by Natasha Wolff | July 6, 2012 12:00 am
When you think of Christy Turlington Burns—let’s be honest—the first thing that comes to mind is that face. The smoldering, almond-shaped eyes. That delicate upturned nose. Those impossibly full lips, chiseled cheekbones and perfectly arched brows. In the ’90s it all added up to a visage so timeless it’s been likened to the supermodel equivalent of Helen of Troy: the face that launched a thousand magazine covers.
But on a rainy afternoon at Stony Hill Stables in Amagansett, N.Y., she is the consummate Hamptons mom, though positively gorgeous despite the weather—and the fact that she’s wearing not a drop of makeup. Turlington Burns says motherhood is the hardest work she’s ever done, but it’s obvious that, as with modeling, she’s a natural. Every summer, she and her husband, filmmaker and actor Ed Burns, migrate from New York City to their house in East Hampton with their kids, Grace and Finn, and Boston terriers Fitzy and Mickey. “It’s nice to be out in the fresh air, and for the kids to be barefoot pretty much the whole summer,” says the 43-year-old, who’s already run six miles today and had a massage. “We’re on a sliver of Georgica Pond, so we canoe and paddleboard and do all those kinds of things.”
The family has also leased a shabby little pony, Blackbird, who is presently nuzzling 8-year-old Grace for a nectarine. Turlington Burns warns her daughter not to let him eat the pit, but within seconds the horse snatches the entire piece of fruit from the girl’s hand. “He took it!” Grace exclaims, looking up at her mom. “I couldn’t get it.”
“Burns!” Turlington Burns calls to Grace. “What are you doing? That’s probably not good.”
“Turlington!” mocks Grace. “What are you doing?”
“She’s like 8 going on 14,” Turlington Burns says.
Blackbird munches away on his nectarine and then lets the pit drop to the ground, as though he was privy to their dialogue all along.
Turlington Burns grew up riding western style—a freestyle form of riding compared with the more formal English style she and Grace practice now—and was actually discovered at 13 while atop a pony. “I ride here sometimes,” she says. “I started to take it back into my life once I was spending all my time at the barn with Grace.”
A perfect combination of her mom and dad, Grace has dark hair, bright blue eyes and a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose. With her birth in 2003, Turlington Burns’ life was forever changed, and not only in the ways a first child might typically transform a mother. After a drug-free birth with a midwife, Turlington Burns’ experience quickly turned scary. Her placenta had grown into her uterus wall, meaning that she couldn’t pass the afterbirth. Removing it resulted in postpartum hemorrhaging— a complication, she says, that easily could have killed her had she not had access to the birthing center at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hspital in New York City.
“Suddenly I went from totally empowered to, like, on my back,” Turlington Burns remembers. She later discovered that postpartum hemorrhaging, or PPH, is the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths in the world, including in the United States, where there are a reported 12.7 fatalities per 100,000 live births. Turlington Burns decided to use her own story as a looking glass into the plight of maternal deaths. She funded and directed the 2010 documentary No Woman, No Cry, which follows the journey to birth of four pregnant women in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala and the U.S. The film opens with footage of her own post-birthing scare, caught on film by her husband. She was hesitant at first to use the scene but ultimately hoped it would help reinforce the fact that dangerous births can happen to anyone, anywhere. “I thought some people might perceive it as, ‘Oh, what’s a model doing in this?’” Turlington Burns admits. “But hopefully that falls away. I’m just like any of the other women in terms of giving birth—you’re always vulnerable in that state, and you always need support.”
Filming No Woman, No Cry took two years, and the documentary would eventually premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and air on the Oprah Winfrey Network. But wrapping left Turlington Burns wondering what came next. “I felt like it was a disservice to present people with information and not give them some kind of call to arms,” she explains. “So now they’re like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. What can I do?’” That’s when she launched the advocacy organization Every Mother Counts (EMC) with the goal of reducing, or eliminating entirely, preventable deaths associated with pregnancy and birth. “I started doing this work after I gave birth to Grace—that’s very, very clearly why I’m doing this,” she says. “But I’m also the mother of a son. It’s important to teach him to be aware of women’s issues and to be kind and respectful.” In two short years, Turlington Burns has already seen the number of maternal deaths worldwide drop by almost half, from 500,000 a year to 287,000 thanks, in part, to her help.
As one of the original supermodels, Christy Turlington Burns ruled the ’90s with her “Big 5” cohorts—Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell. She starred in ad campaigns for top fashion houses like Chanel and Valentino and was the face of Calvin Klein’s Eternity fragrance. In the video for George Michael’s song “Freedom! ’90,” she pranced sexily in a white sheet while Cindy crooned in a bathtub and Naomi bopped in headphones. In turn, the media portrayed them as an inseparable pack: pretty young things with the world at their fingertips, running around partying and looking fabulous. But that wasn’t really the case.
“We shared experiences, but apart from working together we were all so different,” says Turlington Burns. “We came from different family backgrounds, different countries, different everything. But people would call me Cindy or Helena [Christensen] . . . we were all kind of one thing.” What separated Turlington Burns, aside from her look of effortless elegance, was her quiet dignity and humility—not the easiest qualities to come by in a sexy supermodel. She credits her solid character to her stable Catholic upbringing and to her parents, a Pan Am pilot and a flight attendant turned homemaker who raised Turlington Burns and her two sisters with a love of traveling. “The biggest draw of modeling was getting out and seeing the world,” she says. When Turlington Burns was a teen, her El Salvadoran mother, Elizabeth, would accompany her on international jobs. “Nobody was with their moms,” she says. “But I wasn’t in a hurry to be older. I would go to shoot the collections in Paris or Rome, and I would be buying porcelain dolls.”
Turlington Burns started modeling at 14 and graduated high school through independent studies at 18 after she moved to New York City. Her career was intense but short. In 1994, at just 25 years old and not even close to peaking, she stopped modeling full-time. “I thought, you know what? I’d rather end it when I want to end it, rather than somebody else doing it for me,” she says. “I never really thought it was going to last that long anyway.”
She enrolled in New York University to study comparative religion and Eastern philosophy, graduating cum laude in 1999. She lost her father to lung cancer in 1997 (she herself had been a smoker but quit when she was 25). His death propelled her into action. She created anti-tobacco PSAs and launched the website smokingisugly.com to educate the public on the dangers of smoking and offer advice on how to quit. She also devoted time to campaigns dedicated to children, education and animal rights, before giving birth to Grace and shifting her focus to maternal health.
Over a lunch of avocado-and-tomato dosas at Hampton Chutney Co., Turlington Burns talks excitedly about Every Mother Counts, rattling off numbers, bills in Congress, progress to date and the challenges ahead. She relates stories about the many women she’s met. “I want to have a connection with the women I’m helping,” she says. She regularly travels to global health conferences, medical schools and advocacy gatherings to speak on behalf of EMC and is currently training to run the New York City Marathon for the second year in a row to raise money for the organization. Earlier this year, her “No Mother’s Day” campaign, an initiative supported by celebrities such as Blythe Danner, Jennifer Connelly and Debra Messing, issued a call to moms to spend the day in silence—no gifts, phone calls or fanfare—to illustrate just how much a mother is missed when she’s gone.
Indeed, she has made good use of her celebrity, enlisting pals like Bono, Coldplay and Patti Smith to lend their voices to two Every Mother Counts CDs, significant proceeds of which go directly to EMC (the second CD will be available for download this fall at everymothercounts .org). The foundation has also partnered with Bono’s ONE campaign, which fights poverty and AIDS worldwide, on overlapping issues, including infant mortality and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
“Christy is careful, considered and strategic,” says Bono, who has known Turlington Burns for 25 years. “Every Mother Counts has a big, beating heart, but it’s the brains of the organization that separate it. These are some smart mothers.”
One such mother is Erin Thornton. The former global policy director for ONE has been EMC’s executive director since the fall of 2010 and is now the foundation’s face in Washington, D.C. She’s currently working on heading up EMC’s latest campaign: Saving Mothers, Giving Life, a unique partnership between the organization and the U.S. government, Norway, Merck, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other key players in the global health field. The project will target four hard-toreach districts in Uganda and Zambia to try to reduce maternal deaths by up to 50 percent in one year. “It’s exciting, but difficult,” says Thornton. “The tough part will be going that last mile to really make sure that women throughout the world enjoy these same benefits.”
“Our hope,” adds Turlington Burns, “is to bring the facts to light in a way that helps everyone think about just how universal the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth are and how all women deserve access to care that can save their lives.
In addition to her charitable work, the erstwhile supermodel still works her famous face roughly 20 days a year in campaigns for Maybelline, Roberto Coin, Louis Vuitton and a few others. She’s also working on a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University and hopes to make another documentary soon, though she hasn’t yet committed to one of the many ideas she’s considering. And, of course, there’s yoga. A lifelong enthusiast, Turlington Burns has appeared on the cover of Time in the pretzel-like Rooster pose and in 2002 put out a book on the subject, called Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice. And although she says she can do poses now that she couldn’t when she was 20, even yoga has taken a backseat to her philanthropic causes. She attends only one or two classes a week but still practices every day. “Just not the physical part,” she says. “There’s a thing called seva, which means service. It’s a part of yoga philosophy that I’ve always really liked. I even liken parenting to yoga—it takes patience and clarity.”
Of all the natural poses that Turlington Burns strikes—humanitarian, documentarian, student, yogi—it’s obvious that her favorites are mother and wife. When she speaks of Burns, she refers to him as “Eddie” and smiles shyly, as though still in the first flush of love. That took some doing, Burns has said. “She was absolutely not interested in dating me when we first met, so I definitely had to be very persuasive. I think I finally wore her down.”
Their relationship started out as standard fare for two gorgeous young stars—the whirlwind romance in 2000, the breakup, the reported rebound (in Burns’ case, model Esther Canadas), the reconciliation, a fairy-tale June wedding in 2003 complete with a John Galliano gown. Nearly a decade after exchanging vows, the couple have proved themselves a kind of celebrity enigma. They live a relatively low-key life in Tribeca, which she fondly calls “Triburbia,” and rarely display their love on red carpets or gush about each other publicly. And in an unusual turn of events, Turlington Burns’ older sister, Kelly, married Burns’ brother, Brian. The two families live near each other and vacation together.
Kelly Turlington Burns says she’s always been impressed by her sister’s constant juggling of her many interests, especially her dedication to family. “She’s extremely committed to her kids and her husband,” says Kelly. “I think that’s one of the biggest commonalities that she and Eddie have: They focus first on their family, and then everything is kind of built around that. I’m sure it’s a constant struggle to try to balance everything, but she really does it well, and it’s pretty inspiring. It’s one of those middle-child things, I think.”
Christy proudly points out that her family defies dated gender roles, not only because Grace is “a really tough cookie” and Finn is “a real mush,” but also because she and Burns run an equal-partnership household while maintaining their respective careers. He takes over when she travels with EMC, and she does the same when he’s away making a movie. She is keen to share her love of travel with her children, as her parents did for her. “I always prepare them when I’m going somewhere,” she says. “They have a huge map, and whenever I go anywhere it’s like, That’s where I am: That’s sub-Saharan Africa, that’s Bangladesh—and so they’re learning about the world through me and my work.Now that they’re old enough to start going to those places, they’ll be able to visualize it, too.”
A few weeks from now, the family will be making its first trip to Africa for a safari vacation. Turlington Burns says she cannot wait for her husband and kids to see Tanzania and meet the mothers and children she became close with while filming her documentary. Her kids aren’t thrilled about getting the necessary vaccinations, and Grace doesn’t want to leave her pony for two weeks, but Mom is confident they’ll soon feel different. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with Africa,” she says.
In a life so picturesque, I have to ask if getting older has presented any challenges. After all, hers was the face once dubbed “close to perfect” by Ford Models cofounder Eileen Ford and chosen, in 1992, to be cast in fiberglass to create the 120 mannequins for the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How exactly does someone who has for so long been considered the picture of physical perfection deal with the downsides of aging?
“It’s been interesting to be in a profession where there’s all this projection around beauty and youth, and people assume that you care—and I feel like I’m not playing the game,” she says with a dismissive shake of her head. “I’ve always liked myself more every year in terms of who I am and the person I’ve become. I can’t imagine denying everything that comes with that.”
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