Valentina Zelyaeva Talks Travel Blogging and Runway Walking
text by Jessica DeFino
When the time came to choose a cover girl for our annual Travel Issue, international model Valentina Zelyaeva was an obvious choice. Instantly recognizable as Ralph Lauren’s go-to girl, the Russian beauty with All-American appeal has been globe-trotting for the better part of 15 years, cultivating her eclectic style and ruling the world’s runways.
Though Valentina has planted her roots in New York City for now, she’s hardly the urban fashionista that you might expect her to be. A tree-hugger by day and a catwalk-stalker by night, she shares stories about Ralph Lauren and Bruce Weber as easily as she discusses the rich soil of Brazil. Her soft, rolling Russian accent is at times taken sprinkled with hints of the other places she calls home: Manhattan, Miami, and Brazil, just to name a few.
As she arrives on set for our cover shoot in Hoboken, just across the river from New York City, Valentina looks every inch the supermodel that she is. But don’t let her flawless, makeup-free skin and flowing blond locks fool you; that’s not all she is. Valentina recently added a new title to her resume: blogger.
Since she started documenting her adventures, favorite recipes and, of course, snapshots of her life as a model, on valentinazelyaeva.com, Valentina has gone from model of the moment to full-blown lifestyle guru. The homepage alone documents recent moments in the South of France, Portugal, Barcelona, and Moscow alongside a recipe for an Acai smoothie and a breakdown of her favorite skincare products. If she hasn’t taken over the world yet, she’s about to.
L’OFFICIEL Singapore: Where are you originally from, and how did you start your career as an international model?
Valentina Zelyaeva: I was born in Siberia on a military base, and my father was in the Russian army. So we moved a lot in Russia. I ended up in Moscow when I was 7 years old, and basically grew up in Moscow. I started modeling when I was 17, and started getting jobs here and there. When I was 18 I took part in a modeling contest. I didn’t win anything, but one of the judges was from Japan and he invited me to go to Tokyo for 3 months! So Japan was my first country, when I was 18.
LS: Do you get to go back to Russia very much?
VZ: I don’t go often... I wish I went more often. But they [my family] come here, they visit me in New York.
LS: You started modeling at 17...so how many years have you been a working model?
VZ: I’m 31 now, so I’ve been modeling for 12, 13 years now.
LS: I’d imagine that traveling the world is one of the biggest perks of your job. What kind of places have you been?
VZ: Well you know, Paris, Milan, Brazil...many places in Brazil. I was in Thailand, I recently want to Armenia, and it was incredible. I’ve been in Anguilla, all over the United States, LA...I just went to Maine, it was beautiful. I can’t wait to go back, maybe in September.
LS: What’s your favorite place that you’ve traveled?
VZ: I love Brazil. My fiance is from Brazil, and I speak Portuguese. Brazil, as a country, is very close to my heart. I’ve been all over...South, North, I went to Santa Catalina, it’s a little island in Brazil.
LS: What makes Brazil your favorite travel destination?
VZ: I love people! They’re so happy, always smiling, very inviting. The food is amazing, and the climate...I just love all that.
LS: Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, that you’re dying to visit?
VZ: I don’t know, it’s hard to think...well, Portugal. I haven’t been there and I’ve heard a lot of good things. I’d love to go there.
LS: And what’s the most inspiring place you’ve been?
VZ: I went to Jamaica, and that was amazing. The culture was so beautiful, and the people were very cool . The soil is rich, and the vegetables...mmm. To me, I love it. I was so inspiring that I want to buy a house there eventually! I’ve been a long time ago for work, but I didn’t see anything. This [last] time I went with my fiance, we had the best time. We went for a really cool hike, and a local guy took us to the waterfalls and we actually climbed on top of the waterfalls. We went down into the cave with flashlights, and there were hundreds of bats...it was amazing.
LS: You’ve been a part of so many iconic fashion moments in all different countries. How has travel affected your style, and where do you love to shop the most?
VZ: To be honest, I learned a lot from Ralph Lauren because I’ve worked so many years with the brand already. It’s been over 10 years, it’s incredible. I’m really lucky. But yeah, I like to mix different styles and accessories. I put simple jeans and a v neck t shirt with a bunch of accessories. It makes the whole outfit! When I go to Brazil I like to shop there a lot because they use natural stones in their jewelry. Actually Tokyo, in my opinion, is the best city to shop. Japanese people are so into fashion, and you never see just simple jeans and tee shirt. They always have that something.
LS: You’ve been a Ralph Lauren model for over 10 years now. What was that process like, and what are the perks of being an RL girl?
VZ: It’s an honor to me. It’s the biggest brand in the world, and Ralph is an icon. He’s a real presence in fashion. Just how he built it- it started with the tie, and he had this dream and now it’s a lifestyle. It’s not just the clothes- they have home, they have kids, they have different lines and collections and I just love working with the people there. Everyone works for Ralph 20, 30 years. And I’m 10 years now!
LS: You walk exclusively in Ralph Lauren shows for Fashion Week. What’s your moment memorable Ralph Lauren runway look?
VZ: I think the first one , definitely. The first time I went to see Ralph Lauren I did the casting for him. There were so many girls there, 200-300 girls. And he chose me to open his show, and me as a new face coming to New York for the first time... it was a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it. It was incredible. The first campaign was one of my favorites, and then the second was Spring 2005. All white, Bruce Weber shot it. To me, it’s iconic.
LS: You’re a blogger now. What inspired you to start your blog?
VZ: Well about 4 or 6 years ago I was working with a model and she was having almond milk on set that she brought from home. She was like, “It’s almond milk that I made myself!” and was like, “What?!” So she recommended me a book and I started reading everything about raw food, and that’s what got me into healthy lifestyle, wellness.
I started to be aware what I put in my body and learning about proteins, carbs, good fats, because I had no idea. I thought salad was more than enough to stay healthy, but it’s much more than that. And then when I discovered all these healthy benefits to juices, smoothies, salads- I wanted to share it with the world. It was so incredible to me, so I opened my blog and started sharing recipes.
Then I got into photography. I got my Leica camera. When you hold this camera, it’s another level. I started taking photos when I would travel.
LS: Do you share everything with your readers on the blog, or do you keep more special moments and photographs for your personal collection?
VZ: I share pretty much everything. I’m into landscape, nature, trees. I love trees! It’s kind of like a diary so I can look back, and people can get inspired, go out in nature, hang out with the trees.
LS: You blog focuses on a lot on food. What’s the best meal you’ve had while traveling?
VZ: Again, I have to go back to Brazil! They have this acai bowl. It just came to US about a year ago and everyone was crazy about Acai, but in Brazil they’ve had this for breakfast for all these years. It’s one of my favorites, just the way they make it: bananas, a little bit of granola, honey.
LS: Have you been to Singapore?
VZ: No, never. Hopefully one day!
LS: Do you think that you’re settled in New York, or do you see yourself moving and building a career somewhere else?
VZ: I love Brazil, and I also like Miami. I go there just to relax. But I think I like New York, because New York sets the trends for the world. New York is the place.