These days, when supermodel Petra Nemcova's name is attached to a splashy soiree, you can bet that she's out to raise money and awareness for the Happy Hearts Fund, which she established after her life-changing experience during the 2004 tsunami. Nemcova and her fiancée, photographer Simon Atlee, were staying at a resort in Thailand. Atlee died in the tsunami and Nemcova was seriously injured. Last Friday, both Nemcova and Kate Hudson were honoured for their charitable work at a mega-party thrown by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Unite and produced by Torontonian Barry Avrich.
Just hours before the event (which attracted more than 3,800 guests who paid a minimum $75 admission), she sat down to talk about Happy Hearts, Vietnam and why she's not afraid to eat squid.
Teaming up with Virgin Unite and throwing a big party seems like a great way to let Canadians know about your organization.
Tonight is all about a beautiful celebration of a partnership with a common goal. Virgin Unite focuses on children, as does Happy Hearts. They do education and medical relief, whereas our focus is mainly education in 12 countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Congo. Richard is a very successful businessman and very creative and he approaches philanthropy on a grand scale. I have a lot to learn from him.
How are you able to sustain and build interest for Happy Hearts now that the immediate concern over tsunami victims has dissipated and the media has moved on?
There's a huge gap between first response and when government takes over. We try to fill that gap. We don't do first response. If people want to see what we do, they can come with us and see firsthand; we will take them on our trips.
You travelled extensively as a model. Now you travel for a different reason. What has been the most striking difference?
I travelled to Vietnam for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot a few years ago. We stayed in a beautiful hotel and beside the hotel, people were living in boxes. At that time, I could see it but I could not do anything about it. Now I can. When what I see makes me frustrated, I will turn it into action.
You must admit that being the face of the organization has helped it grow.
I feel like a bridge because I'm not just connecting information, but also two worlds. It's not just those who are more fortunate helping those who are less fortunate. I always say that helping others is actually selfish because when you make them happy, this makes you even happier.
What prompted you to become a vegetarian?
Mostly I'm a vegetarian, but my reason was the sustainability of fish. If we continue consuming at the same rate, there will be no fish in 40 years. This does not apply to squid, so I eat lots of squid and I eat fish that is caught freshly by a fisherman.
Do you think you would have made those changes if the whole tsunami experience never happened?
It would have taken longer. My goal in life has always been to help people, especially children, but the tsunami accelerated things.
What is the biggest difference between the children you see in North America and those in developing countries?
Assuming we're taking about average American children, if you ask them here what they would like, most of the time they say a new PlayStation or toys. When you ask children in Cambodia, they say education. They want to get the best possible education elsewhere in the world so they can come back to Cambodia and make sure other children don't suffer the same way.
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