How Petra Nemcova transformed tragedy into joy

Model remains positive despite losing partner in tsunami

If Petra Nemcova's life were a movie plot, nobody would believe it.

She grew up under communism in the former Czechoslovakia, became one of the most famous models on the planet and nearly had it all taken away as a victim of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

But Nemcova, 38, survived and heads a foundation called All Hands and Hearts to help victims of natural disasters around the world rebuild their schools and communities.

You grew up under communism. What was that experience like?

You were part of a system. So my dad was a bricklayer, my mum 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.

How did you handle the transition to modelling?

Communism fell when I was 11, so at that point my generation got to follow their dreams.

I grabbed opportunities in modelling, because I knew that would get me out of 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 travelling to places such as Milan, Paris, London and New York.

How did you handle the money that started coming in?

In those early days, there were lots of situations where I was misled because I was young and naive, and I did not know anything about the financial world.

After that, I started investing in real estate, which seemed like a much more 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.

Having worked with famed designers so closely, did you learn from any of them?

I learnt by observing them, how passionate and dedicated they are - in particular, Giorgio Armani, his work ethic and how particular he is.

Another role model... was Audrey Hepburn. Not only her incredible grace, but how she used her platform to put a spotlight on those suffering.

Marc Benioff, chief executive officer 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.

Are you able to talk about your traumatic tsunami experience, and what you learnt from it?

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 learnt 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 did not 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.

How did that experience inspire you with your foundation?

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.

What life lessons do you try to pass on to others?

Take the time to really experience giving and not just write a cheque. 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 do not do that, you are missing out on what life has to offer. - REUTERS