Model Citizen: Christy Turlington Burns
by molly knight raskin
Astunning combination of chiseled cheekbones, full lips, and exotic eyes, Christy Turlington Burns is one of the most timeless faces in fashion, having graced the covers of high-profile ad campaigns and glossy magazines for almost 30 years. But it’s not for her famous features that the 43-year-old model wants to be recognized. It is for her voice.
Over the past decade, Turlington Burns has retreated farther from the fashion world, working quietly but tirelessly to succeed in an arena that could not be more removed from the glamour and glitz of the catwalk—global activism. With an intellectual curiosity and an innate passion for humanitarian causes, Turlington Burns has already proven she’s not just another celebrity embracing the cause du jour. Currently, she is tackling one of the most challenging, sobering issues in global health: maternal death.
The tragedy of maternal death, the model-turned-activist explains, is evident in the numbers. According to the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health, approximately 350,000 women die due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth every year. That’s one woman every 90 seconds. “That’s a number I stand by, and it’s especially large when you consider the fact that the majority of these deaths are preventable,” she says. “I could not believe it when I first did the research, and I wondered, Why aren’t more people talking about this?'"
It was her own brush with a maternal health complication that first inspired Turlington Burns to research the issue. In 2003, after the birth of her daughter, Grace (with actor-director Edward Burns), she suffered a postpartum hemorrhage (PPH), a rare postlabor complication that could have been fatal without access to emergency medical care. Turlington Burns was stunned to learn that PPH is the leading killer of pregnant women around the world. Shortly after, she threw herself headlong into what’s become a crusade to educate people around the world on the issue of maternal health.
First came Turlington Burns’s directorial debut, the powerful documentary No Woman No Cry, which premiered in 2010 at the Tribeca Film Festival and aired last spring on the Oprah Winfrey Network. To capture the barriers to healthcare so many women face at a critical point in their lives, Turlington Burns and her crew spent the better part of a year and a half following at-risk pregnant women in four countries with high maternal mortality rates (MMRs): Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala, and the United States, which has one of the highest MMRs among developed nations.
In the two years since its release, Turlington Burns has used No Woman No Cry as an educational tool, traveling the world to screen it everywhere from hospitals and midwifery schools to health conferences and Fortune 500 companies. Building on its momentum, she has also created a greater call to action: Every Mother Counts, an advocacy and mobilization campaign to increase education and support for maternal mortality reduction, launched in the fall of 2010 with Erin Thornton, one of Washington’s top international development leaders. Thornton left her longtime position with One, the global grassroots advocacy organization cofounded by U2’s Bono, to assume the role of executive director of Every Mother Counts. She says Turlington Burns won her over during a particularly long flight home from Africa earlier that year, when the two were returning from a whirlwind tour of several countries for supporters and board members of One and its sister organization, Red (both of which Turlington Burns had been involved with since 2005).
Thornton had just watched No Woman No Cry and had some tough questions for the former cover girl about her long-term goals. “She blew me away,” Thornton recalls. “I was impressed that she really understood the landscape, what needed to happen, and how to go about evoking change. And I was even more impressed by how clear her intentions were. This was not about image, not about profile, not about anything but the issue and how to bring about a change.”
“This isn’t something that’s an extracurricular for her; this is what she does, and she gives 1,000 percent to it,” Thornton adds. “She’s so effective and she really knows what she is talking about. She continues to do her homework—she goes to the conferences, lectures; she wants to stay current.”
As if her role as the foot soldier and face of Every Mother Counts is not enough, Turlington Burns is working part-time toward a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. So far the work is paying off: She can easily relate with policy wonks and medical experts, and she holds some plum positions, including a spot on Harvard Medical School’s Global Health Council and Harvard School of Public Health’s Dean’s Board of Advisors.
All of this sounds dizzying, but in conversation the mother of two (Grace is now eight, and Finn is six) conveys her signature calm and seems relatively unfazed by the enormity of the task at hand. Turlington Burns is quick to point out that for her, international travel and activism are nothing new. The daughter of a Pan Am pilot and a flight attendant, the native Californian grew up with a love for travel. Discovered by a modeling agent at the age of 14, Turlington Burns says she never expected such a meteoric rise, nor to have any staying power in an industry that puts a premium on youth. With the mindset that modeling was a temporary gig, Turlington Burns says she stuck with it largely for the opportunity to jet-set. “No matter where in the world I was able to go, I found a way to go farther and stay longer,” she says. “Really, so few of the days and years as a model were that satisfying. I always knew I wanted to do something more.
“My sisters and their friends were all in college, studying and learning, and I was envious,” she continues. “After a few years of modeling, I felt like I’d learned all I needed to know about it. And when it started to define me, I thought, Uh oh, I’m not comfortable with this.”
At 26, Turlington Burns surprised the fashion world with her decision to enroll full-time at New York University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion and Eastern philosophy. It could well have marked the end of her career, but big names like Maybelline and Calvin Klein upheld her contracts, offering to schedule shoots around her coursework. Still, Turlington Burns says her postgraduate goals did not include fashion; she considered becoming an airline pilot like her father, an architect, or a writer.
To broaden her experience outside the bright lights of the modeling universe, Turlington Burns embraced any charitable causes she felt drawn to. These would include her support of public information campaigns to bring postwar tourism to her mother’s native El Salvador and, in the late ’90s, a very public campaign against tobacco. A longtime smoker, Turlington Burns quit three years before the death, in 1997, of her father to lung cancer. She worked with the Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society on the “truth campaign” about the dangers of smoking. “To this day, people will come up to me and say they quit smoking because of that campaign,” she says. “That is so gratifying; I’m able to reaffirm my commitment to the cause and connect with people who have struggled with it.”
Graduating from NYU at age 30, the budding entrepreneur and devoted yoga practitioner launched two successful businesses: Sundari, an ayurvedic skincare line, and Nuala, a yoga-inspired apparel and accessories line in collaboration with Puma. She also wrote a book about yoga and began to volunteer with Care and Red, supporting various humanitarian causes and ramping up her international travel and time on the front lines in impoverished communities. It is clear that Turlington Burns takes great pleasure in visiting places where no one knows her name or her face. Those close to her say she does so with what appears to be total ease. “I really would say that Christy seems totally at home and comfortable in the back of a bumpy van, driving for hours to some rural village to meet with people who don’t know she’s famous,” says Thornton. “She’s willing to put her story out there, and because of this, people know she’s real and invested.”
Beyond her personal experiences, Turlington Burns explains that the driving force behind her work is simple: humanity. “I’m a mom now, and I’m going to be one for the rest of my life, and there is just so much that needs to be done,” she says. “There are enough of us in this world to make changes, and I do want to get people to try.”
“It’s not as if people need to support only my issue,” she says. “But do look for something. Anyone who is inclined can make a difference. You just have to use your voice.”
Photography by Guy Aroch/trunkarchive.com; josh estey/every mother counts 2011 (every mother counts)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.