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After shooting to the top of the supermodel ranks, the Russian-born Natalia Vodianova has proven she’s much more than just a pretty face.Natalia Vodianova needs her beauty sleep.
This story first appeared in the May 9, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Not because the supermodel looks any better after some shut-eye. But because in Vodianova’s life, dreams become reality.
Take Naked Heart, the foundation she founded to build playgrounds for underprivileged children in Russia. The idea came to her after the Beslan school hostage crisis in northern Russia in 2004. The Russian-born Vodianova, then the mother of one, was so disturbed by the tragedy, which resulted in 334 deaths, she decided to take action and stage a benefit, enlisting famous friends like Diane von Furstenberg to help. A name was needed.
“When something worries me, I dream the answers,” says Vodianova. “I get help during my sleep.” In this instance, help came in the form of a story by Maxim Gorky, in which a general saves his troops by ripping his heart out of his chest, thus lighting the way for their escape route from the approaching Germans. “I had a dream of this story, which is very famous in Russia,” Vodianova says. “It symbolizes giving your life for the good of others. The message is that we can all do the same in smaller ways.”
Since then, Vodianova has held three high-profile fund-raisers, in New York, London and, most recently, Moscow, in which over $10 million was raised. By the end of the year, Naked Heart will have built 10 playgrounds (or play parks, as she calls them); the ultimate—and, for Vodianova, very personal—goal is to build 500 altogether. “When I was a child,” she says, “I didn’t have anywhere to play or to release me from my life, which was quite tough.”
Those who know her don’t doubt she’ll achieve it. “When you get to know Natalia, you see her not just as this gorgeous model, but also as a mother and as a woman who is changing the face of charitable endeavors in her native land,” says Lori Singer, vice president of global brand marketing for Calvin Klein Fragrances, which signed Vodianova to be the face of Euphoria in 2005. “This is quite personal to her, especially coming from her own childhood.”
Although today Vodianova lives a life most can only dream about, her understatement belies her hardscrabble beginnings. Born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s third largest city (and the birthplace of Gorky), the 26-year-old began working in her mother’s fruit stall at 11. At 15, she was spotted by a modeling agent; at 17, after teaching herself English in three months, she was in Paris. There, she met her husband, Justin Portman, an heir to one of England’s great real estate fortunes. Today, the couple have three children: Lucas, six, Neva, four, and Viktor, seven months.
Despite a full house, Vodianova maintains a packed work schedule. This spring, for example, she guest edited the March edition of Russian Vogue and was on the cover of British Vogue. She stars in the current Louis Vuitton campaign, sprawled out on an electric purple car with shiny red lips and nails to match, and has also signed on for the fall 2008 Versace campaign. She’s the face of Chanel’s spring and fall makeup stories, still fronts Euphoria and was recently tapped by Guerlain for an upcoming project, which the company declined to specify. “I’m the type of person who’s addicted to work. It comes from a childhood of working for everything you have and putting a tremendous amount of effort into something as simple as survival,” says Vodianova. “Now, everything seems to be fun and easy.”
Vodianova is remarkably attitude-free for a woman of her means and fame. Tall and whippet thin—Vodianova famously walked the catwalk three weeks after giving birth to Viktor—her eyes are as blue as a Siberian husky, her voice decorous. Her English is sprinkled with phrases gleaned from her husband (“I cahn’t possibly have more children,” she drawls, “because my house will pop”) and she exudes a confidence free of arrogance.
Today, she’s wearing a black-and-white pinstriped blazer with a nude silk slipdress, shiny black leggings and strappy grey patent leather Chanel wedges. A gold Cartier watch adorns one wrist, small granny glasses an otherwise bare face. Vodianova and Portman are in the process of moving their primary residence from London to a house in the English countryside, while also readying for an upcoming trip to Moscow for a benefit at the Vuitton boutique that she is hosting. She’s a frequent visitor to her home country and is treated like a rock star when she returns. Innately stylish, Vodianova is also an astute observer of the evolving mores of Russia’s budding fashionistas.
“Unfortunately, because of the Soviet times, we are about 20 years behind the rest of the world in fashion, but that’s changing very fast,” she says. “Aliona Doletskaya [the editor of Russian Vogue] told me that when the magazine first launched, the readership was mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Today, she receives letters from women all over the country, who live far from the center and are interested in fashion.”
Vodianova describes her own style as spontaneous, quick and creative. “My husband says he’s never seen me wearing the same combination twice,” she says. Her favorite designers include Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, Marc Jacobs, Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, Giambattista Valli and Chanel. “I like to dress up. I’m not a jeans girl,” she giggles. “I like to make an effort.”
She makes an effort when it comes to beauty, too. When asked her favorite products, Vodianova quickly reels off a litany of names. “I just discovered a very new beauty product which I absolutely love called Cosmedicine,” she starts out. “I also just discovered cosmetics from Guerlain. I signed a new contract with them and they sent me a lot of beautiful things that I love. I use Chanel’s Pro Lumière Corrector. Also Korner Skin Care, I love their masks,” she continues, gathering steam. “Neal’s Yard Remedies makes a great hair treatment, the Rosemary and Cedarwood Treatment, which brings shine to hair. It’s spring and it’s really good to moisturize everything,” she counsels. “I love the smells of Jo Malone. When I was pregnant I used a lot of Mamma Mio and I still use it. La Roche Posay—I love the spray water a lot.”
As Vodianova herself points out, being a beauty junky is practically a birthright. “Throughout the history of Russia, we’ve always been fascinated with beauty,” she says. As proof, she points to her 78-year-old grandmother, who lives with Vodianova in the countryside. “To this day, my grandmother always puts her lipstick on and her hair up,” she says. “Yesterday we wanted to go to the shops in the village and we spent 15 minutes outside waiting until she came out, dressed in black and, of course, wearing lipstick,” Vodianova—who herself has a proclivity for tardiness—laughs.
“For my mother, it was different,” Vodianova continues. “She worked incredibly heavy jobs for 18 hours a day. She didn’t have time to think about or care for herself. Now that she has a little money, it’s amazing how much effort she puts into what she’s wearing and how she looks.”
Despite the extreme differences of their circumstances, Vodianova has inherited her mother’s work ethic and drive. Though it’s been rumored that she has an interest in being an actress, she dismisses the notion—for now. “I do believe I have a talent, but talent isn’t enough unless it’s genius,” she says. “Even then, genius means a lot of work and I’m not ready to put a lot of work into that road yet.” Instead, her focus is on her foundation, her family and her fiery Russian temper. “We Russians are very passionate, quick-tempered, not quite diplomatic,” she laughs. “I’m trying to get rid of my temper and my husband is a very good teacher—he’s quite dry and also extremely diplomatic. I’m think I’m much better now. There are still a few things to work on, but I’m good, quite good.”