It’s been a transformational journey for Christy Turlington Burns, who, at the age of 48, seems to have lived many different lives. She’s appeared on over 500 magazine covers throughout the course of her modelling career, and helped prevent numerous deaths through her nonprofit organisation, Every Mother Counts.
Many remember her appearance in the late George Michael’s cult music video for “Freedom! ’90,” gracefully walking barefoot wrapped in a long white linen sheet, dancing and lip-synching along with Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz. A few months later, at his fall 1991 fashion show in Milan, Gianni Versace sent Turlington Burns, Evangelista, Campbell and Crawford down the runway to that very song, the four of them miming George Michael’s lyrics, making fashion history.
While Versace was key to the rise of the supermodels, and Turlington Burns appeared in some of the most iconic shots of his early ’90s campaigns, she was also the star of numerous other brands: Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan, Prada and Calvin Klein — Klein being her first significant contract. Turlington Burns quickly became one of the world’s top-earning models, and her success revolutionised the industry.
The middle of three daughters, Turlington Burns was discovered at the age of 13 while horseback riding in Miami. She moved to New York City at 18 to pursue a full-time modelling career, where she met an unprecedented rise to fame and power. She embraced that power. “I started working so young, my order in my family definitely changed because of what I was earning. I became an equal to my father very early, which I loved, and that was always my goal. Of course men and women are equal; growing up, I thought my father had so much more autonomy and power. I wanted those characteristics and qualities,” recalls Turlington Burns.
“Even before I started my career, my goal was to be economically independent or financially independent; to not have to answer to anybody and to really be able to make up my own mind and do what I wanted. I think financial independence is truly power, and I see that in all the women that we work with. If they can earn a living and have means, the way that they use those means is so much more generous than men typically do. I knew I would not abuse the power, that I would share and be generous.”
To that, she certainly stayed true. Today her non-profit foundation Every Mother Counts has a portfolio of 11 grants that bring essential maternal healthcare to mothers in need in nine countries worldwide, including Guatemala, Haiti, India, Nepal, Syria and the United States, and it is estimated to have impacted over 500,000 lives.
The inception of the foundation goes back to the birth of Turlington Burns’ daughter, Grace, 13, the eldest of her two children with her husband of nearly 14 years, actor and director Edward Burns. Shortly following her daughter’s delivery, Turlington Burns’ placenta was retained and she hemorrhaged. “There was a lot of blood,” she recalls, “but I was in the right place with the right people, and I felt safe. It was scary and it was painful, but I felt I was fine.”
In the following weeks, Turlington Burns learned that the same complication she experienced is one of the leading causes of death for women and girls; one woman dies globally approximately every two minutes from complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and up to 98 percent of these deaths are preventable. “I didn’t know right away what I would do with that information. I knew that birth, even with my complication, was one of the most empowering — probably the most empowering thing I have ever done. I knew I was excited and passionate about birth; I thought [about] maybe advocating for natural birth.”
Turlington Burns was already familiar with advocacy. Since the mid ’90s, she had supported various efforts to rebuild postwar El Salvador, her mother’s country of origin. And after losing her father to lung cancer in 1997, she took part in antismoking campaigns.
In 2005, while pregnant with second child Finn, Turlington Burns went to El Salvador with the antipoverty organisation CARE. “On the last day of the trip, I visited a clean-water programme,” she recalls.“There were all these mothers that had come to collect water, and they were either pregnant or had very small babies on their backs. There were no paved roads, it was about two hours from the capital city, so I knew that if a woman in this community had had my same experience and needed to be moved to the hospital, she probably would not have survived because of the distance.”
After the birth of her son and following another trip with CARE, this time to Peru, Turlington Burns started thinking about producing a documentary on the subject, which led to the release of No Woman, No Cry in 2010, a film showcasing the devastating health consequences of pregnancy and childbirth for women around the globe. While working on her documentary, Turlington Burns also applied to Columbia University, where she studied for a master’s degree in public health.
This was not her first time going back to school. At the peak of her career, she applied to New York University and graduated with honours. “I never expected that I wouldn’t go back to school,” she says. “I did not think that this job would be a long-term thing. So I thought, travel as much as I can, then I’ll figure it out. The more experience I have, the clearer I will be about what I’m going to do. It didn’t slow down, it just got busier. And when the supermodel stuff happened, it became more media attention, and it was like, ‘Ewww, this is not fun.’ My sisters were going to school, my friends from school were going to school, my mum went back to school in her early 50s, so all of that around the same time—I was really inspired. I felt like I had seen and experienced a lot, but now I wanted to apply in reverse of other people. By going to NYU and paying for it by myself, by choosing it because I wanted to do it, I did not miss a single day or moment. It was so what I wanted. The experience was incredibly satisfying.”
Turlington Burns recently wrote a recommendation letter for Karlie Kloss, who also decided to go back to school at the height of her career and applied to NYU. “She’s such a lovely person,” says Turlington Burns of Kloss. “In her I see a lot of parallels, and we have developed a really nice relationship. When she told me she wanted to go back to school, I was so thrilled to make an introduction. It’s such a big deal to even learn how to ask; when somebody has such conviction to ask a question or ask advice, that’s something that has to be honoured, [to] stop and hear them out… It’s what I hope most women will do for each other — or what most humans will do for each other.”
Following her studies and research in global, maternal and public health, Turlington Burns was set to determine where and how she could make an impact. With Every Mother Counts, she addresses the main barriers to maternal health around the world — lack of transportation, supplies and education — by raising awareness and funds, establishing partnerships on the ground, and developing public education programming and community engagement. Five years into the programme and with a staff of 10, EMC has raised over US$13 million, with part of these funds raised through marathons.
When she is not running a marathon or travelling, Turlington Burns occasionally models. She joined Tiffany & Co.’s latest campaign, and remains the face of Maybelline and of Calvin Klein’s Eternity fragrance; the latest one features her husband, Edward Burns.
A few months ago, Turlington Burns was reunited with Evangelista and Campbell for a shoot supporting the Elephant Crisis Fund. “They both live in New York now, but that has not always been the case,” says Turlington Burns. “We email and text sometimes, but we don’t see each other very often. Linda reached out to me about this, and I told her I’d love to help but this is the limited amount of time that I can do it. Somehow the planets aligned and it all worked out. The whole team that worked on the project were people that we’ve grown up with, so it was a nice couple of hours. But I’m so focused on the present, and they are interested in what I’m doing and have been trying to be supportive.”
While Turlington Burns remains in contact with her supermodel counterparts, the word “supermodel” no longer resonates with her. “I know the association,” she says. “But it’s not a word that I feel or that I know. It’s so glamorous and not rooted in reality that it’s so not me; I can’t connect to it. To me it’s a barrier; and yet the time in my career has been great and positive. The experiences and the reality are things that I don’t want to deny, but the label of it and the perception of it is not something that I ascribe to.”
At today’s Harper’s BAZAAR shoot, Turlington Burns presents herself on set with professionalism and grace. Her natural beauty is still flawless with just a few lines that hardly reveal her age. “I’ve been asked about age since I was 14, as a model, and I certainly was not thinking about that then or even 20 years later,” she says. “I feel better every year that I get older in terms of my purpose, my priorities, the life experiences that I’ve had. I feel that everything is better, so why would I want to deny or hold off these things? I really like to see faces that look like faces that have lived. I prefer them aesthetically; to me it’s attractive. I don’t understand people wanting to not be themselves.”
Being photographed in all-women-designer looks, and intentionally timed per her request to be released in conjunction with International Women’s Day, Turlington Burns seems always eager to celebrate women: “I’m not as involved in fashion,” she says, “but I do know most of the women [designers] that I wore today. I know Phoebe [Philo], I’ve known Miuccia [Prada] from the beginning. It’s great to see they’ve become bigger and more powerful.”
Turlington Burns, who in 2014 was part of Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People, is certainly setting the stage for other women. “I consider myself a feminist, but I really more consider myself an equalist,” she says. “Wanting to be able to have a voice, to use your voice, for your voice to matter as much as anybody else’s — these are all things that I believe are inherent.”
And while she says there is still progress to be made in terms of gender equality in various industries such as the movie business, she also believes that there are more opportunities today for women who aspire to become successful.
“I do a lot of speaking at some of the largest banks,” she says. “When you’re in a room and you see hundreds of women in an industry that’s been male-dominated, that’s great!” In the tech industry too: “More and more, anyone with ideas has an opportunity and a chance,” says Turlington Burns. “You can’t say it’s [your] sex that would hold you back. There might be other struggles along the way, but you can’t say that’s the reason. I’ve even met a lot of people who fund only women businesses, so there are more support systems that would allow individuals to move faster and move up to these higher places. And [they’re] doing it in a way where they are not perfect at all, but where they are trying to figure out the balance of family and showing more women that that’s possible.”
For that, Christy Turlington Burns — with all that she has already accomplished, and all that there is from her to come — sets the perfect example.
By Eleonore Marchand
Photographed by Norman Jean Roy
Styled by Kristen Ingersoll and Juan Cebrian
Hair: Serge Normant using Serge Normant Hair Care
Makeup: Virginia Young/MAM-NYC using Dior
Manicure: Gina Edwards using Chanel