Former tennis prodigy, model and TV presenter Maria Victoria “Vick” Vannucci lived through the photograph, then figuratively died by the photograph.
Former owner and chef at Normal Heights’ Pachamama Restaurant, Vannucci pursues a new socially aware image featuring her tale of personal redemption centering on giving back to the community and educating people about healthy food and animal conservation.
“My story is a special story,” said Vannucci, 38, who speaks English, Spanish and Italian. “I look at it as a means to help the community. I learned from my mistakes. I am more than a picture.”
Vannucci found herself immersed in social media outrage in October 2016 when photos emerged from a 2011 African hunting trip during which she was pictured with Argentine tycoon businessman Matias Garfunkel, her husband at the time, who was chomping on a cigar, holding a sniper rifle and smiling above the carcass of a dead lion.
“Matias came from a family, in which, hunting was something they used to do,” Vannucci said. “I was his fiancé, and when he invited me, I went. Even though I appeared in those pictures, I never shot at anything, much less killed an animal.”
Vannucci added: “I started having a hard time on what he did in that trip many years before the pictures became public. It was my own grief and sadness. Once he saw the way I felt, he never hunted again. The incident was 12 years ago now, and my depression started before the scandal. I suffer from social panic and constant panic attacks after that episode.”
Fallout from the African photo, and animal shoot stopped Vannucci’s career and life in its tracks.
Until that fateful outing, Vannucci had achieved a high level of fame. She was a professional tennis player who was ranked #1 in the national rankings made by the Argentinian Tennis Association. She represented Argentina in international tennis championships, and with tennis legend, Guillermo Vilas as a coach, won the Argentina Cup.
After retiring from professional tennis due to injury, Vannucci began a successful modeling career, becoming the top paid model in the country. She participated in fashion shows all over Latin America and Europe, representing brands such as Adidas, Nike and Topper.
Vannucci also was a television presenter for Forbes Latino Americano as well as an actress, winning a comedy award for Best Female Actress.
And then, the African safari pictures from six years previous came home to roost.
“Then it became my bad karma,” Vannucci said. “And now, after creating Pachamama, it became my good karma. Thanks to what happened in that trip and those pictures, I have a new meaning in my life. I’m proud of everything I built and the woman I’d became. I would like to share my story with the world. I feel we can all learn from my mistake.”
“I was young and stupid,” the effervescent Vannucci said. “I noticed how awful it was when that picture came out. People were horrified. My fans were horrified. I myself was horrified. I knew I had to change my life.”
The road to recovery was long and rugged. Vannucci struggled with acute depression, relocated to Aspen and slowly rebuilt her life while also building a special garden at her home.
“I suffered from constant panic attacks, but changed my life,” Vannucci said. “I wanted to know why, how come. I started reading a lot, grew tomatoes, carrots, vegetables, raised chickens and started building Pachamama in my head. I wanted to give a good example to my kids. Show that I am not my mistakes.”
Vannucci added: “Thanks to Colorado and farming, I was more in touch with the Earth. I started to feel better. I was able to come back.”
The concept of Pachamama — Mother Earth — took shape. It was that of a sustainable vegan restaurant offering top quality eco-friendly cuisine coupled with educational programs and a tithing of all profits to animal protection groups. Vannucci was ready to hold serve.
“We as humans make mistakes,” Vannucci said, “and that’s part of life as we learn from those mistakes. We make many mistakes throughout our life . What makes us different from others, is that we learn from our mistakes. Sometimes, we even take it further, as I’m doing it right now, by doing amends.”
This brought a reinvigorated Vannucci to San Diego, a place she had visited while staying in Los Angeles years before, and knew to be family-friendly. It was seemingly perfect for her little girl Indiana, now 8 years old, and boy, Napoleon, now 7 years old.
Pachamama, according to Vannucci, was a symbol of transformation, a fully sustainable restaurant taking its ingredients from local farms, supporting animal goodness and ecosystem restoration.
“I want you to feel the love and energy that are part of my life,” Vannucci said. “My successes, my failures, everything that has brought me to this moment. I want you to feel nurtured from the inside out. I want them to feel as if Mother Nature herself is preparing food for them.”
Vannucci is certified in food handling and general management through ServSafe. She also studied at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts and holds a college degree. With a passion for Peruvian, Japanese, Colombian, Chilean, Argentine and Cuban cuisine, she established Pachamama’s healthy menu in 2018
“Pachamama is here to provide healthy food made with love and respect for each ingredient and the journey it takes from farm to table,” Vannucci said. “Starting with the soil it is harvested in, to the people that enjoy a meal in our restaurant, we aim to enjoy the best quality nourishment from the world and offer the best quality nourishment back to the world.”
After a successful two-year run, Vannucci shuttered the eatery in late 2021 aiming to return to Los Angeles with another foodie concept.
“My agreement ended,” Vannucci said. “We did a party for friends/team/customer and we even ended with a beautiful fundraiser for San Diego Humane Society. I’m grateful for all the good moments that I live in this beautiful community and I can say with pride that Pachamamas mission will continue in Los Angeles.
“Pachamama is a mission concept and a new community is waiting. I will always always love my San Diego community, I grew as a person and as a business lady here. I only have good things to say part of my heart is forever here and I wish the best for the new tenant to come.”