Femme Fatale: A Year in Lady Spies

In 2010, the Cold War returned.

Suddenly, spies were all around us, in film, on television, and — notably — in the news. In November, WikiLeaks created a political firestorm, releasing 250,000 classified documents that indicate U.S. diplomats performed low-level spying. Earlier that month, director Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” a fictionalized take on the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, hit the theaters, prompting a heated political debate. In December, alleged sleeper agent Katia Zatuliveter, who worked as an aide for a member of the British parliament, faced deportation to Russia — the latest in a line of so-called “sexy Russian spies” to raise the pulse of reporters and readers in 2010.

The news stories contain a certain amount of schadenfreude. After all, what could be more humiliating for a spy than having her cover blown? But the flurry of TV and film counterparts, possessing both sexual and martial powers, has glamorized real-life failed spies — even when they’re spying for the other side. Here’s a look at the ladies who led us astray this year.

Hollywood’s double-dealing ladies
The timing of “Salt” and the arrest of 10 undercover Russian spies seemed positively orchestrated, one of those fantastic alliances between Hollywood and the government that you see only in the movies. Star Angelina Jolie — recognizing a PR opportunity when she sees one — invited Anna Chapman, the most glamorous of the spies, to the opening. Not that Jolie needed the push, given the ballyhooed backstory that the actress snapped the role from a declining Tom Cruise (who came out with his comic retort, “Knight and Day”) and the primo July release date (the same as the Jason Bourne films). According to Box Office Mojo, grosses rank “Salt” in the top 25 spy movies and No. 6 in the action heroine genre — behind two other Jolie movies.

Well before “Salt,” though, fierce female agents have run rampant in Hollywood. The spy genre (“Charlie’s Angels,” “V.I.P.,” “She Spies”) is one of the few outside science fiction where women are portrayed as fighters. The CW debuted “Nikita,” starring established Hong Kong action-hero Maggie Q, who engages weekly in hand-to-hand combat. A third take on “La Femme Nikita,” this one “goes rogue” against the agency that trained her to be an assassin, a la Jason Bourne.

The seductress spy turns the fantasy of the doe-eyed innocent upside down, a duplicity that’s much more fun than — and possibly fantastic revenge fo — the damsel-in-distress roles. In the 2000s hit “Alias,” Jennifer Garner, the picture of wide-eyed girlishness, was the perfect double agent to doll up in all sorts of vampish disguises. This tradition revived this summer, when the USA Network capitalized on sweet-faced Piper Perabo for its hit “Cover Affairs” (tagline: “Single Woman. Double Life.”) about intrigue within and without the CIA. Real-life agent Valerie Plame Wilson was a consultant for the show.

The real deal
The to-do about Zatulieveter — as well as her short skirts and bikini photos — follows the lubricious fervor over U.S. charges against alleged Russian sleeper agent Anna Chapman and Anna Fermanova, accused of attempting to smuggle weapons. Tales of espionage, fraught with high-stakes double-crossing, have long ensnared the public imagination. Even more so when the supposed spy in question is a beautiful woman who has documented her very public social life in racy Facebook photos. A Times of India report even suggested that Chapman, the more attractive among 10 arrested in June, was the ringleader of a “pretty girl” army, trained to use their sex appeal as a weapon — the kind of Bond-girl cheesecake appeal that blurred the line between reality and Hollywood blockbuster fantasy.

Chapman, the “flame-haired beauty” also known as Anya Kushchenko, was sent back to Russia with nine other suspected sleeper agents. Despite her failings, she made the most of her 15 minutes of fame, even being considered as a candidate for Russian parliament. She played up her siren image for the Maxim Russia, scantily clad and holding a silver gun. Here in America, not one but two dolls were made in Chapman’s image.

Blond bombshell Fermanova, meanwhile, rejected the “sexy Russian spy” label when she was thrust into the spotlight and put under house arrest in Plano, Texas, in July. Her lawyer insisted that she was innocent, a naturalized American citizen from Latvia who planned to sell the $15,000 in night scopes to Moscow hunters. (Gun experts, however, say the $7,000 Raptor 4X Night Vision, for example, is the sort of military rifle sight only assassins would use.) But after she was released from house arrest on the promise of a future plea deal, Fermanova exploited her newfound fame, too, hosting a celebrity gossip segment for the Dallas-Forth Worth CW affiliate.

At first glance, these stories might seem like amusing and sexy Boris and Natasha cartoon hijinks. But the truth is that real-life espionage isn’t all action-movie roundhouse kicks or pouty vixens. While Chapman had the looks for media consumption, nine other alleged sleeper agents were busted in the same spy ring. They had much less glamorous lives, posing as regular suburban American families, with ordinary jobs and children, so they could — in theory — get close to people working for the government and high-tech companies. The U.S. government, as it turns out, doesn’t find the possibility of a deeply entrenched Russian spy network so funny. But perhaps the most humorless and heartbreaking element of the crackdown is the consequences for the deported agents’ children, born into a lie, many of whom don’t know when they’ll see their parents next. That’s a bleak reality that isn’t so camera-ready.

–Lisa Hix

Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and former Yahoo! editor who’s been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She’s currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.