Karolina Kurkova has graced countless catwalks, billboards and magazine covers. Now she’s embarking on a career as an entrepreneur and mentor to young women
If Karolina Kurkova hadn’t become a supermodel, she might have been a terribly attractive archaeologist, chemist or philosopher. “I never thought modelling was going to be my career. At the beginning it was a way for me to learn English and travel, but at school I was amazing at chemistry and very artistic. I had big plans to study music or philosophy or archaeology, but you never know where life will take you and the best things in life sometimes happen unexpectedly. My work has been the most amazing school. I’ve learned about everything from photography and styling to business and marketing.”
Raised in a small town in the Czech Republic, Kurkova was “discovered” at 15 when a friend sent her picture to a modelling agency in Prague. She graced the cover of American Vogue the following year, propelling her to runway stardom. Since then, her towering frame and striking Slavic pout have cemented her place as one of the most successful and highest paid models of the millennium. Her portfolio spans high fashion and high street brands including Chanel, Victoria’s Secret, Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier, H&M, Roberto Cavalli and IWC Schaffhausen.
But it wasn’t just good looks that elevated the 32-year-old mother of two to stardom. Kurkova is known for her indefatigability and rigorous work ethic. Mario Testino once described her X factor as a combination of the “proportions of her body and her face, as well as her energy level.”
That much is obvious when we meet for a coffee on a sunny autumn day in Hong Kong. Interviewing the effervescent blonde is more like a chat with an extroverted BFF. Her runway days may be over but her schedule is still jam-packed as she divides her time between duties as mother; philanthropist (she supports Happy Arts’ tsunami relief work and food charity Feeding America); brand ambassador (she’s in Hong Kong for an event with watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen); and building her own businesses. “Given that I’ve been in the industry for 17 years it would be exciting for me to be part of a company not just as a face, but as a creative director or a marketing director,” she says. “I’m currently looking at a lot of different start-ups with people that I like. They’re not necessarily fashion-related—one is food, one is jewellery. I’m open to all sorts of ideas.”
Kurkova is also planning to launch her own TEDx-style discussions on issues affecting girls, mothers and working women. The idea is still in its infancy, but Kurkova has a strong sense of its mission. “Back in the day, women used to sit in a circle together, they would discuss things, they would help each other give birth, they would be there for each other. I like that,” she says. “I want to bring together women from different fields (teachers, Wall Street bankers, women in fashion) to talk about things that matter because, at the end of the day, I’m sure we have the same questions and issues and we can learn from each other.”
The forums would also be a chance to mentor young girls on body image. “I want to make sure teenagers have good role models, somebody helping them and listening to them not as a teacher or preacher, but more as a friend. I want to talk to them about how to look after your skin, how to dress, how to present yourself ... I think it’s important for young girls to understand the image they are putting out there.” This may seem ironic given Kurkova has spent most of her working life clad in underwear on the catwalk, but it has provided insight into the challenges of creating a personal brand that is authentic and respected.
When she’s not working, she can be found at the gym or in the kitchen experimenting with her slow cooker. But time with her husband Archie Drury, and sons Tobin and Noah, is most important to her. “Time is so valuable, there’s not much of it in a day and there are so many things that need to be done. I’m pulled in every direction with my kids and my work. I want to make the best decisions for my children and provide everything I can for them. It’s demanding but it’s so rewarding.”
This story was originally published in the December 2016 issue of Hong Kong Tatler