Stepping out in a daring sequined outfit onto the red carpet at Cannes, Zlata looks every inch the movie star. But as the camera bulbs of the paparazzi flash around her, this blonde beauty does something incredible.
She flashes a million-dollar smile at the cameras. Then, she lifts her arms skywards before dropping down into an impossible backbend. Elbows flat on the floor, she peers out from between her legs as the photographers frantically snap away. It’s certainly one way to make a red-carpet entrance.
This is Zlata, who is believed to be the most supple woman on the planet. She holds a total of three Guinness World Records, including one for “the fastest time to burst three balloons with the back” – a feat which she accomplished by squeezing them between her back and her thighs.
Unlike most contortionists, Zlata can bend her body just as far backwards as she can forwards. She can also achieve an astounding 270-degree split, bending her legs and spine at eye-watering angles.
Born Julia Günthel in Kzyl-Orda, Kazakhstan, Zlata’s incredible talent was first discovered at the tender age of four, when a teacher noticed her unusual flexibility. By the age of eight, she had sent in her application to attend a circus school, and by the time she was ten she was showing off her contortion skills on stage.
When she was 16 years old, Zlata moved to Germany, where she still lives today. Now 31 years old, she enjoys a glamorous lifestyle performing her incredible acts of flexibility for photographers and on stages around the world.
She has also starred in movies, including the Franco-German fantasy Holy Motors – hence her appearance on the red carpet at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
Her website, which heralds her as the Goddess of Flexibility, claims that Zlata’s contortion skills are unique, while the Discovery Channel dubbed her the “most agile woman in the world.” So what’s her secret?
The documentary channel featured Zlata in a segment for its show Is It Possible? – a series which documents extraordinary wildlife, technology and people. Medical professionals who were interviewed on the show were baffled by Zlata’s abilities.
“As a doctor I’ve worked in the emergency [room],” said one. “I’ve seen a lot of gruesome injuries. To see someone like Zlata get into these positions without any evidence of injury to her body is amazing.”
During the documentary, Zlata performed some of her signature moves for the cameras. Among them were poses known as “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Backbreaker.”
She also demonstrated an impressive move that gives her the edge over her competitors. While a pose known as the “triple bend” is standard fare for most contortionists, she goes one step further into a “quad bend.”
This move is so difficult that she needs an assistant to help move her limbs into the correct positions. She is only able to hold the pose for around ten seconds because the pressure on her throat leaves her struggling for breath.
It’s perhaps reassuring to learn that she finds some of her moves as breathtaking as the rest of the world does. “When I stay on my throat,” she admits in the video, “I can’t really breathe.”
As part of the documentary, Zlata agreed to an MRI scan with a difference. She entered the machine contorted in a seemingly back-breaking pose in order to let doctors take a closer look at what’s going on in her body in the hope of discovering the secret of her flexibility.
Previously, medical professionals had been unable to uncover why Zlata is so extremely flexible. This time, it was hoped that the MRI scan could provide some fresh insight – and it did.
The images from the scan showed clearly how much Zlata’s spine was bent. “When I looked at her images,” admitted the doctor featured in the documentary, “a part of me is wondering ‘is this for real?’ Did someone really get in an MRI machine and take poses like this?”
The answer to her flexibility, it would seem, lies in Zlata’s ligaments. Ligaments are the connective tissues that join bones to each other. Usually, these ligaments harden and stiffen as we move into adulthood, resulting in a loss of suppleness.
With Zlata, however, things are different. According to the doctor, “[She] has the same stretch ligaments that a baby does. She has a variation in the substances in our bodies which are very elastic – collagen and elastin – which are proteins that make your fibers much like an elastic band. Very stretchy.”
These stretchy ligaments might allow Zlata to contort herself into positions which could make even the most yoga-obsessed among us cringe, but they have also helped her stretch her way from Kazakhstan to stardom.