“I barely wear heels any more. And, also, I had this fracture without knowing it. Putting one foot in front of the other in the darkness, with blinding light in my face . . . I wouldn’t wish it on anyone!”
Christy Turlington Burns is recounting her spectacular return to the runway. In February, she closed the AW19 show for Marc Jacobs in a black gown embellished with feathers. She shared the catwalk with models half her age including Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss and Cindy Crawford’s daughter Kaia Gerber.
The 50-year-old blithely refers to the experience as “terrifying”. It was only when her 15-year-old daughter Grace emboldened her to embrace the catwalk after 25 years of doing only occasional campaigns and shoots that she decided to make her return. “She’s just suddenly becoming aware of my connection to that world because her whole life I’ve just been a mom and advocate,” says Turlington Burns of her daughter, who came to the show straight from a basketball game and changed in the car on the way. “I think she’s now seeing me in a slightly different light. A little bit more glam than usual.”
This is my third encounter with Turlington Burns but the first where we’ve delved into fashion. Our paths have previously overlapped via her work as an advocate for maternal health and as a film-maker (she made her directorial debut in 2010 with an acclaimed documentary about at-risk pregnant women, No Woman, No Cry). Following complications after Grace’s birth, Turlington Burns set up Every Mother Counts (EMC), a non-profit organisation that focuses on maternal health. “When I became a mother in 2003, we were losing or estimating that 530,000 girls and women were dying every year around the world by pregnancy and childbirth complications,” she says. “Today, that number is 303,000.” Her nearly 10-year-old organisation now has projects helping midwives and skilled birth attendants in Guatemala, Haiti and Bangladesh. They’ve funded clinics, hospitals and transportation for mothers to access emergency obstetric care in Uganda, Tanzania, Haiti, Guatemala and in the US — the only developed country with a rising maternal mortality rate according to a 2017 investigation by NPR and ProPublica.
After this interview, she’s travelling to Nashville to speak at an American College for Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ conference. She’s also preparing for an EMC benefit luncheon to mark US Mother’s Day this weekend: it’s EMC’s biggest campaign time of the year.
Mother’s Day spending in the US is expected to total $25bn this year, up from $23.1bn in 2018 according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. Approximately 84 per cent of the US adult population are expected to celebrate their mothers and other women in their lives. But Turlington Burns won’t be getting breakfast in bed in New York City, where she lives with her husband of 15 years, Edward Burns (a film producer, director and actor), two children and two dogs. Between fundraising events, supporting her team in a half-marathon on Long Island, her son Finn’s school play, her daughter Grace’s horse show and her 79-year-old mother Elizabeth visiting from out of town, her schedule does not allow for time to be indulged.
The US incarnation of Mother’s Day, which became a holiday in 1914, has origins deeply rooted in activism. Turlington Burns likes to compare what it stood for back then and what it represents today. “Look at all of the resources going towards frivolous things when we could actually be solving this issue [maternal mortality] globally with those resources,” she says persuasively.
Turlington Burns’ own mother was born in El Salvador’s capital in the late 1930s. Her maternal grandfather was briefly arrested for his outspoken political views. At the age of nine, Elizabeth travelled to LA with her family to build a new life. Turlington Burns’ mixed ethnicity would set her apart when she began modelling at the age of 16. She wears her Central American heritage as a badge of pride and says that in the past few years, President Trump’s draconian immigration policies have only added urgency to her EMC work. “It’s difficult enough when people are healthy and when you have the support to carry a child through life,” she says. “When you add on these layers of not having support systems, being separated from your families, not having insurance or the means to access care of any kind, let alone quality care, there’s a certain amount of stress that is harmful to both mother and baby.”
Renowned for her effortless, natural look, Turlington Burns cuts a cool figure in a crisp, white shirt, her reading glasses perched on her shoulder-length hair. She’s shuffling around in a boot because of the aforementioned stress fracture. I’m convinced she’s not wearing an ounce of make-up. “I’m a very practical person and so I don’t have the time to put a lot of energy into that,” she says of her beauty regime. “Sometimes I feel like that’s a bad thing, like a little bit of effort could probably go a long way.”
Despite her nonchalant approach to self-image, society still seems to impose certain expectations on people like her to subscribe to a particular set of aesthetic edicts. When we speak, former British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has sparked an online furore for criticising Helena Christensen’s outfit choice while attending a denim-themed birthday party for Gigi Hadid. “I’m sorry Helena Christensen, you ARE too old to wear that,” Shulman wrote in her Daily Mail column. The 50-year-old Danish model wore a black lace bustier paired with high-waist jeans.
“I had dinner with Helena that night before she went to the party. I thought she looked amazing,” says Turlington Burns of the fallout. “I think people should be who they are and if it wasn’t a part of who Helena has been all along then maybe it would have been strange or funny, or people could have an opinion about it, but it’s sort of a continuation of who she is, and she looks amazing, so why not?”
Turlington Burns celebrated her 50th birthday in January. Was her runway return a symbol of defiance, an assertion that age should not matter? While she believes in championing diversity on the catwalk, she insists age was not a factor in her decision. “Honestly it was just timing, it was in the moment. I think it’s important for people to see representation of all kinds: age, colour, size . . . that people celebrate women who have faces that look like they should. That aren’t manipulated. That’s the thing about fashion shows, you can’t retouch a face on a runway.”
The world of fashion now seems less mystical than in the 1990s, back when Christensen and Turlington Burns dominated the runway. “There’s just this sort of immediacy about social media . . . there’s no magic,” she says wistfully of the old days. Can we expect to see Turlington Burns on the runway again? “I barely have time for the rest of the things I hold important in my life,” she says. “It miraculously worked out timing-wise, and it was fun, but I have no need to revisit that again.”
Even though she may not return to modelling any time soon, putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes in the darkness, seems like a trajectory she’s determined to pursue.