“I remember having no food at home,” Irina Shayk says quietly. It was the early ’90s, and she was growing up in the obscure Russian town of Yemanzhelinsk, where her dad was a coal miner and her mother taught kindergarten music. “Sometimes there was no salary, or my mom and dad’s salary was delayed.” Shayk hasn’t forgotten that feeling, and early in the pandemic, as food insecurity mounted in this country, she began working regular shifts at a Manhattan food bank. When she first saw the line wrapping around the block, she was shocked, she says, estimating that it was 1,000 people strong. She’s since brought fellow model Joan Smalls along. Appropriately enough, “they put us in the fashion section to give clothing away,” she says. “We made a great day out of it.”
When Shayk was 14, her father passed away, and her mother and grandmother raised her. She “learned how to survive, without a man,” she says. Her tough upbringing also prepared her for the rejection buffet that is modeling, complete with agents who told her, “‘You have to lose weight.’ I always said no, because I know who I am.”
She found success, but struggled to transition between “sexy” and high fashion, back when more of a gulf existed between the two. “They put a label on you: ‘She’s Sports Illustrated, she’s too sexy.’ I heard so many times in my life, ‘She’s never going to work with Steven Meisel. She’s not a Burberry girl,’” recalls Shayk, who went on to shoot with Meisel and appear in campaigns for Burberry.
“I won’t lie—it was hard to climb the hill and show people that you can be both.” Eventually, she found champions, like Burberry’s chief creative officer, Riccardo Tisci—a fellow small-town kid who’s close with his eight sisters and 91-year-old mother. “We both come from similar backgrounds and are very family-focused,” says Tisci of their bond, adding that he now considers Shayk to be a member of his own family.
Now, at 35, she is “doing some jobs that I never did when I was 20. Maybe it’s because of who I’ve become,” she says. “I feel more comfortable in my own skin: I love my body. I love to eat. I appreciate food; I appreciate life. I really think that’s what fashion is looking for now.”
Off set, she maintains, “I’m not a fashion person. I’m a regular girl who is home watching Netflix.” She has spent her quarantine obsessively organizing (“I think because we cannot control things that are going on in the world, I’m trying to control what’s going on in my house!”), and she installed an infrared sauna in her apartment. (She raves about its benefits, but is also a proponent of a more down-to-earth beauty tip: applying ice cubes to your skin. “Russian girls love cold,” she says.)
Mostly, Shayk is focused on Lea, the daughter she shares with her ex, Bradley Cooper, whom she calls “the most amazing dad.” The two are often photographed together with their daughter in friendly-ex fashion. Lea doesn’t see Shayk as a supermodel, just as Mom, Shayk insists.
“I have this huge picture that Peter Lindbergh gave me on my wall. She’ll always joke, ‘I want this mama, I don’t want this mama,’ pointing at the picture, and we laugh about it.” What is it like co-parenting with Bradley Cooper? “I never understood the term co-parenting,”she says. “When I’m with my daughter, I’m 100 percent a mother, and when she’s with her dad, he’s 100 percent her dad. Co-parenting is parenting.”
While the tabloids often write about her in terms of her ex, Shayk is reluctant to talk about him much. “My past relationship, it’s something that belongs to me, and it’s private,” she says.
“It’s just a piece of my inner self that I don’t want to give away.” In the meantime, she’s tuning out of her own news cycle. “I don’t read what is out there. Honestly, I’m too busy raising a child. If they want to write articles [about me], they’re doing their job. I’m concentrating on my life and my friends. The rest is just noise.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue.