Everyone loves a good side chick-turned-imperial consort! Meet Roxelana, a.k.a. Hürrem, the woman behind the throne of the greatest Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.
How she made her name: Roxie was was born Alexandra Lisowska in Ruthenia. Kidnapped by Tatars, she was given the name of Hürrem—“the merry one” for her temperament—and eventually sold to Ibrahim Pasha, one of Suleiman’s closest pals. She made her way to the harem of the emperor himself!
Battle of "the frenemies": At the time, Suleiman’s number one lady was Mahidevran (also known as Gulbahar), the haseki, or chief consort. She was also mother of the emperor’s oldest son, Mustafa. So Roxie had to get this chick out of the way! Hürrem—dubbed “Roxelana,” or “the Russian woman,” by her imperial lover—decided to take on her chief rival. (It's about to be a girl fight...) Soon after the new girl at court caught the emperor’s eye, Mahidevran literally scratched her face out, calling her “traitor” and “sold meat." The next time Suleiman summoned Hürrem, she refused to come, claiming she was damaged goods. No, she didn't....
Suleiman the Magnificent loved his Russian-born redheaded concubine-turned-wife!
Real-life redemption: When Suleimain discovered what really happened, he wasn't having any of his harem's shenanigans! Mahidevran admitted what happened (sadly, without a reality TV-esque confessional!) and defended her actions, explaining that all of the other harem hotties needed to bow down to her. Needless to say, Mahidevran was dismissed, along with her son, leaving the road open for Hürrem. To be fair, though, these accounts largely came from Venetian ambassadors, who, although well-placed to gain reliable information, were at some remove from the immediate participants in this conflict.
From concubine to queen: Hürrem became the emperor’s new favorite, but she wasn't going to rest on her laurels! For one, she solidified her place in his life by producing surviving sons. And when her quarters were destroyed by fire, she convinced Suleiman to move her into his own home, the Topkapi Palace. That way, she’d be by his side 24/7—and able to intrigue around the clock.
And after that, she managed the ultimate coup—actually marrying the emperor in 1534, making her the first slave to be liberated and made a legal wife. Suleiman was so smitten with his bride that he wrote her love letters and passionate poetry that still survives. In one poem, he dubs her “my queen, my everything,” and even “sovereign of all beauties, my sultan.”
Imperial advisor: Hürrem was also her husband’s confidante, advising him on personal and political matters. She counseled him against her one-time master, Ibrahim Pasha—who was executed in 1536—and replaced him with her son-in-law, Rustam Pasha. She also probably helped convince Suleiman his exiled son with Mahidevran, Mustafa, was conspiring against him. In 1553, Suleiman summoned Mustafa and had him strangled. By that time, Suleiman’s only surviving sons were both hers, as well, and favored the elder, Selim, was her favorite kid. Sadly, Hürrem died in 1558—before she saw her son become emperor—but her husband and family grieved her loss intensely.
The royal formerly known as Hürrem
(Undeserved) tabloid fodder: Hürrem was also a charitable type of chick! She gave back quite a bit, founding hospitals and soup kitchens to feed the poor of Istanbul. Sure, she got a bad rep for being a power-hungry harpy, but so did most women who seized control of their destinies. In fact, the period of time in which Hürrem exercised an incredible amount of power was part of the so-called “Sultanate of Women,” a supposedly “illegitimate exercise of power,” during which females wielded great influence, as scholar Leslie P. Peirce notes. The truth was, Hürrem was only the latest in a long line of women playing important roles in the courts of their sons, brothers, and husbands, and she wouldn’t be the last.