Paulina Porizkova: A Model Traveler
Travel Interviews: Supermodel Paulina Porizkova has written a novel and contributed a story to "Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic." David Farley sits down with the model-turned-author to talk travel and the writing life.
01.09.07 | 8:27 AM ET
Paulina Porizkova is no ordinary globe-trotting supermodel. The Czech-born model has not only graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue twice, but she’s known for her sharp wit. Now, at 41, she has turned to writing for her second career. Porizkova recently penned a memorable piece about her visits to the country of her birth for Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories (I co-edited the book). And her first novel, A Model Summer, will be published this spring by Hyperion. She has plenty of compelling material for a writing career: After her parents fled to Sweden when she was a child, a highly publicized international custody case between then-Communist Czechoslovakia and Sweden ensued; eventually, 9-year-old Paulina was re-united with her family, after being given an unceremonious boot across the Iron Curtain to Sweden with the condition that she could never return to her native land. These days, she lives in New York City with her husband, musician Ric Ocasek, and their two children. That’s where I sat down with her to chat.
World Hum: How did your childhood in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War shape your travel sensibilities?
Paulina Porizkova: I think I was too much of a child for it to really affect me. The first trip I ever wanted to take—and still haven’t done to this day and I know I never will—was to go see Lenin in Red Square.
Do you remember much about crossing the Iron Curtain?
[Laughing] Did you not read the story I wrote for your book?! I do remember holding my mom’s hand and waving goodbye down a long straight road, mine fields on both sides of us, and my dad waiting on the Austrian side of the border.
As a supermodel, you’ve really traversed the planet. What are some of the more memorable places you visited?
I’ll never forget filming a television commercial in Thailand at the bridge over the River Kwai. That’s what’s interesting about being a model: You end up going places you’d never think you’d go. We were in the middle of the jungle with huge tarantulas jumping out at us. There were these women set up at the edge of the jungle who were making soup and, as they were chopping up vegetables to put in the pot, they weren’t really too concerned about the flies that were getting into the mix. And the soup was actually quite good—flies and all.
Let’s talk about something less unsavory—like writing. You’re actually one of the most well-read people I know. Who are your favorite writers?
Thanks. Do they have to be travel writers? If so, I’d only have to say you because you’re the only travel writer I know—and I don’t want to do that because you don’t even remember my story for Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic that you edited. But really, just off the top of my head, I have favorite classic writers—Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Balzac—and I have favorite contemporary writers—John Updike, Ian McEwan and Mark Helprin, among others.
It really comes down to books, and not authors. A lot of authors I like have books I love and books that I think are just okay. For example, I’ve never liked Hemingway, but I think “A Moveable Feast” is great.
Oh, so you have read some travel literature?
That’s a travel book? You’re right. Come to think of it, I also just read a hilarious book about a guy who moves to some island in the Equatorial Pacific with his wife.
‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals’ by J. Maarten Troost.
Yes! I also remember that I read “Paris to the Moon,” which was well-written but I hated Adam Gopnik’s attitude. He seemed so entitled as an American. He wasn’t really trying to fit in. I always have a problem with American writers writing about France or Italy, for example, when they view everything through American eyes. The garbage people are on strike again!
I see your point, but perhaps if a writer completely divorces herself or himself of that attitude and loses that outsider’s perspective, the place ceases to seem exotic and is no longer as interesting to write about.
That’s true. As much as I love America, it’s so insulated. When you read a European writer who’s writing about a place, the tone has a completely different feel to it.
So, Americans: bad travelers or the worst travelers?
Americans are not aware that they should try to adapt. They’re like bricks: They’re square and they’re proud of it. But I have to say, they’re not the worst travelers. I’d have to give that award to travelers from the former East Germany. They hardly got to go anywhere in the first place, and so when they went to the other Eastern European countries around them, for the first times in their lives they had more money than anyone else. And this made them the most obnoxious jerks in the universe.
What inspired you to start writing?
I always knew I would. In addition to having been a storyteller—I was the one around the campfire who always had a ghost story—I used to write a lot in school; when I had to do a three-page writing assignment, I’d write 13 pages. I’d end up getting an “A” because I don’t think the teacher could bother reading it all.
It seems that we have a hard time letting someone who’s well known at one thing do something completely different. Since so many people associate you with modeling, are you concerned that your novel is not going to be received so well? I don’t think any supermodels have undertaken writing literary fiction before.
I can’t say I’m worried about it because it’s a fact of life. I already experienced it in acting in the way people in the movie business regarded me. The writer Jennifer Egan used to be a model, but I suppose she wasn’t very well known until she became a writer. As for well-known models who ended up writing, I might be the first who actually did the writing in her own book. [Laughs] I know my novel is going to get bashed because once you’re associated with one particular thing, they don’t want to see you doing something else.
Your novel—which takes place in Paris and Italy, among other places—allowed you to write in the same way a travel writer might. What was the most challenging aspect of trying to capture a sense of place?
Writing about Paris was easy because I lived there for three years. One of the things that really puts you in a place more than the tourist is when you start learning background stuff like children’s songs and TV shows that everyone watched when they were young. If you don’t know that stuff, you’re not quite assimilated. So, given that I’d already done all that when I moved to Sweden, I just took it for granted that I’d have to do the same thing when I moved to Paris when I was 15. Basically, I started from a child’s point of view and worked my way up and I really learned a lot that way. I really hate feeling like a tourist. So when I was writing about Paris, the feeling of it was still very much in my head—I just had to confer with a lot of guidebooks to refresh my memory on the way certain places and landmarks looked. Also, I go back to France a lot, so that helped too.
Has there been any Paulina Porizkova tourism in your hometown, Prostejov? You know, Paulina pilgrims or anything like that?
[Laughs] I doubt that very much! They did give me a key to the city once, which was nice, and also kind of hysterical. They haven’t erected a statue of me yet.
At least not yet. Thanks very much.