She looks like the girl who has it all, but supermodel Natalia Vodianova is still haunted by the poverty of her early life. Now she plans to build 500 playgrounds in her native Russia.
Although it’s 12 years since she left Russia, Natalia Vodianova still gets homesick, especially when she hears the language. “It’s odd because I even think in English now – though I sometimes dream in Russian, depending on who’s in the dream and what’s going on. But Russia has made me who I am: romantic, generous and a little melancholic.”
The 27-year-old model grew up in the grimly industrial city of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in the sort of poverty that saw her single mother hold down four jobs while Vodianova raised her two sisters, one of whom, Oksana, has cerebral palsy. She was spotted at 15 by a model scout and taught herself English in just three months. She moved to Paris at 17, and by 22 she was a British Vogue cover star, married to property magnate Justin Portman and happily settled in the UK with their first-born, Lucas (who’s since been joined by siblings Neva and Viktor). At this point, when most of us would have settled back to enjoy life’s good fortune, Vodianova set up her own charity.
Unlike celebrities who blunder good-naturedly into complex political situations or try to solve global warming with a charity single, Vodianova’s Naked Heart Foundation has a simple and personal goal. Founded in response to the tragic Beslan school siege in 2004, the charity provides playgrounds for Russian children: 39 have been built so far, and the target is 500. “I see the importance of play in my own children and the lack of it in me,” Vodianova says. She estimates that, due to her family situation, her own childhood ended when she was six. “I would have loved somewhere to go when I was a little girl, somewhere I felt secure and that made me feel like a child. We adults have worries, but we forget that the little ones have them, too.”