A Reunion Story: How Natalia Vodianova Found Her Long-Lost Sister Jenna

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One evening in July 2021, 22-year-old Jennifer Burns—“Jenna” to her friends and family—was sitting in a Walmart parking lot in Clemson, South Carolina, when a flurry of email notifications appeared on her phone. Jenna, a mechanical engineering undergraduate at the city’s university who’d been shopping for a simple dinner with her roommate, remembers thinking the timing was “weird”—it was after work hours after all. Then she noticed the source: a DNA site she’d subscribed to several years earlier. “A new DNA relative has sent you a message,” one notification read. “At that point I’m kind of freaking out,” she remembers. It could only mean one thing.

Jenna was born Maria Mashinka in the grim Russian industrial city of Nizhniy Novgorod and given up for adoption as an infant. When Jenna’s American adoptive mother Marybeth was young, she had always prayed for the children behind the Iron Curtain, and the impact of those prayers resonated. In 2000, she and her husband, Chris, were approved to adopt two Russian babies, and though they planned on bringing only one home, a boy they called Ethan, at the last moment they added Jenna. Jenna and Ethan were raised practically as twins in rural North Carolina, a childhood that, by Jenna’s account, was a typical all-American small-town idyll.

“I was the only girl in my neighborhood,” Jenna remembers, “so I grew up playing a lot of sports with boys, because that’s what I had to do if I wanted any friends at all. And we were a very outdoorsy family—a lot of camping and hiking and fishing and canoeing and kayaking. We were outside every weekend. It was very happy.”

All the while Jenna was idly curious about her Russian birth parents—enough so that as a teenager she registered with an online DNA service—but she was never especially interested in Russian culture and history. “I never thought it would be a possibility to meet my biological family, so I kind of thought, Why bother? In a way that was me protecting myself. There were some insecurities, which is quite common with adopted kids.”

Russian adoption law, meanwhile, made it more or less impossible for any Russian relatives to track Jenna down. And yet, in 2019, Jenna was notified of a match via the DNA service she’d subscribed to, and after some internet sleuthing she discovered that she had a half sister with a very public profile. She sent a message through the site, mentioning her birthplace and name. “Basically I just said, ‘I’m doing well. I hope you’re doing well too.’ ” Jenna recalls. “You don’t even have to reply to this message. I just wanted to let you know that I’m fine, if you’ve been wondering, and I hope you are too.”

When there was no reply, Jenna assumed that that was the end of it.

Natalia Vodianova—“Supernova” as she was dubbed at the height of her runway and print celebrity—began her modeling career in Nizhniy at 16, soon after a boyfriend introduced her to a local modeling academy. Scouts told her she could go to Paris but would need to learn English in three months. Revealing the steely drive that would steer her through life, Natalia did exactly that. Anything would be better than toiling away at her mother’s fruit and vegetable stand. “I had nothing to lose,” she told Vogue’s Sarah Mower in 2003. “Only something better could happen to me.”

In Paris, she was borne by her Cinderella story and the celestial beauty that would see her cast as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Annie Leibovitz’s legendary December 2003 Vogue portfolio. Her preternatural elegance and composure veiled any thought of a complicated history.

Motherhood and a first marriage to the artist Justin Portman, scion of the aristocratic British dynasty, which owns swaths of prime central London real estate, was to follow. At 19, Natalia was pregnant with Lucas (now 20 and studying modern culture and media at Brown), and the following year, 2002, Portman and Vodia­nova wed “in a three-day extravaganza,” wrote Vogue, in St. Petersburg. Natalia was dressed by Tom Ford, whose stellar Yves Saint Laurent fall 2002 show she had opened and closed. Soon after—her modeling star in ascendancy—Natalia (whose family with Portman would come to include daughter Neva, now 16, and second son Viktor, 15) signed a contract with Calvin Klein, providing a new level of financial security that allowed her to arrange nursing care and housing for her severely autistic younger sister Oksana and her mother, Larisa. “She’s my baby,” said Natalia of her mother, then only 39. “I want to spoil her now, make sure she’s happy. She’s had such a hard-core life.”

TWO OF HEARTS
“I felt Jenna has always been part of my life,” says Vodianova, “even if I didn’t know her.”

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, December 2022.

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