As her break-up from Hollywood film star Bradley Cooper hits the headlines, Irina Shayk tells Nicole Mowbray how she conquered extreme poverty and industry snobbery to become a stratospheric supermodel
This article has an estimated read time of eight minutes
If Irina Shayk is masking heartbreak when we meet, she gives nothing away. It’s weeks before the rumours of a split with actor Bradley Cooper hit the headlines and the Russian supermodel shows no signs of strain – on a shoot with photographer Ellen Von Unwerth, her riotous laughter can be heard reverberating around the hotel’s marble staircase from three floors below.
As I open the door to the penthouse, Irina is having a ball, sitting on the kitchen counter in incredible vintage Jean Paul Gaultier (she’s the face of the label’s new Scandal fragrance), grinning and eating from a box of fondant fancies, a large carton of orange juice at her side.
I have been warned that questions about both Bradley and the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Lea de Seine Shayk Cooper, are off-limits during our chat – as is anything about the 33-year-old model’s personal life. ‘For me, private life is private,’ she says; she and Cooper began dating in summer 2015 after they met at the Met Gala and went on to share a £10.5 million townhouse in New York’s West Village as well as a base in Los Angeles.
The past few months, however, have reportedly not been plain sailing for the couple. While they have made a few joint appearances on the red carpet (Irina appeared with Bradley and his mother Gloria at the Oscars in February), rumours were rife that neither party was happy in the relationship.
Sources claimed the pair wanted to ‘keep trying’ to make their relationship work for their daughter, but speculation about the chemistry between Bradley and Lady Gaga after they filmed A Star Is Born reportedly riled Irina, who apparently unfollowed the singer-turned-actress on Instagram shortly before the Oscars.
But through it all, Irina has remained a powerhouse in the world of modelling. With almost 12 million followers on Instagram, she has been awarded icon status by industry insiders at Models.com, having graced more than 20 covers of Vogue around the world, walked for labels such as Miu Miu, Max Mara and Burberry, not to mention her turn as a catwalk ‘angel’ (while pregnant) for Victoria’s Secret in 2016.
The long-time face of underwear brand Intimissimi, she designs a handbag collaboration for The Kooples and has also recently landed some of the biggest advertising contracts of her career – Burberry, Marc Jacobs Beauty, Tod’s, Versace and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Although she famously once joked ‘the only thing I collect is money’, Irina’s connection with the new Jean Paul Gaultier fragrance Scandal goes deeper than just a contract. The designer says his woman is ‘strong… not bothered by other people’s judgements of them.’ Is that something Irina can identify with? ‘Yes!’ she laughs. ‘That’s very me… My family and friends and people I love know who I am. You cannot care about people’s opinions, you just have to be you and live your life. It never affects me what people say, it never offends me. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I rise above it. I am who I am.’
Another thing Irina professes not to be bothered about is getting older. ‘I’ve just turned 33 and the last two years of my career have been the best,’ she explains in her soft Russian accent. ‘I never thought I would be the face of Jean Paul Gaultier or Burberry or Versace or be shot by Steven Meisel, because normally that happens at the start of your career. So ageing doesn’t bother me. The fashion industry has changed and now, older girls still work.’
Irina is still traffic-stoppingly beautiful: 5ft 10in, with flawless skin, green eyes, raven hair, and trademark (natural) pneumatic pout although, she explains, her looks were initially more of a hindrance than a help in the world of modelling.
Irina (then using her full surname Shaykhlislamova) was 20 when she was spotted on her way to college and asked to enter the Miss Chelyabinsk 2004 beauty competition in a nearby city. She won, and some months later, having been signed to a modelling agency, she was sent to work in Paris.
‘I was older than other girls – some started modelling aged 13. I wasn’t a size zero, I was bigger and I was sexy. Now, because of Instagram, it is not really about being a size zero, but back then, all the girls were skinny and I wasn’t. There are so many people who tell you to lose weight, to colour your hair or cut it or do this or that… You have to be strong and stubborn to be a model. It’s very important not to lose who you really are.’
But Irina struggled in Paris. ‘It was hard to make money there,’ she says. Living off €40 a week, she couldn’t speak French – or even particularly good English – and didn’t have many friends. After a couple of months, she asked her agency to move her to Barcelona, where there was more of a demand for curvaceous girls, and her career took off.
‘I remember the first time I got paid €1,000 for a job, I was so excited I rushed to call my mum,’ she says. But it was Intimissimi that Irina credits with propelling her into the mainstream – in 2007 scouts from the lingerie brand visited the set of a shoot she was doing for a department store and asked her to front its next campaign – a deal that’s now lasted 12 years. Later that year, Irina made her debut in Sports Illustrated – she’s gone on to appear 10 times and, in 2011, became the first Russian model to feature on its cover.
‘We lived in a super-small village, we never bought fashion magazines, I didn’t even know that world existed,’ she says. ‘When I was asked to be a model, at first I said no, I wanted to finish studying marketing at college. My mum had been saving up to pay for it. Then I realised modelling would be a good way to help my family. Money was my main driver.’
Early on, Irina faced prejudice in the industry, she explains. ‘When you start your career with commercial jobs like lingerie brands, people pigeonhole you and say, “Oh, she’s too sexy.” Most fashion people are just followers… no one wanted to take the chance first.’
In November 2013, Vogue Spain ‘took a risk’ and put her (then the girlfriend of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, a relationship that lasted five years after the pair met on an Armani shoot) on their cover.
The daughter of a coal miner, Valery, and Olga, a music teacher, Irina has an older sister, Tatiana. When Irina was 14, Valery died and Olga had to work three jobs to pay for her daughters’ educations. ‘I learnt about working hard from my parents,’ Irina says. ‘We had a garden and we had to work it every day. We didn’t have a cleaner, we didn’t have anyone. We didn’t even have a washer and dryer, we did everything by hand. There was no way I could just lay on the sofa and relax,’ she laughs.
While life may be a bit different for Irina now, when she’s not jetting around the world for work she insists she’s still the same homebody she has always been. Cooking is not her forte, but she says she loves to eat, in particular Russian food; ‘I love dumplings and borscht – and I have a girl from Ukraine who can cook amazingly so she makes it for me.’
Irina also admits to an unexpected hobby. ‘I really love doing the laundry,’ she says. ‘I could do it every hour; putting it in, getting it out. But when I’m not working I lay in bed, watch Russian TV, FaceTime with my sister, talk to my friends…’
Irina doesn’t believe in dieting but she does go to the gym, practises reformer Pilates and has been training in the martial art jiu jitsu for more than a year. Her lack of interest in the spotlight has extended to her life with Bradley.
Aside from the pair’s appearances on the red carpet, they kept things low-key – dinner dates at Italian restaurant Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica or taking their daughter Lea to the park together in New York – and she’s not a fan of wearing high fashion off-duty, either.
‘I just like to wear jogging bottoms,’ she says. ‘No make-up, hair in a bun, sneakers… something super-comfortable.’ Today, her off-duty style is a little more chic, in a striped shirt and trousers from Mango and a medallion necklace by Missoma, teamed with a favourite Burberry bag and shoes.
‘I bought them yesterday, aren’t they cute?’ she gushes. ‘I never wear heels as they’re not comfortable, but these are.’
Despite living far from her homeland, Irina’s roots are important to her, and her philanthropic work includes building a maternity hospital in her home town and raising money for a Russian charity that helps sick children. While her mother and sister still live there, Irina says they frequently visit her in the States.
‘My sister no longer works because she’s a mum of two kids so she comes and visits me with them often,’ she says. ‘My mum came to Los Angeles with them at Christmas and it was so much fun. I try to go home once a year. I sometimes don’t manage to – although I did earlier this year. It was snowing, we went to a big theatre and saw Carmen, we ate Russian food… I packed a lot in!’
So has parenthood changed her life?
‘Becoming a mother didn’t change anything,’ she says. ‘I am still me. I prioritise my time but I love my job and I love to be independent. I am not saving lives, I’m not a doctor, but I enjoy what I do and it gives me lots of opportunities. I don’t think I will ever just be sat at home, I need motivation, stimulation.’
Despite making her acting debut in 2014’s Hercules, it’s not something she sees herself doing in the future. ‘I did something super-small but it was more for the challenge,’ she says. ‘To be a good actor, you have to be a natural or study for years. And I’m not good at learning lines!’
‘I’ve never dreamed of being a model,’ she says with a huge smile. ‘I really never thought I could be or would be. For me, this life is just a dream.’
Scandal by Jean Paul Gaultier, from £47
Hair: Peter Lux at The Wall Group. Make-up: Tatyana Makarova at Lowe & Co. With thanks to Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square, London.
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