Natalia Vodianova: the unstoppable ‘Supernova’

She stepped out of poverty in Russia and into global stardom. What is next for the marathon-running model who has since raised £30m for her foundation?

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

How much would you pay to kiss Natalia Vodianova? The 32-year-old model is thinking over an appropriate sum in her head. “Different kinds of prices that depend on the experience,” she explains in a tantalisingly soft voice with a strong Russian accent. “For a kiss on the cheek, I was thinking around £500.”

Quite a bargain, one might argue? “You’re sweet,” she laughs, her face crumpling into a grin. “I would kiss someone for free if they really wanted . . .”

Natalia “Supernova” (as dubbed by photographer Mario Testino), one of the highest-earning and most successful models in the world, has not fallen on hard times. Her kissing booth is, instead, the star attraction at her Fabulous Fund Fair, an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Naked Heart Foundation, which she set up in 2004 with the aim of ensuring “that every child has a loving family, and a safe and stimulating place to play”.

She is co-hosting the fair, which takes place at the Roundhouse in London this month, with fellow model Karlie Kloss, and the emphasis is on fun. As well as the kissing booth, there will be face-painting by make-up artist Pat McGrath, Christian Louboutin is hosting a high-heel Olympics and Stella McCartney will be serving “not dogs”.

“We’re going away from a very classic sit-down dinner [as we’ve done previously with the Love Ball events] to deliver something based around the values of our charity,” says Vodianova. “We believe in play and so we want to bring that feel also to our supporters, to our donors and our sponsors. It’s about engaging them in a different way and giving them a little bit of a feel that children experience playing in the foundation’s playgrounds.”

Natalia Vodianova at the Café Royal hotel in London last month

Naked Heart has raised nearly £30m since it was founded in 2004, when Vodianova was 22 and at the height of her modelling career — a veteran of the catwalk with scores of magazine covers and two of the most lucrative contracts in the industry, L’Oréal and Calvin Klein, to her name. “It was September 2004 and Natalia came to me in tears,” recalls Diane von Furstenberg. The designer had first met Vodianova in 2001, when she cast her to open and close her show in New York, and she has since become one of Vodianova’s biggest supporters. “It was after the terrible three-day siege at Beslan, Russia, in which almost 400 hostages had died, many of them children. Natalia was devastated and came to me wanting to help them and so, together, we gave a fundraising party in my studio on West 12th Street. She orchestrated the entire event herself — the decor, a vodka sponsorship, she secured celebrities — and the event raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. She had wanted to help the school in Beslan but, frustrated by Russian bureaucracy, she instead decided to create her own foundation, Naked Heart. And that was how it started. I was so impressed by her willpower and her capacity to make things happen. She was very young and inexperienced but she was determined.”

The foundation has since built 136 playgrounds and opened up communities to thousands of children. “It was a really beautiful, very simple idea, very tangible and easy to execute,” says Vodianova. But, in recent years, her ambitions have changed. Today, Naked Heart works to raise awareness in Russia about disability and help families living with physical and mental illness. It runs special educational programmes in six schools for children with severe special needs and works with dozens of organisations that act as intermediaries for families who need help with conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome and autism. In particular, Vodianova wants to end the culture of institutionalism that has sealed the fate of so many children in her native country. “It’s been four years since we started this work and we’re very strong,” she says of her team, which now numbers 14. “We have an amazing network of organisations; we bring the best expertise from all over the world. We also support these organisations financially and with the most current knowledge around.” She estimates the foundation’s annual running costs to be £500,000.

It takes a certain kind of boldness to set up a charity. That Natalia should have done so in her twenties and with only a rudimentary education says plenty about her personality. Vodianova is not so much can do as already did.

“I look back at what we have achieved and I do not understand how we did it,” she says. “I had the confidence of youth! I didn’t care that this person was the biggest artist in the world and I was asking him for one of his signature works like when I went to Damien Hirst and the next thing we were auctioning off his painting “Love is all around” for $1m, at the first Love Ball fundraiser, in 2008.” Still preternaturally young looking, her blue-eyed intensity is a little discombobulating. I can well understand why Hirst said yes.

“Look, I was hoping to make £50,000 a year and thought I would be happy for the rest of my life”, she explains of her career (she was, in fact, estimated to be worth £15m in 2011). “I could have gone into business and into developing my own brands but that wasn’t really interesting for me.”

Vodianova was born in 1982 in what was then Gorky and her childhood was one of hardship. Food was scarce and her schooling minimal. Much of her work is spurred by memories of caring for her sister Oksana, who was born, when Vodianova was six, with severe cerebral palsy and autism (which was only diagnosed much later).

Unusually, Vodianova’s mother refused to institutionalise Oksana and it fell to the young Natalia to protect her sister from a society that was largely ignorant and frequently hostile towards learning disability. One of Vodianova’s proudest accomplishments, she says, was organising the publication of a biographical account of life in a Russian orphanage, The Boy from Baby House 10, by Alan Philps, into her native language in 2011.

“We have to change the bigger picture,” she insists. “We have to stop parents abandoning their children and, in order to do that, we have to provide them even with minimal support, just to give them somewhere to go to and a life for their children, an equal life to all the other children.”

It’s a heady ambition and one that is especially difficult in Russia, with its vast and disparate geography and political bureaucracy. Asya Zalogina, the director of Naked Heart, who first joined Vodianova’s crusade as a volunteer in 2005, identifies the lack of English spoken among Russia’s medics as a further obstacle. Consequently, she says “even the pedagogical society does not have the access to the latest things happening in the world”.

But obstacles do not faze Vodianova, who faces every challenge with blithe optimism and an iron will. This is, after all, a woman who, in 2013, ran a fundraising half-marathon in the morning and then did a catwalk show that night. She is currently preparing for her sixth race (“although I absolutely hate running”), and only demurred last year because she was six months pregnant. Failure doesn’t enter her lexicon. As Zalogina observes: “Her recipe for everything is think big.”

Vodianova’s life has followed its own Cinderella script. From Gorky, to Paris and the international catwalks, to London, where she married the aristocratic billionaire Justin Portman and had three children. The couple divorced in 2011, after nine years, and she now lives in Paris with Antoine Arnault, the 37-year-old scion of LVMH chief Bernard Arnault. Last year she gave birth to the couple’s first child, Maxim, who is now eight months. The couple would like more children. “Maybe one more,” she smiles. “Otherwise Antoine is going to be very sad.”

Her life today is as privileged as it was once impoverished. Her wardrobe is almost all from Louis Vuitton (“I love what Nicolas Ghesquière is doing”), Stella McCartney (for whom she still fronts campaigns) and Dior. And she has the smooth expensive complexion of a woman aided by Guerlain’s Lingerie de Peau, eight hours of sleep a night and weekends in the country. “Antoine’s father has a house and we have a little farmer’s cottage on his estate in the countryside,” she says. “We get to benefit from a beautiful park. It’s very nice for the children. It’s small so it’s easy for us to manage.”

Her children are looked after by a nanny: when we speak, Vodianova has just checked her youngest into the Purple Dragon, a London private members’ club for children that offers ballet lessons, a swimming pool and a recording studio. “I know it’s ridiculous,” she says, “but it’s really cute.”

Vodianova is still one of the industry’s most sought-after names. She regularly appears on magazine covers and takes her pick of editorial work but hasn’t been seen on a catwalk since she walked for Givenchy in 2013. “It’s not that I don’t want attention,” she says. “It’s because the catwalk is such a spectacle and I feel that maybe it’s more for the younger girls.” At 32, does she consider herself too old? “Maybe,” she says. “But it’s not because I feel old but that there are such beautiful, current, bright girls that will do it so much better than I.”

It would be easy to criticise Vodianova. As the other half of a gilded couple, with access to unlimited means, her sugar-spun existence appears to be unfairly blessed; if nothing else, she’s the living embodiment of positive visualisation. But she’s a survivor, with a ballsy determination and an absolute refusal to take no for an answer.

“She’s a force of nature. Nothing will stop her,” says von Furstenberg. “Her beauty is extraordinary and yet she is kind and compassionate. She listens and remembers everything. She is a wonderful friend, a hard worker and I have never met anyone more dedicated to the wellbeing of children.”

For Vodianova, her drive is simple. “The tools that you get living most of your life — you know, surviving — you don’t drop them so easily,” she says. “They don’t just go away.”

For more details, visit nakedheart.org/en/fundfair

Photograph: Daniel Stier

Slideshow photographs: Vantagenews; Catwalking; Getty

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.