Christy Turlington Burns: Supermodel Turned Activist

She has been called the most beautiful face of her generation— close to perfect,” said model mogul Eileen Ford. But Christy Turlington Burns left the catwalk at her peak to get a college degree. She became a businesswoman and an activist, and now, after a harrowing experience while giving birth, she’s campaigning for better maternal health care around the world—and has poured her passion for the cause into a powerful film

By Nancy Jo Sales
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Photograph: Sofia + Mauro

It’s a rainy March afternoon in Tribeca, but Christy Turlington Burns is some 20 years and 7,500 miles away, remembering a ride on the back of an elephant with Kate Moss in Nepal. Crashing through the jungle was “one of those truly magical moments I’ll never forget . . . and just the giggles of being in this situation,” she says. “There were no trails. The elephants made their own pathways. They would take out trees as they went.” This was sometime in the early ’90s, she recalls, and they were on a job for British Vogue, one of the many thousands of shoots she has done in a nearly three-decades-long career that includes several hundred magazine covers.

Turlington Burns has been the face of Chanel, Valentino, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta and Yves Saint Laurent; she’s also had contracts with Revlon and Maybelline, among many others. But it isn’t her time in front of the camera that she says she remembers most fondly from her days as one of the original supermodel glam squad (along with Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford). It’s “the excursions,” she says. “The mystical little alleyways. The discovery process of being in a magical little place. Travel has always been my main interest in the career.” She smiles, sipping mint tea. “There have been so many fun adventures. The job gets you into these funny little places and introductions to people and parts of a country or a city that you would never have access to. It spreads all kinds of memories.”

Around her neck, Turlington Burns wears a memento from that Nepal adventure—a thick, striped woolen scarf picked up on a shopping trip in Kathmandu. “It’s finally gotten soft,” she says, running her hands over it. “It had rough things in it for a long time.”

Meanwhile, Turlington Burns seems to have grown only lovelier over the years. Her face is a study in elegant angles, but the surprise is the merriment in her green eyes. Nestled in an armchair in the cozy back room of Locanda Verde, the casual Italian taverna owned by Robert De Niro, she’s wearing a simple brown sweater, boots and jeans, no makeup or jewelry except for a wedding ring. She and her husband, actor-filmmaker Ed Burns, live with their two children—Grace, seven, and Finn, five—in an apartment nearby.

Although Turlington Burns famously chose to leave the catwalk to pursue her education, she remains in demand and accepts the occasional plum assignment as her schedule permits, including a recent campaign for Louis Vuitton. Looking back on her modeling heyday has made her nostalgic, but she has no regrets about moving on. “I feel so much more fulfilled and complete in my life than I ever did,” she says. “I think that just comes with getting to know yourself. It’s been an evolution for me.”

Now 42 and still an inveterate traveler and adventurer, Turlington Burns is always reinventing: She has been a student, a businesswoman, an activist and, most recently, a documentarian. After a year on the festival circuit, No Woman, No Cry, the film she has made about the maternal health care challenges faced by women around the globe, has just had its American television debut (on OWN, in early May). The documentary, which Turlington Burns directed and funded herself, follows the stories of two women—one in Bangladesh, the other in Tanzania—as they deal with the dangers arising from complicated pregnancies. The footage is often heart wrenching; the Tanzanian woman, Janet, goes into labor and then must walk five miles at night to a birthing center.

Watching Janet deal with the pain of her contractions as she struggles to reach her goal becomes very uncomfortable for the viewer. “It was so upsetting,” I tell Turlington Burns. “At a certain point, I thought, These people should stop filming and help her—and then you did.”

“Exactly,” she says. “We always planned to.” Turlington Burns and her film crew wound up taking Janet in their van to a nearby clinic, possibly saving her life and the baby’s. A happy ending—but the scene raises the chilling question of what would have happened to Janet if a film crew hadn’t been there to give her a ride.

First Published May 13, 2011

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