Natalia Vodianova, from Russia with love by Isabelle Cerboneschi The incredible story of this supermodel, who seems a figure out of a medieval fairy tale, has already been recounted many times. But in her own voice, it assumes another tonality, verging towards chiaroscuro. Next July, she's hosting a ball to benefit her philanthropic association, Naked Heart. Forty-four designers have each created a unique dress for her, all of which will be auctioned. How has a young woman gone from nothing to everything, a young woman who has transformed deficits into blessings, decided, in turn, to give? Interview. The first thing that strikes one upon meeting Natalia Vodianova is this intense manner with which she arrests one's gaze with her glacial blue eyes, and she never lets go. One must thus sustain this gaze, even when she tells her story of a miserable childhood, which was only one of the many miserable Russian childhoods in the 1990s. In every language, her story has been told: this tiny fruit and vegetable seller, born in Nizhnii Novgorod in 1982, discovered at the age of sixteen by a Parisian model scout, who signed with Viva Model Management a year later and became one of the highest paid supermodels in the industry, the most beautiful woman in the world (according to Tom Ford), and the wife of an English nobleman, Lord Portman, at nineteen. (They've since separated.) The story's been told as if she was the very incarnation of My Fair Lady, save for the fact that Eliza Doolittle's universe had nothing to do with that of Natalia Vodianova. Success, notoriety, money, three children (Lucas, Neva, and Viktor), a Sussex mansion, a Parisian apartment, a Manhattan loft: all this is part of her world now. Abjection, poverty, cold, shame, her father's abandonment of his family before she was even two years old: these were the elements of her world before. In her family, possessions were few – not even a fruit vending license. After Chechean terrorists took the Beslan school by hostage in 2004, killing more than 300 innocents, she made the decision to create parks for children in Russia. In 2005, she launched her philanthropic foundation Naked Heart. Today, she wishes to move things forward even faster: her new project, “All children have the right to a family,” aims to aid, counsel, and provide assistance to families with mentally or physically handicapped children. One must recall that in Russia, handicapped children are placed in institutions; there's simply no alternative. Vodianova wants to change this: to allow children to remain with their families, as was the case for Oksana, her younger sister, who is handicapped. Her project is there to accomplish just this. As of the most recent charity gala, held last March in Moscow to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the foundation, the funds raised have reached $1.4 million. This July, another large-scale event will take place near Paris; this one has been dubbed the White Fairy Tale Love Ball. Fourty-four designers and stylists have each created a unique dress; she'll wear all of them for a photo session with Paolo Roversi, which is certain to be memorable. We'd met with Roversi yesterday. Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Lanvin, Diane von Furstenberg, Oscar de la Renta, Roberto Cavalli, Vivienne Westwood, Giambattista Valli – all these names have participated, right up to Valentino, who agreed to return to his atelier just for her. The beauty has the gift to know how to bring everyone together in the name of her cause, which has been supported since 2008 by Guerlain and Louis Vuitton, through very discreet annual donations. A three hour interview is hardly enough time to capture twenty-nine years of a life so rich in contrasts as that of Natalia Vodianova. But it might, at least, attempt to convey the the essence of her character and the energy that seems to forever allow to recover. A meeting with a woman capable of creating within one's heart earthquakes measuring eight on the Richter scale... Le Temps: It was difficult to pin you down, you're always between two cities. Natalia Vodianova: Right, to the point that it's hard for me to enjoy anything. After Moscow, I went home to spend two days with my children, and then immediately flew to China for a week. I never even saw daylight. I did all my interviews at the hotel, and I never even went outside. And when I got back from China, I followed that up with a three-day shoot in Paris. The first time I saw you, it was at a haute couture Chanel show in 2003. You were the only one that ate anything backstage, the only one that smiled during the catwalk. I always smile at the shows. When I started in the business, the girls had a grungy style, porno chic, not exactly jubilant. As for me, I was so ecstatic at the notion that I could change my life that nothing could have inhibited my joy! I mean, I've worked very hard since I was eleven. When somebody tells me that modeling is hard, that the life is hard, I always want to say – compared to what? People don't know what they're talking about. Fortunately. I wouldn't wish [that knowledge] upon them. Everyone has their own story. It's for this reason that I'm kind to those I love. Because people haven't always been kind to you? My grandmother and her six siblings were raised by their mother during the war. Their father had abandoned them. They survived. My grandmother, who was one of the older siblings, helped take care of the family. She knew the meaning of hard work. You know, I remember one time, when I was small, she made me feel ashamed [of complaining], saying, “How dare you complain? You're fortunate enough to life in a period of peace.” In one way, I understand her. Your life is always described as a fairy tale, but do fairy tales really exist? Fairy tales exist. I'd be lying if I told you that my life hasn't been a fairy tale. But in these tales, there's always a happy ending: the Cinderella story ends with her meeting the prince, and, according to the old formula, “they lived happily ever after until the end of their lives.” But my life isn't over, and it's very real, with its ups, its downs, its challenges, just like anyone else's life. But I've learned to appreciate challenges, whatever their nature. In fairy tales, always embodied is the presence of Good and Evil. In your life, who plays the role of the witch? (She reflects at length.) Shame, humiliation. People that humiliate you; the tiny voice in your head that all of a sudden doubts. For me, that's the Evil. There's always a battle within us, as if all of our actions were being performed before a tribunal of judges. [Trans. note: remarkable Kafka reference.] If your parents, your grandparents, or friends, have told you things that were difficult to hear, these things will stay in your head, forever. It's a daily challenge to rebuke these tiny voices: “Yes, I know you're there, I understand [entendre] you, but I will not repeat your mistakes.” It takes time. You went through a change of lifestyle so radical, so fast, moving from Russia to England, from poverty to wealth, from the proletariat to the aristocracy. You must have a strength, an extraordinary willpower to succeed in making this type of transition without losing a bit of your soul. I have absolutely not changed, that's it. I'm not saying it was easy; you're meeting me ten years after all that happened. Everything about my life today is familiar, but it's still not altogether comfortable. About a year and a half ago, I no longer knew where I was, as if there was nothing left for me to accomplish. For my entire life, my biggest challenge was earning enough money to live – it was a question of survival. When I met the man that became my husband, I had only one thing in mind: to remain independent, and to rise to his level. And when I finally accomplished this, I reached a point of crisis, which ended with my doubting everything. Fortunately, I passed through that, to a place of understanding that I still had many things to do, and much to give! Today, I feel strong because I've understood that one of my life's greatest gits to me was my childhood experience. I can use that experience to help others. Otherwise, what would be their use? Why else would I have endured such extremes? You no longer doubt? Sure, it happens, but at last I realized that if I have received all these wonderful gifts of life – my incredible health, my energy, my core intelligence – I've received them in order to accomplish that which I'm doing, as best as I can. Of course, there are times when I feel I have no time for myself. But those moments don't last long. The strength and the sense of fulfillment that I feel in accomplishing projects with the foundation are a good deal more important than all the rest. At the age of eleven, you were a fruit vendor. But contrary to most accounts, your life has had little to do with the heroine of “My Fair Lady.” (A small, bitter laugh.) No. Really not. My mother started selling fruit at the market on behalf of someone else. As she's a fighter, she wanted an account of her own. But to do this, she had to procure authorizations, documents that were difficult to obtain, that were expensive. And we didn't have the means. So, to become a legal vendor, she had to pay “commissions” to the Mafia, to the police. Sometimes they wanted more money; they'd come to our booth. And because our cart was in the street, any filthy drunk could come right up and steal our merchandise. My mother had to fight. You must imagine Russia: we had to stand on the street rain or shine, even when it was minus 20 degrees, and when I came home I'd cry for hours, due to the pain, or the fear that my fingers or feet were frostbitten. It was awful. But I'm thick-skinned, hard-nosed. Hard like life? You know, the 1990s were very, very difficult years in Russia. It was a mess. Everyone lived in poverty. And then deflation occurred. It was as if 1000 Euros suddenly became 100 Euros. My grandparents had saved up all their lives to purchase a car, and suddenly they couldn't even buy a refrigerator! It's a catastrophic story that occurred to a great many people. Many simply lost hope, and fell into alcoholism, depression. Naturally, the government provided no means of support for ordinary people. Even in your darkest moments, had you the sense that your life would change? Always! I never doubted that! I knew that I wouldn't have to struggle like my mother. She was raised in an environment very different from mine. She was poor, but always protected, loved, and received the minimum necessary for a family. Me, I was a survivor: my father left us because we were too poor. My mother taught me perseverance: I don't know how she kept from committing suicide! She didn't drink, she didn't smoke, she worked, that's all. She had been a very beautiful woman, but she lost all her hair, practically all of her teeth – obviously she couldn't pay the bills at the dentist's office. She reached a point at which there was no expression in her eyes. I remember the helplessness I felt, as a small girl, not knowing how to help her. When did you get the idea of the playgrounds? After the Beslan hostage crisis? Before Beslan, the idea of a charity had never crossed my mind. I was in Moscow; I followed the whole thing on TV; I cried for three days. The whole country shared the same pain. I never stopped thinking about what I could really do to help the survivors. I remembered that my fleeting moments of happiness, when I was a child, occurred when I was playing with other children. The children [that survived Beslan] will be forever marked: they were there. They will always carry the same shame: one can't be proud to have survived such an event. You have to be an adult, with a great deal of fortitude, to recover from such a trauma. So that's why I thought of playgrounds. For those moments of normalcy, when all the children can play together and forget, just for one game, who they are, and what they have endured. You wanted to construct the first one in Beslan. What happened? For my first charity event, there were around 450 people and we raised about $450,000. It wasn't a huge sum, but it was enough to build one playground (ed: each playground costs about $300,000). But a year and a half later, I was still trying to contact authorities in Beslan. Everyone had been moved by the tragedy, everyone wanted to do something to help, to raise funds. The government was overwhelmed by offers. So you decided to construct the first playground elsewhere. Yes. Since I had the money available, I decided I was going to build it in my hometown. I didn't sleep a wink the night before the inauguration. I had no idea how it would be received by the children. And it was a huge success. I went back two days later, then a week later; my family visits the playground regularly, and it's always full of children. So I decided to continue. Three years later, Beslan finally contacted me. They asked me to build a playground. The circle closed. The trip was very moving. I visited the site where the tragedy took place. The site were the hostages were sequestered is like a temple where one can feel the horror of the event, a very strong energy. The children had organized a concert for me, they read me poems... You also had to learn to confront a complex bureaucracy. At first, it was difficult. Especially for the playground in my hometown. Three days after it was opened, we learned that people were charging an entrance fee from the children! That tarnishes the image of your cause. It was atrocious! Like a bad joke. We immediately put a stop to it. The racket was organized by neighbors, very poor people. The government and the mayor told me that I had to transfer the playground to a school, who would control security, and in this way subsidize the project. But I know the system... So far, we've built 54 playgrounds, and this type of thing still occurs. But one must persevere. Is it you who takes the initiative to decide on the sites? No. We always wait for solicitations. In some communities, the sites become nerve centers where adults, as well as children, come to meet, play, converse. These are larger spaces, around 300 meters square. There's nothing like this, anywhere else in Russia. And even if some local governments contact us just before their local elections, it doesn't matter: for me, what counts is that the children get their playgrounds. This year, you've decided to launch a new program, “All children are entitled to a family,” to aid families with disabled children. It's a cause that touches you closely. Yes, it's part of who I am. My sister is handicapped, and it's very difficult for a child with a disability, regardless of what kind, to survive in a country like Russia. Many children are abandoned in orphanages – not only children with mental or physical disabilities, but normally developed children as well. The mentally disabled children never survive, they fold up within themselves, close themselves off to the world forever, and then disappear. Having lived with my sister, I know how much they need love, care, a normal family, more than anyone. But your mother, on the other hand, decided to never abandon your sister. In the 1990s, doctors encouraged families to “place” their disabled children. The system was such that it prevented families who wanted to raise their children from doing so. For example, there were no specialists in the field. [To keep a disabled child] required Byzantine strategies, perseverance, and contacts. And of course most of the Russian population is insolvent. Nevertheless, my mother never placed my sister in an institution. She did what she could, and that's a lot. We provided her with love, a home, a family. But did we give her medical care? Never! We didn't have the means. What was the event that incited you to establish this new program? Last summer, a journalist named Alan Philips sent me his book “The Boy from Baby House Number Ten.” It tells the story of a little boy, Vania, who, at the age of six, was committed to a nursing home. Sarah, Alan's wife, works in the world of charities, and she noticed that [Vania] was lively, communicative, cheerful. She didn't understand why he was in this institution. Three months after their initial encounter, Vania's state had deteriorated considerably. Normally, no one has the right to visit such children, but Sarah bribed a guard. She found the child locked in an iron cage, crammed together with other kids, sitting in their feces. Unfortunately, this was rather common in Russia in the 1990s. I read the book. I collapsed. Alan had sent me the book with a very simple note. Instead of criticizing me, as certain people do – certain people that don't understand why I'm building playgrounds while all of these children are dying in orphanages – he thanked my mother and I for having taken care of my sister, for not having committed her to an institution. Have you met Alan? Yes. After I read his book, I wondered how one could tolerate a system so wrong, so inappropriate! You've got families that can't provide care for their disabled children, who have no medical aid, no money, and if these families make the right decision – to keep the child – it turns out to be the wrong decision. And the opposite decision is also the wrong decision. Whatever they do, they lose. The state institutionalizes nine times the number of disabled children taken care of by their mothers. This, at a cost of £900 per child! Imagine if one decided to do the opposite! If that funding were distributed to families rather than subsidizing institutions, the children could have a nice life. Do you know what happened to Vania? He was adopted, and he now lives in the States with his mother. He grew up perfectly normally. He's the same age as my sister. The BBC is also doing a report on him. What do you wish to do, concretely? I met everyone that helped Vania. I learned how the system worked, the errors, the lack of government support. Now that I understand the nuts and bolts, nothing can stop me. I want to create a center, non-governmental, to support Russian families. First, for those that have a disabled child, so that they will be less tempted to abandon their child; and next, for all families in need. These families need ongoing help. Sporadic psychological or medical aid is always welcome. An information center would be of primordial importance, a place that would help families find a physician qualified for, say, anesthesia. A place where someone tells you, “here's what I can do for you:” that would be so comforting. Someone listening to you, someone is there to help you – that's already an enormous improvement. I just returned from Moscow, where we raised $1.4 million. Half of the proceeds of this event will be devoted to the new foundation. You've just completed a memorable series of photos with Paolo Roversi, with dresses created uniquely for your foundation by designers, which will be auctioned at the upcoming gala in July, in Paris. Yes, we photographed 42 dresses, based on the theme of fairy tales. Everyone participated – even Valentino, who designed a magical robe with ostrich feathers. There will also be a dress by John Galliano. Yes. The dress is sublime... I'm obviously very sad for John, for what's happened to him. I had so hoped he had found the strength to combat alcoholism. Because I know what I am: I'm Russian, and I was so often confronted with people that did completely crazy things under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. He can't control anything anymore. I don't know him very well, but every time I asked him for something, I could always count on him. What he said could never have come from him, it came from elsewhere, from his childhood, from something that happened to him... In fact, life has brought him a challenge that he must now face, the possibility to change his life, to wake up, to take charge. Those who love him are really rallying around him. The Naked Heart Foundation: [email protected] Tel: +44 7 499 978 58 95 PO Box 67106, London SW11 9DP. Site internet: www.nakedheart.org «The Boy from baby house No 10: From the nigthmare of a russian orphanage to a new life in America», Alan Philps et John Lahutsky, St Martin’s Press, October 2009 The White Fairy Tale Love Ball will take place July 6 in the Chateau of Widewille, property of the designer Valentino Garavani, near Paris. For information, contact the Naked Heart Foundation.