December 21, 2017 / 11:00 AM / a year ago

RPT-A Model Life: How Petra Nemcova transformed tragedy into joy

 (Repeats with no changes to headline or text.)
    By Chris Taylor
    NEW YORK, Dec 21 (Reuters) - 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 (,
 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
    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
    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.

 (Editing by Lauren Young and G Crosse)
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