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They conquered the world as a sharp-cheekboned, glossy-haired pack. They appeared together on magazine covers, and famously in the George Michael "Freedom" video in 1990, directed by David Fincher. Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz, and Cindy Crawford: Models had been famous before but never this famous, migrating from magazine pages to TV screens, building their own brands and earning huge sums of money. It was Turlington's image that launched Calvin Klein's Eternity fragrance in 1988. Now 47, Turlington Burns (she took on the surname of husband Ed Burns, the actor and director whom she married in 2003) grimaces at the word supermodel.
Polishing off a bowl of watermelon gazpacho and a plate of Caesar salad with tofu at a West Village restaurant on a recent afternoon, she says she knew the word long before it achieved its era-defining currency. Her former agency, Ford, held a "Supermodel of the World" contest, which she never participated in.
"It didn't mean anything to me. It was just, like, 'Ewww,'" she says, screwing up her face in disgust. "When it blew up I felt the same: The tabloid nature was to take something, grow it, manipulate it into not the real thing. And it was embarrassing." The real thing, the real deal—these are the words several people close to Turlington Burns use to describe her to me. She is authentic, she leads with her integrity, and she has created a life for herself that is rich and multifaceted and constantly evolving. It's why she was selected to appear on the cover of Town & Country's 170th anniversary issue—and why it's not surprising that she bristles at being defined by a term that seems to freeze her in '90s amber, forever perpetuating the idea that she's someone who only deigns to get out of bed for five figures.
"That's not me," she says. "I don't know what it is. I tried to do everything I could to distance myself from it. It doesn't come into play in my daily life at all. At all."
Indeed, she is not in thrall to glamour. Today, with her hair scraped back and no visible makeup, she is wearing a simple white Alexander Wang vest, slouchy gray Splendid drawstring pants, and Tabitha Simmons nautical striped pumps. She is direct and witty, and she talks a mile a minute about her family and the non-profit she leads: Every Mother Counts (EMC), which is dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe in the U.S. and abroad. Turlington Burns founded the organization, which has 10 staffers, in 2010, having survived a postpartum hemorrhage in 2003 when her daughter Grace was born. (Finn, her son, was born two and a half years later.)
"My campaigning for EMC is my main work, and I love it," she says. The organization's focus is ensuring access for women to transportation, education, and supplies related to childbirth. The group cites statistics that one woman dies every two minutes from complications during pregnancy and childbirth; two women die per day in the United States, which is one of only 13 countries with a rising maternal mortality rate. EMC has raised $13 million to date to aid women in 13 countries, including the U.S., Haiti, Tanzania, India, Malawi, Bangladesh, and Uganda.
Before founding EMC, Turlington Burns began a master's in public health at Columbia University and made a documentary, No Woman, No Cry, to enshrine her view that poor maternal health is a global tragedy. "Christy is very beautiful and charismatic, but what makes her effective is her expertise," says Bobby Shriver, co-founder (with Bono) of such organizations as DATA (debt, AIDS, trade, Africa) and (Red). "You have to distinguish between people who may write a check or attend an event—all of which is fine—and those like myself, Christy, or Bono who become 'experts.' Experts are motivated by rage in some way. She studied maternal mortality rates, saw how unfairly women were being treated, and got pissed.'"
"I've got a lot of energy," says Turlington Burns, who has traveled with the humanitarian organization CARE, worked with (Red), and gone to Ghana and Kenya with Shriver on missions to identify the health challenges women in those countries face. "If anyone calls me a philanthropist, I say I'm not. I'm much more active than what I think of as a philanthropist. I want to make connections, figure things out, and work toward solutions."
"She's relentless," Shriver adds. "My mom [Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics] used to ask, 'Who's on it?' That was slang for 'Who's in charge? Who's going to get it done?' Christy is one person of whom you can say, 'She's on it.' "
Turlington Burns says her mother Elizabeth, who worked on an AIDS hotline in the 1980s, was an early inspiration for her activism. Christy herself did advocacy work on tobacco-related health issues after her father Dwain died of lung cancer; she smoked for about 10 years, from her teens into her twenties, adopting the habit from her dad. "You think cigarettes are grown-up and sophisticated. Back then there were no cell phones, so models drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. It's so weird to see images of my younger self smoking—it has nothing to do with who I am."
Dwain was a pilot, and later a trainer for 747 pilots. Elizabeth was a flight attendant (originally from El Salvador), then a homemaker. The family lived in Northern California and later Miami. The young Turlington was sporty and loved riding horses "to be able to have solitude." There was a moment when she wanted to be a pilot like her dad; she also enjoyed drawing, writing, and architecture.
The family traveled widely, something that Turlington Burns still loves to do for pleasure as well as work. "I feel as if you learn most about yourself when you put yourself outside your comfort zone. I like to be in remote places where there's no internet—and oftentimes no hot water," she says, laughing.
Turlington was discovered at 13 and arrived in New York circa 1985, quickly meeting people who, like her, were on the verge of massive success. Of photographer Steven Meisel she says, "I remember him numbering prints and working out what the value of his work would be down the line."
Her mother chaperoned her when she was a young model, but soon enough Turlington was taking care of herself and living independently. (Naomi Campbell was once her roommate.) When her father fell ill several years later, her sisters had just had children, so Turlington took a very active role in his care for the six months from his diagnosis to his death, at age 64. "I had this paternal role, being an earner at such a young age. I was able to provide stability for my family."
Attending school was Turlington's exit strategy from modeling, which she "minimized" significantly when—after studying comparative religion and eastern philosophy at New York University and graduating cum laude in 1999—she set up her first two businesses: a skincare line based on ayurvedic principles and a yoga apparel line with Puma. (She recently wrote a recommendation letter to NYU for a young woman who could be considered her heir apparent in the supermodeling-as-a-mere-first-chapter category: Karlie Kloss. "She has tons of power," says Turlington Burns of her pal. "She's smart.") But even though Turlington's ambitions did not end with modeling, she appreciates the industry that first showed her how to take the reins of a career. "The older I got the more powerful I got. My success meant I could dictate the people I wanted to be with and the company I wanted to spend time with," she says. "I felt really in control from day one."
Patricia Herrera Lansing has known Turlington Burns since the latter first modeled for Lansing's mother, Carolina Herrera, wearing a black and white polka dot halter neck evening dress, at a New York fashion show when Herrera Lansing was 14. The woman Turlington has grown into, Herrera Lansing says, is a master, along with her husband, of balancing professional life, family, and glamour. "Their children are amazing; they are a family one looks up to," she says. "Christy is a great mom, a great wife. Being a celebrity and an activist can often backfire, but she has married the two very well. She commands attention in the most subtle, friendly way, and has always lived a sincere life."
"I'm very lucky," Turlington Burns says. "I have a strong family. And I met somebody who was the right fit for me, respects who I am." Her marriage works, she says, because she and Burns—a homebody who indulges his wife's wanderlust—give each other the right amount of space at the right time and support each other's professional passions. Family life, she says, has "tethered" her. She describes her 12-year-old daughter Grace, who has watched her mother working in the field for EMC, as "powerful, willful, and self-possessed, and also empathetic, kind, and sensible," while she says Finn, 10, is sensitive and thoughtful and worries about other people's feelings.
Turlington Burns still models occasionally—she recently signed on for a Tiffany campaign—although it's no longer her focus. "I have a one-day job threshold; two is too much. It's like, 'Oh good, at least I can get a manicure. I haven't had one in a year." That said, she thinks the media can be a little tough on the fashion world, particularly the idea that it is responsible for projecting unhealthy body images. "I don't think people get eating disorders by looking at magazines. I think there's a much deeper set of issues around a lack of power and control, or something happening in the family. As an active model and a mother of a 12-year-old girl, I would not blame a magazine or fashion company for that. People have to get over the idea that realism is being projected here."
The longtime yoga practitioner has in recent years also become a dedicated marathon runner. She's training for Chicago's, having run Boston's in April. "It's a big part of our work, to use running as a way to communicate that distance is a barrier for women to access healthcare," she says. EMC also uses marathon teams to raise donations. "There are a lot of connections between running marathons and birth: that feeling of 'I can't do this,' then the ridiculous endorphins you get."
It's convenient, too, that fitness is the crux of her beauty regimen. Has she had Botox or plastic surgery? "Never," she says stoutly. Would she? "Never. For years these things didn't even exist: collagen, fat cells, the crazy stuff people do I cannot imagine. First of all, I have no time. Second of all, I don't think it looks good. Maybe I would think differently if I thought it looked good and it didn't hurt and it didn't send bad messages to young people. But I've never seen someone who I've been like, 'Oh, that's a good idea.' It looks freaky to me."
That's easy to say for someone who looks like her. Herrera Lansing reveals that Turlington's father was "unbelievably handsome" and that her mother and two sisters are beautiful too. "That family really won the genetic lottery," she says. "There's nothing more annoying than when you see her when she's finished a marathon, or first thing in the morning. It looks like she's slept in a bubble. When she had Grace, Eddie sent around a picture of them afterward. I was like, 'You've got to be joking.' It looked like a fashion shoot. Those things, in a different personality, could be annoying. Christy only gets more beautiful as she gets older, which sucks for the rest of us."
She will turn 50 in just a couple of years. "I've made a new promise that I want to spend every birthday in a place I haven't been, doing something outdoors: hiking, running, climbing." Chile and Patagonia are on her wish list.
She seems not the least bit dejected about the looming milestone. "I wasn't worried about aging at 16, and I'm not worried about it at 47. It's a fact of life, and it's good that people close to me see that I'm relaxed and okay about aging, not neurotic or worried about it. To my kids I'll be the mom who barely shaves her legs, who doesn't color her hair."
She adds, "Being who you are, being your best self, has nothing to do with what you look like."
Hair by Serge Normant for
Makeup by Gucci Westman at ITB Worldwide.
Nails by Gina Viviano using Chanel Le Vernis.
Tailoring by Claudia at Lake Avenue Design.
Set design by Gille Mills.
Produced by Nathalie Akiya at Kranky Produktions.
Car courtesy of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars America.
Shot on location at Campbell Stables in Bridgehampton, New York, campbellstables.com.