Russian model Natalia Vodianova on juggling five kids and the health app that’s got her talking about sex.
Let’s be honest. The tag ‘supermodel’ doesn’t naturally elicit feelings of warmth and affection. But when I sit down for a chat with Natalia Vodianova it’s like meeting a friendly new mum in the park (albeit a beautiful one with 71 Vogue covers to her name). Before long we’re showing each other pictures of our children on our phones and she’s telling me about talking to her teenage son about sex and how she juggles what she calls her ‘reconstructed family’.
Natalia, 35, has three children with her first husband, the English aristocrat Justin Portman, who she married when she was 19 and pregnant with their son Lucas, now 15.
The couple also has a daughter, Neva, 11, and son Viktor, 10, but split in 2011. She then met Antoine Arnault, the French head of luxury fashion brand Berluti and son of multibillionaire Bernard (CEO of LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Céline, and Dior), and four years ago moved her family to Paris to be with him. The couple now has two sons, Maxim, three, and Roman, one.
But family life, she assures me, is less complex than it sounds on paper. ‘Their father [Portman] lives far away, so it’s quite simple in a way,’ she explains. ‘Of course, they love their father, but they also love their stepfather and their little brothers. In fact, the two oldest boys are godfathers to the two youngest so they have this really strong connection.’ So if ever her three-year-old is being a handful, she has the ideal solution on hand. ‘When I’m going crazy I say, “Go to your godfather,” and Lucas’s response is so sweet. Maxim adores him. It works magically.’ How do her children feel about their blended family? ‘My kids just accepted the situation, as kids do, and anyway they don’t think of themselves as half-siblings, we’re just a family.’
But with five children and a demanding career, there’s no ‘just’ about it. ‘Yes five kids, there’s a lot of running around!’ she laughs. ‘But my girl Neva is so calm. I’m completely besotted with her. She’s my little angel, always helping me with the babies.’ As well as her modeling and commercial commitments (she’s currently the face of Calvin Klein’s Euphoria perfume), Natalia has lots else on the go. Recently, she invested in app start-up Flo Period Tracker, which can help with fertility and contraception and now has 10 million users. In 2015, she set up the Elbi app, which connects charities and donors, and she also heads up the Naked Heart Foundation, a charity for disadvantaged families in Russia, which she launched in 2004, following the Beslan school massacre.
Despite her packed diary, family life, she says, comes first. ‘I’m lucky because I can choose my own schedule and be there for birthdays and the school concerts. A lot of working mothers don’t have that choice. ‘Most days, I wake up around 7 am, get the four eldest off to school, spend time with my baby and then go into the office. I’m home by 7 pm for a family dinner. Like most working mums, my weekends are sacred. I have to be home and I try to ignore my phone.’
She does her best but admits she’s not immune to the curse of today’s working mothers. ‘I still have mum guilt,’ she says. ‘I have times when I wonder whether I should just stay home with my kids.’ But, she goes on, seeing the impact of her charitable work keeps her motivated. ‘I hope I’m a good mother. When I’m at home I’m very involved and available. I’m not perfect though – I can be short with my kids and my husband. But there’s a grace from accepting you’re not perfect, saying sorry and forgiving yourself.’
Her children’s upbringing, in an elegant Haussmann building in central Paris, is in sharp contrast to Natalia’s own, in a cramped high-rise in the then Soviet Union. ‘Oh my goodness, completely!’ she says when I mention this. ‘It’s easy for me to tell my kids they don’t know how lucky they are, but this is the only life they know.’
She cites a recent example when one of them didn’t want to sleep in their bed and kept coming into hers. ‘They said, “I hate my bed!” but rather than get mad I told them how I had to share a bed with my younger sister until I was 15, which was exhausting, and I grew up dreaming of the day I’d have my own bed.’ Natalia also takes her children to orphanages. ‘It can be a difficult experience for a child. But for days afterward, they’re golden and so well behaved.’
Her modest upbringing, she says, is also what drives her. Despite being named the 11th richest model of 2016 by Forbes (with earnings of £5.5 million), she isn’t one to slow down. ‘I can’t just go shopping every day, I really can’t. I still live like a survivor, I guess.’ It’s that drive that’s behind her latest investment, in Flo. Natalia started using it after Roman was born to keep track of her cycle and was so impressed that she contacted the founder.
‘Some women use it as a fertility aid,’ she says, ‘others as a contraceptive, and some just to track their period health.’ (Users log details of their cycle into the app, which then predicts upcoming periods and ovulation days. It also tracks sleep, physical activity, and water consumption.) To launch her investment she’s created a campaign called Let’s Talk About It. Period to break the taboos surrounding women’s health.
‘We do OK in the UK, but there’s still a way to go and still a stigma surrounding women’s health. For me, I learned about my body as I went along. I was born in the Soviet Union where people didn’t have sex!’ she jokes. ‘Nobody talked to me about it. I didn’t even know the word gynecologist until I became pregnant at 19. I had no idea.’
Natalia says she’s more open with her own children, including her daughter, who was an inspiration for investing in the app. ‘We’ve talked about periods and how she shouldn’t be embarrassed. I remember when my son was nine he came home and said he’d had sex education at school, so I thought, “OK, let’s do this,” and we had the conversation. He wasn’t embarrassed and we’ve spoken about sex many times over the years. We’ve talked about condoms too but the older he’s got, the more he’s like, “Noooo, Mum! Why are you doing this to me?” But I want my kids to know this stuff so they have the knowledge and self-esteem to know what’s OK and not OK.’
Growing up, Natalia’s stepfather (her own father left when she was two) walked out on his family after her mother decided to keep Natalia’s younger half-sister Oksana, who has epilepsy and autism. ‘He wanted Oksana to be abandoned because, like many people in Russia, he didn’t see point or value in this child,’ she says. Instead, Natalia and her mother raised Oksana themselves. ‘My mother worked four jobs so I spent my childhood looking after my sister.’ She got a job selling fruit in a market when she was 11 and worked until she was scouted by a model agency and moved to Paris aged 17. Her mother and sister still live in Russia, where Oksana has a full-time carer and Natalia visits regularly.
But she hasn’t forgotten her past. Her Naked Heart Foundation has so far built 158 playgrounds in Russia and supports families raising children with disabilities, a cause obviously close to her heart. ‘I left all those millions of people behind when I joined this lucky group. Hopefully what I’m doing now is making a better world for them.’