Ask Tanya Mityushina to name something no one knows about her, and she replies with a laugh, “Why would I tell you?” She’s not exactly being coy, just incredibly humble, as the Russian beauty who caught the world’s attention when she was chosen to appear in the iconic Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2016 is something of a secret genius, with a degree in astrobiology – the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe – and a budding second career in film production, as well as a movie credit (2013’s Don Jon) to her name.
While it’s her incredible looks and stunning work for brands including Victoria’s Secret, Intimissimi, Guess Lingerie and Bebe that has earned her attention from the likes of GQ (“The Russian Model Ready for the Big Leagues”) as well as 350,000 Instagram followers (@mit_tanya), it’s her obvious intelligence and pragmatic approach to the inevitable onset of celebrity that will earn her just as much respect in the long run. Here she gives an extremely candid and wide-ranging interview on everything from fame and social media to meditation and helping those in need:
When you were growing up, did you ever think you’d become famous?
I don’t think I’m famous. A few people know who I am, mostly for – I don’t want to say my work, more the way I look – and they recognize me, but it’s not really being famous. I think by definition being famous is being a household name, and I’m not there yet.
No? Do you think it will happen, or are you just kind of playing it by ear?
I almost never think about it, “Am I going to become famous, or will it ever happen?” It’s not like a dream of mine or a goal. Whatever happens, I’ll figure it out. It’s something that nobody can really control, and you know, setting a goal like that can be very frustrating. And realistically, it’s not going to make me happy, or bring anything into my life that I desire…. I definitely don’t think I’m a supermodel.
I’m okay with other people calling me whatever, but it’s not my decision. I try to stay down to earth as much as I can. I think my biggest fear is becoming dependent upon other people’s approval, on those rankings of fame and celebrity, and on other people’s recognition of me. And I think that’s somewhere I don’t want to be.
Did being in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue change your life?
It was pretty awesome. The entire experience was very life changing but I think what Sports Illustrated gave me is an understanding of how you can be treated, and what else is out there, basically. But it didn’t change my life in the sense of becoming more desirable for other clients. I don’t know why, but I was working just as much afterwards as I was before I did it. I think my mindset is what changed.
You’ve said that at the time you were cast by Sports Illustrated you had quit modeling and had a day job? What’s the story there?
Well, I never really loved modeling, I did it on and off. I was engaged, and I lived in Russia. And I had all these agencies that were representing me, and sometimes they would have a direct booking – when a client books you without actually seeing you, or if you’re not in town – and I would go do those. So, they fly you out and I’d go do this or that job, and then go back to my normal life.
Eventually I realized that I wanted something else in my life, I didn’t feel very fulfilled, so I decided to move to New York. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I didn’t speak English very well at the time – that was four and a half years ago. So, I took speech classes pretty much every day for a year. I lived in New York and continued doing the same thing, mostly just direct bookings, not going to any castings. And without really trying, I was pretty successful. I did a lot of work, like Guess and Intimissimi, and many things in Europe, and so on. My engagement ended, and then New York was a lot to handle, as I didn’t know anybody. After a while, I was kind of like “Okay, I can speak, it’s okay.” So, I moved out to Los Angeles three and a half years ago because my mother agent [Victor Del Toro at Elite Models in Los Angeles] is from here, and we’re very good friends. I love him so much.
When I came out here [to L.A.] he decided I should color my hair white, and he was like “This is going to be such a new look for you, it’s going to be awesome.” Anyway, they bleached my hair, and it did not look great. And it was a very, very bad time in my career. It was not going well. So, I started working at a management company that represents script writers and I did that for some time.
What kind of work were you doing exactly?
We represented several people that worked and wrote for TV and did scripts for TV movies. And what I did was help develop or tweak whatever they were doing, and introduce new ideas through writers that we had. So, I was helping them with whatever they were working on.
Have you done any writing yourself?
I’ve always wanted to. I write down ideas, but I really feel that I’m better at editing other people’s stuff, because I understand that there’s a formula to everything. There’s a formula to script writing, and if you understand why certain things work and why it works in a certain situation and doesn’t work in others, you can help people out, because in my experience writers tend to try and use too many tools to express whatever idea they’re going for, rather than actually shaping it in a form that can be delivered to an audience so they can understand it.
Your main form of self-expression seems to be on social media.
After I left that job I got back into modeling, because I was like, okay, now, maybe it’s going to be different. And I could go back and work with script writers anytime I wanted. But to be a successful model, it’s kind of now or never. Although I did later go and find work at a production company, which was an amazing experience, and it’s essentially what I want to do when I grow up, when I retire from modeling. But with my social media taking off, I’m getting more work, and I love the things that I’m doing, and it lets me show who I am.
Without it I would never be on the cover of Luxury Life magazine or here talking to you, people wouldn’t be interested in me. Being in Sports Illustrated was awesome, but if you don’t represent anything, and you don’t have a personality, nothing else might come your way. Social media really brought me a lot of things that I’m doing right now, and they’re awesome. So, I’ve stopped working at the production company, and for a few years I actually had two day jobs, which was great when I got bored with modeling.
What do you like about Instagram?
What I like about it is that you can give as much as you want, and hold back what you don’t want to share, and portray yourself the way you want to look. Not a lot of people really know the way I am and what I do every day, and I don’t think there’s a lot of people besides those who are closest to me who really care. But with Instagram you understand what people like, what they respond well to. And it’s not very difficult to do. If you understand what your audience is expecting, you can either change that by introducing something else or meet their expectations. I just understand it very well. That’s why I like it.
How do you feel about the comments? Because inevitably there are going to be both positive and negative ones.
Considering everything that I hear from other models, I don’t seem to get as much hate as everyone else. But there have been a few times when it is just overwhelming, where I was like, “Wait, what just happened?” I don’t understand it. I have never left a negative comment, ever. And I have never critiqued anyone. That’s how I live my life. If I don’t like something, I’m just not going to look that way. It’s not my life, nobody asked my opinion, nobody needs it. I’ll just move on to something else. I can understand when people try to say something using constructive criticism, and it’s my choice, and I’ll either listen or not. But when you’re being offensive, or you try to insult me, what good will come from that? I’ll either block you or go do something else.
Does it bother you or do you have a pretty thick skin at this point?
Not really. The thing that I hate the most is when clients or other people that I work with will take my picture and edit it in a way that does not look like me. And it’s happened a few times and there was one time where I was really fed up with it. My body was just fine, but they made my figure look so thin and I don’t look like that. First, it’s offensive. Secondly, what are you trying to sell to your customers? If I don’t fit in your clothing, you shouldn’t have hired me. That’s it. Don’t work with me, just don’t hire me.
Everyone edits everything, everybody uses a filter of some kind. But I’m a true believer that you shouldn’t significantly alter your body or your facial features. Removing a pimple or smoothing out your skin is one thing but just crazy, excessive photoshopping sends such a wrong message. I hate when people do it to me. I’ve worked with so many people who are like “It doesn’t matter what pictures we take because we’ll just edit them later.” I hate that approach. It’s not real life and I don’t want to be a part of it.
The media can also edit or twist things to make them more provocative. What did you think about the story of your “wardrobe malfunction” at the John Wick premiere?
It’s funny because I rarely ever go out or do anything. I’m a very private person. But when that happened, the next morning I got all these notifications on my phone from my agents and others and I was like, I cannot believe that people care so much about this. There are so many things happening in the world but, so many people retweeted it and reposted it, there were so many blog posts. It’s just beyond me. I’m still so confused. I’m thinking about this and I’m just amazed. It’s so easy to get attention. You can just have a little “wardrobe malfunction” and everybody cares suddenly, and that’s crazy.
The British tabloids and TMZ live for that sort of thing. What’s the truth behind all the stories that you were pursuing soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo?
I’m actually bad with names and I can’t tell you who most so-called celebrities are, but everybody knows who Cristiano Ronaldo is. I went to this event for Sports Illustrated, and when I left the venue where the event was held, somebody with a video camera shouted at me, “Hey, who do you think is the most fashionable man in sports?” and I said Cristiano Ronaldo because I don’t know anyone else. That’s the only reason I said it. And there were other questions, and my answers were taken out of context and edited in a way that was just crazy. And then people were writing to me afterwards telling me how horrible I am for pursuing him when he was apparently having a child. And that’s it. I know I should have more of a juicy story, but that’s all there is to it.
Do you plan to do any more acting? And do you have a role that you would want to play?
I just did a movie, and it was so much fun. I really enjoyed it. It’s so different from modeling, it’s so different just from everything I’ve ever done. I like acting but I hate auditioning. It’s terrifying. It’s such a long process with callbacks and it’s too stressful. There are a range of things I’d like to play. I think acting is an opportunity to be very, not selfless, but to explore, to be very empathic. Working in production, I understood that things work well when actors can portray that.
Obviously, the entertainment industry is there for the purpose of entertaining, and there’s greatness in that. But I think films that touch you or tell a story that is very true to you, something that is true and real, is what I’d want to do. And if I discovered something about myself or other people in the process that would be great.
Are you interested in philanthropy at all, and do you have any causes that you support?
I volunteered a lot when I lived in New York. Recently I attended event a Kiehl’s event here in Los Angeles where they partnered with Feed America. And that really inspired me. I wrote them about volunteering and doing some events with them. I didn’t know that there were so many people in America that are starving and don’t eat every day. 49 million Americans struggle to put food on the table. That is so heartbreaking honestly. And how many of them are children? And they are not homeless, they’re just people who are not making their ends meet. I cannot imagine how hard it is to go out and ask for help.
One in six people in America face hunger. So, it’s people that we know, we just don’t know about it and that’s terrible. And maybe it’s superficial to a lot of people, but body image organizations that target eating disorders are very close to me, because I had an eating disorder while modeling once upon a time. That’s why people trying to make me look thinner makes me angry, because it’s something I don’t want to participate in, I don’t want that to be my image. Because I know how that feels, and that’s not a good place to be. I want to bring awareness to that cause as much as possible. Even if it’s just not participating in crazy photoshopping or encouraging people with an unsafe and unhealthy body image.
Do you have any favorite movies or books? Any in particular that have had a real influence or have changed your life?
I’m a huge bookworm and movie fanatic. Both the book and film of Gone with the Wind was such a huge influence on me as a child growing up, about how to be strong woman and what motivates you. It’s such a great story that talks about every aspect of life, and it’s amazing. I really like smaller independent films, and my favorite of all time is My Blueberry Nights (2007) by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Another of his films, In the Mood for Love (2000) that was shot in Hong Kong is also a favorite. As for books, my favorite is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, which changed my life.
I’m a huge big Daniel Day-Lewis fan, and he was in the movie version. I watched it and was like, I really want to read the book, even though I didn’t think that the film was so great. There was something about it that stayed with me. And when I moved out to Los Angeles, I bought the book and then I met a guy who I was in a relationship with here for a very long time, and it was not a good relationship. I remember I went to Russia for some time with my parents and I thought I’m going to read it when I go, and I took the book with me and I never read it, I was just focused on so many other things and it just never happened.
As I said, this relationship was very, very unfortunate, and just taught me a lot of things. I’m still very happy that it happened. It’s amazing that the worst situations in your life teach you the most amazing things. And when we broke up, I went to Spain, and I took the book with me and I read it, finally. So, I bought it when we met, and I read it after we broke up. It took me two years to read it and it gave me such closure and understanding about human relationships and love and our relationship with our parents, with animals, with the government – so many things. Milan Kundera doesn’t talk about many, many events, he just talks about these events from so many different points of view. And it’s incredible what he did in this book. And it will never leave my heart.
You have a dog named Good Times? What’s the story there?
People think it should be a cool story but it’s not really - like everything I’m saying today! So, my ex-boyfriend has a bar here in Hollywood, and it’s called Good Times at Davey Wayne’s. And it’s a bar dedicated to the ‘70s. And when I adopted Good Times, a Pomeranian dachshund mix, he’s like a burnt orange color that is very ‘70s. And I just started calling him Good Times because of that bar. But he lives up to his name. I think I’m going to upgrade him to Best Times, actually.
How would you describe your personal style, and do you have any favorite designers?
Yes. I love Reformation. It’s a Californian-based brand and they’re just very feminine, but very simple, and that’s how I like to dress, I like minimalist looks but with a twist, something interesting. I’m not very big on hip-hop culture or anything. I came from Russia, and I guess I’m kind of traditional. Like I’ll never wear shorts during the day unless I’m going to the beach. I think it’s just inappropriate, and I know a lot of people are going to hate me for this, but I think wearing shorts for a woman in a city is just wrong. I’m not very conservative in my day to day, but I always think about the occasion. And I dress for the occasion. And I love looking and feeling confident. I feel confident in things that are form fitting or compliment my body or in a color that suits me. And I always dress to look attractive. I like to look attractive to myself, and to other people, that’s important to me. But not in an aggressive way, not shorts during the day with heels, it’s not that.
You’re in great shape. Do you follow any health or fitness routines?
Actually, believe it or not, I don’t really work out or eat healthily. I do want to start working out more, not extensively, but sometimes, for the health benefits. I mean if I’m traveling I always know that if I feel extremely tired I should go for a run or do something active because it makes me feel better. So obviously exercise has great benefits for your body and health and also your mind, and it’s just an awesome thing to do. But there must be a reason for me to do it, like I don’t feel well or can’t sleep, or to recover from traveling. Really, exercise helps with everything. But I don’t work out I if don’t want to, but I probably should to be good to myself.
After having had an eating disorder, then going vegan, now I literally do not restrict myself at all. Really, I’ll eat anything, anything at any time. But I never overeat so it’s not a problem. If I want something, I’ll just have it. I’ve noticed sometimes, I’m just not so hungry. At certain times I feel like I want to eat more, and I want to eat good things. Once there’s no issue, it’s so easy to listen to yourself. It’s so easy, and you never have a guilt trip. I’m never like, “My god, I ate a burger or chocolate cake, I need to go to the gym.” I just don’t experience that. I’ll have a little bit and then I just don’t want any more. And it’s not because I’m forcing myself to stop or not letting myself eat it. It’s just natural, and it’s not a problem. It’s literally always been this way, and I’m so thankful for it. I just started listening to what my body wants, what my body needs, and it’s been very good for me.
I read that you’re into breathwork. What is it exactly?
It’s a type of meditation. I don’t really exercise but I do a lot of meditation. Breathwork is like when you do cardiovascular exercise, like running, you breathe through your mouth. With breathwork, you just lie down, and you breathe. You take two breaths through your mouth, in your stomach and in your chest. And you breathe out through your mouth. And you do those without moving. So, you do those with the same breath that you ‘d be doing if you were exercising, but you’re lying on the ground. It calms you down and gives you a euphoric feeling. It’s awesome.
I found a teacher that I absolutely love here in Los Angeles and his name is Jon Paul Crimi. And he’s also a sobriety coach who works with a lot of celebrities. When we go to class for breathwork there is always somebody there like Katie Holmes or Matthew Perry or people that have been through challenging things, I guess. It’s a very good class, and if you have chance to try it anywhere, I would suggest you do, because it’s very life transforming. There’s a basic explanation of why it works and what happens to you physically during this method, and why you feel different and how it changes you. There’s no talk about God or spirit guides or anything like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just a physical thing.
John Paul is an awesome teacher, he’s always nagging me. He tells me “I’m the biggest a––hole if I don’t breathe. Like I’m the guy who will be waiting in line at Starbucks yelling at people to hurry up.” And I feel so stressed out sometimes living in Los Angeles, there’s always traffic. You need to find a way to release all that, you need to find a way to recharge and restart. Just take that time and if you can slip that in, with 25 minutes of breathwork, you’ll have such amazing results and feel so completely different than the way you felt before. It’s so worth it.
I have a degree in astrobiology and I’ve always been interested in science and why things work the way they do. There are so many studies that prove that your brain works very differently when you meditate. And those studies were based on mindfulness meditation, which is the meditation that came from Tibet. And there’s also transcendental meditation. And I’ve tried them both, and they’re awesome. They teach you how to react differently and to be in the moment. Or to focus on what’s inside our head, with no reaction from the outside world which we would normally be having.
We shouldn’t always be in wrapped up in our thoughts because this is not our life. And those meditations teach you how to focus on what matters. They teach you how to be yourself. I don’t like teachers that try to just teach me things that they believe in. You know what I mean? Everybody’s different and everyone will have their own discoveries about themselves. And if you can sit with yourself long enough in silence and try to see what your thoughts are, you will start getting to know yourself.
You often talk about Victor Del Toro, your agent at Elite Models in Los Angeles. How has he helped you?
He made my career happen. If not for Victor, I would have just taken one trip, shot a few pictures, and quit because I didn’t like how people spoke to me, how agents approached me, or the demeanor that, even now, some people have. For example, if I want to go away, on a vacation or something, most agents will get annoyed because as a model you are expected to be available at all times. As if being a model means you need to give up your life and be on call to work 24/7.
And I don’t care for that. I haven’t had a real relationship with many people. But Victor’s different. He knows that you’re human and you need to rest. The best feeling is when I arrive at work and I’m friendly, I slept well, and I feel good about myself. I don’t want to be a person who is uncertain, unsure, unhappy, or angry, and then work with other people, and pass that energy or attitude on, and spoil their day or experience. Because they don’t shoot every day. But I do.
A lot of people, they shoot campaigns a couple times a year. So, it’s different for them. Sometimes they’re like, “I go to so many islands,” it’s a big deal for some people. I don’t want to be that person because everything is an experience and I don’t ever want to be a negative one. And my big appreciation of Victor is that he tries to be understanding and he knows that of course you’re human. You’re a person, and you need to take care of yourself and do whatever you have to do, and then work comes after.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get to be able to do some of the things that you’ve done?
It’s so funny when I hear that because whenever people say, “Hey I want to be a model, how can I start?” I’m always like, “Why would you want to be a model?” And then I look back at myself and ask, “Wait, why am I doing this?” And conceptually, it’s a pretty rough business. So, I think the only people who really survive in it are people who have a good mental state. I would say if any of you out there want to get into modeling and / or acting, always take what agents and those people say to you with a grain of salt. Because nobody teaches agents how to be agents. You can go study journalism, you can study how to be an engineer, how to be a doctor. But nobody teaches you how to be an agent. These people may understand how business works but they don’t always understand how other things work.
What are the most important things to do when starting out in the business?
It’s very important to set goals. It’s very important to understand why you’re doing it and what your reasons are for doing certain things. What do you want to achieve? You must be very honest with yourself, if it’s fame, if it’s money, whatever it is. If you just want to prove that you can do it because there are people out there who want that. And I think that’s very important to understand. Because you’re going to get lost in what other people want. Some agents – not Victor, but others – start saying, “She should do more editorials, she should do more of this. We should change your hair.” They always want to change. They always want to feel more excited about you.
For example, whenever I would go to New York, I would always hear, “Hey, you need to dress like this so that you look more New York.” Like, “wear black or can you wear a bra minimizer that will hide your breasts, or lose weight or you need to tan, or you need to bronze, make your hair darker,” and so on and so forth, and I just can’t hear this anymore. I know who I am and how I look best, and a lot of people might not agree with me, but it doesn’t matter what other people think. It matters where you are and what you think is best. So, you can listen to what people are saying, but why are they saying it, and have they really spent time looking at you and thinking what’s best for you?
Have they spent time telling you what you could accomplish? Because let’s be realistic, there are a lot of people that don’t really look like models, don’t fit the original image of the ‘90s or 2000s or all those runway girls. They look very different. There are a lot of girls that are not tall enough. Five years ago, nobody would ever sign them. But now there’s Instagram, there’s Insta fame. All brands must be on Instagram. Everybody must create content, and everybody wants to create content so somebody else can put that content on their page. And if you do it properly, eventually everybody wants to work with you.
It is important to remember this is about your image and life. And if you’re not happy with yourself, if you’re not happy with who you are, if you’re just listening to people because you think they know better – well, they don’t. And it took me a long time to learn that. They don’t. I do.
You will also find there are some people in this world actually interested in who you are and what you can be, and can communicate that with you. And if you really start listening you’ll recognize those people from the rest of the crowd. These people will sound and communicate in a very different way. So, my advice is to find people who really believe in you for who you are – and always take everything with a grain of a salt.
Photography Peter Svenson
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.