Natalia on Instagram Frustration, Social Good, and Discovering her Beauty
The star of the latest Conscious Exclusive collection is a familiar (and iconic) face in the fashion world, but it’s her heart that the majority of people around the world talk about the most.
Legendary supermodel, big-hearted philanthropist and a force to reckon with – when Natalia Vodianova fixes her dazzling blue eyes on something, you can be sure that wonderful things will begin to happen. Along with a stellar modelling career that now spans over 15 years (and includes pretty much every major designer, magazine and photographer in the world), Natalia is extremely active in charity work. In 2004, she founded the Naked Heart Foundation to provide play facilities for underprivileged children and to support children with special needs and their families. In 2015, she launched the platform and app Elbi, which brings the power of social and digital worlds to charities and connects them with people around the world.
Natalia is tireless in her pursuit for social good, which made her the perfect fit for the latest H&M Conscious Exclusive Collection campaign. In an exclusive interview, we caught up with Natalia – whose nickname “Supernova” is clearly well earned – just before she headed into the photo shoot with David Sims to talk about her career, her philanthropy and how everyone can take part in changing the world.
IF YOU HAD TO PICK OUT A FEW HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR CAREER, WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
“Calvin Klein, because it was right at the beginning of my career and I was the last model he chose himself. It was something like seven years I was the face of the brand. Steven Meisel because of all the amazing Italian Vogues. As for specific shoots, I did a lot with Grace Coddington, but the Alice in Wonderland shoot [American Vogue, December 2003 issue, shot by Annie Leibovitz] is iconic. It’s something that will be around forever, in fashion [laughs].”
IS THERE A SPECIFIC MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER WHERE YOU FELT THAT YOU HAD MADE IT?
“I knew I had made it as soon as I could pay my bills. I come from a very difficult background so my dream was like, if I make $50,000, I’ll go back [to Russia] and live happily ever after. It didn’t happen quickly – I actually worked really hard for that first success – but then it just all went into the stratosphere.”
The fashion industry has been so supportive of my charity work
DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT IT FELT LIKE WHEN YOU SAW YOUR FIRST MAGAZINE COVER?
“It was a magazine called Tank [September 2000 issue]. I had this weird nail-like claw and was pushing my lip down, this weird structured hair, blue eye shadow. They made me into a freak, which is fine and fun now because I know that I can be beautiful, but when you are a girl and really insecure… Imagine: no one has ever told you that you are beautiful and suddenly you are thrown into this world and everybody is saying, ‘Oh my god, you are beautiful’ and you’re sort of, ‘Really?’ Then you see your first cover, and it is that. I was like ‘Why did they lie to me?’ [laughs] No, of course, I am joking. I had a fantastic agent who was always there for me and boosted my confidence so I was fine. I knew that this was fashion and that I was not always going to look amazing.”
FASHION, OF COURSE, ISN’T THE ONLY WORLD YOU’RE A PART OF. CHARITY WORK IS VERY NEAR AND DEAR TO YOU, TOO.
“It’s my ideal when those two worlds collide together. It happens often because the fashion industry has been so supportive of my charity work, which is much more important to me. Like when Mario Testino, who is not only a collaborator but also a friend, and I recently opened a play park together in Peru.”
WHEN DID YOU FIRST BECOME AWARE THAT IT WAS IMPORTANT TO BE SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS?
“I was always socially conscious, in a way. At some point for all the wrong reasons and then quickly after, because if you know the reality of what life can be like, how difficult it can be, when you can reach the top of the pyramid, you cannot ignore what is below you and who you left behind. So for me, it always has been a significant part of my journey.”
CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT ELBI IS ACHIEVING?
“We tell three stories every day, 365 days of the year. One of our stories was about a little boy named Lewis, who has Batten’s disease, which means he is paralysed and can only communicate with his eyes. For his birthday, we asked the members of the Elbi community to draw him birthday cards. We received 500 cards and delivered them all to him. He started to cry and it was a very sweet moment. We also raised money for the charity that supports Lewis.”
HOW DO YOU RAISE MONEY VIA ELBI?
“The way we fundraise with Elbi is not by just donating money. For example, people go on Elbi and see others who have done birthday cards for Lewis, and they love the other cards because they find them funny or sweet or beautiful. We harness the behaviour of liking [turning them into Love Coins that can be spent across the Elbi platform]. The idea is that if you can turn billions of “likes” all over the web – even 1 per cent – into real, tangible impact, then Elbi would have created a huge, huge impact every day.”
WAS THERE A SPECIFIC PERSONAL MOMENT IN WHICH ELBI WAS FOUNDED? YOUR OTHER CHARITY, THE NAKED HEART FOUNDATION, WAS FOUNDED AFTER YOU PERSONALLY REACTED TO THE BESLAN TRAGEDY.
“Absolutely. It was really just my frustration with social media. We could not create meaningful connections with our audience using social media. Normally, those sponsoring child programmes, for example, are very rigid and you hear from them maybe once a month, maybe every three months. But what if you could be in touch with this child digitally? You’d be much more willing to get involved and give this child even more. You know, to date, giving is mostly reactive rather than proactive. With Elbi, we want to switch that model. I’m sure that is where we are moving, and with Elbi, we are hoping to be ahead of the game.”
I just cannot believe that this delicate dress was made out of waste and plastic
NATALIA VODIANOVA ON HER FAVOURITE PIECE FROM THE COLLECTION – THE SERPENTINE DRESS
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT WORKING WITH H&M ON THE CONSCIOUS EXCLUSIVE CAMPAIGN?
“Oh, it is fantastic! I was really pleased to be considered for Conscious Exclusive because it is such a beautiful project. I love the scale of it. I love the generosity of it. I love the fact that H&M as a giant is leading the way and sharing, as well, by making available to other brands this know-how of turning complex fabrics into completely sustainable ones.”
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PIECE FROM THE COLLECTION?
“I love the serpentine dress. I just cannot believe that this delicate dress was made out of waste and plastic. It’s really, really beautiful and I’m looking forward to wearing it somewhere soon, as soon as I get my hands on it!”
IN WHAT FEELS LIKE AN INCREASINGLY CRAZY WORLD, WHAT HOPES OR POSITIVES DO YOU SEE?
“The good will always find its way forward. In fact, what I’m going to say might seem a bit crazy, but I really feel strongly about it: I see so many people around me waking up and understanding that they cannot ignore the fact that everyone is in charge of the change we want to create now. It can be used for good or for bad, but in my opinion, it will be for good. What is happening in the world is very mobilising and in the long term hopefully will create a more engaged society.”
Natalia Vodianova is the face of Conscious Exclusive, H&M’s greenest and most glamorous collection, which is available in selected stores and online from 20 April.
NAME: Natalia Vodianova
LIVES IN: Paris
OCCUPATION: Model and co-founder of charity organisations The Naked Heart and Elbi
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN THREE WORDS:
“Loyal, hard-working and a doer.”
THREE PEOPLE YOU ARE MOST INSPIRED BY:
“All my girlfriends! But three? Diane Von Furstenberg, Stella McCartney and, though she’s not my girlfriend, but a real inspiration, Audrey Hepburn.”
DO YOU PREFER CATWALK SHOWS OR PHOTO SHOOTS?
“Shows are quite fun, but I really enjoy doing pictures. Now, if I get onto the catwalk, I think, ‘Really, what am I doing?!’”
THREE WAYS ANYONE CAN GET INVOLVED IN CHARITY:
“It’s very simple. One, download Elbi. Two, just smile at someone on the metro. And three, volunteering is always worthwhile, so pick your cause and stick to it!”