The Heart of Anastassija

Anastassija Makarenko is so much more than a tall, beautiful woman. From the first day we met, her giant heart proved to be her greatest asset. Her 90-year-old grandmother had been hospitalized in Germany, and Anastassija’s 100% focus was to travel to Frankfurt as soon as possible so that she could be at her grandmother’s bedside – to love, comfort and support her. During our interview, Anastassija’s emotions were heartfeltly raw as she described the significant bond that she and her grandmother share.

“All my friends know,” she explains, “that at 8pm on any evening – whether I’m at dinner with them or not – I call my grandma – even if it is only to say, ‘hello, I love you.’ That relationship is very precious to me,” she says with visible emotion.

There are so many reasons I wanted to tell Anastassija’s story. She was born in Ukraine and is experiencing a range of emotions as she watches the war and the daily horrors unfolding. It goes more deeply than that and explains the extraordinarily close bond she has with her grandmother. Her early childhood years were spent in Ukraine sharing a room with her grandma. She describes the setting:

“I am an only child and those early years in Ukraine where grandma and I lived together in one room had a deep impact on my life. When I was 10 years old, I left Ukraine with my parents to move to Germany. Grandma followed us five years later. I am very fortunate to have a small, close family with parents who have always supported me and the choices that I have made. I consider my mom to be my best friend. As for grandma – well, she has a unique and special place in my heart.”

I ask Anastassija to articulate her feelings as she watches the current turmoil in Ukraine. What I discover is that she is a great uniter and a non-divisive person. She replies carefully and thoughtfully: “War is a nightmare and I still have relatives there who are living through the horror. My uncle was not allowed to leave because all men under the age of 60 were drafted to fight in the war so he and his family are living through the terrible conditions. We have sent them money to help them to survive.”

Anastassija’s summation of the war highlights her maturity and her humanity.

“When I was born, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. In 1991, it became an independent sovereign state, but in many ways, there was really no separation from Russia. Culturally we are all the same, and we continued to speak the same language. It shocks me so much now to see the hate and adversity between people who to me are like brothers and sisters. Everything about it breaks my heart.”

With the distress so vividly evident in Anastassija, I change the subject completely so that she can think back on happier times. I ask her how her hugely successful modeling career began, and she smiles with visible relief at the memories:

I usually never talk about Mickey (Rourke), so this is the first time. I can only convey to you my experience with him: he has the biggest heart and when I was going through a very hard time – and we had just met – he didn’t leave me. He was 100% there for me

“If you can believe it, mom sent my vacation pictures by snail mail to a modeling agency in Frankfurt. The agency immediately invited us to come in and they set up a shoot. My mom and dad accompanied me to the shoot – making quite sure that I was walking into the right situation. It was a go!”

Anastassija’s voice becomes particularly animated as she conveys the significance of the changes in her life:

“On my first modeling job, I was earning 700 German marcs in one day! That was a staggering amount of money to a girl who had been working after school at McDonald’s in Frankfurt (from age 14) making 200 marcs a month. My dad thought it had to be a scam. I couldn’t possibly be getting paid so much. Well, I was, and it certainly changed the direction of my life. Modeling was a relatively unknown occupation in Germany, so my grandmother struggled to understand why I was getting paid. She kept asking me, ‘So what are you getting money for?’”

On the topic of how rapidly the world has changed due to the speed of technological innovation, Anastassija describes how she’s had to tutor her grandma.

“My poor grandma has all these new gadgets that she doesn’t know how to use. I had to show her how to use an iphone!”

We discuss how to discipline ourselves in an age of high-tech gadget addiction and Anastassija offers this perspective:

“I have to consciously tell myself to take a break from technology and be fully present in activities that don’t involve their constant use.” We chat about the worst punishment that a parent can inflict on a 13-year-old, and it is to confiscate their cell phone for 24 hours. There is filmed evidence of teenagers screaming like they are about to be murdered because their parents have taken away their cell phone. That was not Anastassija’s experience as a teenager.

“What’s concerning to me,” she explains, “is that teenagers are fixated on the fake lives that are projected on social media. It makes young people think that their lives are nowhere near as perfect and glamorous as the lives they’re seeing on Instagram – instead of realizing that most of the pictures don’t represent the person who is doing the posting. It’s an illusion they want to put out there for the world to see.”

Social media is powerful, and we switch gears to the positive attributes. Anastassija is constantly reading and learning from people who are great teachers in life. Whenever she’s inspired by a great professor, philosopher or spiritual leader, she shares some of their profound teachings:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.’

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe offers this perspective: ‘As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn gave this bit of sage advice: ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to swim.’

This is a quote we both particularly like: ‘The key to change is to let go of fear’ – Rosanne Cash.

“Whenever I am at a particular point in my life,” Anastassija explains, “I find it inspirational and motivating to read a piece of wisdom that makes powerful sense to me at that time. Trials and tribulations in life are opportunities to gain wisdom. Gaining a healthy perspective is very important. The worst situations can turn out to be the best.”

Anastassija is proof of that. She has been through far more than most people will ever face in their lifetime. She bravely shares her personal journey.

“10 years ago, I had cancer,” she says with a remarkably strong voice. “I was in my late 20s – working very hard as a model. My life seemed to be almost perfect. I had a great boyfriend, and then – boom – I received the cancer diagnosis.”

I am an only child and those early years in Ukraine where grandma and I lived together in one room had a deep impact on my life

For somebody whose livelihood depended on being a sparkling picture of good health, the consequences were devastating for Anastassija.

“I had to undergo chemotherapy and radium treatment – which meant that I lost all my hair – and clearly that had a huge effect on my career.”

But Anastassija is not one to dwell on the negative. She always looks for the good in everything.

“At the time, there was a German television star who also had cancer, and she became a significant inspiration to me. She continued to appear on TV every day wearing wigs – and she never missed a beat while hosting. She did so much for my morale during this difficult time. I knew I had to keep marching forward every day, just like she did, until I could regain my health.”

The good news is that Anastassija completely recovered, and the ‘c’ word is out of her life. But it took significant strength of character to choose to fight her way through that terrible period of her life – with determination and optimism her allies. Sometimes, a life episode like that heightens a person’s determination to really live well – and to suck the marrow out of life. That is certainly the case with Anastassija who chose to literally “slip the surly bonds of Earth…and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings”. You guessed it. She went sky diving in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico!

“I always wanted to sky dive,” Anastassija enthuses, “and was always too afraid to do it. I decided to be AFRAID NO MORE! I was in Cabo before a milestone birthday. Jumping out of that airplane was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. It was so good that I went twice more! For me it was all about meeting a challenge. Jumping out of the airplane was the realization that I had conquered yet another challenge. The feelings I felt were euphoria, happiness, and huge pride. I put into action something I had spoken about, and it made me feel ecstatic.”

It is well known in the tabloids that Anastassija dated Mickey Rourke for 7 years, but she has always kept that part of her life private when being interviewed by the press. She pays me the compliment of trusting me enough to not twist her words.

“I usually never talk about Mickey,” she says, “so this is the first time. We were together for a long time, and I found him to be the most amazing person. Everyone has their issues. I can only convey to you my experience with him: he has the biggest heart and when I was going through a very hard time – and we had just met – he didn’t leave me. He was 100% there for me. I cannot say anything bad about him,” she concludes.

We talk about aging and the progress and strides that we have made in society. Anastassija says with great conviction:

“Each stage in life brings about something beautiful. I am relieved and happy that the modeling industry has changed and that we are embracing women who are older than 23. I’d like that progress to continue evolving because we still have a way to go. There is much more emphasis now on healthy bodies – which is great because women who used to starve themselves to be very thin are under less pressure to do that now. Here’s my experience of the body image topic: when you are 18 years old, you can be stick thin and look healthy. When you are 40, being very thin looks awful. It’s important that all women recognize that maintaining a healthy weight for them is what is most important. We have also come a long way with strength training. Instead of watching the scale, I would rather build muscle by working out. That way I can retain a healthy physique going forward. Looking like a starving waif is not healthy. I love the changes. This healthier perspective works across the board – no matter what career or lifestyle you have.”

Jumping out of the airplane was the realization that I had conquered yet another challenge. The feelings I felt were euphoria, happiness, and huge pride

We discuss Anastassija’s acting career. In 2013 she was in the Die Hard franchise: A Good Day to Die Hard. I ask her how she found that experience.

“I went to acting training and then got cast in the movie. It was a great experience and I loved it.”

Anastassija is a world traveler and I ask her about her trips to Greece and other places.

“I have spent a lot of time in Greece,” she explains, “and I have great memories from there. Two years ago, I went to Bali for a whole month – all on my own – and had the most impactful experience. I love the Balinese people, the culture, the food, and the natural surroundings.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that her favorite relaxation activities – whether she’s in Los Angeles or out of state – involve organic pleasures. She says passionately,

“I love to walk in a forest or a national park – go for hikes and enjoy nature. It makes me calm and peaceful. Our lives are so fast, and nature teaches us to get away from the stress and to unwind. I’ve changed. Nature is very necessary for my sense of calm.”

When it comes to food, Anastassija’s heritage firmly dictates the direction of her taste buds.

“I love all Russian food,” she says without hesitation. “My mom is an amazing cook. My favorite dish is Pelmeni – which is like tortellini with meat inside. It’s especially delicious when you add sour cream. Cabbage soup called Borsh is another favorite dish.

I ask our cover beauty about some of her favorite memories. She reminisces with a huge smile:

“Whenever I would come home after traveling for work, seeing grandma gave me so much joy. She has given me so much love. I also have wonderful memories of my Pomeranian dog, Moosh. He passed away two years ago, and he was like my child – the center of my life. Of course, the memories I have with my parents are filled with a lot of love, too.”

Anastassija is currently in a relationship with a handsome man she’s been dating for more than a year.

“He always cooks for me,” she says. “It’s a very grownup relationship. He’s a great communicator and I am very happy. At a certain age you know what is good for you and you want to invest in something that really works. I did a lot of work on myself, and I’m growing every day.”

I laugh with Anastassija about a picture she recently posted on Instagram where she is joking about having to do weights on her engagement-ring finger to build muscle to ensure that the diamond ring fits perfectly.

“Oh, that was hilarious,” she responds. “People who saw the post immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was engaged – and I received tons of congratulatory comments. It was a total joke! Just shows that people have short attention spans while scrolling through Instagram. They glance at things and jump to a conclusion without reading what I said.”

I ask Anastassija about the most valuable lessons she’s learned in life. She reflects with her usual thoughtfulness.

“The most important thing in life is to love the people we care about. Being with nature has also brought me a lot of peace. Meditation is important to me, and I have done a lot of self analysis. I constantly study up on what I can do better in relationships and in all facets of my life. I work through whether my decisions are emotional or rational. I’m training myself to not be so reactive to circumstances. Reacting can get us into trouble. Hopefully I’m doing things better.”

I ask Anastassija who she would invite to dinner if she could choose anyone in the world:

“Dr. Joseph Dispenser. He teaches us to live in a way that makes total sense. The second person would be Sadhguru. When I went through a breakup, he really helped me to let go and change my life. Both Dr. Joseph Dispense and Sadhguru have helped me a lot.”

I ask her what she now knows – and what she wishes she had known when she was 20 years old. Her answer is decisively swift:

“That everything will be ok. Life is about ups and downs. The downs change and the ups come after the downs.”

On the topic of Anastassija’s greatest wish for the world, she says with an earnest, impassioned plea:

“I so wish that the vicious finger pointing in Ukraine and Russia’s war stops. It breaks my heart. We are all members of the same human race, and Ukrainians and Russians speak the same language; we even look the same! My grandma went through World War II when the Nazis invaded and they did the most terrible things to her countrymen, and yet I have never heard her say a bad word about the Germans. If she can resist hating a group of people, then I think we can all do better. Hate is not the answer. Hate is infectious and it brings about more hate.”

Closer to home, Anastassija voices her personal, most fervent wish:

“Of course, my greatest wish right now, too, is that my grandma returns to good health after her hospital visit.”

With the cover shoot and interview wrapped up, Anastassija boarded a Lufthansa airplane the next day – to fly to her grandma in Germany. That one act spoke volumes about the depths of this special woman’s heart. Having your granddaughter fly across the world to hold your hand and love you in person must be the greatest gift any 90-year-old grandma could wish for. Actions speak volumes, and Anastassija’s core values shone inspirationally in every phase of this cover story. Working with her and Lori Modugno at Iconicfocus Models was like floating across a tranquil lake. The effortless, good-natured ambience enhanced everyone’s creative juices.

Instagram: @anastassija_m