Becoming a model or actor is a story of chance. And these stories of people who find themselves in the limelight can seem Cinderella-esque, a complete 360, where they have been handed an opportunity to make an impact on the world. This is the story of Eugenia Kuzmina, a Russian-American born in the Post-Soviet era and all its hardships, who was discovered, and from that moment her life changed.
Kuzmina’s story is a fascinating one, that it would be impossible to capture it in one article. She has walked for luxury brands and worked with the most notable of fashion designers from Alexander McQueen, Mugler, Viktor&Rolf, Karl Lagerfeld, Alber Elbaz, and Vivienne Westwood to name a few. And from modeling she has transitioned into acting and being a comedian.
Growing Up in the Post-Soviet era
Models like Anok Yai, Adut Akech, and Naomi Campbell struggled growing up, either in poverty or being refugees. And other celebrities from Celine Dion, J.K. Rowling, and Leonardo DiCaprio grew up in homes where money shortages were an issue. Kuzmina’s story is similar, but due to the political and economic situation happening in the Post-Soviet world. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain they lived well. Her dad was a famous and respectable nuclear scientist, working under renowned chemist Valery Legasov, his right hand in fact. Her father would later be the first responder to the Chernobyl disaster 1986. And her mother quit her job to stay-at-home and raise her daughters.
But after the Iron Curtain fell, Kuzmina’s early years were ones of hardship. “We grew up with food lines as the political regime changed. At some point, all we had was a bag of oatmeal and a bag of sugar. I remember going to the fridge multiple times to find nothing. But as kids we got creative, we would fry the sugar and make it into lollipops or just dream about food. I remember seeing an American exchange student for the first time, chasing after him to get a piece of Wrigley’s gum. I would chew it for weeks and then save it and display it on my counter as a souvenir,” Kuzmina remembers of those years.
My dad was sometimes invited abroad for science conferences, but he was followed by KGB agents to ensure he wouldn’t give up any government information. Dad was allowed to bring souvenirs back home and one time he brought a few cans of what he said was a delicatessen. Only years later did we realize it was dog food,” she muses of the time.
And then came modeling, something that came to Kuzmina by what she calls: sheer accident. “I was approached by scouts on the street (It was a time when American companies started coming in and they needed local models to represent their brands), but my parents were afraid to follow through. Then I heard about an audition for the most famous Russian designer Slava Zaitsev, who was casting models for his new agency. With permission of my mom, I joined thousands of girls waiting outside his fashion House at an Open Call. I was not the tallest, and still not sure why Zaitsev took a chance on me.”
She was thirteen and modeling work was flowing as if a dam had broken. Loreal, M&Ms, and Max Mara, who did a presentation in Post-Soviet Russia all wanted Kuzmina, as well as top Russian magazines who wanted her on their covers. “I was so thrilled to be selected by foreign designers, I remember walking on the runway rehearsal and smiling so big, making sure to give eye contact with every viewer, only to be stopped by the designer and instructed to look above the viewer’s head and not smile, rather to look detached and more empowered, projecting the image not attainability. At 15 I was participating in Miss Russia but wasn’t allowed to go to the final round because of my age. That day I met a scout who convinced me to talk to my parents about a lucrative contract with a Paris agency Nathalie (Nathalie Cros-Coitton has sold it, and is now the head of Women Agency Paris).
A time when companies and brands wanted models from the 3rd world
The fashion market was booming at this time Kuzmina remembers and they wanted models from places like Russia and Brazil. “Usually, girls were scouted on the streets and modeling was their ticket out, to support them and their families. I remember seeing Gisele Bündchen (an established model already) at our Russian school doing a shoot for the first story for Russian Vogue. I was not an exception. Even though my dad was a famous scientist, the government paid pennies compared to my first payment from Loreal back home. Because I paid in advance, I had a place to live for my first summer in Paris. Nathalie is one of the most amazing agents in the world and she was so kind to allow me to come with my mother.”
Living in a bunk bed apartment for models with six other girls far from home was no small feat. Sharing a bathroom and kitchen isn’t the easiest thing, remembers Kuzmina, especially female teenagers with insecurities all going for one thing: to get booked for a job. “Some of the girls didn’t even speak English or French. In the beginning, all you do is do test shoots with several photographers to create your portfolio of work and go to maybe 10 meetings, to meet with editors and potential clients,” states Kuzmina.
Around this time her father passed and there was no steady income for her and her family to live on, so she took a leap and moved to Paris to work and try and do school there, with the intent to return to Russia to finish her exams there. “I had to figure everything out from how to take care of my laundry, to signing contracts, paying taxes, and speaking French. I was in a desperate state to make sure to get every job that I stopped eating and saving money, trying to fit into every designer dress, and as a result I got anorexia. My hair started falling out and of course, I was not hired. I spent around 6 months without booking a single job. As a result, my agency suggested dropping me altogether, saying maybe it was not a career for me. But I knew I didn’t have a plan B, and at that time the education system in Russia was changing, and I wouldn’t be able to pay for my education. I also needed my dad’s connections to get anywhere at all, and that was gone.”
The designer that gave an opportunity: Mr. Yves Saint Laurent
“If not for one designer who really changed the trajectory of my life at that point, I would have gone to Russia and gotten a job at a local market. The designer was Yves Saint Laurent himself. I remember showing up at his office for casting and walking into this dimly lit full-of-smoke mystery room. I think he identified with my shyness, awkwardness, and also curiosity. It was one of his last retrospective shows before he resigned. I couldn’t believe I was on the same runway with Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni, and Claudia Schiffer. It was an absolute dream coming true.
And it was walking for Saint Laurent that completely changed everything for Kuzmina. Doors were swinging open. “Even though I was not as tall as the standard runway model, I was so lucky to walk for legendary designers like Alexander McQueen. He was really the nicest. A lot of times during fashion week, fittings can last till 3 am, in preparation for the show the next morning. He would always come in so relaxed with a burger in his hand (not something you’d see unless it’s for an Instagram post in the fashion industry). McQueen looked at models like they were real people, not just objects to wear clothes. He’d say hi and ask questions about how your parents were. I remember after his passing (which deeply affected me), we were doing a retrospective show of his work and the clothes were flown from Europe.”
“I loved walking for Thierry Mugler. His shows are the next level of skill for a model. Not only must you have charisma and presence, but you have to almost be a professional dancer to be able to carry and represent his clothes. I really love the creative aspect of the process. I remember the first show that Viktor&Rolf put together. Their good friend and super talented photographer Inez van Lamsweerde (currently working with her husband Vinoodh) was helping to cast it. We just shot with Inez for i-D Magazine and she hired me to walk the show. It was so avant-garde and so creative. I remember being hired by Junya Watanabe, a protégé of Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo. By accident I showed up at her office at 4 am instead of at the show location, which was an hour away. Thank God she was coming out, so we shared an hour-long car ride. I have never met anyone so intelligent and different in their thinking, and talk about ideas, the world, and design.”
“I worked quite a few times with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and did their beauty cream campaign. He was a great character! I also loved working with Alber Elbaz. He was extremely funny and self-deprecating. Working with Isabel Marant was always a rock n’ roll trip. We did one show at Moulin Rouge among the exotic dancers.”
“Milan was a bit stricter with height but I still managed to work with a few designers like Jill Sander, Miu Miu, and Giorgio Armani. I’ll never forget being a bride at a Vivienne Westwood show. She is such a rebel and even invited me to go to London and be the brand’s permanent model. For a time, I was absolutely in love with Giambattista Valli’s passion for his designs and one of the big breaks for me was to model for Nicholas Ghesquière. Veronique Leroy was like my best friend, hiring me every season without casting. I think I’d have to write a whole book if I mention all designers that I walked for,” muses Kuzmina.
Ever evolving fashion
“The problem with fashion is copyright,” says states. “I honestly think it is unhealthy for the planet and the environment to not recycle clothes. Companies like Zara and H&M, and Forever21 have benefited so much from selling high-end designs for less. I think it creates an unhealthy cycle of keeping the consumer in the bin, buying clothes that were produced in unhealthy environments for a cheaper cost, which inevitably leads to buying more at a faster rate.”
Continuing she notes, “I’m glad H&M stood up and created an eco-line at the very least. I honestly prefer Haute Couture. The effort that goes into putting a one-of-a-kind dress that would last for 20 years is a better investment. I also learned which brands are resealable: Channel, Hermes, Louis Vuitton. Other than that, it’s hard to recycle clothes.” If she’s not buying couture, Kuzmina is buying second-hand as another way to be eco conscious.
One way she sees some good change in the industry are models being expected to be healthy. When she started as a model, girls had to be a size 0, resulting in anorexia. “There was one case when models actually died from starvation in Brazil (the toughest market for runway models from my experience) and that’s when the laws were established to have models of a certain age and health. Nowadays, models are celebrated in such a more diverse way. I remember Ashley Graham at Ford (a modeling agency) only getting catalog bookings and not being recognized before becoming a star and a Vogue cover model. Now there are so many more opportunities for different ethnicities, races, and gender.”
Noting how ageism plagues the industry, Kuzmina points out how fashion shouldn’t be fearful of older ages. “I think French culture has more advances in this sense with women doing fewer cosmetic procedures and having elegance and charm, it’s not the case yet everywhere.”
Turning to this trend we’ve seen the past several years of having celebrities walk the runway has left Kuzmina conflicted. “The recent Balenciaga show is an example: even though I love Nicole Kidman as an actor, Dua Lipa as a singer, and Kim Kardashian hands down for marketing, their catwalk was more than awkward and I think it would have been better to see them walking as who they authentically are rather than trying to pretend to be catwalk models (it’s a skill). I think what Instagram has done for modeling, Forever21 has done for fashion. With all the filters and photoshop, anyone can look like someone else. It is sad for me to see people trying certain trends rather than celebrating natural diverse beauty. Also, this trend has demonetized fashion and made the market crash, as nothing is exclusive anymore. I hope it is a cycle and we will come back to one kind of unique, natural, and diverse style and beauty.”
The pandemic also changed the industry too. Kuzmina points out the environment was touched with less shopping and less driving during the pandemic. Pointing out the surge of creativity that was born, “I personally, for the first time was not wearing 10-inch heels, which allowed me to address a much deeper meaning of being grounded and how I always escaped that with heels.
As she cleverly states, “we had to face ourselves and our closets. I spent 2 years in my closet and office doing virtual shoots and comedy shows. I knew that AI models were already in use prior to a pandemic, I even made a whole comedy set about how AI models replaced models, because they don’t need to have human rights and don’t sleep or eat. But, the pandemic took it to a whole new level with virtual shows in augmented reality with 3D printed clothes. Before the pandemic, every agency also made us into holograms, which I think you will see in the near future. I always look at the intention of the company behind the marketing- is it innovative or does it exploit, and choose my jobs according to that.”
Pointing out how magazines, the nucleus of fashion, changed by downgrading or shifting to digital subscriptions, Kuzmina notes how it’s win-lose for her. “Once a week I go out and buy print magazines just because I love to read them that way and be away from screen energy to destress. But on the other hand, no paper helps the environment, so it’s a choice. Also, influencers changed the whole game with TikTok and Instagram. I think at the end of the day it’s important to ask what you stand for as a model and why you are doing what you do.”
So why comedy, I ask.
“Not having a voice as a child in Post-Soviet Russia, seeing my dad not being able to release the scale of the Chernobyl disaster to the public due to politics at the time, being sold on the idea that I’m an object of desire as a model rather than having my vision (I was fired once for speaking too much), to being lucky enough to audition and be cast in a Rodrigo Prieto film with Elle Fanning when I moved to LA after my first child, being lucky to be married to a producer (Bill Block); and being surrounded by amazingly talented artists, only to be typecast in huge productions, only to be given the role of a Russian villain or spy due to politics, and never getting a romantic lead made me do stand-up comedy.”
For Kuzmina it’s about using her voice to open doors for others, and to give them a voice. “This year we created a “Supermodels of Comedy” stand-up show with super manager Barry Katz, and we are planning to turn it into a special and do a live traveling show. I also created my producing company this year to be able to act and give back to voices that are not a typical cliché in Hollywood. I believe in integrity, and art as a powerful tool to reflect on society and grow in a more compassionate and inclusive way as a whole.”
Kuzmina embodies the words of the Apostle Paul who said, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”
“As much as I can I try to give back. Kindness is something I strive to do every day even though my therapist says to take the pink glasses off. I’m grateful to come from nothing and to appreciate the things I have, and also to not attach myself neither to material things or a career. I try to see the bigger picture and also envision a future for my kids.”
“I work with organizations like Freedom For All that fights human trafficking, Equal Means Equal that focuses on equal pay, and Women Forward International, who works with fashion and supports the work of the refugees (the refugee designers that were featured in Vogue and The Met Gala). I also work with From The Heart Tribe, we collect trash from local beaches and I do that with my kids, Farm Sanctuary where they rehabilitate abused farm animals and raise awareness about the greed in the farming industry, and Wolf Sanctuary as the wolf is my spirit animal.”
Calling herself a rebel, Kuzmina has it on her list to succeed at car racing. She’s also a golfer, something that occupies her Instagram. “Golf, the sport stands for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden, so far I already played in a George Lopez tournament this year,” she beams.
You quickly see that Eugenia Kuzmina is personable when you spend a few minutes with her. She’s had a lot of life experiences, and has gone through a lot as a child, but these experiences have only seemed to make her stronger and determined to succeed in modeling, acting, comedy, charity, and in sports. With all she has been involved with and continues to do, she leaves you wondering what she will not do next.