Natalia Vodianova AKA SUPERNOVA
‘I know what I want and I’m fearless about getting it!’
FIGHTING EXTREME POVERTY WITH THE APP ‘ELBI’
Nowadays it’s hard to find someone not glued to their smartphone. Equipped with this knowledge, supermodel Natalia Vodianova is changing the app game and bringing philanthropy to the digital set. The model has already promoted education initiatives through her Naked Heart Foundation and, last night at the Apple Store in Manhattan, Vodianova spoke about her next endeavor, Elbi.
The app, founded by Vodianova and Timon Afinsky, a London-based digital entrepreneur, partners people with brands and charities to promote a culture of giving. After presenting the app to an audience filled with fellow runway regulars, including Doutzen Kroes and Naomi Campbell, Vodianova and crew migrated a few blocks to Bistrot Leo at the Sixty Soho hotel for an intimate dinner, where designer Brandon Maxwell joined in, along with model Dilone.
How did you come up with the idea for Elbi?
Natalia Vodianova: One day I was getting off a train in London with my friend and co-founder Timon, and I was checking my email when I saw that a post I did on Instagram got 30,000 likes. You would imagine that would make me happy but in fact it left me quite frustrated, because just a week before we had opened a playground with the Naked Heart Foundation and I posted a picture of children playing and it got a fraction of that many likes. When I saw that a silly photo of me got so many likes I just thought, We have our priorities all wrong. It was discouraging.
But Timon urged me to think otherwise. He told me that the like button shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s pressed something like 5 billion times a day just on Facebook.
When I heard that, it really, really resonated with me. That’s so much action—what if even a fraction of those likes could be turned into something meaningful? If you harness one percent of something big, then you are already on the way to changing the world.
Do you think Elbi can really make a big difference with such small good deeds and tiny donations?
NV: Yes, huge. In Russia we say, “I don’t have a hundred rubles, but I have a hundred friends.” Together, we can make a difference, but only together.
Social media has been incredible for connecting us all, joining us all together, raising awareness about causes, but what's the next step? The next step is to use this power of social media to act. Elbi—it looks cute, but it’s not. What we are going to do is really revolutionary. We believe that people should be the ones holding the power and directing where fundraising dollars and the huge budgets of corporate social responsibility should go.
You have such a successful modeling career—it would be easy to stop with that. Why launch your foundation and now this app?
NV: The answer for me is very simple. It’s because once you start doing good, it feels so great that you just want to do more and more.
I had a very difficult childhood and then I became extremely successful in my life. But my experience of being a struggling young girl, desperate for my mom and my sister, and even desperate for myself, not knowing where my next meal would come from—it’s something you can’t just shake off, even when you become so successful and wealthy beyond your imagination. It’s like having a car crash and surviving, but not knowing how to continue on with your life after you were so close to death.
The Naked Heart Foundation married the two ends of my life story and made them one. For 12 years I harnessed this incredible industry, the fashion industry, to raise tens of millions of dollars and channel it back to this cause that I really care about, and it was so rewarding. And now with Elbi we can help make that happen for many other people.
It does seem like Elbi is a great way to get people hooked on philanthropy.
NV: Absolutely. We want it to be gamified. We want it to be fun. We want it to be addictive.
And the addictive part is that once you see the little girl with hundreds of giraffes, and you spot in the corner that one of them is yours—that is an incredible feeling. Trust me, I know. That is really amazing.
What’s in store for the future of Elbi?
NV: We see love buttons being ubiquitous in the future, throughout other platforms and partners—so there’s a love button on Facebook or Instagram or other sites. It could be a different way of measuring the success of an article somewhere like the Huffington Post. And in the future, we hope that people will be as proud of their Elbi score as they are of their social media followers.
'I know what I want and I'm fearless about getting it': Natalia Vodianova on her mission to save the lives of disadvantaged children across the globe.
Running a fruit stall in a poverty-stricken Russian backwater taught Natalia Vodianova that anything is possible: today she is one of the world’s highest-earning supermodels, a mother of four, and her partner is the heir to France’s biggest fortune. But it’s not enough, she tells Chloe Fox – now she wants to save the world’s disadvantaged children, with a little help from her friends in high places.
Model Natalia Vodianova has created an app. But not just any app: hers is here to blow every other one out of the water. With the intention of making it easier for individuals to find and support charities, Natalia has launched Elbi with business partner and co-creator, Timon Afinsky. In short, the app introduces philanthropy to all those smartphone users (cough cough…everyone) in a more accessible way than ever before. Recognizing the power of a social media app in which users can show their support by “liking” photos or posts, Natalia told Teen Vogue, “I strongly wanted those likes to become meaningful.”
Natalia was prompted by frustration, when a photo she posted of herself on Instagram racked up 30,000 likes in mere minutes. When she expressed her frustration that the world seemed to have the wrong priorities in life to Timon, he shared with her that 5 billion likes are clicked on Facebook every day. That’s power that can be harnessed. Natalia asked, “How can we capture that energy and harness it for good?” She explained further, “What if alongside the ‘like’ button, there was a ‘love’ button, and when you press it, you’re saying, ‘I want to help these people; I want everybody to help these people.’ And you do it by putting a little donation behind it.”
As such, on Elbi, after being introduced to charities you might not have otherwise heard of, or searching for those you know are close to your heart, you can tap what they call the ‘LoveButton,’ which allows you to automatically donate $1 to the particular cause. There is also a ‘LoveShop,’ with a reward-based incentive model, as well as a slightly more competitive angle, in which you can complete against other users and compare scores.
Though you might have first heard of Natalia through her supermodel status career, this is not her first endeavor into the world of philanthropy. The Beslan school siege of 2004 inspired Natalia to set up her Naked Heart Foundation, whose mission they describe as “to help build an inclusive society that is open to people with disabilities and special needs, through encouraging play and creation of free support services for affected families.”
With Elbi, so far, Natalia and Timon have already on-boarded charities in more than 88 countries. 100,000 deeds have been completed. On choosing the charities that they include in their app, Natalia explains, “Elbi is passionate about smaller organizations: they fight for their cause with incredibly few resources and on top of it they are effective. They deserve the visibility and recognition, but they can’t achieve it alone as they don’t have the budgets of big organization.” She continues, “We want to support those organizations so they can continue to play a crucial role in our society and inspire more organizations to follow their example.”
As Elbi’s platform is that of ease and relatability, it seems to stand on its own. They’re not asking you to donate thousands (though you can), nor are they asking you to scrutinize a charity and what it means to you. When you’re spending nearly $5 every day on a single cup of coffee, it seems like a no-brainer that you can give a single dollar to a charity that you happen upan and seems to pull at your heartstrings or pique your interest. When asked how Elbi stands out from other forms of charity, Natalia explained, “We make donating as effortless as clicking the like button.” She went on to add, “You don’t need to think how much you want to donate or how much you can donate at this particular moment. If you feel like supporting, you just do the click.” Plus, she shares, “Elbi makes donations frictionless and makes it transparent for people to see the impact of their deeds. Plus, it doesn't take a cut. 100% donations go to the charities.”
There’s nothing of the diva in Vodianova. She’s a stalwart — a Russian doll with a core of steel — whose rags to riches story is nothing short of extraordinary. ‘I guess you could say I’m determined,’ she admits with a Slavic shrug. ‘I know what I want and I’m fearless about getting it.’
Vodianova’s is a mesmerising beauty, part-innocent, part-sophisticate, that has kept her at fashion’s helm for 15 years, and earned her an estimated £4m a year. Having garnered headlines for hitting the catwalk just two weeks after the birth of her first child at 19, Tom Ford cast her as the star of his 2002 Gucci campaign. From there, she went on to become the face of Calvin Klein and has since fronted campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Stella McCartney among others.
In among all of this, the 32-year-old has given birth to four children. Lucas, 13, Neva, eight, and Viktor, seven, by her ex-husband, the English property scion Justin Portman, were all born before she was 25. The youngest, Maxim, by her current partner, LVMH heir Antoine Arnault, 37, arrived last May, when she was a positively ancient 31.
In the son of the richest man in France (his father Bernard’s luxury fashion empire is worth an estimated £40bn), Vodianova says she has found her ‘soul mate’. He is CEO of menswear label Berluti, and a world-class poker player to boot. They live a low-key — albeit fabulously luxurious — life. ‘Of course we are spoilt in terms of the comfortable life that we lead,’ acknowledges Vodianova, ‘but we are both hard workers. He is an inspirational man for me in that way. I’m often at home, working from my BlackBerry but being with my baby, too. But he is at his desk, without fail, every day.’
Evenings in the Arnault apartment — the same, overlooking Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower, in which he spent his bachelor days — are ‘pretty boring. We spend time with the kids, do homework, watch movies, usual family stuff.’ The naturally antisocial couple, whose first date was spent chatting on a bench in the park, have, however, recently faced up to a serious problem. ‘We are crazily addicted to Dulce de Leche Häagen-Dazs,’ Vodianova sighs. ‘It’s become a real problem. We’ve decided that we’re going to have to go cold turkey.’
There is, admits the woman whose only concession to fitness is ‘a bit of Pilates here and there’, a side to her that still revels in the indulgences that were entirely lacking in her childhood. ‘An old soul’, according to her friend and mentor Diane von Furstenberg, Vodianova has lived more lives than most of us could even begin to imagine.
Born in the industrial Soviet town of Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky) in 1982, Natasha’s (as she’s known to friends and family) father left home when she was a toddler. Her mother Larisa eventually remarried, but this marriage also floundered with the birth of Natalia’s half-sister Oksana, who was born with cerebral palsy and went on to develop severe autism. Against the advice of her parents and doctors, Larisa refused to institutionalise her child (fair game in a Soviet Union that didn’t tolerate otherness); the only person who stood by her decision was her older child. ‘I knew she was doing it for us and I wanted to help her so much,’ explains Vodianova.
And help the wilful seven-year-old did. Sharing the load of raising Oksana, Vodianova would often arrive at school — if she arrived at all — so tired she could barely focus. By the time she was 11, she was working on her mother’s unlicensed fruit stall outside the Volga car factory. When she was 16, a fractious relationship with her mother’s new boyfriend forced Vodianova to move out and set up her own fruit-selling venture. Business went well, but not so well that a $50 modelling gig in a local fashion show — enabled by her then boyfriend, who had paid the fees for her to attend a local modelling school — didn’t turn her head.
At the insistence of her maternal grandmother, ‘a real force’ in her life, who encouraged her to study and better herself, the 17-year-old Vodianova headed to Paris, petrified and alone, to seek her fortune.
‘I don’t feel any different today than I did the first time I arrived in Paris,’ says Vodianova. ‘I still work on the same principle, that in my life — in everything I do — there is nothing to lose.’ Would she change that early life in which she struggled so much? ‘No, of course not,’ she says, in her constrained way. ‘Because my childhood gave me some very important tools. I’m a fighter, you see. I used to fight for my survival but now I fight for a good cause. I am sure that I wouldn’t be able to handle so much, stay so positive, or have this fearlessness, if I hadn’t lived the life that I have.’
The photographer Bruce Weber wasn’t wrong when he described Vodianova as being ‘like a woman in a Chekhov play’. In person, she has a resilience and a depth that are very affecting. Straight-backed and poised, she moves almost in slow motion, thoughtfully searching the air for exactly the right words with which to answer a question.
Erdem Lace Dress, at Net-A-Porter.Com, £2,770; Givenchy By Riccardo Tisci Belt, Poa; Saint Laurent By Hedi Slimane Hat, £580
‘Modelling work is not so — how do you say it? — not so cerebral,’ she smirks. Up go those trademark tapered brows. ‘Really, really not.’ At the height of her success in 2004, she found herself feeling dissatisfied (‘my existence did not make sense to me’) and then Chechen rebels attacked a school in the Russian town of Beslan. Three hundred and thirty-four people were killed, 186 of them children. On a flight to Paris from Moscow, where she had been when the tragedy struck, Vodianova could not stop crying. How, she wondered, could she help the survivors to heal? ‘I thought about what was missing from my own childhood and it was that I had no play,’ she has said. And so, the Naked Heart Foundation was born, its mission a simple one: to raise enough money to build full-scale play parks and playgrounds across Russia.
To date, the Naked Heart Foundation has raised over £22m and financed the building of 133 play facilities in Russia and three in the UK. Four years ago, it developed another string to its bow: providing support services for Russian families raising children with special needs. ‘It’s hard for Westerners to comprehend, but in Russia there is very little understanding of the benefits of an inclusive society,’ Vodianova explains.
‘Do I feel like we’re getting somewhere? Yes, a little bit. People like my sister are treated like human beings in the Family Support Centres we have set up. Plus, we have our own educational programme, which is really showing incredible results — very autistic children, who would once have been considered hopeless cases, starting to read and count — but we still have a very long way to go.’
Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci Top, £1,470; Body, £590; Trousers, £1,220; Belt, Poa and Boots, £1,740
While the Naked Heart Foundation’s annual Love Ball fundraiser has become a coveted invitation on the international social circuit, Vodianova and her 14-strong team are under constant pressure to generate income. Later this month, during London Fashion Week, they will host The World’s First Fabulous Fund Fair, for which the Camden Roundhouse will be transformed into a custom-built fairground, with ‘stalls’ hosted by celebrities and sponsored by luxury brands, in exchange for donations. Highlights of the £1,000-a-ticket event will include the Guerlain Supermodel Kissing Booth, hosted by Vodianova herself; face-painting by legendary make-up artist Pat McGrath; Fashion Fortune Telling with Suzy Menkes; a Louis Vuitton Hook-a-Bag; and milliner Steven Jones’ Coconut Shy. Food stalls will be manned by fashion designers such as Stella McCartney — serving veggie hot dogs — and supermodel Karlie Kloss, Vodianova’s great friend and co-host, who will be selling her own brand of gluten-free Kookies.
It was Kloss, in fact, who gave Vodianova the idea for the event. ‘We were at a gallery opening together and everyone was going crazy,’ says Vodianova. ‘We had to do so many selfies! At the end, Karlie, who is a girl with a real sense of purpose, said, “You should charge people and give all the money to the Naked Heart Foundation!” That made me think about what a fun idea it would be to have a social media-orientated event, where people are paying for an experience.’
Ralph Lauren Collection Crop Top, £990 and Skirt, £4,890; Saint Laurent By Hedi Slimane Hat, £580; Givenchy By Riccardo Tisci Boots, £1,740
While she is ‘super-excited’ about the Fair (not least because her eldest son will get to see his favourite magician, Dynamo, live) Vodianova also feels pressured. ‘Before, when we were only building play parks, we were building what we could afford. Now we have a different responsibility: families we look after all year long are relying on us to fund them. No money; no services. It’s very stressful.’
It’s for this reason that Vodianova continues to do modelling, such as Stella McCartney campaigns — ‘I try to make up financially for anything the Naked Heart Foundation can’t’ — although she also admits to more complex reasons for wanting to earn her own money. ‘If you’ve been very, very poor, as I have, it makes you very proud. You experience such moments of hardship, that make you feel so ashamed, that all you want is to get yourself to a place where you don’t have to ask anything of anyone.’
Precisely because she is never far from the demons that haunt her, Vodianova is mindful of how gilded her life is now. The birth of Maxim seems to have ushered in a phase of particular contentment. ‘Motherhood feels very different this time because I’m so much calmer,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I’m doing anything different, I’m just more present in what I’m doing. There’s not so much noise in my head.’ You’re happy, I suggest. ‘Yes,’ she says hesitantly. ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’ But then she looks up at me with that fighter’s flame in her wide-set eyes. ‘I will never feel like a good enough mother, though. I will never feel like a good enough anything, because the minute you do, that’s when you go wrong. Complacent is the worst thing that anyone can ever be.’
Naked Heart Foundation
Natalia Vodianova says dedicating herself to charity has helped her “make sense” of her journey from “extreme poverty” to multi-millionaire supermodel.
The 37-year-old Russian said she believes her philanthropic work is “the reason” she was plucked from obscurity to become an international fashion name - adding she feels it is her “purpose” in life to help others.
Vodianova was born in the poor, rural district of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, and would help her mother earn money by selling fruit on the streets. Her father walked out on the family when she was a child.
Aged 15, she was spotted and enrolled in a modelling agency, moving to Paris two years later as she was signed by Viva Models.
Charity work: Vodianova with her husband Antoine Arnault (Dave Benett)
She is now worth about $50 million (£44 million) and has worked for Guerlain, Givenchy, Prada - and famously signed an eight-season, seven-figure contract with Calvin Klein.
Aged 22, she set up the Naked Heart Foundation - after the 2004 Beslan School siege to give aid to the hundreds of children affected. It now helps build safe places for young people to play in Russia while supporting families with disabled children. Vodinova’s half-sister Oksana has autism and cerebral palsy.
Vodianova said: “I came from extreme background and extreme poverty. And then I became extremely privileged extremely quickly at a young age. And now the two ends have met. I am successful but I am helping people who are in the same position I was as a child. All the baggage that I brought from my childhood, I have used that in my toolbox to create something good. To me, the reason I got successful, it all makes sense now.”
She added: “I never forget where I am from and I do everything I can to help others. This is what I was meant to do, that is my purpose. This is why I am part of this incredible industry.”
Vodianova is married to fashion tycoon Antoine Arnault, the CEO of menswear brand Berluti. They have two children together, Maxim and Roman, with the model also having three children with her ex-husband Viscount Justin Portman.
She hailed Arnault as “hugely supportive” of her charity work - adding she hoped to inspire her children to be philanthropic throughout their lives.
“He has been incredible stepping in to helping around the house when I am busy and looking after the children and helping me deal with it all. With children I believe it has to be a part of their everyday life. But I can’t tell them what to believe, I can only inspire them. And I hope very much to inspire them to give throughout their life.”
Vodianova was speaking ahead of her charity giving app Elbi’s collaboration with Harrods’ Fashion Re-told initiative, which raises money for the NSPCC through fashion.
Over three weeks, a number of luxury items will feature on the app, which she launched with Timon Afinsky in 2014. Users will be able to bid money for each item. The highest offer will get the prize - with all money pledged donated to the cause, not just the top offer.
Two items, a Paco Rabanne metallic silver 1969 chainmail shoulder bag – worth around £1,000 - and a chance to own a Morgan car for a weekend have just been added.
The model said: “Elbi is a community of like-minded people that care about causes and want to contribute. This is a great way to raise money for a cause by making it fun, easy and almost a competition.”