As far as Communist dissenters go, Carmen Kass has a better figure than Lech Walesa and has been on more Vogue covers than Vaclav Havel. But when she added her voice to 300,000 others in Estonia's ''Singing Revolution,'' and joined hands across three countries in the ''Baltic Chain,'' she became part of the resistance that led to freedom for her homeland.
As far as revolutions go, Estonia's was polite. But had it involved intrigue and cursing and prodigious vodka consumption, Kass could have been an important part of that, too. Had it been fought on cell phones, as the recipients of her spicy diatribes could attest, she could have been a valuable insurgent. And had it been an arms race, she could have been a valuable asset. She is, as she likes to say, the richest girl in Estonia.
Kass is famous in the modeling trade for making that intentionally ironic declaration after she's had a few; for her flashy watch, which, as anyone who's ever waited for her knows, doesn't work; and for actually driving herself across Europe to modeling jobs. (As Michael Kors smirks, ''She must drink a strong cup of joe!'') Several times a night, Kass makes a liar of P.G. Wodehouse, who once said, ''Speak civilly to blondes and they will speak civilly to you.''
Just as Cindy Crawford parlayed a pretty face into Cindy Inc. with her mole as a logo seven years ago, Kass is working to develop some trademarks of her own in the business. As a part owner of Baltic Models in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, and as one of the country's most celebrated exports, Kass has been recognized internationally for her beauty. But locally, among family and friends, it's her toughness that is most commented on. Maybe commenting on her beauty is just too obvious.
Like Estonia itself, midway between Stockholm and St. Petersburg, Kass has the glow of one culture and the steel jaw of another.
Carmen Kass's welcome home to Estonia in April was a thorough search at customs while her toy fox terrier, Spanky, looked on, tennis ball enlarging his little mouth. Kass let her suitcase be rifled through, and put her Hermès dog bag through the X-ray machine yet again. She could have been just another tourist to Tallinn, except for her icy image on the huge ''J'Adore'' Dior poster that greets all the tourists coming through.
Maybe customs thought she was smuggling perfume.
A few days later, she was pulled over by the Estonian police for drunk driving, a story that, probably through her own ribald retelling of it, makes it into at least two gossip columns in New York. Yet, as she's modeling around town at local landmarks, she isn't asked for her autograph or ogled. Kass may be, in her words, ''putting Estonia on the map,'' but clearly no one in Tallinn is thanking her for it, a fact that doesn't go unremarked upon. Several times.
''I think they should make me an ambassador,'' she says. Then reconsiders. ''In a few years, I would just name the country Carmen.'' She notes that the stoic lack of fixation with her celebrity is very Estonian. ''They don't show it, but I think more and more they don't mind it, and they want to say they appreciate it.'' Clearly, Kass's toughness is second nature; but toughness is nurtured in Estonia.
Kass has come home for a Baltic models' competition, for which she is to be a judge (although the title is the only real prize) and, more important, a living example of what could be. None of the girls in the contest are deluded; they know that to end up like Kass, making enough money off their looks to buy a house for Mom, is probably an unattainable dream. ''I don't think everyone can go as far as Carmen,'' says Evely Ventsli, 15, one of the finalists in the contest, which, at the outset, had 6,000 hopefuls. ''She has the ability. She's great.''
Tallinn itself has the look of a place that breeds Cinderellas, the most perfectly preserved 14th-century town in existence. On the eight-hour flight home from Manhattan, Kass painted in her diary -- a new hobby, perhaps inspired by the town where she lives, which is straight from a watercolor box: the pink parliament built on 13th-century foundations, the Russian-red towers of the 19th-century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the parchment peach 15th-century dwellings and so on.
Her house in Tallinn, newly renovated, has the same watery hues: yellow, lavender, peach washed walls, a pale green kitchen. ''It can be very gray here, so I wanted there to be color,'' Kass says.
Like most models who have made it, she created a house redolent of the best hotel she ever stayed in. For those who travel as much as Kass does, the yearning for home is perhaps stronger than the yearning for travel among those who never leave. It's the first house she and her mother have ever lived in together with a shower; their last house had only the traditional sauna. ''I wanted to know my mom could be clean,'' Kass says. ''My mom called and told me about it, and I said, 'Just buy it.'''
Tallinn's medieval cathedral is said to have been the tallest structure in the world for two centuries, taller even than the Pyramids. Peter the Great so valued the temperate port city that he visited often, building Catherine a castle and living in a cottage like a peasant while it was being built (both are now museums). But Estonia's greatest moment in a long history was arguably in Kass's time, and she was a part of it. After eight centuries of almost nonstop occupation by various conquerors, Estonia, in 1991, became free.
Kass's dream house actually sits in the shadow of the television tower that was surrounded by Soviet tanks.
''I was walking home from school, picking flowers, and all of a sudden the whole road started shaking,'' she recalls. ''Around the corner the tanks came. There were a lot of them, with their guns out. I ran under a bridge and waited till they left. I was so scared. And that night they took over the TV station.''
That station still bears the scars from gunshots that were fired, although no one was killed. But today Kass eats caviar there, in the top-floor restaurant called Galaxy, which, among other constellations, offers her a clear view of home.
Estonians began rediscovering their own culture in the 19th century. In 1869, the first nationwide festivals of folk songs were held, and when the Baltic States were trying to gain their freedom in September 1988, a third of the population came to sing at the Song Festival Grounds, an amphitheater on Tallinn Bay.
''It was a kind of resistance movement, because the last song was always 'My Fatherland, My Joy and Happiness 2/3''' explains Kass's best friend in Estonia, Tenis Truumann, who helped design her house.
''It was a sort of national anthem about the land itself. The people always stood up for the last song, and the Soviets tried to forbid the song, but they didn't succeed. For Estonia, singing offered a cultural continuance. Estonians gathered to sing songs. That nationalism is slightly dying now. But at times of repression, it meant everyone gathered. Participation was something everybody did spontaneously.''
Kass remembers marching through the city in her national costume when she was 10 years old. ''All the states had a different costume,'' she says. ''I always thought ours was the nicest, yellow with black stripes going down. We came on a school bus, and had to sleep in the basketball courts with sleeping bags. Then everybody would go together to the stadium.''
And later she was a link in the Baltic Chain of freedom, a protest against the occupation in which people from all over the Baltics were linked in solidarity. ''We drove to somewhere in the middle of Estonia, because there were so many people that it was hard to find a place to hold hands,'' Kass says. ''Isn't it amazing? Three countries joined together, all at once.''
Tallinn has almost always been occupied, but has never lost its own view of the world. There's a Seussian whimsy to the city landmarks, like Tall Hermann, a tower that was built in 1371, and Fat Margaret, its roly-poly counterpart, which stands at the other gate of the city. There's another tower, called Kiek-in-de-Kök, for ''peep in the kitchen,'' because guards could see what people were cooking from its top.
Then there's Old Thomas, a statue on the town hall spire, which is said to have protected the inhabitants since 1530. He's done a good job. Apart from a Soviet bombing raid in 1944, the city hasn't been physically harmed and no battles have been fought here since its indigenous population was conquered by the Danes in 1219.
''I don't think Estonians ever really hated Russians,'' Kass says. ''It was more, 'Leave us alone.' We can't change what is past. We can't blame them for what their parents have done. We never hated them. They didn't destroy us that bad.'' And ultimately, she always felt, when she was singing, not the threat of the Soviets, but their envy. ''They were jealous because we Estonians always kept together,'' she says. ''Everyone singing was a message that we belong together, let's keep it together. It was the kind of thing where you had to go sing. For your country. And they didn't have that.''
The changeover has made the people united as Estonians, but it's created a larger generation gap. Since no one wants to speak Russian anymore, you can feel the isolation setting in for the old. ''The new generation speaks English, not Russian,'' Kass says. ''I learned Russian, but a year younger they learned English.''
Up its sweeping coast, from new high-rise hotels like the Radisson, symbols of investment in Estonia's future, you can see the singing stadium, but also in full view are the Soviet-era apartment blocks, and the arresting monument built by the Soviets on the bulldozed graves of Germans. One of Kass's Italian business partners admits that without Kass, running a business, even a modeling agency, in Estonia would have been impossible; after being occupied for so long, Estonians simply -- and understandably- don't like foreigners telling them anything.
The cultural cost of the occupation to Estonia is as subtle as that. A fairly graphic gauge of it is displayed side by side at the Applied Arts Museum. Downstairs are the Finnish applied arts of the 60's: confident, unmistakable forms stridently executed in a country that was never Soviet-occupied. Upstairs, Estonian design during the same period: stunted and nervous, unsure of its own aesthetic. Here American, here Soviet, here Finnish. How many years will it take for Estonia to regain its own voice?
It's already emerging. On a Friday night, in the town hall beneath Old Thomas 2/3 a children's choir is practicing. Stages are being set up in every corner of the town square for outdoor cafes. The Apothecary, in operation for 579 years, and run by the same family for more than 350 of them (the pharmacist was summoned by a dying Peter the Great), is packed with people making last-minute buys. And in the gallery below the bohemian coffeehouse Café Anglais, a black-tie opening is in full swing. No one is quite bursting with the new freedom, but it's not quite in the Estonian character to burst. The revolution was carried out, in fact, without bursts of anything but song. If Prague's revolution was velvet, Estonia's was of even softer stuff: melody.
Kass says that now that the Soviets are gone, the food is better and there's more of it, but the biggest change is, ''We feel free.'' She adds: ''We're independent. People can be openly proud of being Estonian. I have a lot of belief in Estonia. I hope one day when I say I'm from Estonia, people don't say: 'What? Where's that?'''
So when Kass says she's the richest girl in Estonia, perhaps she isn't talking about money at all. ''You know what I always dreamed of? That with the greenhouse effect, one day Estonia can be what L.A. is right now. I always thought when the end of the world comes, I want to be in Estonia. I think then I'd survive.''
By Amy M. Spindler