Ms. Vodianova playing with Russian children at one of the sixty playgrounds her charity has built in Russia.
The Russian model was not spotted by a scout while selling vegetables at a stall in her home city of Nizhni Novgorod. She was picked out at a casting in Moscow after joining an agency.
The reality of her life from age 11 was lugging boxes of apples or pears (“They were the heaviest ,” the model said.), between running back to the impoverished family apartment to check on her disabled half-sister, who has cerebral palsy.
“I was responsible since I was six,” said Ms. Vodianova, 29, lowering her glacier-blue eyes as she described the “humiliation” of coping with her sister’s “pee, pooh and dribble,” her wanton trashing of Natalia’s school books, and the endless walking through the mean neighborhood, the only concrete space with monkey bars and bench hijacked by beer-drinking teenagers.
“A playground would have been a dream for me — I didn’t have anywhere to take my sister,” she said, explaining the origins of her Naked Heart Foundation (www.nakedheart.org), which has built 60 play parks in 44 Russian cities.
Life has been bittersweet for the young woman who has reached the summit of modeling but seen her marriage to the British aristocrat Justin Portman end in separation.
Yet Ms. Vodianova, with a steely character behind the sweet face and child-like body, still believes in Russian fairy tales and fables, with their complex dragons and firebirds.
To mirror that magical reality, the model asked 40 designers to each create a dress for the White Fairy Tale Love Ball, a Russian-inspired fund-raiser that will take place near Paris during the July haute couture season at the Wideville chateau of Valentino and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti.
Forty one-of-a-kind dresses, all inspired by fairy tales, will be auctioned for the charity by Christie’s and a limited edition book will show Ms. Vodianova in the dresses, photographed by Paolo Roversi.
“Being still a Russian little girl inside, I wanted to create something around my love of fairy tales,” said Ms. Vodianova, who called on her fashion choreographer friend Alex de Betak to design a winter’s tale set.
“The idea is to create a Doctor Zhivago version of a beautiful and glamorous, but quite a childlike, fairy tale,” said Mr. de Betak, who has worked on the project for two years.
“The power of Natalia’s charm is that you can put her in front of anyone and she has the intelligence of asking the right thing to the right people,” he added. Mr. Giammetti, who will unveil at Wideville a virtual museum Web tour of Valentino’s fashion history — a first for any designer — underlines the core strength of the Russian supermodel:
“Natalia is the sweet person that you see — kind and beautiful — then behind you discover the iron lady that really knows how to run a business. As you can imagine, I love both these Natalias equally. Her devotion to her charity work is profound and conducted with impeccable grace. But in her mind she has a perfectly focused plan de bataille.”
Ms. Vodianova is hoping the proceeds can beat the $1.4 million that she raised at an event in Moscow, even though she finds Russians mired in a Soviet concept that the state should provide. She still feels rage that special-needs children should be institutionalized, rather than allotted adequate money to provide care within the family.
Her determination to relive a lost childhood is far more political than establishing a “Neverland” paradise, even if her three children — Lucas, Neva and Viktor — have an idyllic playground by a moat in the family mill house in Sussex, England. “I feel hopeful — we’ve done a very good job,” said Ms. Vodianova of the Naked Heart Foundation. “We established it as a charity in Russia. Now I am really hoping to develop our progress with local support. What is really important is that Russian people are ready to be generous.”