For the most recent issue of the Wall Street Journal Magazine, I profiled cover star Natalia Vodianova. I first met Nata, as she’s often referred to, when I was still a college student, living in the dorms at New York University. (She had slightly nicer digs: She lived in a Tribeca manse with a water feature I once fell into at a masked ball she organized at the house.) So us meeting together again at the Paris apartment she shares with her boyfriend Antoine and her three kids was a full circle moment for me. Her address may have changed, but that’s about it: She is still as sweet, smart, driven and, yes, as beautiful as I always remembered.
DURING FASHION WEEK this past March in Paris, Natalia Vodianova maintained a schedule that would test anyone’s stamina: She was the guest of honor at a surprise party for her 31st birthday, hosted by her boyfriend, Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault. The next night she hosted a party to launch online retailer Net-a-Porter’s sale of a shoe collection she designed for Russian retailer Centro to benefit her Naked Heart Foundation, a charity she founded a decade ago to help disadvantaged children in her native Russia. That Sunday she woke up at 6 a.m. to run the Paris half-marathon, also in support of the Naked Heart Foundation; did a Givenchy fitting; came home to feed lunch to her three children; and then headed off to get into hair and makeup to close the Givenchy fashion show at 7 p.m. Among the front-row onlookers were Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Jessica Chastain, Arnault, Vodianova’s 11-year-old son, Lucas, and her Russian grandmother, who clapped wildly as she watched her granddaughter sashay down the runway for the first time.
That Vodianova is still landing prime modeling jobs now that she is on the far side of 30 is surprising. That she simultaneously established herself as a philanthropic force even more so. Historically, supermodels have waited until their bookings diminish to turn their efforts to charity and other second careers. Vodianova still has lucrative contracts with Guerlain and French lingerie brand Etam, for which she also designs her own collection. It’s a wave she could ride until she washes up on fashion’s more obscure shores, but instead, Vodianova has always sought to establish herself as someone with interests and ambitions above and beyond the runway—or as her friend designer Stella McCartney puts it, she’s been “well-rounded” from the start.
This spring, her efforts were acknowledged with the Inspiration Award at the annual DVF Awards—an honor that designer Diane von Furstenberg has previously presented to Íngrid Betancourt and Elizabeth Smart, both women who have “demonstrated extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity” and use this “experience and influence to effect positive change.” Von Furstenberg met Vodianova when she was 19 years old, during her first season modeling in New York in 2001, when the designer snapped her up to open and close her catwalk presentation. “I immediately loved her. She was never like a young child, always a grown-up,” says von Furstenberg. “Very early on she took her life in her hands and decided that unless she controlled it, she couldn’t succeed.”
Vodianova’s rags-to-riches life story reads like something only a screenwriter could imagine: One day she was selling oranges at a fruit stand; then she was signing an exclusive multimillion-dollar contract with Calvin Klein. Born in Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial town 260 miles from Moscow, she started skipping school at the age of 11 to help support her single mother, Larissa, and autistic younger half-sister, Oksana. (Vodianova’s father walked out when she was a toddler, leaving her mother to work three jobs, including selling fruit at a local market. At first, Vodianova helped her before taking over the duties completely.) “I used to sell fruit on the street in minus-25-degree Celsius weather, outside in the open air, for 12 hours straight. I would come home and scream in pain as my fingers and my toes were literally defrosting,” says Vodianova, now amid much plusher surroundings in a Paris apartment overlooking the Invalides she shares with Arnault. Resting up the day before the marathon, she’s curled on a couch wearing a cap-sleeved sweater and black-and-white-striped trousers. Flipping open her agenda, she shows me a photograph from her childhood. “I always had big black circles under my eyes, which were swollen. You can literally see that burden in my face.”
Vodianova was determined to make a better life for herself, and in 1999, when she was 17, a boyfriend suggested she attend an open casting call. The model scout immediately recommended her to an agency in Moscow. At first, her mother was reluctant to let her go because she was suspicious of the scout’s intentions and depended on her help at home. According to Vodianova, “We didn’t have the time to dream. I remember having English lessons in school and thinking, Why on Earth would I learn another language?” Yet Vodianova’s grandmother was encouraging, and the family decided she could give it a try.
From Moscow, Vodianova was immediately sent to Paris. Her agency gave her a weekly advance, which she sent to her mother, who by then had a third child, daughter Kristina. “It was quite a lot of money for my family, like a month’s salary,” says Vodianova. It helped her mother come to terms with her daughter’s decision to leave. “She started to realize that this could be good.” Meanwhile, it was the first taste of freedom from an angst-ridden existence for the young Vodianova. “It was such a beautiful time, just having that chance to be a different person. For once, I was a normal girl and completely anonymous in a new place and had an opportunity to start a new life.” That new life began in earnest when she met the Honorable Justin Portman, a dashing English property heir, at a Parisian dinner party. They married in 2001, when she was 19 years old and pregnant with their first son, Lucas.
Her career took off immediately. Among a crop of leggy Russians, Vodianova stood out for her chameleonlike acting abilities, intense work ethic and sense of humor—not to mention her wide-set, expressive eyes, thick brows and pouty lips. Photographer Juergen Teller shot her for a 2001 Marc Jacobs campaign. The following year, Tom Ford cast her in a Gucci campaign. She became a favorite of Vogue, starring in the title role of a now-famous Alice in Wonderland–themed editorial shot by Annie Leibovitz and styled by Grace Coddington in the magazine’s December 2003 issue. And then, at the age of 21, she signed an eight-season, seven-figure contract with Calvin Klein that changed her life.
“When I met her for the first time, she took my breath away. She is beyond superficial beauty. This is a beauty that is from the inside and comes out,” Klein says. Vodianova was the last girl Klein personally put under an exclusive contract before he retired, catapulting her into the ranks of a Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Brooke Shields. “She was very sexual, seductive, she was all those things that I wanted to represent. I used her for everything I could… Too often, models are flat. They have good bodies, but you can see in their faces that there’s not a lot there. But Natalia has such a great spirit.”
A year after her first Calvin Klein ads appeared in 2003, when larger-than-life images of her posing seductively loomed over New York’s SoHo, Vodianova decided she needed to pay back some of the good fortune she was enjoying by forming her own charity. The impetus was the school hostage crisis in the Russian city of Beslan in 2004, which ended with more than 380 dead, many of them children. Vodianova was in Moscow at the time of the crisis and witnessed firsthand how her countrymen were shaken by the tragedy. “It was everywhere. The whole country stopped,” Vodianova remembers. Lucas, her eldest child, was 3 years old at the time—the same age as some of the children who were killed. “I was wrestling with how I went from the bottom of society to the top of financial security. That feeling of unfairness upset me.”
As she struggled to determine what she could do to help, she sought the answer in her own past. “I went back to my childhood and saw myself as a little girl who was very much in a difficult situation, growing up with my disabled sister. My childhood was very abnormal. I missed out on simple things.” Oksana was born with autism and cerebral palsy. “I was attached to her and [therefore] almost disabled myself because I couldn’t play with my own friends.” Vodianova’s eyes tear up as she tries to explain, “I felt ashamed sometimes. We spent all our time walking outside because she loved it, but we were always exposed to people being horrible to us. I remember thinking that what I lacked the most as a child was a place to go where I felt like I belonged.” Vodianova had found her mission: to build playgrounds in underprivileged parts of Russia in order to provide other children with the carefree joy she had missed.
To date, she has built 90 playgrounds in Russia through Naked Heart, and she has expanded her horizons, helping to build three in the U.K. She has hosted fund-raising Love Balls in Moscow, London and outside of Paris, which have raised millions of dollars and attracted the likes of Anne Hathaway, Kate Moss, Mario Testino and Daphne Guinness. This year’s ball, the fourth such extravaganza, will be held on July 27, at the Monaco opera house. Hosted by Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene of Monaco, along with Princess Caroline of Hanover, the event will be Vodianova’s biggest ever: a 550-person sit-down dinner with a 1960s Riviera theme.
But while her foundation has grown exponentially, Vodianova faced a personal hurdle of her own: a separation and divorce from Portman. They were together for nine years and, after Lucas, had a second son, Viktor, 7, and a daughter, Neva, 5. The couple separated in 2011, and she soon met Arnault, now the CEO of Berluti, at a fund-raiser for her charity at the designer Valentino’s estate outside Paris, and began a new chapter. They now live together with Vodianova’s three children, and she has immersed herself in Parisian life, even taking French lessons. “I am very happy now,” she says of her love life, trying but failing to hide a smile.
It’s easy to refer to her life as a modern-day fairy tale, but for Vodianova, it’s a bittersweet comparison. “On the one hand, I don’t like it because my story was not defined by who I am dating, by some prince charming,” she asserts. “I married for love. I work hard on being a good mother, and a good partner and in my profession. Those successes cannot be attributed to chance.” But there is one fairy tale that she’s happy to be associated with: Alice in Wonderland. “She took what was given to her and went with it. Go down the rabbit hole and see what life gives you. I can definitely relate to that!” she says. “Besides, I never wanted to be Cinderella. I’d rather be Alice, and I’m happy I found my wonderland.”
Photograph by Alasdair McLellan; Styling by Anastasia Barbieri. Below, images from my archives: