Hubert Burda Media

Petra Nemcova: On philanthropy and modelling

Her work for Happy Hearts Fund keep her impossibly busy, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Petra Nemcova has a cold. It’s not one so severe that it keeps her in bed, but a nagging cough that remains a constant reminder of how her frequent travels and packed schedule has taken a toll of late. In the studio changing room sitting with mugs of warm water and Japanese green tea placed before her, the 37-year-old stays the beauty she is, inside and out, as she fields a constant flurry of concerned enquiries (“I heard you’re not feeling well?” “Would you like a lozenge?”). “Thank you, so sweet, thank you,” she says to every offer of relief.

But being under the weather doesn’t stop Nemcova from being the professional that she is. Before changing out of her gauzy blouse, slacks and white loafers for this month’s cover shoot, she places a phone call on behalf of Happy Hearts Fund (HHF), the charity she founded in 2005 that rebuilds schools in the wake of natural disasters. Just the day before, she delivered a speech in Singapore at JPMorgan Chase, a partner of HHF, and later this evening, she’ll attend the HHF Indonesia fundraising gala, to be held at the Alkaff Mansion. Right after that, she’ll be whisked to the airport to attend the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austria, where she will stay just one night before zipping off to Paris for Haute Couture Week.

“I’m based on a plane!” the ambassador of Chopard says with a laugh. “I live more in the air than on planet Earth sometimes.”

A major reason for that is the burgeoning HHF. The 10-year-old charity (it received its 501(c)(3) non-profit status in 2006) is on target to build its 150th school by the end of this year, which, considering the goal was 100 schools in 2014, means it’s expanding exponentially. To date, HHF programmes have already benefited more than 42,000 children worldwide. And establishing HHF Indonesia in 2013, the organisation’s first overseas chapter, is the start of its plan to have at least one branch for each continent the organisation has a presence in.

The flourishing charity, which focuses on rebuilding schools and young lives, was born following a personal tragedy for the Czech native. After starting her modelling career at 15 and later coming to the world’s attention with her 2003 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover, the next year, she found herself fighting to survive in Thailand when the Boxing Day Tsunami swept through her resort; her boyfriend, British photographer Simon Atlee, didn’t make it.

Nemcova credits meditation with keeping her calm as she waited for rescue services and now, she speaks of the ordeal with Zen-like wisdom. “There are many beautiful lessons through it,” she says. “[First,] life is so precious because something can happen in a split second and everything is gone, so appreciate it. Second, I was always living in the future, never in the present, because I was always writing so many lists. After the tsunami, I was able to live in the moment. Third, in life, everything has duality: Water broke lots of debris and crushed my pelvis in four places, so water created pain. But then, when I was holding on to the palm tree and the water [level] was quite high, it was lifting me and taking the pain away.”

The frustration of wanting to participate in rescue work but being invalided by her multiple injuries spurred her to think about other ways she could help. With friends including Leilani Johnson, she blitzed through fundraising efforts to pull off a gala for over 400 attendees in New York in under six weeks, raising over US$1 million. “When we started, everyone said: ‘You’re crazy, you’ll never make this happen.’ We said: ‘No, we’re going to make this happen,’” she shares.

She counts Audrey Hepburn, Bono and New York-based The Robin Hood Foundation as her philanthropic role models. And since its infancy, HHF has received guidance from Canadian businessman and philanthropist Frank Giustra and Protégé Partners CEO Jeff Tarrant, who encouraged her to focus her organisational strategy by sending her three books on the topic (only one of which she’s read, she sheepishly admits).

The process of getting locals back on their feet is a form of encouragement on its own for Nemcova. “In a war, everyone blames each other. But when a natural disaster happens, it brings the community together and they think: How can we rebuild our community?” she says. “There’s a beautiful sense of togetherness and compassion; it’s a very special energy.”

What inspired you to establish HHF and why did you focus on children and schools?

When I went back to Thailand, what I saw there was that after first responders leave, children can be forgotten without support for a long time. So I started to focus on that special time period when first responders are leaving, the press is not there and when it’s not sexy to be there. Later, I learned that there are children waiting for six, sometimes eight, years to have a safe school to go to.

When you rebuild a house, you help one family; when you rebuild a school, you help all the families in the community — the school also becomes a community centre and a shelter for children during natural disasters. We were looking at what we could do to have the biggest impact on a whole community and rebuilding safe schools has that.

How did being affected by the 2004 tsunami motivate your work at HHF?

When I was holding onto a palm tree for eight hours, the worst thing was not the physical pain. It was when you hear children screaming for help and they’re really close by, but I was trapped in debris and I couldn’t swim out. Half an hour later, you are not hearing them, which means they couldn’t hold on and you feel so hopeless at that moment — you don’t have the choice of helping them. But today, every day, I have a choice, I have the ability and that’s one of the main drivers that keeps me going.

You cut down on more risqué modelling jobs when you launched HHF. Are you happy with that move?

Yes, it was a decision I made myself. My priority was HHF so I knew I had to take certain steps to create success. It was a risky decision because a lot of my earnings were coming from swimsuit [shoots] and sexier things — my career was built on Sports Illustrated and all that, so it was taking a big chunk of my work away. But I knew it was the right thing to do at that time and it did create the impact that I knew it would. People took me more seriously and there was a lot more understanding that charity was not my side project; it was my focus, so the decision did serve its purpose.

Did it occur to you that you were sacrificing your own career?

Definitely. My friends said it was not the smartest decision, but in my eyes, it was the right one. It was not about me, it was about the bigger goal of helping as many children as possible. Most people would [take the view that] you have to think of yourself first, you have to build your stability and then give. So, many people give after their 50s or retirement. But my way is, I’m helping now because I think it’s the right thing to do and I have the ability to do it. There are some sacrifices for sure, but it’s the right thing and it makes me happy.

Your status as a supermodel brought attention to your charity work, but how has that influenced modelling?

After the tsunami, a lot of brands didn’t want to work with me because it was sensitive. They didn’t want to look like they were piggybacking on that disaster or being opportunistic. But now, brands are more [socially] conscious than a decade ago. A lot of them have some kind of CSR, so they look for people who are aligned with the values they have. The fashion industry has changed and now when people look for [brand ambassadors], they seek those who have either good values or more dimensions than just fashion.

Do you feel celebrities have a duty to use their fame to champion charitable causes?

I think everyone has the responsibility — some have the platform as a celeb, some have amazing skills. We all have different gifts and through them we can give back. Or even just time — teaching children how to read or mentoring them after school. When you help with a pure heart, you make someone happy, but you make yourself happier, because it’s such a beautiful thing that happens. When you know you’re helping, it makes you feel fulfilled as well, so it’s a privilege.

It seems many celebrities are involved in charity, to varying degrees. Do you sometimes wonder whether it’s all genuine?

There’s a whole [spectrum] — some people really devote themselves to charity and some do care but they do it less. Other people do it largely because their publicist tells them to, but at the end of the day, they’re helping so that’s good. I think they’re just missing out, because if you do charity from a pure heart, you get such a beautiful feeling. But if you do it just because someone tells you to, you may or may not.

If you hadn’t been personally affected by the tsunami, would you have committed yourself to philanthropy?

Five years before the tsunami, during meditation, I was asking: What’s my purpose in life? And in my meditation, I kept seeing schools — not one school, but many. And at the time, I thought: This is crazy. If the tsunami hadn’t happened, I know I would be doing a lot of philanthropy and school-related [projects]. But to what extent, I don’t know. But I knew there was that path before the tsunami.

You’ve also launched Be the Light New York, a line of home decor and lifestyle products. After modelling, philanthropy and entrepreneurship, do you still have time for yourself?

My phone is my office. I can’t escape it, so there’s not a lot of time. Last year, I was looking into living in Los Angeles. I was looking at apartments and trying to see if I like the city. And for the first time in 10 years, I was in one place for two weeks. Because sometimes, I get one week in one place; usually I travel every week to two or three countries, so [I decided to] treat myself.

You turned 37 in June. How do you feel about it?

An Uber driver in Los Angeles guessed I was 25 and when I told him my age, he was shocked. I told him when I was in my teens, I looked much older and now, without make-up, I kind of look younger. He said: “So you have the Benjamin Button effect!” Sometimes I wake up feeling 100-years-old, sometimes I wake up feeling energetic and young, so age doesn’t matter. It’s keeping in touch with your inner child and doing things that make you happy that makes you look younger.

Let’s talk about that bar of 90 percent dark chocolate in your tote bag.

That’s my addiction: Dark chocolate. I eat a bar a day. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, a chocolate bar keeps the psychiatrist away! 

Get behind the scenes of the shoot with Petra Nemcova in this video here.