Model Natalia Vodianova has conquered the catwalk, is a mother of four children and is getting her famous friends to help raise the profi le of her charity for children. VIVA takes a look at this inspirational muse
When it comes to examples of outrageous Soviet ambition, Natalia Vodianova would give Sputnik a run for its money. I have never interviewed anyone so hardwired to achieve, be it her successful modelling career, the four kids she had in between fashion weeks, the succession of wealthy men she has dated, or the millions she has raised for children in her native Russia through her charity titled Naked Heart Foundation.
First, though, there was serious hardship. She was raised in poverty in Nizhny Novgorod, and her early years featured a runaway father, a dodgy stepdad, the family’s debts and often going to bed on an empty stomach. Vodianova believes you never stop running from such a diffi cult start in life. I need to be fi ghting for something, she says. This is my reality from my previous life. It used to be baggage, but I turned it into a toolbox to help other people. Watching her take a seat in an ornate private room at the Caf© Royal, on Regent Street, I can’t imagine there is much further left to run. She is in London for the day, having left her boyfriend and father of her youngest son (Maxim, 1) at home in Paris. He is Antoine Arnault, 38, the son of the LVMH chairman, Bernard Arnault (France’s richest man, worth £24bn). Previously, she was married for 10 years to the English aristocrat Justin Portman, whose family owns swathes of prime London property and with whom she has three children (Lucas, 14, Neva, 9, and Viktor, 8). Dressed in cream cashmere and a huge Fendi cowhide skirt, Vodianova is unnervingly immaculate and controlled. She looks like pure fashion, actually. Now 33, her features are still a little doll-like, though it is reassuring to see that the woman Mario Testino dubbed Supernova fi nally looks like a grown-up.
She certainly behaves like one, holding court as various of her Naked Heart employees and PRs put papers under her nose for approval, before retiring to beaver away at their MacBooks across the room. She is here to talk up the second Fabulous Fund Fair, a big fundraising push that took place during London Fashion Week at Old Billingsgate Market in London. It was crammed with celebs and fashion types running luxurious/gimmicky stalls for punters who pay big dollars to have a wander round. Last year, she ran a kissing booth (charging Dhs2,700 for a peck on the cheek), while her co-host, Karlie Kloss, sold cookies for outrageous sums. Eva Herzigova ran a Dior ice-cream stand, while the fashion writer Suzy Menkes became a mystic, complete with a Swarovski-sponsored crystal ball. This year, it was twice the size, and included a Dior treasure island hosted by Erin O’Connor, Stella McCartney on whack attack, crazy golf by Audemars Piguet and a Givenchy tattoo parlour. We’ve brought in the wheel of fortune, she says. Have you always wanted to present a game show? A look of horror dances across her face. God, no. But there is so much I can do for charity. The wheel of fortune is about having 15 or 20 incredible items and charging people a lot of money. But what about last year’s kissing booth? Generous sponsors will get a kiss for free, she says. Ha ha ha!
Brilliant at working a room, she’s also one of the most popular people in fashion, attracting the likes of Cara Delevingne, Taylor Swift, Calvin Harris and Lewis Hamilton to last year’s event. Traditionally, high-end charidee has happened behind closed doors at elite dinners, but with friends like Vodianova’s, it seems silly not to give them something fun to Instagram. Every activity had to be something they can post, she says. She then lists the sponsors: Calvin Klein Euphoria, Dior, Vuitton and a few new ones. Vodianova founded Naked Heart Foundation when she was just 22, and has so far has raised Dhs158 million. Originally, the charity’s aim was to build a play park in the wake of the tragic Beslan school siege, but her fi rst fundraiser was such a success, the foundation has gone on to build 155 play parks in Russia, with another three in the UK. Her focus has now switched to helping integrate Russians with disabilities and special needs into a society that has traditionally sidelined them, through play and free support services for disadvantaged families. It’s a subject that’s close to home, as her half-sister Oksana, 27, was born with autism and cerebral palsy. We’re highlighting a grave issue the discrimination against and isolation of people with special needs in my country, she says.
Things are getting better. You can’t even compare the 1990s to today, she says, adding that Naked Heart Foundation has been instrumental. She sees the main battle as one of public opinion, and not being a woman to play down her achievements believes that she has a more profound understanding of this than the Russian government. Last summer, a huge media storm broke in Russia when Vodianova’s mother, sister and her sister’s carer were asked to leave a cafe in their hometown by a waiter who told them: You are scaring all our clients away. Go and get cured. Bizarrely, her mother was arrested (one assumes she seriously lost her rag), but once the story hit the Internet, the public were outraged for the Vodianovas and the cafe owner became a public hate fi gure. Some people wrote that we did it on purpose, she says. In fact, Vodianova says she felt sorry for all the vitriol the owner got and invited him to meet the family to put it behind them and visit one of her daycentres for disabled children.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Hillary Clinton has described her as an angel, though I’m not sure she is anything so drearily two-dimensional. Certainly, she is deeply committed to her causes, with a noble (if slightly wearying) habit of launching into passionate monologues for minutes on end. I also think she is a canny operator albeit a charming one who knows her worth and has fought hard to make a change. This is a woman who arrived in Paris at 17, taught herself English in two months and became an instant fashion sensation, while also falling in love and marrying an aristocrat. Most models put off having children till the work quietens down, but Vodianova was delighted with a fi rst baby at 19. Ten days after giving birth, she was back on the catwalk and did 40 shows that season. Such ruthless self-control can come across as a bit scary. She once shot a Calvin Klein swimwear campaign on a beach in St Barts while four and a half months pregnant. More recently, in 2013, she lost a toenail running the Paris half-marathon in the morning, then closed the Givenchy show in the afternoon.
No wonder the fash pack adore her. But could such determination be trickier to handle at home? Last month, her ex-husband Portman, an artist and party person, posted then deleted an odd Facebook status discussing the couple’s time together. He reportedly wrote: My life was not in synchronicity with her fashion life. I thought she was embarrassed of me and I was fast becoming an old Louis Vuitton handbag. He went on to say he had been heartbroken when, after he had done a stint in rehab, she hadn’t welcomed him home with any warmth. Shall we grab a pinch of salt? Who knows what goes on in marriages? Vodianova certainly is not commenting. While people talk about her fi nancial status, she does have a fortune all of her own anyway Forbes magazine puts her annual earnings in the millions.
Regardless, she is not some luxury-crazed woman. Sitting on UNESCO panels and meeting presidents is more her fi x. I suspect there’s the need to give back to the place she was lucky to escape. Her Dad ran away to join the army when she born, and she was raised by a single mother who did four manual jobs before setting up an illegal fruit stand outside a car-manufacturing plant. This is where Vodianova was working when a scout at a modelling school off ered her the chance to go to Paris. Who knows where her life might have ended up if she hadn’t won the genetic lottery? She does. This is why she chases success, but it is also why she now chases meaning. Modelling became not hard enough, she says. It can be draining, but it is about beauty, luxury and being treated like a goddess, and at some point there wasn’t enough challenge there. It becomes too comfortable, and comfort is not something I can do. Natalia Vodianova | Allpix.Club Ltf
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