Supermodel Natalia Vodianova, the face of Calvin Klein, L’Oréal, and Louis Vuitton, showed up this week in southern Russia’s flood zone, where more than 170 people drowned under waves that washed into the town of Krymsk. There, thousands of homeless survivors are living without fresh water or electricity, next to dead animals rotting in the streets.
Vodianova, who’s walked hundreds of catwalk miles and appeared on more than 75 magazine covers, now made her way under a burning sun, through the ruined city’s streets, with suitcases full of chocolates and coloring books for the youngest survivors. It is Vodianova’s second visit to Krymsk. A mother of three and founder of one of Russia’s better-known philanthropic groups, she was one of the first celebrities urging rich friends to pay attention to the flood.
Last week, the Britain-based 30-year-old put all her plans on hold, and flew from London to Moscow to see the devastation for herself. The reports that she could find on the Internet were too confusing. She donned black shirt, jeans, and rubber boots and, in one day in Moscow, filled up a bus with first-aid supplies, volunteers, and psychologists.
In Krymsk, the model/philanthropist carried heavy boxes with items from donors across Russia and helped set up a tent camp on the outskirts of town. Her foundation, Naked Heart Foundation, has started fundraising to build a children’s play tent, “a safe, colorful, and cozy place” for local kids to go to while their parents are fixing up walls and roofs, or cleaning out the silt that filled most of the houses in town. Her goal is to raise at least 150,000 euros to make the playground happen.
On this trip, Vodianova, who, with $8.6 million in earnings last year, was ranked No. 3 among the world’s top models by Forbes (behind Gisele Bündchen and Kate Moss), started the day in Paris, making it to Krymsk by car after nightfall. She’s expecting two KAMAZ trucks with donated clothes and medicine from her hometown of Nizhny Novgorod. Unlike some of Russia’s leaders—whom she previously compared with captains abandoning their ships—she walks from house to house talking to people.
Her mission is “purely humanitarian and has nothing to do with politics,” Vodianova told The Daily Beast.
But that’s not how some politicians saw it. Parliament member Vladimir Zhirinovsky attacked the model in the press, calling Vodianova’s activity in Krymsk “speculation” and saying he wished she hadn’t “showed up here to spend her easy-made perverted money on philanthropy.” Russian Communist Party Internet forums accused Vodianova of “trying to make her career prosper on other people’s troubles.”
But according to her charity partner, Asya Zalogina, the comments merely made the model— famous for her sad, innocent smile—shrug.
Almost any of Vodianova’s millions of young fans, from Siberia to Moscow, know the inspiring story of the Russian Cinderella. Discovered by model-agency scouts, the provincial girl leaped to the world’s catwalks from the fruit kiosk she used to work at a bus stop called Happy in Avtozavod, a polluted industrial district of Nizhny Novgorod. Vodianova never blamed her mother for the feet that were often almost frozen from harsh weather—she knew she had to help make enough money for the rearing of two younger sisters.
For the past seven years, the model’s second identity had become that of an activist building playgrounds for children in Russia’s most dismal provinces—Naked Heart Foundation built 67 of them in 47 Russian cities; the first one appeared in sad-looking Avtozavod.
In a recent interview on Dozhd TV, Vodianova said “human life in Russia is worth much less than in most other places,” a statement based on years of experience she’s had dealing with corrupt, irresponsible bureaucrats, while visiting orphanages where hundreds of psychologically ill children live in miserable conditions. Could she be happy living a life filled with photo shoots and runway strutting? She says she would not.
The model’s critics would not understand, though. “Those bureaucrats who attack Vodianova, should try to do her work. Come and spend at least one day with desperate people under a boiling hot sun,” said Irina Vorobyeva, a volunteer who also made the journey from Moscow to work in flooded Krymsk.