It is the stuff of fairy tales. Growing up in a small town in the Czech Republic, Karolina Kurkova was, in her words, “the tall, skinny nerd”. Whenever someone pointed a camera in her direction, she never wanted to smile. “I thought my teeth were too big,” she remembers.
But after a friend sent her photos to a modeling agency in Prague, the self-conscious 15-year-old landed a runway appearance, before being whisked to Milan and signing a contract with Prada. Then, in September 1999, she was hand-picked by Anna Wintour for an American Vogue photo shoot with Steven Meisel, one of the biggest names in fashion photography.
“He said my smile was beautiful. So I started smiling!” Kurkova recalls. Wintour put one of the shots on the February 2001 issue
“Steven Meisel told me that my SMILE was BEAUTIFUL, so I started smiling!”
cover. In the photo, Kurkova is striding along, wearing a white jacket and floral skirt, glancing over her shoulder, beaming.
Twelve years after that career-defining moment, Kurkova is sitting opposite me in the courtyard of the Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca, NYC. Now 29, she has countless covers, editorials and campaigns to her name. Yet she still has that quality Meisel encouraged – the ability to radiate gorgeousness at 100 paces. (I swear our waiter’s hand wobbles as he pours her water.) “I know I’m lucky to do this work,” she admits, her accent American with Eastern European emphasis. “I get to express myself and work with creative people. So I don’t think of it as work; it’s what I love.”
Kurkova’s down-to-earth attitude is thanks to her modest beginnings in her hometown, Decin. Her father was a well-known basketball player, so she was spared the worst deprivations of Communism. Even so, it was a humble upbringing – her artistic mother would hand-make her clothes. After the Velvet Revolution ended in 1992, Kurkova’s parents encouraged her to travel. “It is thanks to them and to
Vest by Marc Jacobs; shorts by R13; sandals and belt by Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane; necklaces (from top) by Maria Black and Pamela Love; bangles (from top) by Anita Ko and Diane Kordas