NEW YORK — Not about to rest on any of her royal connections, Beatrice Borromeo Casiraghi is using her investigative journalism skills for causes she supports.
Her own story is a bit of a fairy tale, albeit one where the main character started modeling at 15 in Milan.
As Fashion 4 Development’s freshly minted special envoy for human rights, Casiraghi vowed to be “stubborn and tireless,” using her articles and documentaries to further causes for girls and women. During the group’s first Leading Ladies Luncheon on Tuesday at the St. Regis Hotel here, Casiraghi offered a blueprint of her life thus far.
For F4D, she will run ideas by her friends Beatrice Gerli of the International Agricultural Fund, Michaela Günthardt of Nike’s London office and Burundian singer Khadja Nin (aka her mother-in-law’s BFF). Noting that Gerli is the type of professional who recently brought her five-month-old on a work trip to Guatemala and bonded with local women as a result, Casiraghi said, “Beatrice told me that in various countries in the world this is entirely normal. It’s maybe in our societies where bringing your child along in a difficult setting may be seen as something a bit strange.”
Friends since the age of 15, the 30-year-olds “partied together, traveled together and have learned a lot from one another,” Casiraghi said. “I actually married her in the sense that I officiated her civil wedding.”
The Swedish-born Günthardt, whom Casiraghi befriended at Columbia University, “can never stop talking about equality in any situation,” Casiraghi said. “As an Italian woman, as is the case with my Italian friends, I am so used to having bosses who are men. I get paid less than a man for some jobs and I am so used to it. I complain. I fight the fight. But I know it’s going to be like that for a while longer. Michaela will never say, ‘It’s OK. Let’s move on.’ She will go for it, fight about it and make a mess.”
As was often the case in the course of conversation, the speed at which Casiraghi speaks accelerates with her enthusiasm. Describing how Khadja Nin makes “superhappy music” to educate, she said, “At the peak of the ebola crisis, she did these songs and films in many languages that were instructions about how not to get ebola. ‘If you see a man, don’t touch him, but you can still be kind by giving him a smile and bowing,'” Casiraghi said animatedly, bowing for effect. “She really understands the effective way of communicating, because it’s not going to work to show a documentary or force them to read something.”
In talks with HBO and CBS’ “60 Minutes” about various projects, Casiraghi said, “I’ve seen it in my job — you just expose a problem, sometimes it gets fixed, and sometimes it doesn’t.” Early on in her career she had to repeatedly feature some of the 250 families, who were suffering from cancer due to living in public housing contaminated with toxic material in Milan, on Italian state TV. It wasn’t until she “kind of tricked” Italy’s Minister of Environment to appear on-air unknowingly with the ill residents that the families were later relocated to a safe location. “That is just to say that by insisting and never giving up, my opinion, can — not always — make things improve,” she said.
At a meeting Tuesday night with HBO Documentary Films’ president Sheila Nevins, she planned to pitch a documentary about how toxic waste has caused birth defects among children in the Philippines, an issue that her mother-in-law first clued her into. Having done two documentaries about the women of the Calabria mafia, “the most powerful one in the world at the moment because they monopolize the cocaine trafficking in Europe,” Casiraghi pitched a TV show about that. Having spent time with the Calabria mafia, she said, “The soul is in Calbria, the brain is in Milan and actually the families that I met were in New York. They are fast-infiltrating New York because the new route for cocaine trafficking goes from South America to Italy via New York. Instead of shipping huge shipments of crack cocaine from South America [and risking losing a lot of money in the process if they get caught], they send little packages of a maximum of one kilogram from New York. It’s almost impossible to detect it unless you know who will pick them up. That’s the only way they catch them.”
In researching her thesis at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism, Casiraghi relied on the many prosecutors she knows in Italy for insight and investigation reports. “I saw so many names of women and I said, ‘This can’t be.’ You know it’s such a patriarchal society. In the Sicilian Mafia the women are almost zero. They are not even allowed to get a divorce. Here, it is such a women-based society and no one knows it yet. This is the mafia today,” she said. “You know they make about 30 billion euros [$33 billion] each year? Without taxes of course.”
Noting that she tries not to be disrespectful to the mafia, Casiraghi said, “I write about them. I say everything. But I don’t joke about it or ridicule them because I know that really triggers a reaction.” At work on a long exposee for Stern magazine about how Germany is the second most-infiltrated country by the Calabria Mafia, Casiraghi said, “People just have no idea because the government refuses to acknowledge it to scare off foreign investors. In fact, they are everywhere.”
Her husband, who once went undercover with her to take photographs of female Mafia members, understands her drive. “My husband is a very clever man and he knows who I am. He would never ever try to discourage me from anything. He also knows that I’m not crazy. I’m not looking for trouble. I’m just trying to do my job. I take precautions as much as possible,” she said. “But I don’t think he could ever be with a woman who was just at home.”
From the sounds of it, Casiraghi has never been one to hang around the house. Deciding at 15 she needed to live by herself, due to “a lot of family issues,” she figured that modeling was probably the one and only way she could earn some money without giving up on school. “I always try to do things before the time comes in every aspect of my life. I don’t know that that was a good thing, but at least it gave me a lot of experience early on.”
A former model for Blumarine, Chanel and other brands, Casiraghi said, “I barely had the money to live by myself. I wasn’t like a supermodel. I was only doing Milan Fashion Week because I had to study. I didn’t want to make a career out of it. I always felt out of place in a way. It wasn’t my thing.”
Looking back, she said, “Do you ever have the feeling that you live different chapters in your life and when a chapter is over you have difficulty remembering, ‘Who were you when you were doing that?’ It’s like it’s so far past. It was far from even what I wanted to do then. I really had a very practical approach to the whole thing.
“That’s why I guess I never really enjoyed it. I wish I could have. That would have made it more cheerful back then. It was always a weird environment especially if you take it too seriously. Other models accused me of not taking it seriously. I was like, ‘Ack!’ — I could not, because it was not my thing. But then again, if you do something you have to try to do it professionally,” she said. “It was useful as my first approach to the working world — being on time, being reliable, handling your own money.”
She has lasting ties to the fashion world. Her maternal grandmother is Marta Marzotto and her uncle, Matteo Marzotto, once headed up Valentino as president (and is now in the midst of a long-running tax trial in Italy over the sale of Valentino Fashion Group to Permira). “My grandmother is a force of nature. She called me today and said, ‘OK, when are you coming back from New York?’ I said Wednesday. She said, ‘Oh great — Thursday we will go to Morocco, because we have to meet some people. I said, ‘You’re mad, I need to rest.’ She said, ‘Why do you need to rest? You’re young.'”
On a more serious note, Casiraghi said she tries to help with all that she can, whether that be with her grandmother’s charitable efforts. That includes raising funds to restore paintings, which Casiraghi thinks “is a very smart way of saving our legacies.” Devoted as she is, sometimes a line needs to be drawn. “I try to pitch in where I feel useful but not on Thursday after a nine-hour economy flight to Milan,” she said with a laugh. “That ain’t happening.”