Petra Nemcova was on holiday from her busy life as a fashion model in Khao Lak, Thailand, on December 26, 2004. It was a sunny day. She and Simon Atlee, her boyfriend, had woken up early. They walked on the beach before breakfast. They talked about the future. Nemcova thought the tide looked extreme. She attributed it to the full moon the night before. It was the couple’s last day at Orchid Beach Resort. They were supposed to leave in two hours, and they went back to pack. Their bungalow was steps from the water.
The tsunami hit at 10 a.m. local time.
Nemcova heard screams. “I looked up, and I saw everyone running. Within a millisecond, the wave crashed into our bungalow.” Water mixed with glass and debris, becoming like concrete rushing down the beach. Then the current swept Atlee and Nemcova out of their obliterated shelter and apart from each other.
“I thought he would be okay, because he’s much stronger and a much better swimmer than me,” says Nemcova. It was the last time she saw him. “That day wasn’t about strength. It was about luck.”
Nemcova was crushed by the water’s power. It broke her pelvis in four places. She also suffered internal injuries. Pulled by the currents, she spotted two palm trees. She passed the first one. She caught the second. It was the last vestige of earth before the land gave way to the sea. She clung to it for eight hours.
Nemcova didn’t realize the true extent of her injuries until the water started to recede. It was pushing against her pelvis and helped to ease the strain. “Water can cause pain, or take away pain,” she says, with wisdom born of struggle. “It’s [the same] with everything. A knife can cause harm, or it can perform surgery.”
The water swept almost 300,000 people away that day. At one point, when she was being held underneath the wave, Nemcova made peace with the thought that she wouldn’t survive the ordeal. She calls that decision a beautiful moment. “It became a metaphor for life. Sometimes, when we try to push against debris or against a wall, we don’t get anywhere. But when you trust and let go and surrender, we get where we’re supposed to be.”
Nemcova doesn’t wear her personal struggles on her sleeve. Since the tsunami, her life has been defined by an inner strength to overcome her brush with death, losing Atlee, and the inevitable scrutiny of life as public figure. But the ordeal has inspired and empowered the onetime Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model to become a full-time activist for disaster relief.
About a year after the tsunami, Nemcova founded Happy Hearts Fund, a nonprofit that rebuilds schools in areas impacted by natural disasters. To date, they’ve built 162. Her long-term goal is to enable people to give to both immediate and sustained relief efforts. By educating donors about the lasting impact natural disasters have on communities, she hopes to encourage a paradigm shift in how people think about and allocate aid.
The idea to focus on continued relief was sparked when Nemcova went back to Thailand four months after the tsunami. At that point, she was able to walk. “Most people take a lot longer than that [to recover],” she says. She attributes her rapid healing to her positive mental outlook.
“A huge part of it was meditation, and working my mind to focus on positivity, so I can go back and help,” she says. As she clung to the palm tree, she heard children’s screams. Then, they faded. “That day, I had no choice [to save them]. But every day, we all have a choice to do something. And that’s one of the main drivers in my journey.”
To date, Happy Hearts Fund has entered 10 countries, giving 99,500 students access to education. By accelerating school construction, the nonprofit closes the gap period between the time a natural disaster strikes and when a community returns to some semblance of normalcy.
Rebuilding schools through Happy Hearts Fund is just one piece of the recovery, but it’s a piece that benefits the entire community. Schools help restore hope in areas that have been destroyed by natural disasters. “After a [disaster], there is all this adrenaline from the shock. But people have lost everything. After a few months, that adrenaline is replaced by hopelessness if people feel like no one cares,” Nemcova says.
“I want to create a platform where individuals who want to help after a natural disaster can support a community in a way that [allows people] to have their lives back,” she continues. In a new and connected initiative, she is working to set up a system that would enable companies to set aside a percentage of their relief contributions to a more long-term fund that would kick in after the first rush of emergency aid dries up. Nemcova and her team are still in the research phase, learning “how to go about it in the right way,” she says. The first step is education. “Most people don’t know that communities of children are [going without schooling] for four to six years,” she says.
In cases where schools haven’t been leveled, they’re often structurally unsound. They’re missing walls. They’re surrounded by rubble. But they’re overpacked with students who insist on learning regardless. “Their desire to learn is bigger than their fear of death,” says Nemcova of the students. She recently came back from a trip to Nepal to visit a school. The students painted her face red, a blessing. They danced for her. “The music was so happy,” she recalls.
Happy Hearts Fund operates by working with partner organizations in each host country. About six to nine months after a disaster, the Happy Hearts team reaches out to local nongovernmental organizations or to companies that have a robust corporate social responsibility program. They visit the country and meet with both potential partners and community leaders to determine how to complement their efforts, aiming for each to contribute half of the funds needed to build the school.
Happy Hearts is dedicated to bringing new technologies, particularly computers, to the schools. They don’t change the state-mandated curricula. “We want to be respectful, but we try to bring in extra curriculum based on needs, the community, and the potential ability to partner,” Nemcova says. The group maintains relationships with the schools after they’re built. In Mexico, for example, international educator and public speaker Richard Gerver will soon offer workshops to school principals on how to feel more empowered as leaders.
Nemcova grew up in a mining town about five hours outside of Prague. Her mother was a teacher. Her father was a construction worker. She is close to her sister, Olga. They lived a simple life. She had the same winter shoes for seven years, but there was always food on the table.
As a teenager, Nemcova applied for different modeling contests. She won Look of the Year for Elite Models in 1996, and she moved to Milan when she was 18, eventually modeling for brands like Victoria’s Secret and Pantene. In 2003, she landed the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. She appeared in five other SI Swimsuit editions, most recently in 2006. Currently, Nemcova models for Chopard, Tumi and Mercedes-Benz.
Even before the tsunami, Nemcova had an interest in charity. At that early stage in her career, she had role models who used their platform to create positive change. Now, her two careers keep her jetting between the world’s most impoverished situations and its most prestigious ones. Happy Hearts Fund takes up the vast majority of her time. By marrying her two worlds, she believes, she is better positioned to educate people about narrowing the gap period in disaster relief.
The first few times Nemcova modeled after the tsunami, she cried. “I was like, what’s the purpose of this,” she remembers. “But everyone was in touch, asking ‘How can we help?’ and ‘What can we do?’ And I understood that I can be this bridge between those who need help, and the others who want to help.” The first supporters of her efforts were in the fashion industry. They’re still very involved.
Nemcova draws strength from a number of her post-tsunami experiences. She recalls being in the hospital on New Year’s Eve 2004. She was in pain. Her sister called the doctor. He reminded her of the power of positive thinking, telling her, “Sometimes, when we have pain on the scale of one to ten, it feels like ten when it’s actually only four. When we focus our intention on the pain, it becomes much greater than it is,” recalls Nemcova. The next morning, she was still hurting, but for the first time, she could move.
She carries that toughness with her, even when she’s under attack. A 2015 New York Times article alleged, among other things, that Happy Hearts Fund donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation as a quid pro quo for Bill Clinton’s appearance at the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary gala, and quoted a philanthropy expert calling the exchange “distasteful.” Nemcova never responded. A week later, an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times said the New York Times piece had “set a world record for fact-free insinuation,” and cited its attack on Nemcova as collateral damage from media hostility to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.
Nemcova maintains the same stance she took in 2015: silence. “I can focus my energies on responding, or I can focus my energies on Happy Hearts Fund,” she says, noting that if she responds to the attack, “as a public person, you can never win.” She wants to put more positive vibes into the world, as opposed to fueling the negative ones. Happy Hearts Fund has four stars on Charity Navigator, the highest rating given by the nonprofit charity watchdog.
Even with her sunny outlook, Nemcova allowed herself time to grieve. She gained closure on Atlee’s fate when his body was discovered on March 3, 2005. But she was conscientious in not allowing the grief to consume her life. “The way I was dealing with it, I would grieve for an hour or an hour and a half, and then I said to myself, ‘That’s enough.’” By being sad, she was “taking away the ability for [my parents, my sister and I] to be happy together. And that to me was selfish.”
Today, she reflects on the best way to remember Atlee: to celebrate life. “The greatest way to honor him is to be happy. He wanted me to be happy.” Atlee gave her many gifts. One was sharing his family and friends. They still have a strong bond with her.
Los Angeles is home for Nemcova now, though she has lived in New York on and off for years. She likes the year-round sunshine and access to the outdoors. She sees love in everything, especially nature. On set at AVENUE’s cover shoot, Nemcova is an expert multitasker. She responds to emails and WhatsApp messages. She plans a Happy Hearts Fund gala in Mexico. She chats with everyone. She is always smiling.
Nemcova, photographer Alvin Kean Wong and hair stylist Damian Monzillo talk about their tattoos. Nemcova has a few. There is a small one on her left wrist, a black “108.” She got the tattoo many years after the tsunami. The number is considered sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Separately, each number also has individual significance: The 1 represents a connection to a higher self. The 0 represents nothingness, “and in nothingness, you can create anything,” says Nemcova. The 8 is an inverted infinity sign signifying everlasting unconditional love.
Born under communism, Nemcova is not religious. But she has taken the lessons derived from her struggles to heart. In her post tsunami life, “the biggest gift, after getting the gift of life, is getting the key to the spiritual world,” she says. “[I learned] how I can be a conscious creator of my own life and my destiny.”
Helping herself gave Petra Nemcova the power to aid countless others in communities around the world. The tsunami deepened her connection to spirituality, but generations to come will feel, see and benefit from the lessons she learned.
styled by Emily Barnes
hair by Damian Monzillo for Creative Management using Seven Hair Care
makeup by Alexa Rodulfo using Clé de Peau Beauté Le Sérum
fashion assistance by Edwin Exaus