It is not often that a brief conversation - and one inspired by baby food at that - stays with you and changes how you think about parenting, but such was my interview with Natalia Vodianova – supermodel, philanthropist, tech-preneur and mother of five.
Nicknamed Supernova for her tireless worth ethic, the face of Calvin Klein and Guerlain is one of the world’s most successful supermodels with nearly 100 Vogue covers and counting.
We meet to talk about Little Tummy, the new cold-pressed organic baby food that she is backing, and she explains both motherhood and her career are approached with the same attitude.
“I have an internal setting,” she says. “Where I am tired at work I put on a brave face and make the effort, and I do the same at home. My children deserve no less. Yes I come back and I want to hide, have an hour with my book in bed, disconnect or meditate. But I choose to be there with the same readiness. It means a lot of personal sacrifices – personal space, personal time, things you want to do, but that is what I choose. I chose to be a mum and I chose to work and because of my choices something has to give. I know I will have time later when my children are grown up but I will feel like I have given them everything.”
If her status in modelling is big, in philanthropist circles she is a colossus.
Born in the then-Soviet city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) she cared for her disabled younger sister, Oksana, who suffers from cerebral palsy, and sold fruit with her mother aged just 11 – “It was very hard you can be sure – very hard” – she says.
Early modelling success brought with it an unwavering desire to give back, and at 22 she launched the Naked Heart Foundation, which, since its inception has helped more than 10,000 families with children with mental, sensory and physical disabilities, while thousands more have benefitted from the playgrounds built in around 150 Russia towns.
“As soon as I became successful it was clear to me that I left millions of people behind and still many people lived in difficult life situations,” says Natalia. “For me it has always been like that, giving back is what drives me forward, it is what drives me to get up in the morning.”
She lives in a beautiful apartment in Paris with her partner Antoine Arnault and five children – Lucas, 17, Neva, 13, Viktor, 11 by her first husband Portman – and Maxim, five, and Roman, three, with Arnault.
But work is an important part of who she is.
The serial tech-preneur launched ELBI, a philanthropy platform which monetises social media for charity, and recently became the first female board member at Flo, a women’s health tracking app, which has since become the world’s largest female community online.
“For me work is really important – to feel self-fulfillment and to be inspired and to meet great people, to realise my ideas and dreams,” she says.
“But I also think that is a good lesson for my daughter and my sons.”
Her latest venture is as an angel investor and mentor of Little Tummy, the baby meal service delivering dishes like chickpea, kale and cauliflower, and red lentil, mango and sweet potato, to busy weaning mothers in the UK.
Developed by Nadine Hellman and paediatrician Dr Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani the dishes are cold-pressed to ensure freshness, taste and important nutrients as an alternative to traditional, on-the-go heat-processed baby food.
We asked her about being a teenage mum, what lesson she hopes to teach her children and where life might take her next.
What inspires you to invest in the brands you work with?
The impact is really important or the potential for impact. The founders, of course, what it brings and if I can make a difference to the company and if together we can make a difference.
How were you introduced to the founders of Little Tummy?
Nadine sent me a proposal for investment and I actually got really excited. Usually, I invest in tech. As a mother of five, I had been looking into the baby food space myself for a while. I didn’t understand how we could feed babies all these very heavily preserved and processed baby foods – you could taste that it tastes like plastic with sugar. I never gave it to my children except if it was an emergency and we were on an aeroplane. But I always found it interesting that there weren’t more healthy and nutrition-first baby food brands. I looked at starting something. I was also thinking of busy mums who don’t have time to cook but also who want their babies to be getting all the nutrients, tastes and colours. I looked at the frozen food space for a long time and something I wanted to do, especially in Russia where nutrition is still quite a difficult topic – the awareness is growing slowly. But there is a big stigma towards frozen food and it can be super risky. I was looking around and saw Little Tummy and I thought how incredible, how exciting, how perfect. Here is a product, it’s not frozen, it has a shorter shelf life but all the nutrients. The presentation really struck me as someone being created out of passion. And now, of course, Sophie is now pregnant and waiting for her first baby – her number one tester.
How did you find weaning your children?
I raised my two little sisters so I knew what to do. I have always put a lot of importance on trying different things, creating diversity in vegetables and different tastes. I remember Maxim when he was trying celery puree for the first time. He was four months old and his little face, his nose… It is so important to give them this experience. I’m not saying he loves celery now but he eats really well. [My children] are very open to different flavours.
What are meal times like in your home?
The elder ones eat later and little ones eat early so it is not altogether. My youngest are five and three they eat proper meals. It’s so important to introduce your babies to different tastes. My children are all very adventurous with food in different ways. They have things they don’t like and I’m not going to force them, but they all like vegetables, liver and different things that are really adventurous for children.
Is food an important part of your life? Is it one of your passions?
Yes! We all love food. We always joke my eldest son would probably kill for food [laughs]. He is very defensive over his meals – his plate is his kingdom – nobody is allowed to touch it although he is getting a little better. If there is not enough, he is like ‘oh my goodness is there no more?’ [laughs]. He is a very big boy, he is 195cm so he needs a lot of food.
And are you the same?
I share but if I am hungry it is better not to cross my way. I get hangry! I am a very hangry person [laughs].
How did you view food as a child?
Food, it was really a luxury, meat and of course sweet treats, it was a great luxury.
Can you remember being hungry?
Too many times. We came from a very poor family. When I was 11 I started working in a fruit stand helping my mother but I was at school as well.
What was it like?
It was very hard you can be sure – very hard.
What experiences have you had that you would like your children to have and learn from?
I believe that hard work and the ability to work hard is the toughest lesson to teach someone unless you were forced to do that. So I am focusing a lot on that. Encouraging my children to work hard. They are good, they are quite perseverant.
How do you teach that?
By example. When they see their parents living this life it is easier to encourage them to work hard as well.
How hard do you work? Do you work in the evening?
Yes and more. I travel every week. It is quite hard. I am up at 7am – not crazy early – I go to bed at 12. I need my sleep as well.
Do you think having children younger made it easier – did it help with the sleepless nights?
Yes I think so. It helped me and it was more difficult in a way because I think as a young person you need more sleep, in some ways you are still close to – or I was – being a teenager. But you are just braver in many ways. You are more open, you don’t even question, ‘Should I do this at the same time as doing this?’ or ‘Is this a responsibility? Yes. Can I handle it? Yes.’ Everything is a yes when you are in your twenties. You are just so much more fearless – and it is so much fun.
How do you flip between different roles?
I don’t really flip. I go to work every day and go home and be a mum like every other mum who works, which is the majority of mums.
Do you ever suffer from mum guilt?
It can be difficult with little children emotionally but I am always there for weekends.
Is there a finish line? What is your one goal in life?
I feel like it is when I am going to hit 50. I will see where I am, make some really important decisions. Hopefully I will have more space in my life as my children will be grown up. I look at that point of my life – I will still be very young, have five children hopefully doing really well and still have a lot going on, but from then on, I will be refocusing on me and doing more things for me. I feel at some point I will need to think about myself more than I do now.
What will you do? Will you travel?
I travel a lot but I don’t travel for my own pleasure or for myself. I usually spend all my days inside buildings meeting people. There are definitely places I want to discover and experience.
Are there any skills you want to acquire?
It is not about skills really – more experiences. It’s just even more slowing down because I have never slowed down. I started working really young and I have never really stopped.
You are known more now for your philanthropic endeavours than for your modeling career – has that always been your intention?
What has been your proudest achievement? Is it all the playgrounds The Naked Heart Foundation has made for children in Russia?
There are lots of things I am proud of. The playgrounds are great, I cannot underestimate them because they bring joy to children every day, but what we do for children with special needs is much, much more. We have helped more than 10,000 families.
Do you go to meet them?
Of course, I meet them very often. There are a lot of tears. It is so rewarding.
And finally, what does fashion mean to you? Is it purely aesthetic or is its impact more multi-faceted?
It is an incredible platform, without this industry and all the support from all of my collaborators, photographers, designers, fashion brands none of this would be possible. I am so extremely grateful that this industry has allowed me to live the life that I have lived. It has been incredible. The level of creativity that I have experienced as well, the people I have worked with are so inspiring. I appreciate the commitment of those individuals into this industry although I have committed myself elsewhere. Those people like Grace Coddington, seeing the way she gives absolutely everything and the last of herself to a fashion shoot, it is just fascinating and incredibly inspiring to dedicate that much attention to whatever you are passionate about in order to succeed. And all of that with so much humbleness – the greatest people in this industry are so humble. Yes we celebrate them but they are amazingly inspiring. Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, Paolo Roversi and so many editors. In a way, we know that because we are the industry, but the level of creativity attention and commitment is unbelievable.