The supermodel turned exceptional fundraiser is beautiful inside as well as out.
Natalia Vodianova is curled up, much like her cat Galileo, waiting in a painted Dior skirt for her children to return from school. We look out of the window from her Paris apartment at the whirling snow and I wonder if she is reminded of her Russian childhood – as she is by the embroidered table cloth, handmade by her grandmother, that is spread on the lunch table.
I know that her birth country is always in the heart of this feline woman, supermodel and mother of five children, who is opening her heart to me – as she has opened hers to Mother Russia.
Our subject is the ‘Fabulous Fund Fair’, to take place on Tuesday, 20 February at the close of London Fashion Week. The Naked Heart Foundation was founded by ‘SuperNova’ – hence her Instagram name @natasupernova – in Russia in 2004 to improve the possibilities of playtime for children with special needs – and is now so much more. Inspired originally by the disabled sister she grew up with from age six, the charity has moved from building playgrounds to transforming attitudes to disability in Russia and across the world.
Next Tuesday’s event at North London’s Roundhouse will be, in Natalia’s words, full of funky ‘intergalactic’ games, cosmic prizes and out-of-this-world guests to persuade attendees to give, give, give. But, for the founder, it is an anxious effort to keep the donors on message.
“It’s been a long time that we’ve been doing this and sometimes it feels really daunting – a very lonely place, even when it probably doesn’t feel so from outside,” she says, surrounded in the elegant living room with children’s toys and games, from the giant teddy bear with one missing eye for her latest 18-month-old son to cuddle to a chess set for her 18-year-old. The father of her two younger children is her husband Antoine Arnault, from the mighty luxury conglomerate; and the three older children are from her first marriage to English aristocrat Justin Portman.
Natalia, her face determinedly stern, continues to explain the problem of asking again and again for support for her projects.
“It gets a little difficult because you keep asking the same people – and how long can people say ‘yes’ and be there for you? But we need support more than ever because we started with something very lighthearted – building play parks, as many as we could, depending on the success of our fundraising activities. But for the past six years now, we’re doing something much more serious, real humanitarian work and we have families depending on us.”
She continues to explain the trajectory of changing the mindset and an entire country’s attitude, including its government.
“Our activities have changed dramatically,” Natalia explains. “We still build play parks – we open approximately 10 to 15 a year, but we added this very important other work with families who raise children with special needs. And that programme has really taken over. We spend 60 per cent of the funds raised on this part of our work. It’s not like curing cancer, for example, when you might be able to cure a child and they go on living. It’s very different with special needs because it is ongoing work that never stops – you cannot put it away.”
The story is, of course, deeply personal: her sister Oksana, who was still-born, resuscitated and left with permanent brain damage and cerebral palsy, has been part of Natalia’s life since she was six years old. She helped her mother struggle through grinding poverty and a sense of helplessness and shame, until Natalia’s success as a top model was able to support her family.
“My sister has turned 30 and she lives with my mum in our hometown Nizhny Novgorod. She’s well, she goes to a family support group, so my charity work has also benefited my own family – and I didn’t expect that when I started,” continues Natalia. “My sister didn’t know the struggles we were going through, her disability in a way guarded her from the reality. For me, it was very different and I was exposed to all the shame and stigma that goes with it. Oksana wasn’t, she was a very happy girl, always laughing and she did bring a lot of joy.”
Natalia faced the tough trials of her family’s situation, when they might not even have enough to eat, and witnessed physical and mental abuse in her neighbourhood, where she developed a gritty courage, shaping the positivity that eventually grew into the concept of building playgrounds as safe havens.
But as her knowledge of the situation grew, Natalia’s determination hardened. She read a book about institutions for disabled children and learned the fate of a boy born at the same time as her sister, but abandoned by his mother into an institution. With cerebral palsy, he was undamaged mentally, but left from age six in an orphanage for ‘imbeciles’ and when found could not even identify a Christmas tree.
Natalia’s voice quavers as she explains that when she realised that 80 per cent of children with special needs in Russia were abandoned by their families, she set out to do more than raise money. She wanted to change attitudes, both of ordinary people and of the official state. Using editors and journalists, before the time of social media, Natalia told of remarkable success stories of families – as with her own mother – who did not give up on their disabled children. The Paralympics in Russia and a cover of Hello! magazine featuring Natalia with her sister were game changers.
“The pictures in Hello! spoke how we wanted to portray Oksana as being really part of the family, which of course she is and is very close to me,” Natalia says. For people to see me – I guess they consider me very privileged now – and to see how that was a normality with my sister, for them it must have been a bit shocking. Because people are not exposed to mental disability – the stigma comes from the fact that they think that all these people are violent and have no feelings. That was a tipping point. A melting of the ice.”
Natalia’s intense dedication to her cause is so compelling that it is no wonder that she can entice back her supporters to another round of giving. Surely the intergalactic fun she is putting on next week will raise, once again, the bar in terms of the amount of money promised and of her own dedication to the cause.
But wait – there is something else. A lot more. For Natalia is wrapping her loose H&M sweater around her chest and talking about her recent work, aimed at introducing philanthropy to the millennial generation. While their parents might be donating millions to the Fund Fair, she is hoping that more of her socially conscious peers will be using the micro-donation app Elbi which “democratises” the opportunity to give.
The idea is to use the ‘love’ button to donate money, however little; and to make available a way to give to charities, many involving women, such as one which tackles the stigma attached to periods in underdeveloped areas of India, where there is not even access to sanitary towels.
Determined to focus on the upcoming ‘Fund Fair’, I promise Natalia that I will make another article about the Elbi app. It is surely a safe bet (money to be donated to one of her causes) that Super-Doopa Nova will have, by then, corralled a bunch of fresh issues to support.
For tickets to London’s Fabulous Fund Fair 2018, organised by the Naked Heart Foundation, click here
It takes place Tuesday, 20 February 2018 at 8pm at Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 8EH.
Sponsors include: By Kilian, Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Guerlain, L’Oréal, Louis Vuitton, Maxx Royal Resorts, Messika, NIRAV MODI and Versace among others.
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