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Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova: Moscow seemed like another planet when I was growing up in poverty

  • Natalia Vodianova was raised in a poor neighborhood of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
  • The model grew up seeing Moscow's Red Square on TV but never thought she would visit it
Natalia Vodianova (left) speaks to CNBC's Tania Bryer over breakfast at Cafe Pushkin, Moscow, during the filming of "Trailblazers"
CNBC
Natalia Vodianova (left) speaks to CNBC's Tania Bryer over breakfast at Cafe Pushkin, Moscow, during the filming of "Trailblazers"

Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova is now one of the world's most recognizable faces, having been on the cover of Vogue magazine more than 70 times and starring in lucrative advertising campaigns for brands including Calvin Klein, Versace and L'Oreal.

But growing up in the 1980s in Nizhny Novgorod, a city 400km east of Moscow, Vodianova never believed she would visit the capital. Travel to and from her home town was restricted under Soviet rule, and the family was so poor she often wondered where her next meal would come from.

"Even to Moscow you know, it seemed so far away, another planet. And of course now … I celebrate it, but for such a long time it was, just a beauty that was unimaginable and inaccessible to me," she told CNBC's "Trailblazers," while showing host Tania Bryer around the city.

Natalia Vodianova and partner Antoine Arnault at The Backstage Gala in aid of The Naked Heart Foundation at The London Coliseum on April 17, 2015
David M. Benett | Getty Images
Natalia Vodianova and partner Antoine Arnault at The Backstage Gala in aid of The Naked Heart Foundation at The London Coliseum on April 17, 2015

Raised in a one-room apartment in a poor neighborhood of Nizhny, Vodianova worked on a fruit stand to earn money as her mother took care of her half-sister Oksana who has cerebral palsy and autism.

Each year she would watch Moscow's New Year's Eve celebrations on TV, but it wasn't until she started modeling at the age of 17 that she visited the capital for the first time. "You see the live transmission of Red Square and this clock tower going to midnight… I (went) to Moscow for the first time when I was 17 and I only came here because I was going to Paris (for work)," she said.

"It's magic. It looks actually like a fairy tale, it looks like a ginger bread square… I couldn't believe I was finally in Moscow."

A general view is seen of St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square ahead of the IAAF World Championships on August 6, 2013 in Moscow, Russia
Mark Kolbe | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
A general view is seen of St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square ahead of the IAAF World Championships on August 6, 2013 in Moscow, Russia

The supermodel now focuses on her charity, the Naked Heart Foundation, which has built more than 175 playgrounds across Russia as well as opening family support centers for children with special needs.

Vodianova's partner Antoine Arnault told "Trailblazers": "Of course there's a whole beautiful and glamorous part of (her life), but 95 percent of her work is making sure that her charity runs and helps other people."

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