Natalia Vodianova (2005)
Four years ago Natalia Vodianova was a poor fruit seller on the streets of Moscow. Now she's one of the world's most in-demand models and married to a very rich, very handsome aristocrat. Luckily, it's hard to hate her.
Natalia Vodianova, the 23-year-old model of choice among fashion heavies like Calvin Klein and Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, is not a head-turner. As she enters Manhattan's Odeon restaurant, a loud, popular lunch spot where she is a regular, one is almost more inclined to admire the tall, striking hostess who seats Vodianova and her husband, Justin Portman, at their table. Vodianova's fair hair is tousled, her clothing casual, a smockish men's shirt from Marc Jacobs hanging loosely on her frame. Thin and medium-height, she simply doesn't take up that much space. Her hair is not bleached blonde enough to scream celebrity; her colouring is muted.
Vodianova's is a classic rags to riches tale
'We had a fun, trashy weekend,' she says, apologising for her fresh-from-bed, sleepy look. None of this, however, is to say Vodianova isn't beautiful: hers is a connoisseur's beauty, the kind that invites a longer look once it's captured the viewer's gaze. Her face is subtle and distinctive, with deep-set sapphire-blue eyes, tawny skin, a pouty mouth and a sweetly snub nose. And she definitely turned the heads of the connoisseurs who count: Vodianova had modelled for Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs before Calvin Klein signed her to an exclusive deal three years ago (she is also the international spokeswoman for L'Oréal, one of the more coveted modelling gigs). The American Vogue arbiter of chic Grace Coddington has predicted that Vodianova will 'stand out in model history'.
In this September's massive American Vogue, an issue so seam-splitting the pages fall out as you thumb through it, Vodianova was everywhere: eight pages of Calvin Klein advertisements and 18 pages of fashion shot by Steven Meisel with overtones of Chekhov and Strindberg - riding crops, boots, high-necked, long-sleeved, buttoned-up tops in black.
Also prominent in the shoot was Vodianova's husband, Portman, a tall, boyish 36-year-old whose marriage to Vodianova is a significant part of her legend. Until she was singled out at a model-scouting session, Vodianova was a struggling fruit-vendor in the Russian city Nizhni Novgorod; Portman, by contrast, is, in fact, the Honourable Justin Portman, educated at Harrow and raised on his family's 3,000-acre estate in Herefordshire (the family properties once included Oxford Street and Marylebone, and now extend to Antigua and Australia). Vodianova met Portman, a former serial 'modeliser', at a party in Paris. Married a year later, the couple spend equal amounts of time in London, Paris and New York, where they have a 7,000sq ft home in TriBeCa (there are well-endowed museums in New York that would kill for that kind of space).
Her story is a time-tested classic: industrious beauty swept off her feet by near-royalty. His is entirely modern: blue-blooded playboy marries model. It seems only appropriate that in the Vogue spread, Vodianova is cloaked in ensembles so old-fashioned they look almost like costumes, while Portman gambols about in flip-flops and thermal T-shirts. Most New York women Vodianova's age are scouting for internships or working at Gap by day, while doing the best Carrie Bradshaw imitation they can afford by night. Vodianova, however, is a wife, working mother of three-year-old Lucas (her second child is due in March) and philanthropist. She recently started the Naked Heart Foundation, an organisation that raises money for indoor playgrounds in Russia.
'My family was very, very, very poor, and Russian kids have no nannies - they're just up to things by themselves on the street. It sometimes leads them the wrong way,' Vodianova says, her voice deep, her accent present but surprisingly faint for someone who didn't start learning English until her late teens. 'We're trying to put in a lot of playgrounds and take children from the street and entertain them in some sort of educational way, giving them some kind of hope.'
Vodianova says she's seen the results of destitution on the friends left behind. 'One's a heroin addict, one's dead,' she says. 'All are single mothers who hate their children's fathers. It's very hard.'
Vodianova's life changed not just dramatically, but also quickly: within weeks of leaving Russia she was already working the top shows. Within months of meeting Portman, at the age of 19, she was pregnant with his child and, soon after, married in a civil ceremony (a massive St Petersburg celebration came after Lucas's birth). 'If not for Lucas,' she says, 'we never would have married. But in order for Lucas to inherit the name and the rest, we had to marry.'
The two had been together a matter of months when Portman suggested they take better care to stop her getting pregnant. 'And I said, 'Well, I don't know. I love you, and if, then that's great,' Vodianova says while Portman is away from the table taking a cigarette break. 'And he said, "But what about your career?' And I told him that everything happens for a reason; if this is meant to happen, then this is meant to happen, and my happiness would only increase.'
Two days later she was pregnant. Rather than hurting her career, the pregnancy, Vodianova says, did wonders for it. Three weeks after she gave birth she looked as if she'd never carried a child, a freak of genetic good fortune that was the talk of the autumn shows, where Vodianova modelled for Yves Saint Laurent. Soon after that, she won a contract with Gucci and, eventually, her coveted Calvin contract. Billboard images of Vodianova nibbling the near-naked bottom of a male model caught people's attention; if she's not a household name yet like Brooke Shields, blame the polysyllabic surname.
'Journalists loved the story of the working mother, and right about that time they saw this boom of young successful mothers not caring about their career, thinking family was more important. Everybody had a child at that time - I did, Sarah Jessica Parker did, Kate Moss…'
There's an irony in being rewarded professionally for making a statement about putting family first, and it doesn't seem entirely lost on this savvy young woman. 'My career just went whoosh, and it's definitely something to do with that image of being a hard-working mother with a two-month-old child. People take you more seriously when you're a mother; you're not just this young kid.'
Although Vodianova clearly enjoys her life, there's nothing giddy about her adjustment to her new princess-like status.
She has a distinctly Russian philosophy about the amazing set of circumstances that altered her existence - both hard-nosed and idealistic at the same time. 'If I'd stayed in Russia, it would be good, too, because I would not know this life,' she says, drinking a glass of wine along with her artichoke-heart salad. 'I would have nothing to compare it to, and it would be fine. I was never miserable - I was always very happy. I loved my life… are you kidding? I even miss it sometimes.'
What she misses, she says, was the edge: the constant trick of surviving, haggling with the mafia guys, hustling the Chechnyan vendors who sold her the fruit wholesale. Vodianova, who has a disabled younger sister, ended up supporting her family when it became obvious that she had better business instincts than her mother. She was 14 at the time, regularly making an hour-long drive with a friend to get the cheapest fruit. Her life sounds more Mills & Boon than Tolstoy, but Vodianova, who makes it clear she was educated despite her poverty, has a weakness for Russian novels.
'They do love their tragedy, their pain and suffering,' Portman says midway through his omelette. Vodianova looks up, fork in mid-air. 'Who doesn't, darling? Don't you love it?'
'No, I don't like pain and suffering at all,' Portman replies.
'I love it. I love Anna Karenina and Tolstoy, it's all about…' She clutches her arms to her chest and makes a dramatic gasp. 'We love it, even in our own lives. We sometimes choose difficult parts in order to experience this feeling, because after something really tragic comes the feeling of great love or relief, and that feeling is what we need - it's what we love.'
'Bloody women,' Portman responds.
Despite Vodianova's itinerant existence the two of them are rarely separated, which means that Portman follows his wife from one far-flung locale to another. A trained painter, Portman says he's 'not working on much at the moment'.
'It's amazing, his work,' Vodianova says. 'I hate him that he doesn't paint.'
'Well, he's busy with his wife,' Portman replies with a small smile. Not that she's high-maintenance, he adds; it's just that the family prefers to stay together. 'She's the opposite of high-maintenance,' Portman says. 'She does with what she's got.'
Nevertheless, Vodianova admits she enjoys being in the limelight. 'I love a lot of attention, believe me,' she says, now on her second glass of wine.
I think everyone loves attention, but you don't seek it out,' Portman responds gently, a bit of editing going on, as often seems to happen with the two of them.
'When I go somewhere I really make an effort to be different,' she says. 'I want to be noticed for who I am. Sometimes people need a little push, especially in this business, where you tend to go with whoever is striking. There are a few people who inspire me, and I'd like to inspire other people.'
Who inspires Vodianova? 'Steven Meisel, Grace Coddington, Anna Wintour, Mario Testino - strong, wonderful people. Or geniuses, my friends, Nicole…' Nicole? 'Kidman. Although I feel she's getting a little tired of her own self,' Vodianova continues. 'She's trying so hard to stay up there she doesn't realise that the down part is healthy and good for you, because afterwards you can be up there again and say, "I'm back!" There's nothing better than that.' The last time she saw Kidman, Vodianova says, 'she looked like she couldn't even see what was in front of her, and that's too bad, because she's missing out on her own life.'
So much of what Vodianova has to say seems reflected in the images she portrays for the camera: both knowing and naive, insouciant, young and intense. She sounds so serious and passionate one almost believes her when she says she could have been just as happy if she'd never left Nizhni Novgorod.
'Something would have been different, but I know it would have been good as well,' she says, as her husband looks on adoringly. 'You never know - maybe it would have been better.'