Petra Němcová knows how to make an entrance. The former Victoria’s Secret model spent years strutting her stuff at fashion shows around the world, and even though she no longer works the runways she still knows how to capture the room.
It would be easy to pigeonhole the former swimwear model, but Němcová speaks five languages (Czech, Slovak, Polish, English, French and Italian) and is better known for her humanitarian work than her career in fashion. After losing her fiancé in the 2004 boxing day tsunami, she has devoted her life to raising funds for disaster stricken communities.
Over a decade later, her charity, the Happy Hearts Fund, counts some of the world’s biggest brands as supporters, operating across 10 countries and responsible for building 165 schools. Get Němcová on the subject of travel and she’s effusive, even philosophical.
‘Travel is so important for the future of humanity,’ says Němcová, a Czech who grew up in former Czechoslovakia without the freedom to travel beyond other communist states. ‘Travel transforms you, and when you can transform yourself you can transform the world. It has opened up my heart to the beauty and richness of the world.’
The Happy Hearts Fund was created to keep supporting communities even after the news cameras disappeared. ‘It can take up to four years to rebuild a school following a disaster. When this happens a generation loses out on their education.’ So far the Happy Hearts Fund has helped get over 100,000 children back in the classroom.
Her work demands a lot of time on the road (Němcová visits at least two countries every week) but her career in fashion prepared her for a peripatetic lifestyle of hotel rooms, night flights and downtime snatched between appointments. You’d think it would be hard for the well-travelled humanitarian to pick a favourite destination, but she’s straight in before Culture Trip has even finished the question.
‘Haiti,’ says Němcová, who once dated the Caribbean country’s former prime minister Laurent Lamothe and spent two years living in Port-au-Prince. ‘It’s known for being poor and disaster-stricken but there’s also so much joy, art and music. In one moment you can experience so many emotions that make you feel alive.’
Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Happy Hearts Fund helped to rebuild what the Minister of Education at the time, Joel Jean-Pierre, called ‘the total collapse of the Haitian education system.’ The charity built thirteen schools with twelve computer labs (it counts Microsoft as one of its donors).
Along with Haiti in the Caribbean, Cusco in the Peruvian Andes is another of Němcová’s favourite destinations. ‘I love that you can feel the presence of history in such a powerful yet subtle way,’ she says.
‘The markets in Cusco are incredible and you can buy these little potions to bring you love and money,’ she says, laughing a little when Culture Trip asks if she’s tested the potions herself. ‘No, but I have bought them for friends and family!’
In Cusco, high above even Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, life is tough. ‘The community live on potatoes and herbs,’ says Němcová, ‘but their artisanal work is incredible, a total explosion of colour.’ Following the 2007 earthquake and the floods of 2012 and 2013, the Happy Hearts Fund has rebuilt ten schools with nine computer labs in Peru.
Not just well-heeled but extremely well-travelled, it comes as a surprise to Culture Trip that The B is Němcová’s first time on a cruise ship. She joins us with her trusted Tumi suitcase tucked away in the corner. ‘I live in my luggage, it’s my little home on wheels. It has to be sturdy because it gets abused, but after 17 years it hasn’t let me down yet!’
Němcová is on board as The B’s guardian angel, joining a group of American influencers on the ship’s maiden four-day sail along the Seine. ‘The whole design is so fresh and I love the full length mirrors and many other practicalities for ladies.’
Looking up at the Eiffel Tower, the tip of which peaks out from behind a row of apartment buildings, Němcová reflects on her own time in the French capital. ‘Paris holds a special place in my heart, I even lived here for a few years,’ she says. ‘My career really kicked off in France. After spending a year in Milan it was at Cannes Film Festival where something special happened to me.’
After a long and successful career in modelling which has seen her work for the likes of Benetton, Bulgari and Cartier, Němcová is no stranger to the high life. ‘With U by Uniworld you get to explore different cities in comfort,’ she says. ‘Once people see The B there’s no question they’ll want to be here, it’s in a category of its own.’
A sentiment that could also describe the former model who defies stereotypes and transforms disaster-stricken communities, one school at a time. Travel from London to Paris by Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) costs from £58 per person.
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