The headline seemed to belong to another era, its actors seemingly frozen in time. Bill Clinton still looked presidential. Petra Nemcova still looked like a supermodel. But for the small matter of the half million dollars connecting the two celebrities, it could have been 1999 all over again.
The huge sum linking the two, however, speaks to the transformation they have each made since leaving the limelight.
On Friday, the New York Times reported allegations that Nemcova’s charity, Happy Hearts Fund, donated $500,000 to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation in a quid pro quo transaction for the president to appear at a swanky fundraiser. The article, by investigative reporter Deborah Sontag, quoted an expert calling the arrangement “distasteful.”
“The Clinton Foundation had rejected the Happy Hearts Fund invitation more than once, until there was a thinly veiled solicitation and then the offer of an honorarium,” Happy Hearts’ former executive director, Sue Veres Royal, told the Times.
The controversy follows others involving the Clinton Foundation, including questions over the huge fees commanded by Bill and Hillary as well questions over the foundation’s donors and transparency.
A major difference in this case, however, is the mesmerizing figure alongside Bill Clinton in photos of the June 2014 fundraiser: Nemcova.
In hindsight, Clinton’s progression from president to high-powered philanthropist almost seems inevitable. Few people predicted that the loquacious Arkansan would slink quietly into the political night.
Nemcova’s path from strutting catwalks to hosting the former president at a glitzy gala, however, has been punctured by tragedy and personal reinvention.
Born in what was then Czechoslovakia, Nemcova was 10 when the “Velvet Revolution” began and 12 when communism collapsed across Europe. “I remember turning on the television and for days and days there were images of people marching through the streets – students, intellectuals, men, women,” she wrote. “It was a revolution to end a regime but it was done totally peacefully: no riots, no weapons. It was a quiet storm. That was what brought this massive change and suddenly the world around us opened up and the course of my life altered forever. I would never have been able to become a model under communism.”
Three years later, she was spotted by fashion scouts in Prague. By 15, she was strutting the runways of Milan. But the “moral capital of Italy” was full of danger for the leggy Czech teenager. She spoke little English, even less Italian and was far too trusting. “I had no understanding that sometimes people just lie,” she wrote. “If a man said he was a prince, I would believe it. I had to learn quickly. You either fall on your backside or you listen. I chose to listen. At the time, spiking models’ drinks was a big thing to do in nightclubs; I was so paranoid about it for years I only drank bottled water after.”
Nemcova’s big break came in 2002 when she appeared in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Her success spiraled upward, from TV appearances to Sports Illustrated’s next swimsuit cover and a lucrative role as a Victoria’s Secret angel in 2003.
That was the same year she met fashion photographer Simon Atlee. “He was handsome and hilarious, creative and sensitive,” according to his father. She was arguably the most beautiful woman in the world. It was too perfect to last.
Nemcova’s life and body were both crushed on Boxing Day 2004, when an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered an enormous tsunami.
“I was with the man I loved, the man who had asked me to marry him, and it was the day after Christmas and we were packing from the most beautiful holiday in Thailand,” she wrote. “We had just come back to our room after a walk on the beach. Everything was wonderful. The only different thing was that the sea had pulled right back off the beach which seemed strange, but nothing like a sign of what was going to happen. Then there were shouts from the beach and I looked out of the window and there was just a wall of water. It crashed through the bungalow; there was black water, broken glass everywhere. My last memory of Simon is seeing him on the bungalow roof and thinking: ‘He’s a better swimmer than me, he’ll be okay.’ I heard him shout my name and I shouted his name and then I was out in the water, clinging to a roof seeing nothing but water.
“After the first wave hit, there was a second wave and I was in the water. I felt myself starting to swallow the water and I knew this was the moment my life was going to end. It was actually a moment of pure bliss. I totally let go of any worries, any thoughts; I just accepted this was it. I felt weightless in the water and completely at peace. Then the water just as quickly pulled away and I opened my eyes to see bright blue sky. In a split second my brain clicked back into survival mode. As I was being dragged I knew I had to find something to cling on to, so I grabbed at a tree. I remained in that tree conscious and unconscious for the next eight hours.
“I was in total agony and blacking out every now and again. But I tried to remain focused. The most heart-breaking sounds were cries of children all around me. I couldn’t get to any of them and then the cries would stop. I could only move with my arms because my pelvis was broken and when the water subsided I was screaming in pain; when the water came back it relieved the pain.”
Nemcova was rescued by a local man who covered the naked, wounded model in his own clothes. Atlee’s body was found months later, several miles away. More than 200,000 other people across Southeast Asia were also swept out to sea and drowned by the massive wave.
The experience scarred the supermodel, literally and figuratively. Her injuries were so severe that it took her months to walk again. Her career was effectively over.
So Nemcova reinvented herself. Haunted by the screams of children and inspired by the memory of her fiance, she started the Happy Hearts Fund, a charity dedicated to building schools in countries affected by natural disasters.
For the past decade, Nemcova has grown her organization, seeking out celebrities and politicians from around the globe to drum up funds to build scores of schools. According to the New York Times investigation, she had been courting Clinton since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Her foundation first asked him to be its annual gala’s honoree in 2011, then again in 2013.
“Mr. Clinton’s scheduler replied with a cordial rejection — ‘Regrettably, he is committed to another event out of town that same evening,'” Sontag reported. “Ms. Nemcova then met with officers at the Clinton Foundation, Ms. Veres Royal said. Afterward, she said, ‘Petra called me and said we have to include an honorarium for him — that they don’t look at these things unless money is offered, and it has to be $500,000.’
“The invitation letter was revised and sent again at the end of August. It moved the gala to 2014, offered to work around Mr. Clinton’s schedule, dropped the focus on Indonesia and shifted it to Haiti, and proposed the donation.”
Representatives for Happy Hearts and the Clinton Foundation told the Times that the foundation had not solicited the donation.
But that’s not how it’s being portrayed in many news accounts, and Clinton critics are having a field day with the story.
“Clinton Foundation shook down supermodel’s charity,” said the New York Post.
“Not surprisingly,” wrote Linda Stasi of the New York Daily News, the story involves “Bill and a blond — a gorgeous, blond supermodel bombshell. Very surprisingly, the scandal doesn’t involve sex. But not surprisingly, it does involve money. A lot of money.”