PHOTOGRAPHS BY WARWICK SAINT | August 23, 2011 | People
Long V-neck dress with draped tulip skirt, Doo-Ri ($1,195). Barneys Co-op, 832 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Ribes necklace in gold ($450), Heath cuff in gold ($372), Flutter by Jill Golden. Black suede T-strap sandals, Gucci ($895). Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave.
Welcome to the unexpected life trajectory of Petra Nemcova: winning a modeling contest for the Czech Republic in 1996, traveling the world as a supermodel by 2003 and clinging injured to a tree to save her very life during the 2004 South Asian tsunami. More recently, she’s been spending time helicoptering above earthquake-ravaged Haiti to survey destroyed elementary schools, and working with world leaders to promote disaster relief. Her Happy Hearts Fund, a global schoolrebuilding initiative spanning nine countries, has built 50 new schools and touched the lives of 31,000 kids to date. It’s anything but glamorous, and that’s just the way Petra wants it.
Obviously the South Asian tsunami altered your life. How did you see things before the disaster?
PETRA NEMCOVA: I knew five years prior that a goal in my life was to help children. I was envisioning my true calling. It actually started when I left the Czech Republic. I took a year off, barely spoke English, and thought, How can I help children? I don’t have any resources. I come from a small, poor country. The tsunami experience really sped up that process of being able to be of service to others.
There’s so much need after a disaster. What was it that drew you to children’s education in particular?
After the tsunami, when I was still in hospitals in Thailand and the Czech Republic, I was very frustrated because I couldn’t walk for many months. I couldn’t go help. My own education was really when I went back to Thailand four months later with a couple of my friends and my sister. The first responders had departed and there were very few organizations helping. We saw people—children and communities—losing everything, from material things to their loved ones. I started seeing a long gap after the first responders departed. Sometimes that gap is there for two years, but it can take up to 10 full years before children have a safe school to attend. The most impactful thing for me was to see children looking through you, not looking at you. That’s how the Happy Hearts Fund began, because schools are central to a community. Once a school is rebuilt, it gives a hope to the rest of the community.
Is Happy Hearts responding to the tsunami in Japan?
We will definitely go to Japan when the first responders leave. We made a commitment to Japan, and will go in December or January to help rebuild schools. Haiti’s still in flux. There’s a new president, Michel Martelly. What are the biggest challenges there? We were there for the inauguration of President Martelly, and he’s been demonstrating a focus on education, whether it’s visiting schools or trying to build his educational fund. Haiti has incredible challenges, but the best way to rebuild is to bring opportunities for it to rebuild itself.
Ruffled-neck dress, Gucci ($8,500). Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave.. Large Twig cuff ($11,200), small Twig bangle in rose gold ($2,560) and small Twig bangle in yellow gold ($5,025), K Brunini Jewels. Sabbia, The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne, 455 Grand Bay Dr.. Simplified cuff ($660) and Playing Cats bracelet ($900), By Natalie Frigo. Fish House Art Center, 4745 SE DeSoto Ave., Port Salerno
Tell us about Happy Hearts’ developing relationship with President Martelly.
We came in a few days before his inauguration and started learning about his agenda, and from what we see there is definitely a huge focus on education, with one of his goals being free education for all children in Haiti. Our focus is getting the 500,000 [children without education] to school. Martelly came to our Ecole Nouvelle Zoranje kindergarten opening. In November, our Land of Dreams: Haiti gala in New York will showcase the country, from dance to costumes, art and music. President Martelly has agreed to attend with the first lady.
When it comes to Haiti, what has been the most powerful moment for you?
We came for the first time in 2007, and we visited [impoverished Port-au Prince neighborhood] Cité Soleil, which even the UN couldn’t enter because it was very dangerous. [I saw] children without shoes, without clothes, naked, with swollen tummies, malnourished and eating cakes made out of mud.
Yes, it’s definitely overwhelming. What can people in Miami (and elsewhere) do to help the Happy Hearts Fund and Haiti?
There are a few ways: first, by supporting our Land of Dreams fundraiser in New York on November 5, which will focus on Haiti. Second, we have one of our ambassadors in Miami, the photographer Robert Curran, helping to expand our Schools Connect program internationally. It’s an opportunity for US schools and universities to open up Happy Hearts Fund clubs, which matches schools in Haiti to those in other countries.
We can’t let you go without asking about fashion—you’ve been so immersed in it. Who are some of your favorite designers today?
Tommy Hilfiger—I love the preppiness and simplicity, but with an edge. I also adore Dolce & Gabbana very much, and Balenciaga. Shoe-wise, it would be Giuseppe Zanotti, and in terms of casual wear, I love Diesel Jeans. One more: Alice Temperley, the English designer.
Every model seems to have a connection to Miami. What’s yours?
I used to work in Miami quite a bit. On one occasion I worked long hours and was so tired, and a friend of mine said, “You have to meet this photographer. He’s looking for a foundation to support.” The last thing I wanted to do was to have a meeting. But I went and there I met our future ambassador, Robert Curran. He gave a percentage from his book sales to Happy Hearts. You just never know where you’ll meet good people.