Helena Houdová – bridging the worlds of humanitarian aid and modelling

As a champion of animal rights and an advocate of green politics, Plzeň-born Helena Houdová was an atypical beauty queen when she became Miss Czech Republic in 1999. She went on to become one of the few winners of the competition to enjoy a successful international career as a model, though today her time is split between modelling and running the Sunflower Children humanitarian organisation. It’s based in New York, which is where I met Helena Houdová.

Helena Houdová
My first question concerned her childhood devotion to the ideas of Jaroslav Foglar, a hugely popular Czech children’s author and devotee of scouting.

“I definitely loved Foglar and mayovky [books by German author Karel May] as well. My grandpa and my dad had so many books and I actually collected them. Who knows where they are right now.

“Me and my girlfriends were so full of it and we were trying to live something called ‘blue life’, where you have to do one good deed every day and follow certain rules, exercise in the mornings and be nice to people.

“I think it gave me a good…perception of future life, what I really want to do and what is my purpose here. It was a good start, I believe.”

I also read that when you were a teenager you were a volunteer for some kind of institution, and you even learned sign language.

“I did try to learn sign language. I was able to speak sign language, but lately I haven’t used it so I’ve forgotten a lot. Now I can’t say I speak sign language.

“But yes, I always had this feeling that I have to be part of the world, and not to be part of something I don’t agree with.

“I always cared, for some reason. I never had that stage where I had to look for reasons why I’m on this planet – I always knew I’m here because I’m supposed to be helpful and do stuff for other people, or animals.”

It may seem surprising then to some people that an idealistic teenager entered the Miss Czech Republic competition. Why did you enter?

Helena Houdová in 1999,  photo: CTK
“For the same reason completely – I thought I could change the world, by being famous (laughs), which was a very naïve idea.

“I was really upset by all these interviews with all these singers and actors who were talking about how much money they had, and how they spent it on their…carpets and holidays.

“I was disgusted, because I was thinking these people have so much power they can offer different ways of approaching the world. So I decided I will be famous too! (laughs). Of course, I knew I wouldn’t be a singer so I went through that beauty competition.”

How hard was it to get used to really being famous? You were only 19 at the time.

“Oh, it was terrible. I was so naïve and so idealistic and I thought that everybody would understand. It wasn’t true, because everybody was searching for some bad intentions – people thought it was a pose from me.

“I felt a lot of pressure because I felt that I had to prove myself, to show people that this is real. Then I just gave up, and basically left the Czech Republic for that reason.

“Because when you are Miss, people expect you to be this beautiful blonde, high heel-wearing, make up-wearing girl. And that wasn’t me. I was an old hippie who really wanted to change the world. So I left and I started my charity here in the US.”

Tell us about your Sunflower Children organisation. What do you do?

“We support disadvantaged children around the world. We work with orphans, children with HIV, handicapped children. We basically support local high, high quality NGOs.

“I feel like my power is in connecting these two worlds, because I’m an anthropologist and I’ve worked with children since I was 16, 17, and I understand what kind of needs they have.

“And I also understand the other part, which is donor philanthropy and also the fashion business. I am basically bridging those two worlds.”

Do you work in a hands-on way yourself? Do you yourself go to these countries in Africa and elsewhere?

“I do. I’ve basically visited every single project we work on, except two. You know, if you come to your donors and you want to explain what exactly people are dealing with, you have to be able to know their exact needs.

“So yes, I go to slums and I live there with the people. I am used to sleeping on the floor. I am used to being next to drug dealers, I’m used to hold dying children. Not that I’m used to it, but that’s part of it – when you go and evaluate projects you have to make sure that you understand the everyday situation of those people.”

Is it hard to go back from that to your modelling career and this world here in New York?

“Of course it is. It’s much harder than going there, to those places. In the very beginning I had big trouble accepting that I could even buy myself a dinner which could feed 50 children for, you know, some time.

“But then I realised that I do have to be part of this world, to be able to support the other one.”

How does charity and philanthropy compare here in New York and in the Czech Republic?

“Here it’s part of the culture. Here people feel very…being part of Sunflower Children is a prestigious thing for them.

“In the Czech Republic it’s still building. It’s not quite there yet, but I think the situation is changing there. We lived under communism for 40 years, so people were not used to giving to other people in need, though there was secret…social giving.

“But I think it’s changing for the better and I’m learning a lot from here. Because here there are huge philanthropic circles, their passion is really to make a difference.

“In Czech I felt I was the only one, I felt really alone, I didn’t know that this is normal, I always felt I am strange because I am different. But to be different here is good.”

My final question is, after four years in New York, what’s the attraction for you of living here?

“Just sitting here in Central Park right now and watching people walking here from all corners of the planet, and learning their culture and learning their dreams…

“And also the fact that New York was built on tolerance, because so many nations came here and said, let’s make a city here. They had to learn how to live with each other, regardless of religion or beliefs or race.

“It’s a city which gives you quite a lot of self-confidence. And it gives you the possibility to accomplish whatever you think is the way you want to live.”