How does one begin to define Irina Shayk? Some may say sexy, some may say intimidating, and some may even call her ineffable. However, you may attempt to label her as, be aware that Shayk will prove you otherwise. Transitioning her career from a Sports Illustrated phenomenon to becoming a high-fashion runway staple, Irina has arguably become one of the modern modeling industry’s greats. In something out of a contemporary fairytale, Irina’s discovery follows suit like many of the fellow supermodels she rubs elbows with backstage at shows. Having been found in a small town in her home country of Russia, the once-unknown beauty, who was discovered while attending a local beauty school with her older sister, went from the streets of Yemanzhelinsk to the catwalks of the greatest fashion houses in the world—but not in the blink of an eye as some may think. After moving herself away from the bombshell typecast and coming out of the restrictive box many had tried to place her in, a slow shift in perception occurred before the world’s very eyes and the supernova has been soaring ever since. Landing new types of the holy C’s: covers, campaigns, and catwalks, one after another, Shayk has undeniably become a force to be reckoned with. And with the ever-growing conversation of nepotism in modeling and the fair treatment of muses in our evolving industry, Irina is proof that the world will always want a success story, rooted in hard work, determination, and the power of longevity in any field.
Now, as her career sees its 15th anniversary, Irina is experiencing what she can describe as a renaissance of sorts; now as a mother to a five-year-old daughter named Lea, dominating the runways of shows she would have only dreamed of years ago, and currently, as a new muse for Han Chong’s ever-growing fashion house Self-Portrait. As the saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race”. Let Irina Shayk be a reminder of exactly that, and how perseverance, and possessing an innate ability to learn, are everything.
Below, discover the full Q+A with Irina and Inez van Lamsweerde of photography duo Inez and Vinoodh, as the two catch up after the cover shoot to talk modeling, motherhood, and the importance of determination.
Inez van Lamsweerde: Hello Irina! How are you doing?
Irina Shayk: I’m good. I just got back from London yesterday, so I’m a little bit jet-lagged, but I’m good.
IVL: What was going on in London?
IS: I was shooting for a magazine and then a campaign, so I was there for two days. And then before that, I was in Spain.
IVL: Oh yes, for the [Steven] Meisel exhibition. How was that?
IS: It was so good. It was an exhibition with three rooms and it’s all of the pictures that he took in 1993. So it was an exhibition [viewing], and then dinner.
IVL: His work from ‘93 is quintessential New York, right? Where were you in 1993?
IS: I was six years old, in Russia. *laughs* Actually, somebody came up to me and they were like ‘Is your picture there?’ And I was like ‘Um, no, I was six years old [in ‘93].’
IVL: Wow. So, where in Russia were you at six?
IS: So my father was a coal miner and we lived in a very small mining village. My mom actually worked as a music teacher in kindergarten for 25 years. So that’s where I was when the fancy girls were shooting with Steven [Meisel]. *laughs*
IVL: I love it, that’s the beginning. I remember we talked about this a long time ago, but when did you start this whole modeling thing?
IS: First of all, I went to music school for seven years because my mom was a pianist and she really wanted me to play piano and have a love for music, and then I went to college to study marketing. I have an older sister who is two years older, and [one day] she said, ‘let’s go to this beauty school’, just to learn how to pluck your eyebrows and do little silly things. And it wasn’t like a beauty school in America or in Europe. It was like one little room with all the [local] girls and there was a modeling school in the same building next door. [One day], a scout went to the modeling school and he basically discovered me at the beauty school. I was almost 20, and he asked me ‘Do you wanna go to Paris?’ and I said yes, but I didn’t speak one word of English at [the time].
IVL: Oh my gosh, wow.
IS: It was very interesting for me because all of a sudden, I’m in Paris with [just some] pocket money from the agency, which was about 50 euros a week, living in the model apartment with no food, no friends, no English [being spoken]—and [I thought] it was a beautiful time. When I go to Paris now, I just look at it differently, you know?
IVL: Knowing you a little bit better now, I feel like that is sort of at the base of you. Where you stand in life now is definitely coming from that experience. I see it every time I see you. Everyone always says ‘Irina, she’s amazing. She’s such a good time. Irina is always happy, always dancing, the party is Irina.’ I think it comes from the fact that you’re so appreciative of what turn your life took.
IS: Oh, that’s for sure. I didn’t choose to be a model. As a child, I was bullied in school because I was super skinny, I had bigger lips, and darker skin, and I loved high heels. I remember one summer, I painted a local hospital for 31 days and I got $6 as a salary, and I went and I bought a pair of high heels that, unfortunately, I don’t have anymore. I [still] wish I had those high heels. I just loved it and enjoyed it, but I never wanted to become a model. I basically saw it as an opportunity to help my family because I lost my dad when I was 14, and I was raised in a family where [I had] my mom [who] worked three jobs, I have two grandmothers and a sister, so it was only women [in my house]. I felt like after I lost my dad, I [had to] become a man, you know? [Modeling] was an opportunity to get some money [to provide]—that’s how I started my career. I was living in Germany, taking the subway to do German [fashion] catalogs for 1000 euros, and [to me] that was a lot of money and [became] life-changing for me.
IVL: That’s so great. [Your mother] must be very proud of you and appreciative of everything that you did for the family. I think it’s what sets you apart from most girls that I’ve encountered. It’s this drive that you have and the fact that you keep being interested [in modeling]. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you bored on the job, I’ve also never heard you complain.
IS: I can’t complain. Sometimes, when I talk to my friends who are in the same industry, I’m like ‘You don’t save lives. You don’t work in a factory.’ Sometimes it’s not easy what we do, but for me, it’s like an escape from reality. I love being on set, I love creating something, and I love people who create art because it’s a little world where we all feel safe and we’re all together. I’m so grateful to have this job because I never imagined that I would be a model one day. It was not even a [real] job in my country, [at the time]. People sometimes say ‘You’re impatient, you want too much.’ but that’s how I stay driven. When I started 15 years ago, I started off as a swimsuit model and a German catalog model. And in fashion, they put a label on you. ‘She’s too sexy, she’s too commercial.’ To break [away from] that was hard and it took so many years of hearing ‘no’, and still being driven. There is a reason why I was born in January and I’m a Capricorn because I’m very stubborn. It’s not easy to get refused and then still be like ‘okay, I’m gonna try again in one year’ because of course, I want everything now. But, I’ve learned that in the fashion industry, you just have to be patient. Sometimes you have to get a ‘no’ from 10 jobs to get one really good job. It was all a learning process.
IVL: In a way, you were lucky that you had the childhood and the life that you had prior to starting modeling. I think what happens a lot is people start super young or they get scouted at 14 and they end up in Paris at 16, and it becomes very difficult to form your own identity and to know who you are in order to thrive and survive in this business.
IS: That’s for sure.
IVL: I think with you, since it sort of happened to you at age 20 when you were already on a whole other life track, that sort of says something about not starting a modeling career too young. It definitely helped you in appreciating where you end up and also in the fact that you were just more mature and could handle it a lot better. Personally, I think you forge some really beautiful friendships in our business [that way]. Like, for instance, Riccardo Tisci. Honestly, when I see Ricardo looking at you, he just loves you so much.
IS: Oh, I’m so lucky. Through this industry, I’ve met a few people who I can really call my family. It’s just so beautiful that life gave me the opportunity to meet such amazing friends that I can literally count as a family, not because of any job. Just because they’re beautiful human beings–I’m lucky.
IVL: I feel like not enough people know that our industry actually is full of really incredible souls and amazingly creative people. I think the time when you started, the early 2000s and onwards, there was a lot of excess in our business, which called for really bad behavior from a lot of people. And I think that because they were enabled to behave in a very excessive way, it sort of felt like this was part of the fashion business. At this point, the business has changed so much that the whole feeling of excess and treating people is completely changed. It’s much better now and more professional in a way. People are doing their job as well as they can, and some people have a very long career and some people don’t. But, it’s definitely all about personality. You’re really an amazing example for other models that are working or starting out because you forged your own path and managed to keep it interesting for yourself and for the people that shoot you.
IS: You know, [although] I had people who told me I needed to lose 15 pounds, dye my hair black and cut it, and be a certain way, I just decided, in the beginning, to stay true to myself. Just stick to what I think and what I feel. I always listen to the advice of my friends and people who have helped me in my career because I love to learn. It’s not like I know it all. After more than 15 years, I feel like my career is just starting! I just walked for Chanel, which I was so excited about and it took 16 years, you know? I tried to play cool, but I was almost crying backstage. So many girls came up to me and they were like ‘What are you doing here?’ And I look at them and said ‘No, what are YOU doing here?’ So many people don’t expect me [to be] shooting with certain people and being at certain shows because I was labeled from the beginning.
IVL: That’s it. I feel like anyone that has an opinion on you based on what you’re saying, with just being a swimsuit model early on, once they’ll have you on set, they can just forget all about their opinions because you’re an amazing model and you give so much.
IS: Thank you so much!
IVL: I always say modeling is sort of like being a silent actress, where you kind of have to express everything with just gestures, body positions, facial expressions, and you have to find a way to express everything that someone’s asking from you. I really appreciate how much you give on set, and how much you’re a part of making the image. I feel like this cover shoot we just did sort of feels like it has the two sides of you. The way I sort of know you, the girl that’s out at parties and full of life, and then there’s the woman that forged her own life and went for it, but at the same time is also a mom. That’s the other thing–I don’t know how you do that.
IS: You know, we don’t have a nanny, so sometimes [when my friends suggest] dinner or a concert, they always say ‘We know what Irina is going to say; we have no nanny.’ They say it’s my saving line. But we choose not to have a nanny. You are a mom, Inez, so you know how it is–being a mom is one of the most amazing things ever. I’ve never imagined that I would enjoy it and love it so much. I feel like there is no better kind of love for anyone in this world, but the love for your child. It’s just very special. You know, my daughter has no filter. I remember this Halloween when I was dressed up as Bettie Page, she looked at me and goes ‘No, take it off. It doesn’t work.’. I kind of feel like she keeps me grounded because she says what she thinks with no filter–I love it. Just being a mom, I’ve learned how to prioritize my time. How to choose my jobs and always remember that family is the most important thing. That’s how you keep going. I also don’t want to lose myself, as I love working. I remember one day my daughter came back from kindergarten and she goes ‘oh, you’re going to work? I want you to stay.’ And she starts crying and I said ‘Do you see that we have lights on in the house and we have food [on the table]? That’s why mommy and daddy have to go to work.” I want to raise a woman and teach her how my grandmother and my mother taught me, where you have to work hard. Our daughter is being raised in different conditions, but you still need to set up boundaries. You can’t give her access to certain things [in order] for her to understand that you need to work hard to get something in your life. [After that], then I said ‘Look, mama is going to buy you a present but if she doesn’t work, we don’t have money [to buy it].’ And she goes ‘Okay, mama, go to work.’ *laughs*
IVL: It’s also so great for her to see that you love your work. I think that’s very valuable for a child to see that you have to go to work, but you also love going to work–that’s very important. When our son Charles was small, it was the same thing. But it’s also about saying ‘I love it. It’s what makes me happy.’ You said it before, it’s such a blessing to have a job that you make money with, and that you also love. We’re the lucky ones that love what we do. And for me, I get to look at beautiful people like you every day, which is a complete luxury.
IS: *laughs* You’re so sweet!