Entrepreneurs

Natalia Vodianova: How I found my purpose in life (and it isn’t being a supermodel)

Natalia Vodianova (second left) with half sisters Oksana (left) and Kristina (right) and mother Larisa (far right)
Courtesy of Natalia Vodianova
Natalia Vodianova (second left) with half sisters Oksana (left) and Kristina (right) and mother Larisa (far right)

Natalia Vodianova, 35, is one of the world's most celebrated models, featuring on 71 Vogue covers, appearing in campaigns for Calvin Klein, Versace, Guerlain and L'Oreal and earning around $5.5 million in 2016, according to Forbes. The Russian has five children, two with her partner Antoine Arnault, the chief executive of Berluti and president of Loro Piana.

Vodianova's story is one of rags to riches. She was raised in a poor neighborhood of Nizhny Novgorod (then called Gorky) a city around 400km east of Moscow, helping her mother make ends meet by working on a fruit stand, and wondering where her next meal would come from. Her home town was cut off from the rest of the country under Soviet rule and she was cruelly teased at school for being badly dressed and skinny. Her sister Oksana was born with cerebral palsy and autism and her mother Larisa gave up work to look after her, rather than send her to an institution.

Model ambitions

At the age of 17, Vodianova was scouted by a model agent and left Russia for Paris and then New York. Her first major campaign was for designer Marc Jacobs, a controversial image that showed her lying in the grass in shorts and a top that revealed her pregnant stomach.

Natalia Vodianova at the Christian Dior Haute Couture show as part of Paris Fashion Week on July 3, 2017 in Paris, France.
Edward Berthelot | Getty Images
Natalia Vodianova at the Christian Dior Haute Couture show as part of Paris Fashion Week on July 3, 2017 in Paris, France.

But Vodianova says that aged 21, she felt her gilded life needed more meaning. "When it didn't have purpose, my life was a little bit hard. When I became very successful… for a short period of time it's really fun. The world is your oyster; you can do whatever you want. You are invited everywhere, you just pick and choose. And everything is so fun and fabulous," she told CNBC's "Trailblazers," while showing anchor Tania Bryer around Moscow.

"You cannot just suddenly stop and say now, at age 21, now I do nothing and I just enjoy the rest of my life. Well it's not me, it's not who I am… I was really unhappy… I was questioning, why did I have this (past) and why do I have this success now, why such extremes?"

Vodianova's foundation

After the Beslan school siege in 2004 when 186 children died, Vodianova felt she had to do something to help and set up the Naked Heart Foundation, a charity that builds accessible playgrounds as well as support centers for parents of children with special needs. She looked to her past to work out what would be important for the children's futures. "It was driven by a heart. It was just a reaction to a great tragedy at the time… I was questioning why not me. And that's when I really connected with my cause, I went back to my childhood and I said: what was really lacking?"

"I had my mother's love and felt pretty safe as a child with that. However, the play, I needed that… So many children live in Russia, in the world, with some kind of trauma, difficulties… And every child, just for healthy development, needs to play."

Naomi Campbell, Natalia Vodianova and Izabel Goulart take part in the Running Hearts charity race in Moscow in May 2017, in aid of the Naked Heart Foundation
Kommersant Photo | Getty Images
Naomi Campbell, Natalia Vodianova and Izabel Goulart take part in the Running Hearts charity race in Moscow in May 2017, in aid of the Naked Heart Foundation

The Naked Heart Foundation has now opened 180 play parks and raised more than 40 million euros ($47 million). Vodianova has also launched an app called Elbi, which encourages users to do good deeds, donate to charities and send messages of encouragement to those in need.

Now much of her working life is with the two initiatives. "My philanthropy really has become everything. It is my work. This is not something I do on the side."

Returning to Nizhny to meet parents at a center supported by the Naked Heart Foundation during the filming of "Trailblazers," Vodianova said she had mixed emotions. "On one hand I'm so appreciative of the work that we do… And at the same time I always think: what if my sister had this when I was little?"

"My childhood is a great driving force. I've worked really hard. I always worked hard, but today I know that I'm not working for just the survival of my own family satisfaction, but really for so many other people."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook.