Samantha Boardman is the absolute chicest. I say that because not only is she fabulously dressed, but because she’s also fabulously educated and informed. A born and bred Upper East Sider, she avoided becoming merely a lady who lunches in favor of a psychiatrist who scrutinizes. (Though, she does the occasional lunch too. I’ve been to them. They’re divine.) With already one MD degree and a job as a psychiatrist at Cornell Medical College, this year she received another master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. All that, and a closet full of Giambattista Valli. Recently, she launched a website called PositivePrescription.com, which is a wonderful resource for those of us intrigued and inspired by scientific breakthroughs. We sat down to talk about mental health (which is, as I discovered, much different than mental illness) and all the cool things that she is packing into her new site.
Samantha Boardman and her husband Aby Rosen in St. Barth’s and, below, the homepage of her new website.
Let’s start with how you came up with this site. When did the idea come to you, why did you think it was important to spread the good word on mental issues?
As a psychiatrist, I used to spend the majority of my time focusing on mental illness. But in recent years, I have become increasingly interested in mental health.
Oh, I’ve never heard someone make that distinction. That’s interesting.
I care about the simple tweaks and changes that can make a big difference and PositivePrescription.com is a way for me to share information that may be of interest or relevant to those who care about their well-being. It’s so easy to get lost in our crazy, busy lives that we literally forget to look up. I think of PositivePrescription.com as a “To Remind” card to slow down and to reconnect with the things that matter. There are fascinating studies in science journals about behavior that is directly relevant to our lives but they’re accumulating dust on the shelves of a library. Unless you are an avid reader of The Scientific American Mind, chances are you might miss them.
I like that. I like knowing I’ve got someone scanning the science glossies on my behalf. And don’t worry: I’m reading UsWeekly for you.
Many of the posts on my site are based on these studies and why they matter. I am especially interested in the way psychology, fashion, appearance and style collide, so there are a lot of posts on that type of thing. How we choose to present ourselves to the world is the most intimate form of self-expression and as studies illustrate, how we dress really does affect the way we feel. And as tempting as it is, I promise to resist my inner nerd impulse to share algorithms or boring data.
Talk to me about being a psychiatrist. What drew you to that field?
My favorite part of medical school was getting to know patients and listening to their stories. It’s one of the reasons I chose to specialize in Psychiatry. Psychiatry, however, focuses mostly on mental illness and on what’s wrong with someone. I felt like I was missing an important piece of the puzzle—an approach predicated on mental health. I then learned about the field of Positive Psychology, which focuses on human strengths and well-being. I spent this past year getting a masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
What I love about some of the observations that you’ve passed on to me is that while they’re medically involved, they’re interesting to someone outside your professional community. Like that study you sent me that found that dudes who carry guitars getting more numbers from ladies than dudes who didn’t. Can you recall any other studies like that which have such a broad appeal?
Like the one about how wearing certain colors impacts the way we feel? That study found that red boosts confidence and blue has a calming effect. Or the one about how posture affects stress levels and helps put things in perspective? My favorite: Staring down at your cellphone can give you what plastic surgeons call “Smartphone Face.” It isn’t pretty!
What’s a particular case that has blown your mind?
I love the one about how volunteering or doing things for others expands our sense of time, which you can read here. Who knew that by giving away time we actually gain time?
I love that. Sometimes, working in fashion, I think I’m a part time shrink myself. Are there any tips or suggestions you have for someone who works in a stressful environment?
If you work in a stressful environment, make sure you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day. Shape your job around your talents and implement ways to use your strengths on the job. This is an important predictor of health and well being in the long run.
As a friend, you’ve given me some fabulous advice when faced with a crisis. (I guess I’m considered your pro bono work.) Is there one piece of advice you find that you are giving people often?
Excellent question. “We all admire the wisdom of those who come to us for advice” is one of my favorite quotations. I would say that the single most important thing to keep in mind is that other people matter. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s own well-being. On the contrary, it is predicated on taking care of oneself. Well-being is a verb. Don’t wait for weekends or vacations. Be actively engaged in taking care of yourself every single day. It’s the little things that can make a big difference.
Samantha with the artist Francesco Vezzoli and, below, her friend and the iconic writer Bob Colacello.
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: