Vogue Leaders Magazine Interview: Michaela Bakala

13. May 2021

The interview was published in the first print magazine of VOGUE Leaders on May 13, 2021.

PAVLÍNA WOLF asks.
She worked in local and later also in foreign news of the Czech TV. She was also a reporter for the TV Nova show “Na vlastní oči” and there she moderated her own show “Áčko”. Since 2000, she has been moderating “Nad věcí”, “BonaDea” and “Radiofórum” programs for The Czech Radio – ČRo1 Radiožurnál, and she also intensively works on her own podcasts. Since 2020, she has been moderating her own show of Pavlína Wolfová’s 360° on CNN Prima News.

MICHAELA BAKALA
“Beauty queen, businesswoman, mother of four who’s delved into politics and the media, organized her own beauty contest, all while supporting students and the legacy of Václav Havel. My life is a mosaic of the many gifts entrusted to me, I’ve simply tried them out when the time came,” she says of herself. The list has just about everything on it. But it is only when you meet her in person that you understand that each category is a matter for much discussion in itself, discussion with no clear outcome.

How often do you, whom we can assume is very well financially secured, think of those that are not?
I can’t say exactly how often, but my own view is that it is a part of everyone’s lives. I always tell myself not to rest on my laurels. History teaches us that when conditions change, property is taken. You might be flying high one minute and in the depths the next. Naturally, I try to keep a healthy distance. I know how to live with money, but I have to be ready for the eventuality that I might be left with nothing if I were to lose my position. So, I try to stay aware of what people who do not live the life I live have to face each day.

You touched on losing your position – would you know how to live with it?
We are lucky enough not to have been through any extremes like those our predecessors endured. My grandfather was a political prisoner in the 1950s. My grandmother stayed at home with four children and looked after everything. They lost everything, and people avoided them. I remember how it was. It’s something that will stay with me my whole life – enjoy yourself in the present, but never forget who you are and what may lie ahead. Having more than you need, having other people to help you in so many ways, and act as a stand-in for you naturally comes with the risk that you may become lazy and vulnerable. I try hard not to become vulnerable and dependent in my life. So, when my husband came along with opportunities to help others – most of the projects were his idea – we suddenly realized that this is what brings us fulfillment in life. It is far more gratifying to give than to take. But you have to know how to give. You have to keep tabs on yourself within – why are you giving? Ask yourself honestly if you are trying to buy something or someone by giving. You have to know how to give genuinely.

Do you know whom you are helping and why, what those people went through?
Do I understand them? I try. They say that those who have not experienced hardship do not believe what they are told by those who have. But we can learn to. You need to talk to people. I bring my children up to respect people of different faiths, colors, and social standings. They should know that growing up in a secure family, isn’t something that should be taken for granted. I don’t want them standing there, mouth gaping, not knowing what to do with themselves if the day comes when everything suddenly changes. It’s a challenge having a lot of money, you have to learn how to live with it. At the same time, though, I obviously realize that it is more difficult not having money, living under financial pressure, and fearing the future. There are plenty of people tormented by that fear right now. We are intelligent enough to think about it and be able to avoid certain things. However, we also think through what could happen if those of us without those worries, were to let a part of our society tumble. From the long-term perspective, it is unacceptable for us to let that happen.

In your view, is it important to know why someone is helping others? Is it useful to know the motivation for philanthropy?
Why some helps is perhaps of little importance in the end. It’s a question of the conscience and the decisions of all those that decide to help. We should appreciate anyone who actually tries to do something. If you have the money, the simplest thing to do is to send someone 50 dollars. It’s probably easiest to give when you don’t actually become involved in the problem yourself. I try to do it differently, spend time on it, think it through, and try to work out how and under what conditions I can help someone. I am interested in what happens to a person we have helped. I personally take part in the interviews of the students to whom we provide bursaries. I am part of the selection committee, alongside the experts, of course. I want to be there in person.

So, you are aware of the fact that you can’t help everyone, you can’t help every single talented student, you can’t save them all. Have you made your peace with that?
The strange thing is that I have never held the ideal that one person can save the whole world. Not as a student, not as a person who counts helping others as being one of her main goals in life. I never fell under that spell, so it never frustrated me. I say to a great many people – don’t think up anything complicated. We have students that want to study international relations. They will tell you that they’re going to get to the bottom of the conflict between Israel and Palestine or end poverty in Africa. We, too, were convinced that we would do great things at the beginning and gave ourselves big tasks, not small ones. Maybe someone that you help will indeed resolve the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. I, too, would like to meet that person and help them. I say to them, yes, that’s nice, but what about starting at home? Don’t expect to resolve the biggest conflicts in civilization right away. What about starting with small steps and seeing the actual impacts? Go to a retirement home, read someone a book or take them some food. If you set yourself an unbelievably complicated task, you can end up trapped and discouraged when you realize that you have overestimated your powers.

How do you understand the meaning of luxury in such contexts? Wildly expensive clothes, watches, and jewelry? How does that fit in?
There is a certain contradiction with me here. A beauty queen and mother of four who delved into politics and the media, organized her own beauty contest, businesswoman, all while supporting students and the legacy of Václav Havel. My life is a mosaic of the many gifts entrusted to me, and I’ve simply tried them out when the time came. I have never gone mad over money or luxury. Luxury is a part of life. And my own view is that rich people should spend. If they want to spend it on luxury, they should do so because at least the money goes into circulation and can help other people make a living.

That makes sense.
Of course, it makes sense. The only thing that concerns me is keeping a watchful eye on the flashing light that would announce to me right away that I have become dependent on luxury.

You support education; you help Czech students get out into the world. Is that part of some higher plan? By that, I mean broadening the horizons of Czech society, the financial literacy that is so desperately lacking here?
Absolutely. Few people know my husband. Sometimes it even takes me a while to understand what he is planning. He is sincerely helping Czech society from a long-term point of view. I leave it up to others to judge whether he is doing it well, badly, comprehensibly or incomprehensibly. All the activities he has signed up for help fortify democracy, free media, and the education of society. This is perhaps the most important objective of all at a time when so many are trying to manipulate us. We need to keep asking questions and educating ourselves in a modern way. We can’t let ourselves be disorientated by propaganda.

That’s the way it is; we grew up with no freedom.
We know very well, then, that building freedom, defending it with respect for responsibility, and educating ourselves is the long-term solution to the problems we currently face. We have foolishly succumbed to the idea that our troubles are behind us. We fly, communicate, and have the world at our fingertips; we live in prosperity, and general safety. If we want children but are infertile, someone will help us with it, cars will soon be driving themselves, and artificial intelligence will replace many professions… But where are we in all this? We have to address that. Do we know enough to ensure that all these tools – and they are just tools – don’t harm us? We have reached a point where we need to ask questions, raise doubts. Only then will we be able to ground ourselves, find our feet, and perhaps return to the values upon which we built our country. We need to be bold and go back to the beginning.

There are some rather unpleasant things to be read about you, but especially your husband, in the Czech newspapers – so, that is probably part of your life too. You can’t walk across the square in Ostrava without the risk of someone saying something hateful to you. How do you live with that?
It’s been like that for a long time. Maybe it will move on, calm down, and be completely different in a couple of years. After five years of investigation, the police have suspended the criminal complaint in the OKD case, because the accusation of having broken the law was never confirmed. Zdenek and his approach to life got on people’s nerves back in the nineties. He had a plan with which he came back to Czechoslovakia; he was ahead of the time. He’s always gone his own way and always suffered for it but was and is still ready for it. I joined him much later on and experienced the political and media lynching – threats and intimidation.

There’s a saying back home that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Under pressure, you refine who you are, define where you are going, your priorities, what is valuable to you, who your friends are, and you find a way out. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s hard to live with sometimes; I’m not going to pretend otherwise. They elect the President of the Republic, and you are the first person attacked in the inauguration speech. He says our family name; throws in the people that work at our companies – that is very unpleasant. However, I am ready for it now. I have grown into it. I know from our family history what it was like to live under the communists, live on the edge of society. I have never succumbed to the idea that something must be true just because a lot of people think it is. I’m not sure where I learned it, but somewhere along the line, I found courage. I am not afraid of taking these things head-on.

So, you wouldn’t have a problem walking through Ostrava?
No, I would not be afraid of going out and meeting those people, talking to them. In fact, I was in Ostrava at the casting for Czech Miss when the pressure was at it’s peak, and OKD started faltering. All of those angry people could have sought me out; they knew where I would be and when. It didn’t happen. Never. You can’t be scared or let yourself be intimidated. The media paints a distorted picture. What people write often doesn’t spill over into reality. When you stand face to face with those angry people, their arguments often dry up.

Does it help you that you believe in God?
I wouldn’t know how to separate myself from that. My whole life, I grew up in an Evangelic family of believers on both sides. Despite having removed myself from active Christian life – I don’t go to church every Sunday – it has stayed with me that doing good is better than doing evil. I value wisdom; I know that it is good to think in broader contexts, and in doing so strengthen the wisdom within. And within me, I feel that life does not end with death.

As a wife, you are there at your husband’s side, but you are also a businesswoman in your own right, in high-level business, high-level politics – the “big boys’ game.” What is it like being a big girl among the big boys?
You are right in a way, but I wouldn’t call it the big boys’ “game.” It’s a serious matter – politics, business, money. I never tried to take on that role, even when I spent three years in the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) alongside Václav Klaus. When I look back on that time, I think it made me stronger. I must admit that I will never forget what he sparked in me. Also, I don’t know if I would call myself a big businesswoman, more of a manager.

Where is the dividing line?
Well, it’s clear that both must work. I’m just saying that I never really figured in the big business of those “big boys” – I just helped it along.

But you talk like a leader. You understand these things; you know how to approach them. You probably won’t have the words “Michaela Bakala, entrepreneur’s wife” chiseled into your headstone, will you?
I hope not. I always find my position. I can inspire people, and pass on experience, but I am also not afraid to make decisions and take responsibility for them. It doesn’t matter whom I married; I have stood the test in many ways. I stand by that. My husband and I complement each other well. He is the visionary of major steps, big decisions, and beside him, I’m a woman who knows how to develop the smaller steps that enable the big ones. I attend to them and communicate them to the world. We met in our personal and working lives. Whatever he can’t do, I can, and vice versa. And we are both acknowledge that in each other.

You said somewhere that you are nervous when everything works out; you keep waiting to see where something will crop up.
Why am I nervous when it works out? Because I know that people will want more from me than from others. God gave me more than many others, and so will figuratively want more of me. I’m in the public eye. I have to be accountable for it and deal with it somehow.

Covid arrived. Have you discovered anything new about yourself?
I was relieved that I don’t need nannies, for example. One of my daughters is fifteen and our relationship is good, built on trust, partnership, and respect for one another. My sons are thirteen and eleven, and our youngest daughter is seven. They need a mom and a dad. When you have all four of them at home and nobody to stand in for you, it shows you that you haven’t forgotten them. That’s how we actually began the interview – there was a time when I didn’t have cleaners coming in every day, and there wasn’t a nanny. I had to get into the kitchen again, fill the washing machine and the dishwasher. I wouldn’t want to do it for the rest of my life necessarily, but I quite enjoyed it. COVID has proven to me that I have not become too distanced from reality. Eleven years have passed since we moved to Switzerland, and since then, we have primarily worked from a home office. That is one of the reasons Zdenek and I are always together – seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. That unknowingly prepared us well for today’s quarantine.

I am interested in your opinion of correctness. You were fairly forthright in your views of Me Too. You like being a woman even though men pay you attention. I like it too, but to be honest, I sometimes feel alone in this respect. You don’t?
Sometimes. That great saying, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, comes to mind here. I was a model, a woman of the category in which men are interested- exposed to situations in which I had to switch on my defense mechanism. I went on to work with girls that had to be able to do the same. That’s why I can speak about it. It is logical that if a girl is harassed by someone in a position of power, a boss, or a teacher, she must have the lawful right to speak up-no question about it. We don’t even need to say that the act of rape is a crime. What is also important, though, is that these subjects and political correctness do not become a trap. It is crucial that the debate remains within normal boundaries; otherwise, it risks being abused and ending up more harmful than helpful. The same goes for questions of racism, a retrospective view of colonialism, and defining nature. I have devoted my whole life to it, and I have always taken the same view. I am not a victim, and I don’t want to be a victim. I feel good in the company of men, I have worked with men my whole life, and I have even lived with men, generally more than with women. Incidentally, we know that many women rely on how they look and automatically expect an adequate response from men. Surely there can be no surprise when an actress receives a visit from a scriptwriter at ten at night in her robe, and he takes it as an offer. We have natural instincts. We know when we, as women, are taking risks upon ourselves. It is our duty to avoid such risks. We have depicted men as evil predators that harm defenseless women, but it is not as simple as that. A woman should be a partner to a man – at home and work. That’s how it should be, and I will always fight for it. However, at the same time, I enjoy men paying me compliments. I have two daughters and two sons, and I will bring both groups up in this vein.

I know of a school in Manhattan – The Grace Church School. The children there don’t say mom and dad, but parents. Girls and boys are people – in short, they are breaking down gender, stereotypes. Is this something that a woman of your age, a businesswoman, mother, believer, former beauty queen, and I don’t know what else finds exciting in any way? Inspirational?
I say to my children that one of them is a boy and one is a girl, that I am mom and Zdenek dad. To be perfectly honest, I don’t have the time to think about it.

So, you’ve saved the 57 thousand dollars in school fees they pay there. If you could do anything with that money right now, what would it be?
We actually recently decided to help with the digitalization program in the Czech Republic. We will be helping children that are sadly sitting at home without quality education; in some cases, with no internet connection. It makes obvious sense, helping those that have been isolated. We are convinced that digitalization is, without doubt, the way out of the COVID crisis and a great opportunity for the school system to move up to a more advanced level. Incidentally, we are currently in the States with the children because their school is open.

Meanwhile, I am calling you from the country in which children have been absent from school the longest of any in Europe over the past calendar year. If you want to spend money in the way you do, you will probably need an awful lot.
I know. Yes, I expect to. It’s a massive error on our country’s part, although hindsight is always 20/20. I am truly delighted that I am not running a country right now. Watching from afar what is happening in our country bothers me. We are in an extraordinary situation, the entire planet. In an extraordinary situation, politicians must lead in an extraordinary way. If I want someone to stay home and not go anywhere, I have to lead by example-end of discussion. And if I don’t stick to that, I should get out, no ifs, and, or buts. The responsibility on the shoulders of leaders is immense right now, and they evidently don’t seem to understand that well enough. ■

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