Saturday, October 20, 2007

The unknown "RockGod" from Rotherham

A British engineer judged a beauty contest, appeared on national television and shook hands with the Russian President after being mistaken for an international rock star. Neil Smith, 52, was working as the electrical projects manager at a new steelworks in Siberia when he suddenly became the subject of everyone's attention.

He was halfway through a month long stay at a hotel in the industrial town of Sayangorsk when he assumed his unexpected celebrity status. Confusion arose when something was lost in translation during a conversation he had with a wealthy hotel owner through an interpreter.

"One minute I was just getting on with my job and the next I was getting the red carpet treatment and people seemed to think I was famous back home," Mr Smith, from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, said.

Although he explained he once played bass guitar in a club band, he was to be publicly presented as a rock star contemporary of The Rolling Stones.

"I just got swept along with it and in the end I daren't admit the truth," he said. "It was totally surreal being interviewed on TV and then meeting Vladimir Putin."

The identity crisis happened when he had been transferred to stay in a remote hunting lodge because his hotel had to be cleared to make for Russian VIPs on an official visit. Mr Smith said: "There was absolutely nothing to do in the evenings apart from drink in the bar so I got talking to the owner, who was some wealthy Russian with numerous business interests.

"As we talked with the receptionist acting as interpreter I mentioned I came from South Yorkshire and I used to be a bass player in clubs around the country when I was younger - I meant working men's clubs and places like that. He was interested and he asked if I would be a judge in a little competition so I said I would and assumed it probably meant casting his eye over a few acts at a local bar."

When the big night arrived, however, he was taken by limousine to a venue the size of the Albert Hall in Siberia's main city of Abakan. He was met by TV crews and well-dressed visitors and walked down a red carpet before being ushered inside.

Mr Smith said: "I was seated at a long table with six others and suddenly realised I was a judge at the Miss Siberia beauty contest. I overheard the manager mentioning my name and then words like Rolling Stones. Then when I was introduced to the packed arena they said I was a major international guitarist who has been specially flown in for the event. He added: "After thinking about it I reckon I was set up by the wealthy Russian guy.

"I suspect that for some reason they needed a judge to replace someone else and it suited him for me to be that person. And who in Siberia would know I wasn't an international rock god?"

During a night out in Abakan a week later he was surrounded by autograph hunting girls who told him they had seen him on television. Back at work he was placed at the end of a long line of people to meet an official delegation when he shook hands with President Putin.

"We exchanged greetings and then he was gone. Now I know why my original hotel was emptied," he said.

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