Renowned for her rags-to-riches story and meteoric rise on the fashion circuit, supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova has never lost sight of her roots. She talks about how her humble beginnings spur her can-do attitude and tireless pursuits, and instilling her values in her five children.

(Oct 28): Model and entrepreneur Natalia Vodianova has been nicknamed “Supernova” because of her extraordinary success. But the moniker is profoundly apt in its truest meaning. The phenomenon refers to a change in the core of a star that results in a spectacular explosion that flushes it with intense luminosity. According to Nasa, scientists have determined that supernovas play a key role in distributing elements throughout the universe: a fitting description indeed of a philanthropist who constantly seeks to uplift the less fortunate.

Having experienced the extremes of great privilege and poverty, Vodianova can sympathise with those beset by tragedy. She grew up in the sombreness of Soviet-era Russia, helping her mother sell fruit by the age of 11 to feed her two half-sisters, Kristina and Oksana. Her father had walked out on them when she was a toddler and the family struggled to survive while raising Oksana, who had cerebral palsy and autism.

“It does seem almost unbelievable, but it is very much true and it was very hard,” she says, looking across to the crowd in the plush Opéra Garnier. Entrepreneurs and industry captains had gathered in Monte Carlo for the 2019 EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year, an annual event that brings the global business community to the Monégasque playground of the rich and famous. Despite the early hour,
Vodianova delivers her keynote address to a packed hall with EY global chairman and CEO Mark Weinberger guiding the session.

See also: David Lee of IYUNO named EY Entrepreneur Of The Year

“We lacked everything in my childhood — including compassion from other people because of my sister. People hated being our neighbours,” she continues frankly. “There was no support around us for special needs and my mother refused to put Oksana in an institution, so we were unable to give her what she needed. If we ever left her alone, she would get all the food and clothes out of the cupboards and mix them up together as though punishing us for leaving her home alone. We would come back and she would be sitting on this messy pile she had created with a huge smile on her face, like she was saying, ‘Well, are you ever going to leave me alone again?’ We can laugh about it now, but it was really difficult at the time.”

In a white pantsuit that hangs loosely over her lithe frame, Vodianova looks elegant. She glows with vitality and easily appears a decade younger than her 37 years. Nothing in her childhood prepared her for this life on stage and on catwalks. She grew up wearing shabby, oversized hand-me-downs that won her no friends and did nothing for her self-esteem — until a modelling break when she was 15.

“I stumbled into it, really,” she recalls. “I did some work locally and then I was chosen to go to Paris.”

She turned down three plane tickets her grandmother bought to the City of Love, reluctant to leave her then-boyfriend and a fruit stand business she co-owned. “It was very small but it was there for me and was mine. It felt incredibly hard to take this leap of faith and get on a plane,” she says. “But I did, of course, and I never regretted it. I later appreciated the opportunity to reinvent myself. In Paris, I was no longer a girl who grew up surrounded by shame and stigma. I could talk about my sister and background with pride because it felt like people wanted to support me.

“A good friend of mine suddenly took my hands one day and said, ‘You’re not in Russia anymore, you can smile.’ I asked what he meant and he said, ‘Smile, try to smile, because it’s incredible what happens when you smile. People will smile back at you and you will find many great opportunities just from doing that.’ It changed everything. Some castings were as hard as my life in Russia, queuing up for hours surrounded by these beautiful, confident girls. I felt tiny, like I had absolutely no chance in the casting room, but I would come in after waiting for hours and I would smile.”

Vodianova beams brightly as an example and the crowd laughs. “Yes,” she nods earnestly at the crowd. “That was the differentiator because you could see the other girls came from different backgrounds and were not appreciative of the hard work that went into this, but I just kept thinking about how much I wanted a croissant after the event and I smiled.”

Laughter again fills the hall, which has otherwise been completely silent — none of that shuffling around that usually accompanies such events. She is holding us spellbound in sympathy and anticipation.

During the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards in Monaco, Vodianova shows the audience how always turning up with a smile made her stand out in a casting room

Naked Heart Foundation

“I still cannot really digest what has happened,” Vodianova confides. “Very quickly, I remember this feeling of seeing the light. There was work out there for me and people who actually wanted to work with me and give me money. I remember thinking, okay, I’m going to make US$50,000 and then I’m going to go home and buy an apartment and a car. What else do I need? It happened, then I said, okay, now US$500,000 to support my family. And things moved really quickly into something I was not ready for, and that made me, for a funny reason, very unhappy. That was the first time I ever questioned God. I asked why, why did I have to go through absolute hell to arrive in the absolute opposite but find myself with no purpose? I was searching desperately for something. And then came the Naked Heart Foundation.”

The seed was planted in September 2004, when the Beslan school siege happened in Russia. Over 1,100 people were held hostage by a group of armed militants demanding recognition of Chechnya’s independence. In total, 334 people died — 186 of them children.

“I happened to be in Moscow at the time and I watched children being shot in the back on television, and all I could think of was, what happens to those who survive? What can I do to help? I tapped back to my own childhood and thought, play. Play is the most healing experience. As a child, when I played, I could forget everything and it was then that I gained the energy to continue the fight for survival. And so I thought, a playground. There was no playground in the neighbourhood I grew up in, nothing that belonged to children. That is how my journey started.”

Vodianova was 22 at the time and living in New York had exposed her to the phenomenal sums a fundraiser or gala could raise in a single night. She established the Naked Heart Foundation and has since built over 200 playgrounds and parks throughout Russia, extending the organisation’s mission to support families of special needs children a few years later. This was followed by micro-philanthropy site Elbi in 2015, which she developed alongside tech entrepreneur and impact investor Timon Afinsky. Apple named it among the most innovative ways to give back, allowing participants in over 80 countries to donate micro amounts, as low as £1 or US$1, at the tap of a button, to a host of charitable organisations around the world.

“Elbi started because I was frustrated that the media would gloss over the social causes I mentioned in interviews and focus on fashion or my family. I then tried to use social media to connect directly with the community and causes around me,” she says. “I had been on Facebook for a couple of weeks when I posted about a flood in the Russian village of Krymsk. I said I needed 10 volunteers and 20 showed up. We visited on and off over three months and, by the time I left, there were almost a thousand people helping out in some way. Around the same time, I noticed that photos of fashion or my children would get lots of likes, but a picture of a park or children we support would receive significantly less attention. I realised social media was not the perfect space for charity either. Elbi took the idea of a ‘like’ button and turned it into a ‘love’ button tied to a micro-donation.”

Contributing to the success of both the Naked Heart Foundation and Elbi is the fashion industry, from the support the former receives in fundraising for its causes to the Elbi Drop feature on the app that puts donors in the running to win exclusive items from luxury brands. “It did not happen straightaway but, thanks to the industry — this incredibly powerful, multibillion-dollar industry of photographers and designers that has been incredibly supportive — we have been able to raise millions of pound sterling in donations and grants.”

Maternal instincts

In the question-and-answer segment of the keynote address, an audience member asks how she instils her values of hard work in her children when they are growing up in such different circumstances than she did. Vodianova has five children aged three to 17 — three are from her marriage to English aristocrat Justin Portman and she has two young sons with husband Antoine Arnault, scion of the Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) empire.

“Good question. My children are more hardworking than I am, actually,” she says. “School sessions were five or six hours long when I was a child. Theirs run from 8.30am to 5.30pm, and then there’s piano, tennis and homework. I find it crazy. I look at them and think, where is your childhood? Are you fine with this? But it is hard to pass on things like the ability to work hard and the finding of empathy and purpose. These you cannot explain. They learn through example.

“As a mother, I try to take as much responsibility at home as I do with my projects, and approach it with all the enthusiasm I have. Yes, I come home tired and would rather open a book and relax, but I have five children so I am not going to do that, and I am not going to sulk about it either. I am going to show them my best side, like I am showing you right now. I am not a morning person, but here I am, smiling.”

Laughing, the audience gives Vodianova a standing ovation and she is then whisked off for a couple of exclusive interviews — including with Options. We talk about the importance of culture and heritage, especially instilling them in her children who live in a beautiful Parisian flat overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

“It’s madly, majorly important to me that they understand where they come from,” she says. “I wish I could help them really speak Russian. They can understand some but they struggle to speak because they do not use the language every day. We see each other mornings and evenings and I travel a lot — it is just not enough to sustain a second language. But we send them for summer camp in Russia now. I think your ancestors pass on information in your DNA and if you do not understand what it means, if you don’t feel it within your skin, you will always feel a little lost.”

This is despite spending much of her early years in Paris and New York trying to distance herself from her homeland. “I was against Russia when I arrived here because I wanted so badly to assimilate and blend in with all the other young people,” she says. “Of course, my story was a great driving force because all this — being Russian, coming from a difficult background with a sister who has mental disabilities — defined who I was but, at the same time, I wanted to disconnect from everything. I wanted to eat the world and have it be my oyster.

“However, I discovered Russia while opening playgrounds across it. Not rediscovered — discovered, for the first time. I come from Nizhny Novgorod, a sort of ghetto, and that was unfortunately all I knew. But uncovering all these incredible cultures and regions, the warmth you find the further you go, places filled with all these traditions and crafts and knowledge on living harmoniously with the incredibly vast nature we have in Russia — all this made me fall absolutely and madly in love with my country, and I want to pass this pride on to my children. Family is your home, your barometer of well-being. If your family is good, if everyone is safe and happy, that means you are doing well. I want my children to know who they are, everything about who they are, and to own it.”

Fashion sense

While Vodianova greatly admired her mother growing up, it was her grandmother whom she modelled herself after. The matriarch worked in a factory but was always impeccably tidy and put-together.

“Oh my goodness, she created a benchmark I find really hard to reach,” she exclaims. “My grandmother is a naturally chic woman. She had the gloves, the hats, the red lips and the big hair. She was larger than life. She is still beautiful and so graceful and just… I don’t know, she is just flawless. Always perfectly coiffed, with her scarves and pearls.

“I go at 100 miles an hour but I try to remember that looking after yourself, your dressing, makes you feel good,” she continues. “Sometimes you wake up feeling terrible and you spend 10 minutes picking out an outfit and putting on a little makeup, and you look in the mirror and think, okay, I’m ready, I can take on the day.”

Whether or not she is on call — she spends a full month every year fulfilling her modelling obligations and projects, including a seven-figure, eight-season contract with Calvin Klein — or hanging out at home, Vodianova puts equal thought into her clothing. “I do like to dress up. My grandmother never dressed up for any­one else, she did it for herself. I think it is about developing this habit in your everyday life. Yes, of course, I sometimes wear jeans, but then I put a little jacket over it, a little bit of jewellery. It’s nice to look nice.”

And Paris is undeniably the best setting to show off these très chic outfits. “Oh, it is my favourite city in the world,” she laughs. “I am lucky to live in the centre of it. To me, Paris is the heart of fashion, not only because of haute couture — and haute couture is the divine perfection of fashion, the Bible of creativity — but also because it is simply very photogenic. With the Eiffel Tower somewhere in the distance or one of those beautiful buildings in the background, anything you wear looks incredible here.”

Then again, when one burns as brightly as Vodianova does, radiant in the knowledge that she has succeeded in making the world her oyster, anything would look good on them.

Petrina Fernandez is a senior writer with Options at The Edge Malaysia