Christy Turlington Burns Will Always Be in Fashion

christy turlington burns for harper's bazaar may 2024
Christy Turlington Burns Will Always Be in FashionEthan James Green
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I spy Christy Turlington Burns before she sees me. She’s curled up on a couch in a common area of the open-plan TriBeCa, New York, offices of Every Mother Counts, the nonprofit she founded 14 years ago to make pregnancy and birth safe for women across the globe. At a glance, Turlington Burns, 55, looks like anyone else wrapping up a workday: eyes fixed on her laptop, immersed in her work. She’s dressed, well, for a Tuesday at a nonprofit job, which is to say nothing is too fancy or precious: high-waisted camel-color pants, a floral blouse, flats. Her hair is pulled back in an easy bun, and she has on not a stitch of makeup.

christy turlington burns for harper's bazaar may 2024

It’s a picture of Turlington Burns that belies the fact that she is also not just a model but one of the supermodels, mononymously enshrined in fashion history alongside a select few peers like Linda, Naomi, and Cindy. In the ’90s, that rarefied group ushered in a new era of fashion and radically altered the industry in their wake. George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” video, in which that particular foursome all appeared, was the turning point: It took fashion out of its exclusive Parisian salons and smashed it, irreversibly, together with pop culture. The supers, as they became known, were covered in the press with the same breathless rapture as movie stars.

But I get the sense that this is how Turlington Burns prefers things now: low-key, no frills, all the better to focus on the advocacy work that has propelled her since the birth in 2003 of her daughter, Grace, with her husband of almost 21 years, the actor and director Ed Burns. Turlington Burns hemorrhaged following Grace’s birth, prompting her to focus her work on improving maternal-health outcomes. To date, Every Mother Counts has helped to support more than 1.5 million women, families, and healthcare workers and invested more than $42 million in raising awareness and developing community-led solutions. Though she still models—this cover of Harper’s Bazaar marks her 14th for the magazine—she is highly selective about which jobs she takes. “I can do a day here and there,” she says. “But then, two days, I’m like, ‘Too much. It’s too much.’ ”

It’s “too much” because it can cut into the work Turlington Burns does with Every Mother Counts; it’s too much because she is a mother of two—Grace, now 20, and son Finn, 18—and, as she says, “postpartum is forever”; and perhaps it’s too much because Turlington Burns’s practical, down-to-earth nature is often at odds with the drama-filled fashion industry, which she has somehow managed to navigate on her own terms for four decades.

In a glass-walled meeting room appointed with a couch, a comfy chair, and a coffee table, Turlington Burns recounts attending one of her son’s high school basketball games where the opposing team passed around a nude photo of her from an old shoot as a heckling tactic. “I was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner,” she tells me. “But at the same time, I was like, ‘This is so rude!’ ” The incident turned into a “bigger thing” once the school got involved. “All I wanted to do was disappear,” she says, growing more animated. But she quickly returns to an even keel: “I don’t feel embarrassed about anything,” she explains. “Regretting things is a waste of time.”

It’s a story that’s somewhat emblematic of Turlington Burns’s relationship with fashion now, which might be characterized as having an arms-length embrace of it. It is not an overstatement to say that she is one of the most successful and beloved models of our time. Turlington Burns made history when she signed an exclusive contract with Calvin Klein at 19 to launch the fragrance Eternity; she did her last campaign for Eternity two years ago. She doesn’t particularly like walking in fashion shows—and notes that she’s walked in only three in the past decade: for Marc Jacobs when she was 50 and, more recently, for Ralph Lauren and Pucci. “The shows always felt a little like chaos,” she recalls. “I think we, as models, will hold some of that energy and that tension, and it’s not peaceful in a lot of those spaces.”

But whereas some of her contemporaries have remained fixtures of the industry, still enamored of and part of the glamour of it all, Turlington Burns has never felt beholden to or caught up in it. In 1994, at the height of her early success, she stopped modeling to attend NYU, eventually graduating cum laude. “I feel lucky to have the option [to model],” she says. “It’s still my livelihood. I don’t take a salary here [at Every Mother Counts] because that doesn’t feel right, but this is my main job.”

Her remove also reflects her disposition. “I’m a shy person, actually,” Turlington Burns admits. “I like a quiet set. If I hear any dance music or techno music, I want to flee. I feel it in my bones, like, ugh,” she says, her face wrinkling at the thought.

There’s music on set inside the Red Hook, Brooklyn, studios for this story’s shoot, but it isn’t techno. (She does not flee.) True to low-key form, Turlington Burns arrives solo, a fairly unprecedented move for a cover star. I watch as she poses before Ethan James Green’s camera in a backless knit Alaïa bodysuit revealing a not-insignificant amount of side boob, then see the images pop up on a nearby monitor. It’s like a magic trick: Oh, right, there is a supermodel. She lights up the frame in a way that is singularly captivating, which is all the more remarkable against the backdrop of a constant deluge of filtered selfies.

“Christy is the most classic beauty,” Turlington Burns’s friend (and fellow supe) Cindy Crawford says. “She’s the only one of us that the Met used as a mannequin. She has the type of beauty that would be described as beautiful in any century.”

If you scan the comments of any recent clip of Turlington Burns that has been posted to YouTube—appearances on morning shows and on various panel discussions promoting the work of Every Mother Counts or last year’s Apple TV+ documentary series The Super Models, which reunited the supers and charted their course to domination—that kind of reaction to Turlington Burns’s beauty is par for the course. There is an aura of awe that surrounds it.

In contrast, Turlington Burns has a preternatural groundedness that she attributes in part to her mother, Elizabeth, who accompanied her when she started modeling at 14. Partly, it’s “just who I was,” she says. It allowed her to weather the aforementioned chaos of the runways and also protected her from an industry notorious at the time for preying on vulnerable young women. “Being a person who is quiet and studies people, I think I learned how to not stand out. My mom never said, like, ‘Oh, here’s how you’re going to protect yourself.’ I think I just really paid attention, honestly.”

Turlington Burns does credit her mother with shaping her perception of and approach to beauty. Elizabeth, now in her 80s, was born in El Salvador and grew up in L.A. and worked for Pan Am as a flight attendant in the ’60s, a job that was the height of glamour at the time. (It’s also how she met Turlington Burns’s father, Dwain, who was a pilot.) “My mother is probably the first person that I was like, ‘Oh, that’s beauty,’ ” Turlington Burns says. “She is very low-maintenance. My mom didn’t ever even think about augmenting herself or changing herself in any way. I don’t do any of those things either.”

What stands out in the sea of comments about Turlington Burns across social media, almost as much as a universal reverence for her inside-and-out beauty, are expressions of praise for the fact that she is showing—gasp—signs of aging. It shouldn’t be revelatory or praiseworthy to have a few wrinkles, but our collective impressions of what any particular age looks like have been warped and distorted by social-media filters and AI, as well as the ever-growing array of cosmetic procedures now available.

Turlington Burns wouldn’t know about any of that, though. “I don’t have my comments on,” she says. “My daughter told me to do that a couple years ago. I’m really happy that I don’t [have to see the comments]. I can’t say that I’m Teflon. I’m sure if I did read something that was pointed or mean, it would hurt me in the same way. But I also try not to give that much attention to any of it.”

She is maybe just a little bit Teflon. You would have to be to emerge from decades of modeling and public scrutiny with the self-assuredness Turlington Burns brings into a room. She learned early on in her career to set clear boundaries and exert as much control as she could; models typically have very little. During our conversation, she is direct about what she does not want this story to be about. “I don’t want to put myself out as the face of aging beauty,” she says—a fate she’s suffered before and that media, including magazines like this one, for far too long thrust on anyone over 40.

christy turlington burns for harper's bazaar may 2024

Turlington Burns is contemplating what it means to get older and move into a new phase of life, though. “I’ll be 60 in five years, and I want to start thinking through what the next five years will be for me personally,” she says. Every Mother Counts will be almost 20, and her daughter will be 25; there is a lot of work to do. “Early on, I said I hope that by the time she’s thinking about if and when and how and why she wants to be a mom, these issues [around maternal health] are the rare event that most people think that they are. And we’re very far away from that right now.”

It has been estimated that the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has doubled over the past 25 years. The prospect of another Trump presidency threatens to roll back access to reproductive health care even further. “I am motivated most days by the momentum that’s been gained in the last 14 years,” Turlington Burns says. “There’s more bills and legislation that maternal health is a part of. … And if things were to go the way that we don’t want them to go in terms of reproductive rights, there is opportunity. And historically, I would say a lot of energy comes to the surface in those times.”

Turlington Burns herself sees 68 as the age to look toward anyway. “One of my friends is in her early 60s, and she believes that the golden age is 68,” she says. “That’s the place where you might be a grandparent, if your kids have families. You’re probably retired. You are hopefully healthy enough to enjoy your grandchildren or having more flexibility and time and freedom. And so I like that as being a farther-away number because I’m like, ‘Oh, I can build up to 68.’ ”

Hair: Lucas Wilson for Oribe and Dyson; makeup: Sam Visser; manicure: Dawn Sterling for NailGlam; casting: Anita Bitton at the Establishment; production: Counsel; set design: Dylan Bailey. Special thanks to Samson Stages.

harpers bazaar may 2024 cover with christy turlington burns

harpers bazaar may 2024 cover with anok yai

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of Harper's Bazaar.

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