Published on July 4, 2007
The bus pulls up to a hotel in the town of Taupse, Russia, and the waiting crowd grows excited. Natalie Glebova appears at the vehicle's door and steps down into the arms of her grandparents, and camera flashes light up the scene.
This is Natalie's hometown, and she and an entourage of Thai reporters and photographers have just spent four hours on a zigzagging road crossing the Caucasus Mountains from the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The whole trip has been arranged by Natalie's employer, Singha Corp, as a promotion for its B-ing energy drink. The scenario is that seven B-ing bodyguards escort her back to her hometown after 13 years' absence.
Natalie, of course, left Russia for Canada, which she represented in the 2005 Miss Universe competition. The contest was held in Thailand, Natalie won, was courted by Thai companies, moved to Thailand and was wooed by tennis ace Paradorn Srichaphan.
Now we're in the little town of Taupse, among the first Thais to witness the excitement of Natalie's long-awaited homecoming.
It's like a scene in a movie. The whole town has turned out to greet their world-famous beauty queen.
Natalie, still wearing her yellow-wristband tribute to the King of her new homeland, is in time for the annual promenade to the town square.
There she joins the mayor onstage to greet the citizenry. Later there are fireworks and dinner with her grandparents and the mayor.
One of the residents, Svetlana Stoyanova, asks her friend Anna Koralyora whether Taupse was mentioned during the Miss Universe broadcast. Anna assures her that it was.
Koralyora says Natalie is the first international celebrity to get such a festive welcome home in Taupse, a town of 70,000. It wasn't a big deal when world chess champion Vladimir Klamnik came home to visit, she points out.
Grigory Kotlyarov is excited at Natalie's arrival - he thinks she's a major babe, and who's going to argue? "I love my wife, but I also like Natalie!" he laughs.
So does Thailand. Natalie is set to become an in-law - sapai khon thai - of the Srichaphan clan when she marries Paradorn on November 29. She has, as her fiance put it, struck a chord with the Thai people. She's one of us.
Having established her beauty credentials by taking the Miss Universe crown away from a bevy of Latin lovelies, using a combination of grace, cheery optimism and an expert wai, she set about showing just how smart she is too.
The Tourism Authority was the first to tap her appeal, putting her in a TV commercial promoting Thai hospitality with that terrific wai. A year later she was teaching the gesture to contestants in the Miss Universe pageant in Los Angeles.
Natalie passed on her crown and got back to Thailand. She donned a yellow T-shirt and joined the crowds signing a book of best wishes for His Majesty the King while he was being treated at Siriraj Hospital.
Meanwhile a slew of business deals was already hatching. Singha recruited her as an ambassador and quickly earned back its outlay when a reporter challenged her about promoting alcohol. "I'm promoting the brand as a whole," she answered, cool as a cucumber, "not alcohol in particular."
Television viewers got used to her smiling, steady determination as camera crews taped her learning to cook Thai dishes and taking language lessons from TV tutor Andrew Biggs. It wasn't long before she was pronouncing for all to hear, "Fah rak Phi Ball mak mak, kha." Fah loves Ball very much, she said, using her and Paradorn's nicknames.
Singha stoked the romance when it had her courtside at the Thailand Open 2006, where it was one of the sponsors. She watched Paradorn beat Britain's Tim Henman and then - with 6,000 fans at Impact Arena watching and lots more looking on via TV - she rewarded "Ball" with a smashing kiss on the cheek.
Last October Natalie released her first book, "Happy, Healthy, Beautiful", a guide to looking great, and it appears to be the tip of the Natalie Enterprises iceberg. She's since become the spokesperson for BSC and Better Vision, as well as Singha.
With BSC, the cosmetics-and-clothing company that put Miss Universe in swimwear, she's marketed a food supplement and other healthy products and will write more books.
"I want to do business based on what I have a passion for," she says. "It's not about how much money I can make, but about how to help people."
On another occasion, she memorably said, "I was born in Russia and grew up in Canada, but Miss Universe was born in Thailand - and I'd like to be here."
She can stay as long as she likes, but in the meantime there were roots to be traced. During her six days in Russia - and at no point did she seem the least bit pretentious - Natalie got a kick out of seeing Moscow and St Petersburg for the first time. She joined everyone else snapping photos even as everyone else was taking her picture.
Interestingly, she doesn't like shopping. Nan Pookkesorn, her personal assistant, revealed that Natalie opted for the gym instead of the shops when they were in Hong Kong and Melbourne. "What's there to buy?" the beauty queen told her. "I'm not into buying."
It might be argued that she already has everything, but there was unfinished business in Russia, and an unexpected surprise.
On the final day there, after a two-hour flight from Moscow to Sochi and the long bus ride to Taupse, there was a twist in the ending to this fairytale homecoming.
The plan had been that everyone would accompany Natalie to her grandparents' house where she grew up. Instead, she announced that the big moment was going to be a private one.
Not even her "bodyguards" - whose mission was to deliver her to their front door - were going to see the get-together with her grandparents in their home. Nor would she divulge where the house was.
The press - all the Thais - were crestfallen after coming so far. But all they could do was admire her guts for putting her foot down about the change in plans, and taking consolation that, after the visit, she was coming home with them.