Two years ago, twins Gabriela and Monica Irimia left their Transylvanian city for an extended vacation in England before starting law school.
Instead, the 20-year-old sisters cruised to the top of Britain's pop music charts as the unlikely duo, The Cheeky Girls. "We came to England to relax and to visit. We never thought for one moment we would be successful," Gabriela said in a telephone interview from her home in Britain.
Their pop-disco song, "Touch My Bum," written by their mother and dedicated to shy English men, rocketed to the No. 2 spot on the British charts last month and has stayed among the top five for weeks.
Ridiculed by some for the song's corny lyrics, and savaged by English critics who called them "the worst act ever," the twins have had the last laugh, selling 360,000 singles. With bookings set for venues around Europe in the coming months, the Romania duo hopes to make their U.S. debut by next year.
Meanwhile, fame has taken both the girls and their parents by surprise. "It has been like a fairy tale," says the twins' mother and manager, Maggie Irimia, who lives in Rye, Kent, in southeast England.
She encouraged her daughters to enter various talent contests and apply at modelling agencies. Their father, Dr. Doru Irimia, clicks onto their Website and grins as he enlarges his daughters' photos, recalling how they packed their bags in September 2001 in search of a fun vacation around Europe.
"They had just finished ballet college when they said, 'Let's go and see Mum in England for a vacation," said Irimia, 47, chief physician at the Cluj Ambulance Centre.
Their mother scribbled the simple but catchy lyrics to "Touch My Bum" in half an hour: "I never ever ask where do you go. I never ever ask what do you do. I never ever ask what's in your mind. I never ever ask if you'll be mine. Come and smile, don't be shy. Touch my bum, this is life. Oooooh. We are the cheeky girls, we are the cheeky girls. You are the cheeky boys, you are the cheeky boys."
Another song is on the way, and so is a European tour and plans for TV appearances in Belgium, the Netherlands and France in the next few months. Warner Bros. Records is distributing their music internationally. "World domination is certainly on their agenda, but they are taking it one step at a time," said their agent, Paul Holland.
Back home in Romania, though, the twins are virtually unknown outside a close circle of friends and Romanian journalists who have christened them "The Kitschy Girls."
"Don't they sing dance music?" said Bogdan Curta, 21, a psychology student. "I read something in the newspapers. I hope the English go crazy for them!" said Elena Sava, 70, a former ballerina.
In Cluj, a city of some 300,000 people 250 miles (400 kilometres) northwest of the capital, Bucharest, 80-year-old Olga Irimia remembers when her granddaughters staged shows for neighbours in the downstairs courtyard.
The twins lived with their grandmother for nine years after their parents separated. She lovingly talks about "Moni" and "Gabitza," and shows off their faux leopard coats and a sparkly blue hat. "They were always very coquettish," she said.
The sisters attended Romania's exclusive College for Choreography and Dramatic Art. But teachers say it was clear early on that they weren't destined for the iron rigors and grace of ballet. "They were not made for classical ballet, and were a bit rebellious and spoiled," said Rodica Istrate, a former teacher. "I am confident that they will appreciate what they have and take advantage of this chance."
The twins haven't forgotten their homeland and hope to make it back this year. "We'd like to come back and sing in Romania," Gabriela said.