In just a few short years, Natalia Vodianova went from peddling fruit on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, where she grew up with a single mom and disabled sister, to becoming one of the most sought after fashion models in the world. 

Vodianova has walked countless runways and became the face for Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Calvin Klein as well as beauty brands Guerlain and L’Oreal. Not content to dissolve into the comfortable world of celebrity, she decided to reinvest her time and resources into helping kids affected by tragedy.

Success brought about some familial improvements, such as moving her mother to a nicer flat, sending her youngest sister to a private boarding school, and helping to keep her grandparents comfortable in their advanced age. Yet, as amazing as life had become for Vodianova, there were moments when she felt empty and purposeless. 

In 2004, tragedy struck her homeland when Chechen rebels attacked a school in Beslan North Ossetia, killing 334 people which included 186 children. The incident had a profound effect on Vodianova, who was visiting Moscow at the time.

 “I was so tormented by what happened and wanted to do something for the children that survived,” she told Business of Fashion in 2015.

 As the eldest child of three being raised by a poor, single mother, she grew up fast, leaving school at an early age to help her mother and care for her siblings. In thinking of a way to give back, she tapped into her own hard childhood. “I thought about what I missed in my own life when I grew up and realized that I  didn’t have
the opportunity to play,” she said in a 2014 Vanity Fair interview.

 It inspired her to develop playgrounds that help children affected by tragedy to heal, and her Naked Heart Foundation, a charity that builds public play parks in urban areas throughout Russia, was born. Since its creation, the foundation has built 160 facilities across Russia, with some located near orphanages, children’s hospitals, and rehabilitation centers.

 Beauty may have helped her become a supermodel, but her compassion made her a world-class role model. Here, she tells us how finding a humanitarian purpose has inspired her.

Julia Chance: What would you most want people to know about your homeland and its contributions to society and culture?

Natalia Vodianova: Russia is full of extremes: Russian literature, ballet, music, and art are extremely sophisticated and beautiful. At times, Russia may be seen as chaotic and even dangerous, but in truth, all lives co-exist in love. It was a very dark, Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who once said that “Beauty will save the world.” What he actually meant was that the savior is love. The feeling of infinite love, devotion, and forgiveness is something about Russia I would want to share with people.

As one of the world’s foremost fashion personalities representing the world’s largest brands and houses, how do you view the role of fashion on our cultural landscape?

Our nature, as human beings, needs to be nourished by beauty. Despite its superficial appeal, fashion is an essential source of inspiration as much as art is. It’s an amazing form of expression that allows us to dream and escape from reality — something as vital as air for our souls. The dreamy and playful part of my experience with fashion is exactly what inspired my social projects and activities. Everything I do has ‘play’ at its core. I grew up understanding how valuable this was in my life and decided to give back to those who deserve it most: children.

What have been some of your most significant challenges, and how did you triumph through those circumstances?

Tackling the stigma of disability is the greatest challenge I face every day with the Naked Heart Foundation. When we started to work with children with special needs, some of the initial feedback  was so negative. Many people wondered why we were willing to spend time and resources toward the cause, when there is little perceived potential in these children’s ability to contribute to society and when those same funds could simply cure other children who might have a better chance at a normal life. We found the same resistance when we talked to the media. Any story we tried to spread about children with special needs was initially refused by magazines because it was not appealing enough or there was no quick recovery success story. The editors responded that they can’t sell magazines writing about that subject.

 We triumphed because we never gave up. None of this could stop the foundation and me because our belief was clear and solid, and we knew how important this fight was. I never stopped believing in the purpose. In addition to the many new facilities and programs we have built for children with special needs and their families, the most significant result has been a big change in public attitude for the better.

Can you share some of your greatest life lessons?

If we follow our hearts, if we are incredibly honest with ourselves, being “naked” to our own inner eyes, then we really have nothing to lose. It’s the most natural thing ever. In my early life, this happened to be my only option of surviving my daily life. Since then, I have applied that thinking to everything, making the most out of it. Having nothing to lose ended up being the essence of my positive thinking. I’m grateful for those lessons that I learned very young, which has kept encouraging me and pushed me further.

You believe that little actions make a big difference. For those with little means but hearts to act, what actions would you encourage?

 Consideration and altruism are innate to human nature. They are originated by love, which is part of our instinct. We not only need to receive it but naturally need to give it back. When we learn about causes we aren’t aware of — causes that might seem far from our lives —  people often believe their contribution can never make a difference, or they feel they have nothing relevant to give. I want to empower everybody, Millennials especially, to affect the world positively, starting with small symbolic donations: A drawing, a smile, a selfie, a picture — that you might do during your day anyway — but don’t realize what a substantial difference it can make to a suffering child or parent struggling to find hope and encouragement.

What advice can you share that’s been a constant in your success?

I have a motto that has continuously helped me move forward: “See the goals and don’t see the obstacles.” My own success would have definitely been affected if I had stopped in front of the many difficulties I’ve experienced on my path. I have simply ignored them; I knew they were there, but I kept my focus on my objectives. I share this precious advice, especially with the younger generation who face cultural challenges or any other limitations, which should never deter them from what they want to achieve. Believing is the key to success.

Julia Chance is a journalist and author based in New York. 

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