Supermodel Natalia Vodianova on life after fashion, and making philanthropy rewarding for all
“I was never an angel. I did not sleep on weekends because my friend and I would be the first at the nightclub and the last to leave. For three years, I danced every Friday and Saturday… maybe that’s how I managed to get the body! Those early days of my career were filled with mischief, but they are the happiest days I can remember…”
That’s Natalia Vodianova, aka Supernova, one of the world’s most successful supermodels, spilling her heart out in an exclusive interview to HT Brunch. Remembered for her inspiring rags-to-riches story in which she went from selling fruit as a child with her mother to becoming a Forbes magazine-ratified “one of the highest paid models in the world,” Natalia saw it all. Now 37, Natalia may have retired from the runway, but she continues her role in public life.
“I’ll always remember when I first arrived in Paris at 17. It was my first break in modelling and I had just been scouted by a top modelling agency. Before I knew it, I was whisked away to the bright lights of one of the fashion capitals…”
Life after the limelight
While a lot of beautiful women and men make it as successful models, few of them are able to transition from the glare of celebrityhood to a more subdued life. How have you managed, we ask. And what is your advice to those who are headed that way?
“It is very much human nature to get used to the good life very quickly, which means leaving it behind can be very difficult,” says Natalia. “I think the key is to always have another purpose, something that you are passionate about pursuing after the celebrity side fades. For me, my philanthropic work is something I have always loved. I always knew that I had a clear goal outside of modelling.”
To those graduating out of being in the limelight, she says, “My main tip would be to do things that helps others or the world. This will give you back so much and will help you shape a legacy.”
How to learn “love”
Natalia’s newest venture is Elbi India, a platform that promotes philanthropic actions, encourages users to do good and rewards them for the same. “Doing good is the new cool,” she says. “Philanthropic giving has become more efficient in India, with the rising numbers of middle-class donors. India is home to a fifth of the world’s youth, and these people want to live well a/nd give well. Elbi offers users rewards in the form of LoveCoins for every rupee one donates. These can then be used at the LoveShop to get anything from the latest high-end fashion accessory to securing tickets to the next must-attend exclusive event. Those who subscribe can also win exciting experiences as rewards… all this just for ‘doing good’!”
The platform, which works on the web and mobile, launched internationally last year and has been Apple’s “App of the day” in 68 countries. “To be honest, Elbi was born out of frustration. My co-founder and business partner Timon Afinsky saw how there was a lack of engagement with younger people, and there was no simple, easy way that people could give to a range of causes. Making giving as easy as a “like” on Facebook was the challenge.”
Taking up causes is not new for Natalia. In 2004, she launched the Naked Heart Foundation, which has helped thousands of children with mental, sensory and physical disabilities. Before that, Natalia had launched a campaign called ‘Let’s Talk About It. Period’, which encouraged free talk about the most natural thing that happens to women.
“The idea of giving back [to society] has always been important to me,” Natalia says. “This could be because of the stigma I faced personally. Growing up with a disabled half-sister, things were really tough. My family and I faced a torrid amount of abuse, sometimes physical, as a result of my sister’s disability. [Natalia’s half-sister Oksana has autism and cerebral palsy]. People would spit at me and say I was dirty like my sister and that they didn’t want to touch me because I would poison them. I know how it feels to have nobody to confide in, nobody to trust. I had no choice but to be strong. Where I came from, you had to use your imagination to get through another day. I hate to think that people still have to go through this now around the world.”
The most beautiful country in the world
Conversation now shifts towards more beautiful, happy things, and on top of the list for the former supermodel is: India!
“I think what amazes me the most is the sensual delights your country has to offer,” she begins an answer we know isn’t going to end too soon. “From the colour to the flavours, the sights, the smells – it’s quite amazing. Recently, I visited India for my dear friend Isha Ambani’s wedding celebrations in Udaipur, and it was an extraordinary experience, which gave me an authentic flavour of Indian traditions and culture. The beauty of India lies in its glorious diversity and the enthusiasm of the people who live life to the fullest.
“I love Indian fashion. I did a cover shoot with Priyanka Chopra and Padma Lakshmi in 2017 and got to wear rich brocades and vibrant hues from Anita Dongre, Payal Singhal and Amrapali. It was a memorable experience.
“I had my fangirl moment meeting Shah Rukh Khan for the Vogue Women of the Year Awards in 2017. He had been an idol of mine growing up as a teenager and I loved his films Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and dancing to his songs.
“Isha Ambani is also a very close friend and is an advisory board member for Elbi India. At her wedding last year, I met a host of celebrities including Kareena Kapoor Khan, Karan Johar, Varun Dhawan, Sonam Kapoor, Manish Malhotra, Hrithik Roshan, all of them are so wonderful and kind. I am also very fond of Twinkle Khanna and Akshay Kumar. I am really in sync with their powerful work in tackling taboos around menstruation in India and how they have used cinema as a force for social change.”
A model world for all
Modelling is based on good looks: but today’s world asks for acceptance of all. Large-sized bodies, no make-up, bad skin outings, gender fluidity… all these have added a new dimension to what one must consider beautiful. As a former supermodel, how do you interpret this change?
“It’s true that in the past models were judged on who had the slimmest waist, but now there is a necessity for the industry to show acceptance towards people of all body types, genders and ethnicities. I think we are well on our way to seeing improvements in this regard but it’s certainly not complete.
“Body diversity has yet to revolutionise the world of catwalk high fashion as a lot of designers create their clothes with slim women in mind. That is the way they want to see it. But then often what is in the catwalk is not what you find in the shop. There will always be a place for girls who are naturally slim, but I would love to see more beautiful, curvy women on the catwalk. I see a lot of these shows and I think it should be more like in real life. This is not to say you then go the complete opposite way and begin opting against slim girls, because that isn’t what diversity means. We need a healthy balance.”
And last but not the least, tell us about your life now: as a wife, mother, family woman… What’s your day like, what do you enjoy doing, and what do you run away from?
“Dreadfully normal, actually! I spend as much time as I can with my family and we talk about life, kids, fashion, art, music and I guess I talk a lot about philanthropy too.
“My husband [Antoine Arnault, CEO of luxury brand Berluti] is a great listener and often a precious advisor. Of course, we talk about work, but I can honestly say we try to not bring that into the house often. I think it is important to create that private and personal space that isn’t about work!
“A normal day would consist of waking up at 7am and getting my children ready for school, preparing their breakfast, and then seeing them off. My day is often taken up by my philanthropic commitments; whether that is meeting somebody from the UN, or visiting a charity, doing a talk at an event or the occasional shoot. I’ll then pick my kids up from school and take them back to our home.
“I try to exercise at least once a week and I love dancing. It’s a great way of staying fit, switching off and doing something good for the soul – it’s all very intense!”
From living life on the wild side to becoming a harbinger of good, Natalia Vodianova shows some of the best work in life could happen after you’ve given up centre stage.
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From HT Brunch, June 30, 2019
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