There’s this little part of you that wants to believe supermodels look the way they do in magazines because of lighting and airbrushing. And then you meet Natalia Vodianova at the impossibly posh Balmain spa in Paris, her local, while she preparing for a photo shoot. Scrubbed of makeup, in a bathrobe, with a messy ponytail, she kills those retouching dreams dead. Now 36, the unairbrushed, unvarnished, unadorned mother of five is even lovelier in the flesh than what you see in those Calvin Klein and David Yurman ads. Her wide-set blue eyes are now dusted with delicate lines, her porcelain-doll skin is ever limpid, and her legs are still like a gazelle’s. What you don’t see in two dimensions is how full of big ideas and ambition she is as a philanthropist, which is now her full-time job 11 months out of the year.
Vodianova is producing today’s photo shoot herself to promote the Fabulous Fund Fair, a recurring benefit for the first of her favorite causes, the Naked Heart Foundation. Imagine an impossibly glamorous version of a country fair where Eva Herzigová is handing out the soft-serve ice cream, Karlie Kloss is selling the cookies, and the balloon-popping contests and catapults are brought to you by Louis Vuitton and Givenchy. The Fabulous Fund Fair, back in London after traveling last year to New York, is space-themed, so along with the Paco Rabanne and Michael Halpern looks Vodianova pulled for the shoot, she will also be wearing a large astronaut helmet. Of course she will crush it.
Vodianova started Naked Heart when she was 22 to build safe playgrounds, educational programs, and family support centers for people with special needs in her native Russia. This was back in 2004, when celebrities and brands didn’t usually come prebundled with pet causes. Vodianova, a newbie to the world of philanthropy, learned as she went along. “I made a lot of mistakes,” she says, laughing ruefully as she picks at a plate of almonds and dried fruit. “I put 10 of my most precious items up for auction on eBay, like a totally customized Burberry trenchcoat back when no one was customizing anything. [My efforts were] a complete failure. Failure, failure, failure!”
Eventually, she got it together. Every year Naked Heart trains more than 250 child-development specialists and teachers, and it’s built nearly 200 play parks across the United Kingdom, Peru, and Russia (where it has also set up family-support centers). Some would be content to pat themselves on the back and take life a little easier with a clean conscience. Vodianova does have five children after all: The oldest, Lucas, is 16, and the youngest, Roman, is still in diapers. A high earner since she was 17—Vodianova’s rise was so fast, she earned the nickname Supernova— she maintains contracts with Calvin Klein and Guerlain. All that takes up about a month of her year. Vodianova spends her weekdays at an office near her apartment in Paris after she drops her younger kids off at school at 8 a.m. “I always think I’m not doing enough,” she says. “I’m not achieving enough. I don’t take care of my kids enough.”
Vodianova attributes her attitude to her upbringing. Raised in Nizhny Novgorod by a single mother who struggled to put food on the table, Vodianova was often responsible for her younger sister, Oksana, six years her junior, who was born with autism and cerebral palsy. With no state support, families like Vodianova’s are more likely to put children with special needs into orphanages. Her mother refused, and the family paid the price both financially and socially. (Though things are starting to change in Russia, Vodianova says, there remains a strong prejudice against people with disabilities.) “It was hard,” Vodianova recalls. “But Oksana has been the light of our lives.” When she wasn’t caring for her sister, Vodianova sold fruit at a street stall until she was discovered at age 17, and the rest is modeling history. As recently as 2016, she was listed by Forbes as one of the top-20 highest-earning models. Still. In her mid-30s.
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Vodianova hasn’t stopped at Naked Heart. Last year she joined the board of the Special Olympics, an event in which more than 100,000 athletes from her home country participate. Another baby is Elbi, a micro-philanthropy app she developed with co-founder Timon Afinsky that aims to make supporting causes fast, easy, and fun. Elbi users are permitted to donate only $1 a day to featured charities, but they are encouraged to send virtual drawings or cards of their own, which fellow users can like. Each like is worth another dollar to the charity and earns points for the creator, who can cash in for swag donated to Elbi’s Love Shop. As she does for Naked Heart’s Love Ball gala and the Fabulous Fund Fair, Vodianova has tapped her network for the Love Shop items, and they are sweet: Fendi x Beats by Dre headphones, Gabriela Hearst handbags, Christian Louboutin fragrances, pieces from H&M’s Conscious Exclusive line. The idea is to make doing good like a game. Other charities are now seeking out Elbi to license its technology for their own uses, and as we speak, the company’s developers are translating its interface into 14 languages to get ready for prime placement in Apple’s app store.
It may seem odd that someone who barely qualifies as a millennial is so savvy about the latest trends in social apps—in Silicon Valley, “gamifying” is a word you hear thrown around almost as much as “disrupting”—but Vodianova is a Wired-subscribing geek who is now a regular at TechCrunch Disrupt. She also has a growing stable of tech investments, including PicsArt and Prisma, two drawing and photography apps. “I’m a great believer in smart technology,” she says. “No matter what we do, if we want to be effective at it, we have to work with technology rather than against it.”
In early 2017 Vodianova became a board member and front person for Flo, a female-reproductive-health app that uses machine learning to accompany 13 million users a month down the red, red road. Vodianova’s first public initiative for Flo is a video campaign called “Let’s Talk About It. Period.” In it she dishes with model friends like Doutzen Kroes, Natasha Poly, Maria Borges, and Alexina Graham about leakage horror stories, what they love about their periods, the attitudes of the men in their lives toward their monthly cycles, and so on. “Girls have very different cultures and experiences at home pertaining to their periods and reproductive health,” says Vodianova to the beat of a pumice stone hitting her soles as her favorite pedicurist exfoliates and nods along. “Some are very free and can discuss it with their dads and their brothers, no problem. Some could never. How can we expect our children to be less embarrassed about periods, both our boys and girls, if we’re not? Because boys need to know how to address it with their girlfriends too.” (The pedicurist agrees.)
Vodianova was first turned on to Flo—which, in her still thick Russian accent, sounds like “flu-woh”—as a user. “I downloaded it because after Baby No. 5, I was like, ‘I need a break!’ I had never heard of period-tracking apps before, but a friend in Russia told me about it. The forums encourage discussion of taboos and stigmas. The most frequent words you read are ‘I’m not alone,’ which is really interesting to me. I learned a lot of vital information. Like, I have an 11-year-old daughter and my own gynecologist never mentioned to me that she can get vaccinated for HPV!” Vodianova explains that because Flo’s developers are leaders in artificial intelligence and machine learning, all the content is personalized to a woman’s age and health. She invested in Flo soon after first using it and took a seat on its board, where, as the company’s only woman, her input is especially valuable. “It’s tech!” she says. “There are so few women.” When Vodianova showed up, Flo’s content still needed a little tweaking, and she also talked its creators into developing an app for significant others. “Antoine, you know, he wants to know what’s going on too. Guys need to plan their lives according to our cycles as much as we do.”
As her kids are getting older, Vodianova goes through the same head trips as every other mother. “It’s completely terrifying to be the mother of a young man,” she says. “I’m not ready to have an adult son. Lucas just turned 16 this December and went to participate in a debating society with kids from, like, 120 other countries. He had to wear a tie and a black suit and spent all weekend, from 8 in the morning to 7 at night, debating. It was really cute. He’d come home exhausted from a hard day of work and loosen his little tie, but still I’d just think, ‘What is happening here?’ On the weekend there’s no more like, ‘Hey, guys, let’s go have fun,’ and everyone says, ‘Yay!’ Now the older kids are getting so serious with their exams. I’m losing my gang!”
Splintered though it may be, Vodianova’s gang makes for a captive group of beta testers. But screens have limits around her house. “On the weekend my phone’s only function is as a camera,” she says. “Neva, my 11-year-old daughter, has her own Instagram account, but it’s private, so she has, like, 30 followers, just family and a couple of friends. But now she runs the account of our cat, Galileo, and that one is public. What she posts on her own account gets 10 likes at most, so when Galileo gets 50, she’s so excited!” Cat-pic lovers out there—which is, maybe, all of you?—know that Galileo_the_cat is a quality feed. Like mother, like daughter.
Photographer: Chris Colls. Fashion editor: Julie Pelipas. Hair: Nabil Harlow. Makeup: Gregoris Pyrpylis. Manicurist: Alyona for Balmain Hair Salon.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Feb. 9.