Beauty with a Heart

Natalya Vodianova: "Directing my unspent energy towards worthwhile causes is my favourite thing". Source: Vitaliy Belousov/RIA Novosti

Natalya Vodianova: "Directing my unspent energy towards worthwhile causes is my favourite thing". Source: Vitaliy Belousov/RIA Novosti

In this candid interview, Russian model and actress Natalya Vodianova talks about her philanthropic organisation, the Naked Heart Foundation.

The Naked Heart Foundation – of which Natalya Vodianova is both founder and president – has just held its international forum at the President Hotel in Moscow. Attendees discussed how best to help children with special needs and their parents, as well as children who are living in closed institutions or with foster or surrogate parents. 

The lady from humble beginnings, who has become a legend.

The Model

Natalya, I hope you won't be offended by my question!

It’s like water off a duck’s back. Fire away.

Okay! So let's say I take a look at the page about you on Wikipedia. We find your height, weight, hair colour, and waist and breast size. Other people’s achievements get listed as achievements – the books they wrote, the formulae they proved. Yet they write about you as though you were prize heifer. Doesn’t being treated like dairy cattle humiliate your personal individuality? 

Not a bit. It’s a part of my life – it’s my profession, and I love it. It’s what pays the bills. I’m doing what I love to do, what I want to do, and what I have to do. Directing my unspent energy towards worthwhile causes is my favourite thing.

Actually, a friend and I were discussing whether being a model is actually a profession?

I’d say it probably is. More likely yes, than no. I remember how I got started: I had no experience, and it was awful. I remember how helpless I felt. I knew that I had to use my appearance as a tool, but I didn't know how. I needed some kind of method – like actors have the Stanislavsky method. I realised that models aren’t just coat hangers; modelling is a job, it produces results, establishes your image and confirms your individuality. You need to be a shrewd psychologist when dealing with your colleagues, with clients, with the mass-media, with everyone. These days, I know that I’m a professional in my field.

The Philanthropist 

Does it get to you when people like Vladimir Zhirinovsky accuse you of self-promotion, when organising humanitarian aid and psychological assistance for the people of the disaster-hit town of Krymsk?

No, things just carry on as usual. I usually try to find some kind of lesson in the criticism people make, but there was nothing to learn here.

Writer’s Note: Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democrats told Natalya to pick up a broomstick and sweep away the mud. “People flew in from foreign capital cities, wiggled their hips and went home again. We don’t need your hand outs – your cheaply-gained indecent money – here.”

That’s supposed to be the voice of the people?

Do you really believe that?

Well, someone must have voted for him. The guy’s sitting in parliament, after all?

Well, probably. Who knows? I’m not sure. I don’t involve myself in politics, I’m apolitical. I’m sufficiently independent financially to be able to take no interest in politics. You know what I mean?

Maybe you could explain?

We work independently. Although we know that for the optimum result, the support of the government and a suitable political climate can be helpful. But we don’t count on it, and we don’t expect it. I’m talking here not on behalf of my own charitable foundation, but for many non-profit organisations doing work with children that we support. On the other hand, regardless of what people may say, the government’s approach to these organisations is improving. The consensus among the public at large and within the business community is that they perform an essential role, and there’s a desire to help them.

What makes you think so? Sure, many companies are ready to engage in community work, but it’s not worthwhile for them. They’re suffocated by taxes and they don’t have any guarantees that the aid they provide actually reaches the beneficiaries.

A: That’s just pure, undiluted prejudice. I reckon that the only way of improving the situation is by example, and working. It’s like a glacier – if the sun shines, then it keeps melting and melting, and eventually it disappears. Of course, you can keep on whining that the aid doesn’t reach the people who need it, blah-blah. But what I can tell you is that our money gets through. Every last penny gets through.

If you were to take a greater interest in politics, you’d have heard that the Kremlin and the KGB suspect NGO of everything up to and including espionage.

I have complete faith in the people we work with. They are one hundred percent transparent and offer completely honest accounting processes.

Be that as it may, but we’re used to cynicism when dealing with organisations who claim to be doing good work – particularly charitable foundations. It’s widely believed that they’re laundering money.

That’s a stereotype from the 1990s. I’ve never come across that kind of approach, myself. Our foundation, for example, spends just 10 percent of its budget on administrative costs. And that’s impressive.

Do bureaucrats on the ground support you?

They have no reason not to support us. Do you know how our first programme, Play with Purpose, works? A region sends in a request to be included in the programme. We never refuse a request, so we have to make a waiting list. After that, we work out a schedule and arrange financing, that is, we decide how much will come from our foundation and how much will come from local budget sources. From the very outset, this has been a programme set up by regional authorities. And it has built children’s playgrounds and parks all over Russia.

From the moment we began in 2004, we’ve built 90 different facilities. These include children’s homes and hospitals, oncology units, and rehabilitation centres, with a geographical spread covering 68 cities in Russia.

Our second project is called Every Child Deserves a Family. You know what it’s about? We step in as a support agency, a protective umbrella. We give financial and administrative aid to professionals in NGOs to help families with kids who have special developmental needs.

The Person 

What did you dream about before you were a model?

Kids like me didn’t get to dream. I dropped out of school. We were a family of five, living in a one-room apartment in a Khrushchev-era building. The only furniture was the table and the bed. I didn’t have a dream, but I had a wish – just one, huge wish. I wished that all this struggling for basic survival could somehow end, that our daily anxieties about how we were going to survive until tomorrow, how we were going to eat, put clothes on our backs and find the money to ride the bus, would come to an end.

What was it that helped you get through it all? Was it your belief in God, in yourself?

I can’t really say what, or who, it was. Maybe it was a kind of belief, I’m not sure how to explain it... as if when the very worst happens, you don’t panic, but instead you regard it as a test of your tenacity.

Recently, I was listening to the internet talk Steve Jobs gave to Stanford graduates, after he had been diagnosed with his illness. Do you know what he said? “When we confront the possibility of death every day, and we realise that tomorrow could be our last day – then all our conventions and assumptions lose their significance. It’s then that our decisions come straight from the heart.” What struck me most was what came next. He said “You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” And my charity is called The Naked Heart Foundation. I’m convinced that there is more in that than just mere coincidence.

First published in Russian in Russky Reporter.

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