If Petra Nemcova’s life were a movie plot, nobody would believe it.
Girl grows up under Communism in the former Czechoslovakia, climbs to the top of the fashion world as one of the most famous models on the planet, and nearly has it all taken away as a victim of the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia.
But Nemcova, 38, survived and she now heads a foundation called All Hands and Hearts (www.allhandsandhearts.org), to help victims of natural disasters around the world rebuild their schools and communities.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, Nemcova sat down to talk about how to transform tragedy into joy.
Q: You grew up under Communism, so what was that experience like?
A: You were part of a system. So my dad was a bricklayer, my mom was a teacher and we grew up with very little, picking up pennies to help put food on the table. Our staple diet was lentils and eggs, and maybe we could afford meat once a week. Once I wore the same pair of winter shoes for seven years.
Q: How did you handle the transition to modeling?
A: Communism fell when I was 11 years old, so at that point my generation got to follow their dreams. I grabbed opportunities in modeling, because I knew that would get me out of the Czech Republic, and I could take care of my parents, who had always taken food out of their own mouths to feed us.
I entered the “Look of the Year” competition, won it, and started traveling to places like Milan, Paris, London and New York.
Q: Coming from that experience, how did you handle the money that started coming in?
A: In those early days there were lots of situations where I was misled because I was young and naive, and I didn’t know anything about the financial world.
After that, I started investing in real estate, which seemed like a much solid and safer choice for me. My first was an investment property in Paris, and then I bought places in New York. I have invested in real estate ever since.
Q: Working with famed designers so closely, did you learn from any of them?
A: I learned by observing them, how passionate and dedicated they are - in particular, Giorgio Armani, his work ethic and how particular he is.
Another role model, when Communism fell and I got exposed to Western culture for the first time, was Audrey Hepburn. Not only her incredible grace, but how she used her platform to put a spotlight on those suffering.
Marc Benioff, (CEO) of Salesforce, is one of the most powerful business leaders in world, but I have never met anyone who takes so much time to help others.
Q: Are you able to talk about your traumatic tsunami experience, and what you learned from it?
A: Life has a way of teaching you its lessons. I was extremely successful. I was happy with my partner, and we were on a romantic vacation. In a few seconds, we went from a beautiful walk on the beach to something that shattered everyone’s lives.
My pelvis was crushed in four places, and for eight hours, I clung to a palm tree in the waters. What I learned from that is that anything can happen at any time. Nobody knows what will happen next, and every moment is a gift.
Even when you are going through tragedies, you can still focus on the positive. When I was in the hospital and didn’t know if I would ever walk again, I told myself: ‘Well, I still have my eyes and ears.’ I lost my partner, but I still had my family. You deal with hopelessness by being grateful.
Q: How did that experience inspire you with your foundation?
A: After natural disasters, when first responders leave, there is a gap where communities have no support. In particular, children would wait for years for schools to be rebuilt. We have focused on rebuilding schools after natural disasters - 171 of them in 10 countries around the world.
Q: What life lessons do you try to pass on to others?
A: Take the time to really experience giving and not just write a check. Go to the places you are helping, because it will give you a different understanding of life, and a new dimension of joy and gratitude. If you don’t do that, you are missing out on what life has to offer.