“I’d given birth squatting, basically,” she goes on, “and then suddenly I was on my back, in that position some women don’t even know there’s an alternative to. Suddenly I was with a man, a doctor I had met once, thankfully, and in excruciating pain because [the placenta] had to be torn from me.”
It wasn’t until weeks later, when she was safely home taking care of her baby, that Turlington Burns began to ask questions about what she had gone through—and to realize its implications. “In some ways it didn’t dawn on me how serious it was until after,” she says. “I did research. I came across the information that postpartum hemorrhage is the number-one cause of maternal deaths in the world”—approximately 350,000 deaths each year.
“I still don’t know why it happened to me,” Turlington Burns says. “But I realized I could have died. And so I wanted to make a film that would show that maternal death is a preventable global tragedy. And it happens everywhere.”
It isn’t exactly what you would expect from a supermodel—this feminist consciousness and commitment to the most disenfranchised women in the world. But Christy Turlington Burns has a history of bucking stereotypes. In 1994, at the peak of her fame, she scaled back her modeling work considerably and enrolled in New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, graduating cum laude in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion and Eastern philosophy. Now she is pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. “I’m trying to make what I know that much more grounded so I can be more of an effective voice,” she explains. “I think that a passionate voice is always a good voice, but I think that to root it in science and data is also really important.”
Her activism has expressed itself in a variety of ways over the years. In the ’80s she raised money for El Salvadoran causes; in the ’90s she posed for anti-smoking campaigns by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Lung Association, and in 2002 launched her own website, Smoking Is Ugly (in memory of her father, who died of lung cancer). Currently she is Advocate for Maternal Health for the humanitarian organization CARE. “When she first told me about the idea for No Woman, No Cry after a trip to visit our maternal health projects in Peru, I knew she was on to something,” says Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA. “She has the vision and leadership to drive people to care that millions of women die needlessly each year from complications in pregnancy and childbirth.”
“As an advocate and as a voice for the patient, Christy walks the talk and takes a stand,” says fashion designer and fellow activist Donna Karan, for whom Turlington Burns has modeled many times. “Christy has enormous compassion, especially after all she went through with her dad.”
Turlington Burns credits her upbringing with making her sensitive to social and economic issues. She spent her early childhood in Danville, California, then a tiny rural suburb east of San Francisco, where, she recalls, “my sister and I used to ride our pony to the grocery store.” Her father, Dwain, was a pilot for Pan Am; her mother, Elizabeth, was a stewardess. “My mom’s a supermodel,” Turlington Burns says with affection. “She had the pillbox hat, the skirt to here, the bob.”