The Millionaire supermodel who can’t resist the High Street: Natalia Vodianova reveals the impact of her grindingly poor childhood
- Model Natalia Vodianova became face of H&M’s Conscious collection last year
- Natalia is not snobbish despite her second husband owning 15 fashion houses
- Supermodel has walked in more than 200 runway shows over the past 18 years
- Explaining her childhood, she said on some days she’d only eat a sachet of soup
Natalia Vodianova and I are huddled under a heat lamp in a terrace café in Paris.
We are sipping lukewarm cappuccinos and talking about everything from impossibly rich husbands, appallingly deprived upbringings in Russia (Natalia’s makes Cinderella’s sound like a holiday camp), school bullies (‘mental bullying is often worse than physical,’ she says darkly), but most of all, women’s sexual health, her new campaign with the UN.
When I first spot Natalia (Natasha to her friends) across the room, she is surprisingly unarresting — teeny-tiny, very thin and very pale in her denim jump suit from Mango and huge green coat draped over narrow shoulders. That she’s wearing an outfit from a Spanish chain store is a surprise considering her second husband Antoine Arnault, is a director of LVMH, which owns 15 fashion houses including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Loewe and Givenchy.
Supermodel Natalia Vodianova, 36 (pictured), talked about her love of high street fashion and how it was partly inspired by her tough, poor childhood in her native Russia
But Natalia’s not snobbish about clothes. Last year she became the face of H&M’s Conscious collection and she tells me she ‘loves Topshop — such a cute shop!’ She looks more mousy-haired student than 36-year-old superstar, and it’s no surprise to hear that on family holidays in America with her five (yes, five!) children she is routinely asked for her ID when she orders wine.
‘I’m like: “Thank you America. I love you! And these are all my kids!” ’
Up close there are a couple of faint lines on her forehead, pale purple shadows under her eyes and a grey hair or two amid the blonde. But she is also almost spookily beautiful.
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Of course she is. She’s walked in more than 200 runway shows over the past 18 years (including Burberry, just weeks ago in London), graced countless Vogue covers and fronted campaigns from Calvin Klein to Stella McCartney, most recently appearing in Versace’s spring/summer campaign.
Her pale skin glows (‘I put a lot of creams on this morning for this shoot!’ she smiles with very clean teeth), her enormous eyebrows crouch like beige caterpillars and her grey blue eyes burn, hard.
It is the burn as much as the looks that led to her nickname ‘Supernova’ — a supermodel (she still reportedly earns £4 million from about 20 days modelling a year), super-campaigner, super-fundraiser, super- philanthropist and superlative at getting people to do what she wants.
She is a big fan of Mango and H&M even though her second husband Antoine Arnault is a director of LVMH, which owns 15 fashion houses including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Loewe and Givenchy
At a London charity fundraiser, she persuaded film star Liv Tyler to run a coconut shy, and supermodel Doutzen Kroes to show off her paper plane manufacturing skills.
It helps when you run in Natalia’s circles. She and Antoine (son of the world’s fourth-richest person, Bernard Arnault) are friends with the Macrons. Hillary Clinton calls her ‘an angel’.
Her Naked Heart Foundation has raised more than £30 million in ten years to build playgrounds and assist the care of the disabled in her native Russia. She is also passionately involved in Elbi, a social enterprise she co-founded which helps to make charitable donations easier.
Her latest campaign is about women’s sexual health, hygiene products and, particularly, periods and, later this month and in conjunction with the UN, Natalia is leading Let’s Talk, a symposium to tackle women’s health taboos and empower them.
Involving government leaders, policy- makers, experts and celebrities, it is her first real foray into women’s issues, but she is fiercely passionate about it.
The beautiful superstar is known for her youthful looks. She revealed how on family holidays in America with her five children she is routinely asked for her ID when she orders wine
Today, she, Antoine and her children, who range in age from two to 16, live in splendour in a home with a view of the Eiffel Tower, but when it comes to money, specifically spending on fashion, Natalia is thrifty. ‘We don’t buy too much,’ she tells me. ‘Only essential shopping in the U.S. We buy for the year — maybe a couple of jeans, a couple of shirts, something warm and that’s it. We’re very low-key.’
The other day her 12-year-old daughter was teased because she wore an old T-shirt. ‘Her friends were, “Oh my God, you’ve had this T- shirt for three years already!” so I try to train her to be funny about it, to say: “It’s only ten years till you get the perfect softness”. I try to get her to spin those things into positives.’
Although earlier this year she was an official ambassador for the Russian World Cup, she has no plans to move back home.
The drive, the force, the passion for her relentless campaigning comes from the values her mother installed during her poverty-stricken childhood. Instead of treating her past like a guilty secret and embracing five-star luxury with her beautiful peers, she’s always been determined to help others who are as deprived as she once was.
‘When I see suffering, I just start going under water. I feel helpless that I can’t do it all, can’t help people fast enough.’
Natalia grew up in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), an industrial town east of Moscow. Her father scarpered when she was a toddler, but she and her mum Larisa lived with her granny (also Larisa) and were poor, but happy. Everything was fine, she says, until she was five.
‘I was surrounded by love. My grandmother embroidered my cuffs and collars — I had the prettiest clothes and I felt special and loved,’ she says. But then her mother remarried and her half-sister Oksana was stillborn and, though resuscitated, was left with cerebral palsy and later diagnosed with autism.
Russians didn’t ‘do’ disabilities then (Natalia says they have a long way to go now) and disabled children were shoved out of sight in institutions. When Larisa clung hard to Oksana, husband number two walked out and the family — including another younger half-sister, Kristina — were ostracised.
Larisa worked four cleaning jobs and ran a fruit stall outside a vodka factory and Natalia had to do everything else. ‘I had to learn how to cook, to care for myself and my sisters and manage responsibilities not fit for a child that age,’ she says. ‘From then on I wasn’t a child.’
Natalia grew up in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), an industrial town east of Moscow. Her father scarpered when she was a toddler, but she and her mum Larisa lived with her granny (also Larisa) and were poor, but happy
Larisa worked hard, but she was no businesswoman and there was no money. Some days, all Natalia would eat was a sachet of soup.
‘I was hungry a lot of the time — you get used to it,’ she says.
There were also no holidays, no toys, barely any clothes and no privacy. She and Oksana shared a bed for ten years — ‘I love her to bits. She is like a part of me. It’s really strong and I miss her because I don’t see enough of her now.’
She often had to wear last year’s shoes when her feet had grown several sizes. ‘It was agonising pain — I can’t tell you how painful.’
Skinny, ragged and tainted by her stigma of a disabled sister, bullying was inevitable.
‘I still have a scar because someone threw something metal at me — I was bleeding,’ she says, touching her forehead.
‘But the mental abuse was worse. They were spitting at me and saying I was dirty like my sister and that they don’t want to touch me because they’re going to get poisoned.’
Like the millions of girls around the world she’s trying to help now, she felt horribly isolated — alone and vulnerable. ‘I know what it’s like to have no one to talk to, no one to confide in. No voice.’
When she hit puberty and her breasts started growing, she thought she was dying. No one had explained anything about her developing body.
‘I was petrified. When my breasts started growing, one grew first and I was convinced it was cancer. I was hoping it would go away. The fear I felt! I didn’t want to worry my family with more things until eventually I was desperate and asked my gran and she explained.’
Her mother didn’t think to tell her about periods either and, seeing how she was struggling, Natalia didn’t want to trouble her. ‘It was really hard on her emotionally — she lost a lot of her hair, she lost her teeth. Sometimes I wonder how she didn’t commit suicide,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t bear to worry her about anything else.’
Natalia just put her head down — ‘I was never the complaining sort’ — took over the fruit stall and spent her days, and often nights, manning it in temperatures as low as -40.
‘I felt helpless. It wasn’t a choice, I had to be strong. Where I come from you just dream to get through another day,’ she explains. ‘All you want is to not think about money or food or clothes. Getting through the Russian winter — it was super cold.
‘It was worse than you could probably imagine,’ she says, then straightens up, pushes back a strand of wipsy hair, and adds brightly: ‘But it was good training!’
Her fairy tale moment came dramatically. Aged 17, she was persuaded by her then boyfriend to attend a model scouting event, was snapped up immediately and, weeks later, arrived in Paris where she learned to speak English in just two months.
Before long, she was appearing on front covers and catwalks. By 19, she was married to British aristocrat Justin Portman — half-brother of property heir Viscount Portman, who owns huge chunks of London — and a mother. (They had three children together.) But even with money coming out of her ears, she was unable to sit back and put her feet up.
Her mother remarried and her half-sister Oksana was stillborn and, though resuscitated, was left with cerebral palsy and later diagnosed with autism. Her second husband eventually left and the family was left to struggle
‘It is human nature to get used to the good life very quickly, but I’ve never forgotten my background. I never try to push it away,’ she says. ‘My habit as a child was to fight, to survive, to persevere, to be responsible. I don’t think you can let that go.’
A fortnight after giving birth to first son Lucas, she was back on the catwalk. ‘I did 40 shows that season!’ she says.
She has worked relentlessly ever since, modelling, setting up her Naked Heart Foundation, running Love Balls and Fund Fairs to raise millions. (It was her enthusiasm for Flo, the period-tracking app that is helping to remove the stigma of menstruation around the world, that led to Let’s Talk!)
Despite looking as if she’d easily snap in two, she’s clearly rock hard. In 2013 she completed the Paris Half Marathon after no training, lost a toenail en route and that afternoon closed the Givenchy show. Her dream holiday is climbing mountains in Georgia.
But why all the relentless campaigning? After all, she’d be excused for just taking it easy for a while.
‘Instead of putting all my energy into self-destruction or chasing some kind of success, I’ve put it into a positive. I’ve turned it from baggage to a toolbox.’ If she sounds a bit therapised, it’s not surprising.
‘I’ve had some therapy of course! Luckily. It was actually my divorce that got me to therapy in the first place,’ she says. She and Portman split in 2011. He now lives mostly in Uruguay, but the kids see him in the holidays and she is still protective over him. ‘Divorce is never easy. It’s still painful. We loved each other a lot, but we just separated like water and oil.’
When she met Antoine — who is even richer than Portman — love was not on the cards. But he was romantic. She glows all pink and pleased when she talks about how hard he works, how he ‘lifts me up’, how hands-on he is with the kids, how he gets up every night — ‘though nappies are less his thing’ — while she sleeps.
Being married to two billionaires is quite a thing. Is it about security, or just coincidence?
She pauses for a moment. Stops smiling. Uh oh. And then she answers, surprisingly honestly.
‘I think when it comes to love we definitely choose. I am sure the security is a small part of it. Looking for an equal is healthy. It’s about how you fit together. And lifestyle. We share costs.’
Speaking about her children, she said: ‘It’s hard to be tough, but I am tough. Antoine is much more emotional. I try to be more cold-blooded about it’
There are many surprising things about Natalia. Not least the fact that, as well as fiercely independent, she is also refreshingly funny, warm (when the blazing eyes are turned down a bit) and open.
She tells about the time Lucas, then nine, came home from school in West Sussex and said: ‘Mummy, we had sex education today.’
‘I was like, “Wow. OK. Cool. What did you learn?” ’ she says. ‘And he said, “That men have these guys called something weird and girls have an egg . . . But Mummy, I don’t get how the guys comes to the egg…They didn’t cover that bit.”
‘And I’m like: “Thank you very much!” ’ she says. And then found herself explaining in great detail about how it all works.
On she went about protection and condoms and how, when he got older, he’d have sex for love as well as to make babies and warned him they’d be having this same conversation every year for the next few years.
‘By the time he was 13 he was running from me like the plague!’ she laughs. It must be tempting, having spent most of your childhood with a gnawing hunger, to give your children everything you missed out on. But she insists hers are not spoilt. ‘My children are really hard-working — maybe it runs in the family — and they don’t complain when their screens are taken away. They’re very obedient and they all help. I’ll say: “Let’s all go and clean up the table.” And they do.’
Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone disobeying her, ever. ‘It’s hard to be tough, but I am tough. Antoine is much more emotional. I try to be more cold-blooded about it.’
Like any working mother, life is a juggle — in her case toddlers, teens, tweens, the pressure of two fathers, supporting her family in Russia, charities, modelling, fundraising and philanthropy.
‘Of course I feel guilty, but I’m home by seven every night and try to be home every weekend. And I never answer my phone.’
Meanwhile, she has no plans to stop modelling. ‘Why would I? I don’t see myself as a model. I just do some pictures some days.’
Five children down, she is still broody. As we walk through the cafe we pass a woman with a baby clamped to her chest, Natalia’s head snaps round to coo.
‘I love babies. I love them more than anything, I think,’ she says. But when I ask, she insists a sixth is ‘out of the question at the moment’, gives me a hard stare and back to women’s issues we go.
And, in particular her friend TV presenter (and ex-wife of Salman Rushdie) Padma Lakshmi’s endometriosis, which went undiagnosed for 23 years because no one really addressed women’s issues properly. No one could talk about periods without going all coy. It left her in agony.
‘For ten days a month, she would completely fall out of existence — that’s Padma who is a famous writer and broadcaster. How is that possible in the U.S? Think of all those girls around the world, who cannot get medical support.
‘So I am hoping Let’s Talk! will affect change in these countries. In India, ten per cent of girls drop out of school to avoid their periods. In some parts of Africa, girls are even told that a doctor sticking a lollipop up their vagina will stop them getting pregnant. Something needs to be done,’ she says.
And while periods, bullying and sexual health is not the usual conversational fare for one of the world’s top models, Google her and, among the glittering Chanel and Guerlain images, there’s a photo of her proudly posing next to a sanitary towel — which she firmly believes should be free to all.
Natalia is beautiful, funny, hard-working and yes, slightly scary. It’s not for her, the luxury of sweeping her previous life under the carpet and lolling about on a yacht.
Instead, she works tirelessly, pouring her energy into shockingly unglamorous campaigns — all to plug the dark gaps in her own dismal childhood.
The Let’s Talk! event to tackle women’s health taboos runs from October 25-26 at The Maxx Royal Kemer Resort, Antalya, Turkey in partnership with Sexual Reproductive Health Agency UNFPA.
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