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Supermodel turned tech mogul Natalia Vodianova on finally learning to slow down

Natalia Vodianova
Natalia Vodianova / Natalia Vodianova

Natalia Vodianova used to pride herself on not being the sort of mother who cooked for her children every night.

“It is so not me,” she says. “I can cook but I was that mum who would rather spend quality time with my children than be the woman in the kitchen. But when Covid broke out I was forced to spend a lot of time in one place and started cooking for everyone every day. God I loved it. It meant everybody knew where I was at all times. We had such fun conversations and my five children would come and help me. The pandemic has been a big reset and reassess moment for me, for sure.”

This contrasts with the thing that people tell me about Vodianova, 39, before we meet, which is how strong her work ethic is. It propelled her rise from the sort of poverty Dostoevsky writes about to a fairytale life in Paris. As a child growing up in Nizhny Novgorod in Russia, she sold fruit with her mother on the street to make ends meet and at one point she couldn’t afford shoes. Her father left when she was a toddler and her mother brought up Vodianova and her two half sisters, one of whom, Oksana, has cerebral palsy and severe autism.

At 15, Vodianova started modelling and at 17 she moved to Paris to work full time as a model - going on to walk in more than 200 runway shows. Now, she is a prolific investor in tech companies and the founder of a charity, The Naked Heart Foundation, which she set up aged just 22 to help people with disabilities and special needs. Even her PRs are overwhelmed, not knowing which of her many projects to highlight – originally I am told she wants to talk about Zenia, a yoga platform she has invested in, then it’s Locals.org, a neighbourhood network and finally Masuku, a sustainable air filtration face mask.

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Vodianova is speaking to me from her palatial apartment in Paris, with chandeliers and a view of the Eiffel Tower. At one point I compliment her on her ring and she innocently asks which one I mean, “oh, my diamond?” “It was a present from Antoine.” She married businessman Antoine Arnault (the son of LVMH chief executive Bernard) last year in a small civil ceremony, although she says now she would like a bigger wedding.

Arnault is the father of her two youngest children; the father of the eldest three is aristocrat Justin Portman, who Vodianova married when she was 19. Despite this time at the centre of English aristocracy she has nothing to say about the Sussex’s experience. “I haven’t watched their interview, they seem like nice people but sometimes you go in parallel and there is nothing that will bring you together. I don’t think about [the English class system] that much.”

Vodianova is graceful and arrestingly beautiful, with pale blue eyes, accentuated by tanned skin and blonde hair. She speaks English in an accent that is a hybrid of Russian and French - vs and fs sound French - and at one point she does lapse into Russian, to describe social distancing, or “traffic control” as she calls it. It sounds better in Russian.

She doesn’t know when the vaccine will be available in Nizhny Novgorod - her 92 year old grandmother, who is the star of her Instagram has not had it. Oksana, now 34, has “been ok, luckily,” in the pandemic. She is doing better than Vodianova expected. “Really, sincerely, this very ignorant of me but I am honest about it because that is the truth is I really thought that my sister was beyond help because she has such a deep autism and she is non-verbal but then a specialist said no one is beyond help and we started a programme for young people with special needs like her. It is incredible what was achieved.”

She continues: “I never knew how much my sister understands but now she is using a communication board and she speaks, basically. She can’t speak with her mouth and her voice, but she tells us what she wants with pictures and it is just mind blowing for me and my mum. When your sister is born and you are told consistently that she is a vegetable basically, it’s very tough. But now she can communicate and my family has benefited so much – my sister has gained confidence and it has been good for my mum because she understands that Oksana has other people that she can miss and love; that’s big for us.”

Oksana struggled not being able to see “her people” during lockdown, her friends and the specialist she works with, but “she is more calm now and has the tools to process difficult situations.” Vodianova clarifies, “when I started Naked Heart Foundation it was definitely not to benefit my own family it was to benefit other people but it has benefitted Oksana.” It usually fundraises through events, with a starry annual ball “so the pandemic has been a challenging time but we have had online events and were creative.”

I thought my sister was beyond help but now she can communicate and we understand that she can love people. That is big for us.

Post-pandemic, she says we “have the responsibility to build a more sustainable, kinder, inclusive world”. “The fashion industry has a huge role in this because it creates the trends and leads the way.”

Masuku is Vodianova’s contribution to a greener world. She was ahead of her time with it — she had the idea five years ago on a trip to Japan where she saw air filtration masks. “In Japan wearing a mask is a sign of respect, not taboo,” she says. “Developing sophisticated air filtration was wrong if it went on to pollute the environment and contribute to the poor air quality so I knew Masuku needed to be sustainable.” At the moment, up to 194 billion disposable masks are currently used worldwide every month as a result of the pandemic but single use masks can take up to 450 years to biodegrade and the mask market is under-evolved — Vodianova is changing that.

It is typical Vodianova; she is naturally enthusiastic and proactive. Zenia is another example of this. It is unlike other exercise apps in that it tracks movement through your phone’s camera and tells you if you are not doing the exercises correctly. Vodianova is “a big yoga enthusiast”, and wants “to share what yoga gives you with as many people as possible, to get as many people into yoga in their comfort zones, at home”. The app is both a tool for teachers, to see how people’s bodies move when practising and good for beginners, says Vodianova. “It’s for people who may be intimidated to come into a classroom full of yogis – thinking everybody will look at them and they won’t know what to do and everyone else will be better. I love that I’ve been able to not turn the camera on in lockdown and stay in my pyjamas with my tired face, there are a lot of people who like me are a little self-conscious to practice with people.” 90 per cent of teachers plan to continue teaching online after the pandemic, “because that is where students want to be, although we still need human contact - technology can make us more lonely, it is not healthy to spend all your life online. We need to understand where the limits are.”

She has a conflicted relationship with technology - investing in apps but also worrying about how much time her teenagers spend on their phones. “They feel more comfortable texting than talking and there is something fundamentally wrong with that. It will not get you far. If we are not comfortable facing each other that is not a good thing.”

I love that I’ve been able to do yoga with the camera off and stay in my pyjamas with my tired face.

She started doing yoga with Felix, one of the teachers on the app – who “teaches not just yoga but how to be a better human being to yourself, not reacting in a certain way to events you have no control of. Meeting him was life changing for me”. She continues: “I benefited from tapping into that peace, especially during the pandemic when there are new mental challenges and anxiety that came with not knowing what is going to happen next – more than ever these meditative practices are needed in our lives.” Her daughter joins in with her daily practice, as do the cat and the dog. “It is funny. The cat, Galileo and the dog, Coffee, do not get on very well. It is like they think of each other as annoying neighbours they have to live with.”

Talking about neighbours leads her neatly onto Locals.org, which encourages people to come together and do good deeds, donating to charity in exchange for experiences “which can make them feel less lonely”. It evolved from a company called Elbi that she worked on, which tries to gamify giving to charity - you can swipe through causes and you get tokens to redeem on gifts for yourself in exchange for donating. “We met the Locals.org founders and I loved it so much I thought why didn’t I think of it?” says Vodianova. “You can meet like-minded people and fundraise. One thing we didn’t build with Elbi was community. It is a difficult time for an offline product but the people we have been able to reach in London right now are so grateful for how Locals.org introduced them to people to have fun with, whether they are hugging trees or reading poetry.”

She managed to have one Locals.org experience before the world went into lockdown again, “with a dear friend of mine, Camilla Al Fayed, who took us to her farm in the British countryside and showed us biodynamic farming. There is real science behind it, all around the moon calendar, and it is fascinating. We had the most delicious lunch, that happened to be vegan.”

Now she is back in Paris, which has just gone into weekend lockdown, she says with a despairing look on her face. “I can’t say I am not craving a sunlit coffee on a terrace but I cannot complain.” This has been the longest stretch of time she has spent with her husband. “Luckily we are ok in each other’s company it turns out,” she says, laughing. “Before, I would see Timon -” her business partner, who is also on the call - “much more than my husband because we travelled together so much but we realised that it works. And I thought it was smart of the French government to keep people sane by keeping some things open. On top of that, I have been thinking about those with a violent home and the mental health issues that become much more serious because of the pandemic.”

I ask what Vodianova makes of the political situation in Russia and of tensions in neighbouring Belarus and she lets out a heavy sigh, repeating “it is hard times”. “It seems like the pandemic has brought up a lot of tensions all over the world. In Belarus they have used technology in their uprising because the conditions there make it easy for technology to thrive.”

Talking to Vodianova, her compassion shines through, making it impossible to be cynical about her. She is so far from being another model doing charity work. She tells me about a book about compassion called Into the Magic Shop by Stanford Professor James Doty, which she has told everyone to read. Timon holds up his copy. It is that enthusiasm again. “I want to everyone to benefit from what I have experienced,” she says, which just about sums up her mission.