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Analysis & Opinion
18.07.11 The Super Natashas
By Svetlana Kononova

Russian supermodel, philanthropist and millionaire Natalia Vodianova has announced her separation from her husband Justin Portman, a British aristocrat and the half brother of Viscount Portman. The couple, who have three children, are splitting up after nine years of marriage. The news has stoked public interest in Russian-born girls that achieve success in the West, becoming world-famous in the process.

Vodianova is often called “the Russian Cinderella” in the media. And her story really does seem like a fairytale. She was born in the Russian province, in Nizhny Novgorod, a town often described as poor and grimy, where a young beautiful girl has no future. Her father left the family when she was a toddler and didn’t try to contact her again until she became famous. Her mother worked hard to raise three daughters, but in spite of her efforts the family lived in poverty. Vodianova was forced to work selling fruit on the street from the age of 11 to help her mother. She often missed classes and finally dropped out of school.

But fortune smiled on her when she was 15 – a friend took her to a local modeling agency. Soon recruiters from Western model agencies were talking about “the new Romy Schneider” at castings and offering her work, first in Moscow and later in Paris.

After several years Vodianova become world famous, appearing in advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, L'Oréal and Chanel, as well as many other luxury brands. Marriage to her “prince charming” Justin Portman completed the fairytale. But the forthcoming divorce process may change her image from that of a careless spoilt and lucky child to that of a strong woman, who always knows what she wants and built her career by being strong-minded and rational.

The success of Russian-born models in Western Europe is not a new phenomenon. Some historians and fashion experts believe that the modeling profession was born thanks to Russian women. After the revolution in 1917, many Russian aristocrats fled to other countries. The most popular destination was Paris, the center of fashion and art at the time. Russians from rich families had spoken French fluently since early childhood and hoped to adapt to their new lives quickly. “It was probably Russian emigrants who were the first to persuade dressmakers to pay them to show their clothes to the public. But fashion shows were not like they are today. A few dozen female customers sat in the drawing room of a fashion house. Models came into the room and let them see the clothes and touch the fabric. Models were also obliged to answer customers’ questions about the dress,” said Fashion Designer Naiza Schmounk. “There were girls from aristocratic families who had escaped from the Soviet Union working at all the fashion houses in Paris in the 1920s. It was much better for them than to do that than take on hard, unskilled jobs in factories or restaurants. Dressmakers gladly hired them because of their beautiful appearance and the fact that they spoke many languages. Coco Chanel preferred ‘true Russian princesses’ to models of all other nationalities.”

The second wave of Russians models who achieved success in Western Europe and the United States came in the early 1990s when the Iron Curtain finally fell, giving girls from the former Soviet Union the opportunity to travel abroad. Some of them made very successful careers in the modeling business. Kristina Semenovskaya became the face of Dior, Olga Pantushenkova represented Cacharel and Diana Starkova – Chopard.

But while the modeling business has tough requirements for the height, size and age of girls, many Russia-born beauties set out to win a life of luxury through relationships with celebrities. Historical examples include the Russian wife of Pablo Picasso Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Gala (Elena Diakonova), the muse and wife of Salvador Dali. Both of these women secured their place in history by featuring in the masterpieces of great artists.

More modern tales of the Russian wives and girlfriends of Western celebrities are no less intriguing and dramatic, but are perhaps more scandalous. One recent scandal involved Oksana Grigorieva, actor Mel Gibson’s girlfriend, who accused the Hollywood star and multimillionaire of domestic violence. Like Vodianova, Grigorieva was born in a poor Russian province. Her first marriage, at 19, to a compatriot lasted only three months. After the divorce she went to London to study music and developed her “romantic career” by marrying British artist Nicholas Rowland, who was much older than her. When Grigorieva was 25 she was employed as a translator for the famous Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov. While working for him at a film festival in London, she met British actor Timothy Dalton, 51 at the time.

The pair married and had a son. After splitting with Dalton, Grigorieva met Gibson, who produced her album and is the father of her daughter. The latest love story ended in court, with a child custody dispute.

“Quite often Russian girls become famous abroad not only because they are beautiful. Initially, they live in worse conditions than girls of the same age who were born in the European Union or in the United States. They have lower living standards at home and they cannot easily travel and live abroad due to visa restrictions. So when they finally get the opportunity to live, study or work in Western countries, they use every chance to improve their lives,” said Olga Nasarova, the head of the London-based Harmony dating agency.

“So, super-Natashas – Russian-born girls, who achieve great personal success in the Western society – will exist for a long time,” she said.
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