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Petra Nemcova interview: "Each individual has so much more power than we think"

Heart to heart

Petra Nemcova interview: "Each individual has so much more power than we think"
You already know about Petra Nemcova's tragic story. Fuelled by the model's Happy Hearts Fund and the green carpet challenge, lets think about what to do next

A week before Petra Nemcova's visit to Singapore, I caught up with the model and philanthropist over the phone on an early Saturday morning. The 38-year-old was across the globe for a little break in Cancun, eager to chat about her passion project-turned-international non-profit organisation, Happy Hearts Fund. One that she founded in 2006 to rebuild a school in Khao Lak, Thailand, it has since rebuilt over 162 schools in 10 countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Peru, Mexico, United States, Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Philippines, and Nepal. Last November, the Happy Hearts Fund merged with All Hands Volunteers to form All Hands and Hearts to support communities during and after the first responders take action.

It's hard to speak to Nemcova and not mention the 2004 tsunami. While her photographer boyfriend Simon Atlee passed on, Nemcova clung onto a palm tree for eight hours before she was rescued. Although I didn't ask her to talk me through the incident (she's recalled it countless times in other interviews), I did question the former Sports Illustrated cover model on what was the exact impetus behind the creation of the Happy Hearts Fund. "When I was able to walk again, I went back to Thailand to see what the biggest need was," she responded, her speech still accented from her time growing up in former Czechoslovakia. "After speaking to the community members, I learned that when the first responders leave... how are they going to rebuild their life?"

Nemcova learned of two major patterns that happen to disaster-struck communities. That when first responders leave, the support leaves as well; and that children often wait up to four to six years before they can go to school again — and even then, it doesn't mean those schools are disaster-resilient. When proper schools aren't present for that long, you lose a generation. "If you rebuild a home, you help one family," Nemcova continued, "but if you rebuild a school, you help many families. When children go back to school, parents can go back to work. Children can start healing from trauma because there's a sense of normalcy."

Petra Nemcova in Bandung
Nemcova and her organisation commit their time to rebuilding schools that are disaster-resilient as well, so that they serve as shelters. Closer to home, Happy Hearts Fund started rebuilding schools in Yogyakarta after the earthquake in 2006. They now have a presence in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Sumba, Timor and Sulawesi. In Singapore, she launched the Happy Hearts Funds' #IAmChange campaign, a five-year programme that aims to rebuild 200 schools in East Indonesia by 2023. She's also encouraging travellers from Singapore and the region to join their volunteer program instead of just dropping a cheque.

As our chat covered her charity work, conscious buying and the importance of a positive mind, I uncovered Nemcova's vision for a more responsible way of life. Read on.

What are three things you've learned from your modeling career that has helped you in philanthropy?
Patience and determination, adaptability, and openness. In the fashion industry, things are very uncertain and if you give up too early, you never reach your goal. In philanthropy, there are some setbacks — you can't get the paperwork done, or the rainy season comes and you have to delay everything. As a model, you have to adapt constantly to designers and brands, and when you're at a photoshoot in extreme weather, you have to be adaptable. Also to personalities — those that are easygoing or structured. That adaptability also translates to philanthropy where you are adapting to different cultures, weather patterns and different needs of donors and communities. When you're in fashion and open to learning from people, you're able to make better shapes and poses. When you're able to learn from nature around you, you're able to create a different light and focus for the picture. In philanthropy, you have to be open to learning from people with a wealth of knowledge. If you're not open, you miss out completely and aren't able to find solutions. There are always lessons learnt that can pave your way to a different industry.

Petra Nemcova in a Sports Illustrated cover, 2003

While we're still in the first quarter of the new year, a lot of people are thinking of making a change in their lives. What are some tips you can give to those embarking on a more sustainable lifestyle?
Each individual has so much more power than we think. Everyday, we make so many decisions on what we buy. Every decision that we make has this ripple effect. If we buy a coffee which is fair trade, that coffee is making sure that there are proper wages given to the farmers and that it has taken care of the planet and soil. Or you can buy regular coffee, which does the opposite. If it's not properly certified, that means there are shortcuts taken with the planet or the people. Or if you know of a farmer who lives next door to you, then you know how it's being done. Same thing goes to clothing. 10 years ago, I tried to buy sustainable clothing and there was almost nothing to buy — it wasn't comfortable or didn't look good. Now, there are so many amazing options.

You can choose to buy from brands that do their business in a conscious way, or you can buy fast fashion that is polluting the environment in an unbelievable way. We're not able to change 100% of our wardrobe. Maybe the New Year's resolution should be this: Every new item that I buy will be a conscious one. Every new item that I buy has a positive impact on the planet and its people. That's how each individual can change the world. If you start doing it, other people will question you and might join in as well. That's how you create a movement. 

You're a global brand ambassador for Chopard, Mercedes and Tumi and have appeared in ad campaigns throughout the years. How do you put this together — the commercially-driven fashion industry that constantly conditions us to buy — with your own efforts in sustainability?
It's okay to buy, but put parameters around it. If I buy something, I want to make sure it's something that lasts for a long time. Livia Firth started posting the hashtag, #30wears, where everything she buys has to be able to be worn at least 30 times. We don't have to buy things all the time. If we buy quality things, they will last for years. Think consciously instead of making impulsive buys.

One of the things I'm trying to do consciously as someone on the red carpet is the green carpet challenge, by wearing sustainable clothing on the red carpet. So either I wear a vintage dress or clothes which are made from sustainable fabric or are sustainably sourced. This is something I've been doing for the Oscars and Cannes, so that we send a strong message to others to think about what we're wearing. It's not always possible, but whenever I can plan it, I try to work with a different designer — either one I know who makes sustainable clothes, or someone who hasn't worked with sustainable materials before.

Petra Nemcova as the Vanity Fair Oscars party, wearing a Redemption dress

Hopefully, this will inspire consumers who are asking for sustainable fashion, and on the other side, inspire designers to take the extra step in their collection to make it sustainable because there's a demand for it. Again, this goes back to the power of you and your friends — if they keep asking for sustainable fashion, then the brands have to respond to it.

When I buy something, I keep it in my closet and wear it for two years, and maybe come back to it five or 10 years later. I love going back to my wardrobe and discovering, 'Oh my God, I love this jacket' — it's like going shopping in your wardrobe.

It's been 14 years since the tragedy struck. What was the one thing that helped you go through it, which you'd recommend to others who are also going through their own personal events?

We all go through tragedies in our lives. What I found was a powerful lesson. What we don't know is that we all have a choice, and that choice is to focus on the positive. Negativity will breed more negativity. If you think, 'Oh this is horrible, this is so sad', you're going to get more depressed. But if you can focus on the 5% of positivity, then you will be able to get stronger mentally.

Once we're stronger mentally, not only do our moods change, but our bodies heal much faster. There's unbelievable power in the mind, our response and our intentions. The most amazing gift we can give to anyone is the power of intention and the power of focusing on positivity. When I was in the hospital, I didn't know whether I was going to walk. I said, 'If I cannot walk, I still have my arms, I have my eyes, I can see, I can hear, there are so many things to be grateful for'. I lost my partner, but I was grateful that I still have my parents, my sister and my friends. This excitement makes your mind stronger and your body gets impulses to heal faster. I healed from my injuries in less than four months — many people from the same injuries heal in two years.

There is also another part. To me, I knew if I was going to be sad, my parents and my sister were going to be sad as well, and we will lose the precious moments. You never know what will happen the next day. If we are sad today, we are taking the precious moments of being happy together, and I didn't want to be selfish. When I caught myself being sad, I would say, 'Okay, I was sad for one hour to get the grief out of my body, lets think about what I'm grateful for'. It seems like such a simple formula, but it's true. It's about gratitude — looking back at what I'm thankful for in the past, now, and in the future.

Petra Nemcova was in Singapore on 11 March for Happy Hearts Fund.

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Text: Adibah Isa

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