’s videos sometimes play into trends, there is an underlying pattern of professionalism with her dances. “I only get inspired by music,” she clarifies. “I find a piece that I like and then work out how many counts there are of eight – then I plan my movements and assess how long it will take.” Elevating these performances with the recent addition of outfits and accessories, her videos now border on performance art thanks to the advice of her local lifeguards. “I always wanted to wear clothes but I had this belief that you cannot wear them in public pools – like in Europe that is not allowed. They told me I didn’t need to wear a swimming cap and could wear dresses, as long as they aren’t glittery. I guess the pool managers were the ones who told me, yes, you can make it more stylish.”
While these additions have helped Kristina ascend to a new level of bankability and further weaponise her talent, she acknowledges the challenges that props can bring while she’s trying to look as if she’s completely at ease. “Playing the violin underwater,” she mentions immediately when I ask her about this. “It was terrible. The dress was too long and kept rising up. Then both my hands were busy holding and playing the violin, and in order for me to do my videos I need to use my hands, but in this case they were both busy. I was still doing flips and all those types of movements, it was insane. It took me a really long time to do but I managed it in the end. It never went viral and no one appreciated it but it’s my favourite video.”
The seamless nature of her videos is what makes them so watchable; there never seems to be a moment where it looks like she is straining herself or appears to be doing anything with difficulty. So what’s her secret? “I go down slowly and breathe out almost 80% of the air so I basically have no air left. Then I start dancing.” It is clear that for the swimmer, there remains a learnt discipline to improve her craft. “I can hold my breath for four minutes and five seconds,” she states, proudly. “For synchronised swimming you just need between a minute and a half and two minutes.” Her competitive nature and the rise in popularity of free diving on the East Coast of Florida have brought with it a new challenge, one formed by breathing exercises and the aim to hit the five-minute mark.
“I want to get out of the pool and into the ocean,” she says with the intent of expanding her skills. “I want to incorporate marine life into my videos like swimming with whales or dancing with octopuses in places like French Polynesia or Mauritius. The challenge for me now is to find people who understand what I do and want to work with me on this.” Keen to take this into the great outdoors, her ambition doesn’t end in the great ocean but rather on the silver screen. “I want to be filmed in something like Avatar. You watch these films and you see acting but no underwater tricks – maybe one flip whilst swimming – but I know my ability and I hope that maybe one day they will choose me.”