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Christy Turlington Burns Finds Her Voice

By Renée Batchelor

Christy Turlington in a Balenciaga dress.
 
Christy Turlington in a Balenciaga dress.

Growing up in the ’90s it was impossible to ignore the presence of American model Christy Turlington Burns. With a classically beautiful face that was almost impossibly symmetrical, she functioned as a muse to seemingly everyone from Gianni Versace to Azzedine Alaïa. Unlike other models whose looks — bleached blonde hair or skinny brows — seemed to wax and wane with the trends and times, there was something eternal, timeless and elegant about Turlington Burns. Looking back on her career today it is no wonder that the model was captured in black-and-white photography for many of her biggest campaigns and shoots — so compelling was her beauty that it seemed to need little enhancement. But what has been even more compelling to observe in her career trajectory has been her decision to return to school in 1994 and her eventual move into philanthropy.

Turlington Burns started her career as a teenager with a story that sounds like it was plucked straight from the annals of accidental discoveries. “I met a photographer at the stable where my older sister and I rode our horses and he asked our mum if we would be interested in letting him photograph us. My sister was keen right away and our mum agreed. Those photos were then handed over to an agent who told us I could model if I wanted to,” she says. Despite her young age, Turlington Burns’s career moved quickly. “I was 14 at the time. It took a few years of working for department stores after school before I did anything worth mentioning here. I met Arthur Elgort in New York City after a meeting at Vogue magazine and things took off from there,” she says. When asked how she feels about the modelling industry today, where many models need to bank on a strong social media presence in order to build relationships with brands and designers, she says, “It all feels a bit more calculated now than it did when I was in it in a real way. Anonymity doesn’t seem to be a goal for many working today.”

 
Clockwise from top left: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello top. Tiffany & Co. Tiffany T T1 necklace in rose gold and diamonds; Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello blazer and shirt. Tiffany & Co. Tiffany T T1 bangles in rose gold and diamonds and rings in rose gold. (2); Dior top. Tiffany & Co. Tiffany T T1 bangles in rose gold and diamonds and ring in rose gold and diamonds.
Clockwise from top left: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello top. Tiffany & Co. Tiffany T T1 necklace in rose gold and diamonds; Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello blazer and shirt. Tiffany & Co. Tiffany T T1 bangles in rose gold and diamonds and rings in rose gold. (2); Dior top. Tiffany & Co. Tiffany T T1 bangles in rose gold and diamonds and ring in rose gold and diamonds.

From her early discovery, Turlington Burns went on to establish a legendary career, working with the biggest names in the industry including Chanel and Calvin Klein — with whom she had an exclusive contract — as well as photographers like Peter Lindbergh, Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts. “They were all so different and gave me opportunities to see myself in unique ways. I learned a lot about myself and life working closely with these legends,” she says.

She loved the travelling that modelling entailed — growing up her father was a pilot and mother a flight attendant — and felt that it had a big impact on her worldview, something which would play a part later in her career. However, unlike other models who seemed content pursuing that singular path, Turlington Burns always yearned for more. When asked what makes a successful model, looking back on her career, she says, “Authenticity, confidence and interests outside of the industry.” It was this very interest in everything from comparative religion — which she studied at New York University — to fitness — she runs marathons and practises yoga — that would inspire and lead her in her eventual path to activism.

Turlington Burns made a bold move at age 25 to return to school. “From the moment I wasn’t a student modelling in her spare time, I craved education. It took me a while to commit to full-time but that’s what I needed and wanted. I had too many interests and couldn’t wait to explore them. School was the best path for me to dig deeper into many of them,” she says. Her spirit of activism was awakened by the idea that she could make a difference in the world. “As soon as I realised I had a voice, I used mine. I always had plenty of issues I cared about but found that I had so much more to contribute when I had a personal connection or life experience to draw from.” She advocated for El Salvador, her mother’s home country, and appeared in anti-smoking campaigns— an issue close to her heart since her late father passed away from lung cancer.

On the set of T Singapore’s cover shoot in New York, the model-turned-activist talks about growing up as a woman in front of the lenses of iconic photographers, realising her own voice as a woman, and dedicating her life to helping others find theirs.

 

“The goal is gender equality. When we look at most countries and the problems they face, the root causes are often the same. There is an imbalance of power and women and children tend to be on the lower end of the totem pole.”

Left: Salvatore Ferragamo coat and shoes. Right: Bottega Veneta jumpsuit.
Left: Salvatore Ferragamo coat and shoes. Right: Bottega Veneta jumpsuit.

Similarly, it was her own experience giving birth that led to her founding her maternal health charity Every Mother Counts in 2010. “I became a mother in 2003. I became a global maternal health advocate the day I became a mum. I experienced a postpartum complication after delivering my daughter Grace, [despite] a healthy pregnancy and smooth delivery. The experience opened my eyes to a global tragedy that most people are not aware of until it’s too late. I was lucky to have safe maternity care options and access to people who could provide the care I needed when I needed it. I want every woman to have access to that kind of quality, respectful maternity care, no matter where she lives,” she says.

Turlington Burns believes that the issue of mothers needing support is one that affects not just women, but the whole of society. “I can’t think of a more important time to support a human than when they are carrying the life of another. When we look at the cycle of life and consider when is the optimal time to impact a life, it seems quite obvious that getting this right will help to ensure a solid foundation for the rest of one’s life,” she says.

Givenchy top and skirt.
Givenchy top and skirt.

If her passion for the subject is apparent it is only because she is acutely aware that so much more needs to be done, even in her home country. “The U.S. made serious strides in the 1930s but over time got complacent. We weren’t as focused on the data as we are today. We weren’t actually listening to women and asking about their experiences. Our healthcare system has become over-medicalised and with that, childbirth has become an industry and that has had an enormous impact on the health and wellbeing of women and children,” she says. When asked about the conditions in the U.S. today she says, “The U.S. is one of very few industrialised countries with a rising maternal mortality ratio. The rates have been increasing steadily for over two decades but only recently has this become a serious concern for policy-makers.”

Some of the organisation’s goals include raising awareness and educating the public on what she deems a global problem. “I made a documentary film to shine the light on the challenges women face when bringing life into the world. Storytelling has been central to all Every Mother Counts has done for more than 10 years. We put the faces and voices of women alongside the statistics. We invest in community-led programmes addressing maternal health outcomes, disparities and other inequities in the U.S, Guatemala, Haiti, Tanzania, India and Bangladesh. We advocate for policy change that will benefit women and families.”

Balenciaga dress.
Balenciaga dress.

Turlington Burns’s vision for the future is more than just feminist, it is humanist. “We believe that women should not only survive childbirth, but thrive in motherhood. The sad reality is that most women on this planet are not thriving. When women don’t thrive, how can their children or the people around them thrive?” she asks. “The goal is gender equality. When we look at most countries and the problems they face, the root causes are often the same. There is an imbalance of power and women and children tend to be on the lower end of the totem pole,” she says.

Throughout her career Turlington Burns says that she had no one mentor, but rather took cues and learned things from the “incredible” people she met and encountered in her life. In her personal life — she is a mother of two and has been married to actor and filmmaker Edward Burns for 17 years — Turlington Burns’s ambitions are not quite as lofty, though they are no less difficult to achieve. “I am deeply committed in the work I do now and to my children and the family I have helped to create. I am trying to raise good humans and to be the best human I can be every day.

Turlington Burns fronts T’s “Unconventional” April issue.
Turlington Burns fronts T’s “Unconventional” April issue.

Related story: On Set | Christy Turlington Burns

Photography by Chris Colls
Video by Lukas Chmiel
Styling by Jack Wang
Hair by Ward Stegerhoek (The Wall Group)
Makeup by Romy Soleimani (The Wall Group)
Manicure by Maki Sakamoto (The Wall Group)
Producers: Anna Rybus (Prospero Production), Dejan Poletan (Serlin Associates)
Market Editor: Erin McSherry
Casting Director: Neill Seeto (IMA Casting)