WORDS: JESSICA VANDER LEAHY
Katharina Rembi has a beautiful smile so it's not surprising she uses it to make a living.
The young model, who originally hails from Poland and Germany, now lives in New York and counts prestige beauty brands like Lancôme and L'Oreal, as well as Elle, Vogue and Allure as regular clients. Kat is stunning. Her skin is flawless and like her name suggests, she has a set of captivating feline eyes, but her best feature is her wide, full smile that hits like lightning rod of energy when she flashes it. Though, as striking as her high voltage grin is, Kat tells me her smile was something she lost for a while.
It's a weekday in the fall when we sit in Kat's Brooklyn loft she shares with her filmmaker boyfriend, Jared. Their home is exactly what you would expect from two successful creative types - white walls, white floors - space that provides a perfect canvas to the chic mish-mash of new and antique furniture that has been rescued from markets and off the side of the road to East-Jesus-nowhere. But the spot's piece-de-resistance is the huge windows that give a clear view to the Manhattan skyline across the way. By the light-filled view Kat and I cosy into a well worn couch, one that no doubt has a story older than the both of us, and talk about why she started her project, Have A Smile.
"I think it's difficult to photograph people smiling," begins a soft spoken Kat in a gentle European accent that is hard to place. "I ask them to smile and I get incredible reactions sometimes. People tell me they don't know how to smile."
Kat has been walking around New York these past few months in search of reasons for happiness. Her curiosity has sparked a photography project where she takes pictures of people, mostly strangers, and then interviews them about the things that bring them joy. She says the idea spawned from a time in her life where she found it hard to be happy, let alone smile.
"I was faced with difficulties a year and a half ago and it was based on family tragedy and personal complications that just made me feel very heartbroken," Kat says.
"As a model I was always supposed to be this positive energy and people described me as 'the girl that loves to smile' ... I was amazed at how much impact I had on people just doing that.
"But once I crashed, and I would even say was depressed, I forgot to smile and I didn't know how to find it."
The once happy model was awash with a sadness she couldn't shake and she didn't know if the tide would ever turn.
"I was thinking I don't know where to go, I don't know who to reach out to because I don't want to bother anyone with how I feel but how do I find my way back to the person that I was?" confesses Kat.
"Then I realised I can't go back to that person, I have to grow but I need something that will make me happy again so one day I started taking pictures of people doing what I wanted to be doing; I took pictures of people smiling."
Slowly the depression lifted and the model's project began to flourish into something more than just a way to help herself.
This past October Kat's photography has led to an auction at the Rox Gallery in New York and all proceeds raised went to a group of people who have been given many reasons not to smile, Ugandan charity, Children of Peace (COP). Kat tells me Have A Smile has been inspired by COP's own Jane Ekayu, a former child soldier turned trauma counsellor who works with rehabilitating child soldiers who have been forced to kill and fight for brutal guerrilla group, the LRA.
While Kat wants to spark smiles globally, she says even on the streets of New York when her subjects are asked what makes them happy they're likely to disclose what upsets them first.
"Just saying what makes them smile often doesn't come easy," says Kat. "People really have to take a moment and then they will say things like, 'Ah well being outside makes me happy,' then they think again, and then you see them transform. All of a sudden they actually do smile because they think about what makes them truly happy.
"Sometimes I feel like I help them discover their happiness and I imagine that maybe they go home and transform that question into something they ask themselves everyday. Because you never know, even if I were to ask you now what makes you smile and happy, you would have to take a second and think about it and even ask yourself deeper questions like, 'Do I do what makes me happy everyday?' Try to answer that."
I do try, and I baulk. As I stare at the rustic floorboards searching for an answer I begin to wonder why it is such a hard question - I thought I would have an answer at the ready.
Philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh famously wrote, "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." Kat agrees.
"Doing this project I realised life comes in phases and sometimes you have to force yourself to be happy and smile because it is a habit that can make things feel good again," she says. "I wanted to give that back to people."
"Listening to others makes you realise, 'Oh wow, I'm going through something but I will make it because there are other people who are experiencing the exact same situation.'"
Incidentally there is good science supporting the health benefits of smiling. Researcher Ron Gutman, who is the voice you can hear in the Have A Smile video (above), told his Ted Talk audience that "smiling is one of the most basic, biologically uniform expressions of all humans."
"British researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate," Gutman said.
"And unlike lots of chocolate, lots of smiling can actually make you healthier. Smiling can help reduce the level of stress-enhancing hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine, increase the level of mood-enhancing hormones like endorphins, and reduce overall blood pressure."
So for Kat, instead of doing the hipster thing where one would retreat to a faraway mountaintop and look for their source of happiness while doing yoga and sipping chai tea, she says looking at the world around her and appreciating the people in it was where she found most of her reasons to smile again.
"People always fascinate me, in any part of the world," Kat explains. "I'm always drawn to others because I think I almost sense them naturally and how they are feeling. I can sense a negative feeling from others and then feel negative, and that goes for the exact opposite too. So I am always happiest when I engage with people."
I see Kat is deeply passionate about bringing good energy into any room she's in - and her smile is like her superpower - so it seems fitting I ask her my favourite question; who are your living, breathing superheroes?
At first she says her family ("Because I love them and they inspire me so much," she says), then the Dali Lama gets a mention (naturally because he's a Buddhist with a boss message of peace and love that sings to Kat's soul) and then she says Angelina Jolie.
"As a woman she strikes me," says Kat. "She is able to use her image to create awareness to important issues facing humanity and women. I think all the charity she does she brings it about it in a very sensitive way, it doesn't seem like she she's not doing it for fame or any other reasons other than she's sensitive to others and to the world.
"She puts herself out there in a way that makes her vulnerable but powerful. Of course she is very beautiful, and an actress, and yet she uses that as a tool to do something good."
I tell Kat I see some similarities there, between herself and Angie; two beautiful women who aren't content to simply skate by on their looks but rather the compassion in their heart.
"Sometimes people only appreciate the obvious and with models and actresses and women in general ... it can make me very angry to think about that," says Kat. "I don't want to say the world is superficial but I've dealt with situations where I've been judged on looks alone before so I try not to do it myself - it's just so unnecessary."
As a model Kat was quiet late to the game - she was studying economics at university in Germany when she was signed at 20, which is like 60 in model years - but she concedes that her maturity didn't make her immune to feeling pressure to look a certain way.
"There was a time I was really hard on myself about the way I looked - of course it came with modelling," Kat explains.
"I'm sure every story you listen to is very similar in terms of models where you have this moment where you think you have to look a certain way to succeed.
"You begin to think, 'Oh my god I want to be like that girl or like that girl,' but pretty soon I realised the things that people liked about me are the things that are different, like the fact that I’m shorter.
"Everybody embraced what it is that I had and I then started to embrace it too and just feel comfortable with it.
"I recognised that every time I went into a casting and I felt good and confident that's when I booked the job. Not if I was skinny or bigger or less this or that."
But Kat says that's a constant challenge to get the balance inside yourself right.
"I think with Have A Smile it was a great project for me because I've been a beauty model for such a long time and I’ve shot with incredible clients that strive for this perfect beauty but I realised it all comes from within and I want to explore that more."
Kat untucks her legs from the leather seat underneath her and leans forward as if she is about to tell me a secret and then through the most glee-filled grin she tells me:
"When I see smiling faces that radiate happiness from inside themselves it is much more powerful than this outside image that we think is perfect."
I smile a big smile back and I feel happy.
You can find more information about have a smile on the website, haveasmile.org
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