Natalia Vodianova looks incredible in red. Don’t get me wrong, she also looks incredible in white, black, pink, or even sludgy brown. But it’s in red that she really shines. Perhaps that’s because she wears it whenever she’s hosting one of her Naked Heart fundraising events, which she did in February of this year during London Fashion Week – a red sequined dress made specially by Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein to accommodate the model’s five-and-a-half-month pregnancy bump.
Vodianova, the 34-year-old Russian supermodel who is based in Paris, but regularly jets between New York, London, and Moscow, does not do things by halves. As well as being one of fashion’s most successful and instantly recognizable stars, she’s a leading figure in the charity world. Her first Love Ball in Moscow’s Tsaritsino Estate, held on Valentine’s Day in 2008, featured a 220-ton ice palace specially constructed for the event, the auction of a Damien Hirst work that fetched $1.2 million, and a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet. She set her sights high – and the rewards matched. The ball raised $6 million.
When I first met Vodianova, at her house in the English countryside, it was a few weeks before her now legendary London Love Ball, which included a sit-down dinner for 420 people and an auction conducted by Christie’s that raised $1.7 million. In typical Natalia fashion, she juggled the interview between a snowball fight with her children in the garden, a photo shoot where she slipped straight into cover girl mode, all dreamy eyes and soft lips, and negotiating logistics for the event. She had the air of someone who is very capable, used to taking control of situations – and getting things done.
“Looking back, I realize that growing up in Russia gave me tools that other people don’t necessarily have,” is the explanation she gives for her extraordinary drive, “such as the will to push that bit further, to make things happen, to succeed. I try to use these now to help other people.” Nor has her lavish lifestyle left her suffering celebrity amnesia: she is happy to talk frankly about her impoverished childhood and the difficulties of growing up with a disabled sister.
Vodianova set up the Naked Heart Foundation as a response to the 2004 Beslan school siege, when at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children. “I guess everyone who does charity has a moment when it strikes them, and it is unfortunately something horrible most of the time,” she told me. Her response to seeing the siege unfold on her TV screen in Moscow at the time was to cry. But through her tears, she had a vision. She decided she wanted to build a playground so that the children who survived would at least have some moments when they were lost in play and could forget the horrors of the siege.
She went back to New York, and with the help of her friend Diane von Furstenberg, set up a charity auction and raised $350,000. She had to wait five years before she could open the playground in Beslan, but that didn’t stop her opening her first in her home town of Nizhny Novgorod, and then opening playgrounds in more than 30 cities across Russia – many in the remotest, most forgotten towns.
Since starting the foundation, she has built 158 playgrounds across 103 Russian cities.
Born in 1982, Vodianova had a childhood that could not be further from the lives of her own four children (three from her previous marriage to Justin Portman, half-brother of the 10th Viscount Portman, who she met when she was 19, and one with her boyfriend Antoine Arnault, the son of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault). Vodianova’s mother Larisa, who raised her three daughters alone, had a stall selling fruit and vegetables. Natalia looked after her sister Oksana, was born with cerebral palsy, while her mother worked long hours.
In her teens, Vodianova was spotted by a French model scout. She moved to Paris in 1999 and was soon swept up in the glamorous new life as an A-list model. In 2004, Steven Meisel shot her for the cover of American Vogue in 2004 alongside Gisele and Daria – the three models of the moment. Calvin Klein booked her for the most lucrative fashion contract of them all (a seven-figure contract she held for an unheard-of eight seasons) and ten years later, she became the face of the brand’s Euphoria fragrance. In 2012, Forbes named her as the world’s third most profitable model, estimated to be bringing in a very handsome $8.6 million in one year.
What is most striking about Vodianova is her incredible work ethic and her philanthropic drive. Anyone would forgive a mother of four (soon to be five) if she wanted to take a break from professional life. But Vodianova was back on the catwalk two weeks after giving birth to her first son Lucas. And she is utterly committed to the Naked Heart Foundation. As well as opening playgrounds, she has extended her focus to work with orphanages with the campaign Every Child Deserves a Family, which works with children who are abandoned by their families because of unemployment or disabilities.
Small wonder, then, that Vodianova’s nickname is “Supernova” – a tag Diane von Furstenberg would surely endorse: “The more you know Natalia,” she says, “the more you are impressed with her. She’s a remarkable woman – and I don’t say that easily. She’s probably one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. Her beauty is nothing compared with her character.”
Natalie Vodinova's Charity: nakedheart.org