At 14, a girl who would go on to become one of the world’s most successful fashion models desperately wanted to own a pair of fashionable high heels. Since her family couldn’t afford them — her family was, in her words, “very poor” — the enterprising teenager painted walls at a local hospital for 20 days to earn enough for the shoes.
This is the rags-to-riches story of Irina Shayk, 29, who spent years living in a poverty-stricken Russian mining village until she got her big break at 14 to become a model, eventually becoming a bona fide lingerie and swimsuit model superstar.
Shayks’ Early Years
Life hasn’t always been easy for the brunette beauty, born to an ethnic Tatar father and a Russian mother in the mining town Yemanzhelinsk, according to Daily Mail profile of Shayk.
Growing up, Shayk, whose real last name is Shaykhislamova, lived a bleak existence in a grim mining town in the Urals region near Siberia. She was raised on the ground floor of a very small flat, and her family grew potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes to eat and survive.
She was very close to her father, a coal miner, and was left bereft when he died of lung cancer while only in his 40s. The family lived in extreme poverty after his passing, and her mother was forced to hold down two jobs just to make ends meet.
Shayk’s father didn’t exactly leave her penniless, however. Her father bestowed upon her something no one could take away from her. It was her natural beauty, her distinctive Tatar looks — dark skin, light eyes — that she inherited from him. As she told the Daily Mail:
“My father was dark skinned, because he was Tatar. Sometimes Tatars can look Brazilian. I get my light eyes from my mother.”
However, Shayk was teased by boys for her gawky figure and “stick legs.” Depending on whom you were talking to, she was either too skinny or too beautiful. Marina Malkova, a summer camp friend of Shayk’s, told the Daily Mail, “To me, she seemed too tall, her legs were too skinny and gangly, and her skin was dark.” Classmate Ekaterina Bereshenova begged to differ, saying, “Not only boys, but men as well, feasted their eyes on her slim legs.”
She adored her paternal grandmother, Galina, as much as her father. Her grandmother was a highly decorated member of the Red Army’s intelligence branch for her role as a WWII spy. Shayk confided in her grandmother, who listened to her dreams and believed in her plans. Shayk said:
“Actually I wanted to become a journalist, but no matter who I imagined myself to be in the future, somehow I was sure: I would leave my hometown. I felt it was my destiny.”
Many of Shayk’s classmates considered her friendly and charming. She was neither vain nor arrogant. A friend said of her, “She carried herself with dignity. I can’t say one bad thing about her.” She was also modest. Only once, after being teased and called a “stick,” did she say:
“You’ll see how this slim body will feed me in the future – and make me famous.”
It was like a chronicle of the future foretold.
Early Modeling Career
Shayk ended up becoming a model by chance. Her mother had taken her sister Tatyana to a beauty school when reps at a modeling agency next door spotted Shayk. Svetlana Klimenko, the founder and owner of the Exclusive agency, took her on.
Shayk, then 18, ended up disappointing Klimenko when, on a planned trip to Moscow to take photos of herself for her portfolio with a renowned photographer, she instead disappeared.
This left Klimenko to wonder whether Shayk was still even alive when she couldn’t be found. Shayk told no one that she had actually run off with the man with whom she was having an affair, a Moscow entrepreneur almost twice her age whose name has not been released.
Klimenko was fuming upon the realization. She told the Daily Mail, “We found her, got her noticed, washed her, tidied her up, and taught her to do things, but she let us down badly.”
An angry Klimenko claimed that Shayk was the only model she had worked with who “shamed” the modeling company. She said:
“We told her: you have a choice now. You can now get married successfully, stick to a ‘sugar daddy’ and don’t make career. But you have every chance to become a successful model and earn an excellent living yourself.”
In the end, Shayk did exactly that, becoming famous for her beauty seemingly overnight.
In 2007, Shayk was chosen to appear in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and since then was seen in every annual edition until 2013, even gracing the cover for the 2011 issue. Also in 2007, Shayk was chosen as the face of Intimissimi, the Italian lingerie brand sold in Victoria’s Secret, and in 2010 she was made the official ambassador of the brand.
In addition, Complex magazine ranked her No. 1 on their “50 Hottest Russian Women” list, and Glamour Magazine Spain named her “Best International Model of 2010.” She has modeled for several fashion companies, including Guess and Armani Exchange.
Shayk is also famous for her personal life. She had a high-profile five-year affair with star footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. After they broke up in January of this year, Shayk was then romantically linked to “American Sniper” actor Bradley Cooper, and the paparazzi are now watching their every move.
Through it all, Shayk remained close to her grandmother, who helped raise her and who died at the age of 89 in 2013. As her career took off, Shayk always made time to talk to her, who she once called a “superb role model.”
Shayk had to overcome many obstacles to get to where she is at today, including failed attempts to acquire a work visa to model in the U.S. While she’s made some mistakes along the way, no one can deny the overwhelming success she has achieved.