An engineer and a supermodel each receive an unexpected gift
Although it’s tempting to liken the story of Jenna and Natalia to a sugary Hallmark movie, the concept doesn’t quite hold up. The story’s too far-fetched. The twists and turns strain credulity. The ending may be too happy, too redemptive, even for Hallmark.
Marybeth and Chris Burns still marvel at the fairytale nature of the story, even after they’ve had 15 months to process it. They adopted Jenna and Ethan, babies from different families close to turning a year old in January of 2000 from the Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod. And although Jenna costars in the drama, she looks back at it even now and sometimes feels as if it happened to someone else.
The story of the reunion started in 2019 when Jenna launched a longshot search for birth-family relatives.
“Jenna came home one day, in June three years ago, and she said, ‘Dad, I want to do a DNA test. How would you feel?’ And I said ‘I’m fine with doing it but let’s talk about expectations,’” Chris said.
The protective dad wanted to warn his daughter against undue optimism, figuring that the family that had given Jenna up for adoption may not have the desire, means or opportunity to sign up for a genetic search service.
“And she said, ‘It’d be great if I get a hit. I just want to find out if there’s any genetic things I should be on the lookout for, anything along those lines.’ True to Jenna being Jenna, she waited until Amazon Prime had a Prime Day so she could get her DNA test at a reduced amount and she got her DNA test,” Chris recalled with a chuckle. “And then it came back as a hit.”
The first message from the DNA service reported that Jenna may have an aunt or great aunt in Paris. “And we’re both scratching our heads — an aunt that lives in Paris, what is that?” Chris said.
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Jenna had something that the DNA app did not. She was a dogged researcher and problem solver, traits she had shown since she was a toddler.
“Jenna has wanted to be an engineer since she was two years old,” Chris said. “We would buy her a LEGO set for Christmas and she would go upstairs and she would have them all put together, and then she’d take them apart and she’d build something else with them.”
Sitting on her bed one summer night in 2019, Jenna typed in her birth name and other facts she collected and mined the results from the worldwide web. “And I was frantically translating,” she said, “trying to figure out if this person who had popped up was who I thought she was.”
After finishing near the top of her class at Hendersonville High School in 2017, Jenna enrolled in engineering school at Clemson University, graduating this past May with a degree in mechanical engineering. Her point-A-to-point-B mind enabled Jenna to crack the mystery.
“Jenna, being an engineer, figured out that the same amount of chromosomes that would show for that level of a relative (as an aunt) would be the same number as a (half) sister,” Chris said.
Marybeth recalled: “The next morning, she told us both, ‘I was up all night and I figured out this is not my aunt, this is my half-sister, and I think she’s a supermodel.’ Yeah, we were blown away.”
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Natalia Vodianova, stunning and mature beyond her years, had been discovered in her hometown at age 16. She had achieved quick stardom on the fashion runway, landing dozens of high-profile magazine covers and elite modeling jobs. Her meteoric trajectory led the fashion press to dub her Supernova. She’s had major modeling contracts with Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and many other fashion houses. She has graced the covers of Vogue, Glamour, Bazaar, Vanity Fair and other slick magazines that cover fashion, culture and celebrity.
Sixteen years older than Jenna, Natalia had endured a difficult upbringing. Her mother, Larisa, had become pregnant with her fourth child at a time when the family was living “in a little 20-meter room with nothing,” as Natalia told Vogue, which broke the story of Natalia and Jenna’s reunion in its current issue. “By the time she’s eight months pregnant, we have to have this tough conversation,” Natalia told the magazine. “I told her, ‘You absolutely cannot bring another child into this situation.’ ” Larisa agreed, making the tough decision to put her youngest child up for adoption through the Russian Ministry of Education, which managed adoptions in the country.
The adoption process that Marybeth and Chris endured is a drama within a drama. It involved the shuttering of the American Embassy in Russia amid fears of a Y2K meltdown, a snowstorm that nearly caused them to miss their flight abroad, an obstreperous Russian judge and the circumstances that led them to bring home two babies instead of one, with Jenna as the unexpected bonus.
“To think back about all the circumstances of the adoption, and to hear Natalia’s stories about what was happening with them at the same time that Chris and I were going over to adopt Jenna and Ethan — I don’t know how you can hear all that and not believe there’s a God,” Marybeth said.
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Jenna sat on the revelation of a new-found sister for a couple weeks. Then one night, unable to sleep, she picked up her laptop and tapped out an email. Jenna read the message on the podcast “The Run-Through with Vogue,” a highlights show released Nov. 17, the same day the December Vogue hit newsstands.
“Hi. My name is Jennifer Burns, and I was born in Nizhny, Novgorod in 1999,” she wrote. “ … I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to disrupt your personal life by contacting you. …
“Assuming you knew of my existence and have possibly wondered about me, as I have with my biological family, I’ll just leave you with the knowledge that I’m happy and doing well. And I hope the same for you.”
Hours passed, then days, weeks and months. Jenna heard nothing.
“Everything’s going along just fine” in what would ultimately be the happy-ending saga, Chris said. “You’ve got the high of Jenna finds her sister. Then you’ve got the crash where the sister never responds for two years because she didn’t check her mail.”
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If she assumed Natalia didn’t want to reunite with the baby she bid farewell to as a 16-year-old, Jenna could not have been more wrong.
“Natalia was so wanting to find Jenna, she was doing everything that she could, including hiring a private investigator,” Chris said. Natalia “had done the DNA test and nothing came back.”
A break-through came two years later, in July 2021, when Kristina Kusakina, Natalia and Jenna’s half-sister, did a DNA test of her own. This time, the service notified Kristina of a hit in the U.S. An avalanche of messages poured in. In a Walmart parking lot in Clemson, Jenna “freaked out” as she peered at her smart-phone screen.
“You can’t imagine what this means to me,” Natalia told her. “I’ve been looking for you for so long. You know I’m very overwhelmed and crying rivers. I have so much to tell you, so many hugs to give you, I’m so happy …”
What followed in the next months were more texts and emails, then phone calls — tentative at first, later long, emotional and honest — then FaceTime conversations and finally plans to meet in person. That happened last June, a few weeks after Jenna graduated from Clemson. She and Ethan, whom the family had agreed would be closely involved in meeting Jenna’s new-found family, flew to Paris, where Natalia lives with her husband, Antoine Arnault, the CEO of the men’s fashion company Berluti and director of communications at parent company Louis Vuitton, and her five children.
From the baggage claim at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Ethan and Jenna could see Natalia through a plexiglass barrier but could not reach her.
“She was smiling and waving and I just looked like I had seen a ghost,” Jenna recalled in the Vogue podcast. “I was pale. I was sweating. I was doing so unwell. But I walked around the corner and she was there and she just held her arms open and I just walked into them and then we hugged and cried on each other’s shoulders.”
Life has been moving fast for Jenna ever since. Natalia and the Burns siblings flew to the South of France. Back in Paris, Natalia led them on tours of the city and took them to museums. “We went to a lot of really great restaurants,” Jenna said. “We climbed all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which was a lot of stairs.”
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Nothing if not press savvy as a public figure for decades, Natalia knew that if Jenna was going to be a part of her life, she’d be wise to manage the story herself.
“Jenna and Natalia were talking about how they were going to come out and make this announcement because they wanted to do it on their terms,” Chris said. “They didn’t want it to be found out” and reported inaccurately.
When Vogue entered the picture, Jenna got her first taste of the celebrity cover-girl world that Natalia had known for two decades. In August, Jenna joined her half-sister at Natalia’s oceanfront home in Connecticut for the magazine shoot. The renowned celebrity photographer Annie Liebowitz made the pictures, posing the pair on a seawall overlooking Long Island Sound among other settings.
“It was very cool to kind of see my sister in her element — something that she does so often and obviously has made a living doing,” Jenna said. “I posed. I was told exactly what to do. I had a leaf blower in my face for about three hours to get that whole swept-hair look. I definitely enjoyed it more than I thought I would.”
With the interview and photo shoot behind them, Jenna and Natalia arranged for a weekend visit to Hendersonville before Natalia would return to Paris.
Although Marybeth and Chris, who had divorced in 2020, had separate meetings with their newest family member, they came away with the same impression. Natalia was not what they expected a celebrity supermodel to be.
“When she came, I was so nervous,” said Marybeth, recalling the first meeting on Aug 5, a Friday night. “They met me at Shine. I’m sitting there by myself like a nervous wreck, and they come in and she’s got on no makeup, she’s as low key as she can be, as sweet as she can be and she gave me a big hug, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘I’m so nervous.’ I’m like, ‘You think you’re nervous? I’m nervous!’”
The next night, Chris invited his parents and Jenna invited two Clemson friends to meet Natalia at a backyard cookout.
“Jenna and Natalia and my mom literally spent six hours — my mom brought a box of photo albums and we’ve got all kinds of videos from when the kids were little. They had videos running the whole time and they’re going through photo albums,” he said.
The Burns family had always spent weekends outdoors, hiking, kayaking, swimming, camping.
“Jenna wanted to show her what she grew up doing,” Chris said. “She took her to DuPont. She wanted her to swim at Hooker Falls, and then a big thunderstorm came and they came back home about two hours early and they were both just drenched and starving. I got out a cheese tray and we sat around the counter with our cheese tray talking about all kinds of stuff. She just sat around the fire pit that night and chatted, as down to earth and as sweet as she can possibly be.”
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Jenna grew up adventurous and athletic. She played four years of basketball at Hendersonville High School — three on the varsity squad — and is an avid whitewater kayaker who paddles the harrowing Green River Narrows and other ferocious rapids. Although she abhors the limelight, she is now forever connected to a celebrity.
“We’ve always talked about how Jenna has this absolutely natural beauty about her,” Marybeth says. “She’s got these amazing eyes. Jenna’s always going to be Jenna. She’s just very down to earth. We thought it was hilarious that she had a supermodel sister because Jenna never wears makeup. Jenna never, unless she absolutely has to, dresses up.”
Natalia is impressed with Jenna’s education and professional career; her new youngest sister is currently a project manager for a large engineering-construction company in Charlotte. Natalia is impressed, too — and a bit alarmed — by Jenna’s whitewater kayaking prowess.
“It makes her nervous,” Jenna said. “I show her pictures and videos and she’s like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool but also terrifying. Please don’t die.’”
Jenna calls Natalia “just a normal person” who is grounded and poised. “She’s very smart. She’s very socially intelligent. She’s incredibly well rounded,” she said. “She’s got her modeling, her family, her philanthropy and her charity. … I definitely think there’s a lot of trust in our relationship. It feels so natural now it’s kind of hard to think that just a year ago I barely knew her.”
Natalia said in the Vogue podcast that meeting Jenna had made their mother the happiest she had been in a long time, since before adoption workers carried her baby out of her apartment.
“Finding her, knowing that she’s well and that everything has worked out the way we hoped and actually since we got the news and since this year, she’s just blossomed,” she said their mother. “She’s been walking on clouds lately. She just says ‘I’m so happy. I’m so grateful. Life is so good.’”
One other thing that becomes clear in this holiday season, as Natalia told the Vogue podcasters, is that the real-life happy ending is on extended play.
“We do have an issue of managing holidays,” Natalia said. “Jenna is going to be so in demand this Christmas.”
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The Lightning was unable to interview Natalia. Quotes from Natalia are from the December Vogue article, entitled “Lost and Found,” and the “Run-through with Vogue” podcast. Both are available online.