For the last half century, the iconic Christie Brinkley has represented the American dream: a stunning Californian outdoors beauty who radiantly lights up every landscape with combustible energy and a 1000-watt smile. The young Christie, who skyrocketed as a model decades ago, has kept people’s dreams alive with her age-defying lifestyle. The sparkling vitality she exudes today comes from a full life in which love, positivity and healthy pursuits abound. It was Christie’s dad, a writer and producer in television, who said to her while she was growing up, “Baby, you write your own script in life. Make it a good one.” She’s done her dad proud by writing and painting a legendary script.
Christie led the quintessential Malibu Californian life growing up. As a teenager, she’d been approached by various people who said she ought to be in the pictures or a particular TV show. She took none of it seriously and continues telling the story:
“It wasn’t until I was a struggling artist in Paris that I started to look at my options. My boyfriend at the time had been drafted into the French military so I got a small dog to keep me company. The problem was that my dog had distemper so I was using up all my money to heal my dog. I was making calls to a vet at a telephone office when a photographer saw me and said, ‘I’ve been looking for a girl like you for this campaign I’m doing. I’d love to take some pictures of you in my studio and send them to my clients.’ I was wary and thought that I was being fed a line. He gave me his name and address on a piece of paper and I put it in a pocket. A few weeks later, I was with a friend who recognized the photographer’s name, so she accompanied me to the address. Things moved really quickly from there. The photographer introduced me to the modeling agency, and while I was there, I was introduced to Patrick Demarchelier and Mike Reinhardt. They promptly called Eileen Ford and insisted that she see me immediately.” In the meantime, Christie had developed a deep love affair with Paris and everything French. She reminisces with a huge smile:
“It all started when I was a kid. I loved everything from French berets to baguettes, the Eiffel Tower and what it represented, walking along the River Seines, the artists. I always wanted to be an artist in Paris. That’s what I set off to do when I got sidetracked into modeling. I find the French language and the music beautiful. I saw the French musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg when I was a kid and I was enchanted by it. All the great artists had their salons in Paris and they met and conversed with each other. Once I was able to get to Paris and meander along the cobblestone streets, the galleries and little shops, parks and museums, I was in awe. I would touch the stonewalls of the centuries-old buildings and feel the history and the depth of the ages; it was such a contrast to growing up in Malibu, California where it felt like our history started with the surfers of the 1960s. Of course we have our Hollywood legends in Los Angeles and that’s steeped in richness. My first husband was a French artist and we lived in a little garret under the rooftops. It was the essence of a very French bohemian lifestyle and it was beautiful. I loved it.”
Christie’s humility and practicality are immediately evident as she describes her early modeling days.
“After I did my first test shoot,” she explains, “I used the money I earned to travel, and when people were calling Ford Models to book me, I was out of communication. The agency told everyone that I was booked, and that created an even greater demand. So when I returned home from my travels, I found dozens of pinned messages on my front door. The entire door was covered! The gist of all the messages from the agency was ‘we have a job for you. Come back! Call us!’ I was stunned, and of course my friends, who were also struggling artists, said, ‘you can’t do that. It’s so bourgeois!’ I responded really practically by saying, ‘but if I do this job, I can earn enough money to take us ALL to Morocco! Don’t you want that?’”
What I was learning about Christie is that she finds humor in things that other people in the beauty industry would find calamitous:
“I was such a novice back then and I remember putting an eyelash curler onto my eyelashes and I inadvertently pulled my entire row of eyelashes out on one eye! So we had to wait a few weeks for the eyelashes on that one eye to grow back! Once again the agency had to tell everyone, ‘she’s not available’. My unavailability seemed to create a frenzy of demand. It was interesting.”
But the truth is that unavailability from average contenders typically results in people losing interest in them. Christie was in a league of her own, and the world was prepared to send a spaceship to Venus to fetch her – so badly did they want her stunning presence.
She went on to appear on over 500 magazine covers worldwide. She was photographed on six continents and in more than 30 countries around the world. She became the first model to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated for three consecutive years with a fourth Special Issue that had multi covers. From thereon she appeared in Sports Illustrated annual Swimsuit Issues and television specials.
Christie also landed the coveted Cover Girl contract, which launched the start of a 25-year partnership that marks the longest-running cosmetic contract of any model in history.
These achievements are only the tip of the Brinkley iceberg. Christie – from the inception – built an empire that broadened her horizons way beyond the modeling industry. She is an entrepreneur par excellence.
Christie and I relax into laughter as we discuss her introduction into an acting career. She appeared comically in National Lampoon’s Vacation as the fantasy woman driving a red Ferrari while Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) was driving his heavily loaded family van across the country. Every time Griswold tried to catch up with Christie, she smiled at him teasingly and accelerated away. The movie has become a worldwide comical treasure that is watched by multiple generations in virtually every family around the Holidays. I describe to Christie the number of times I used to replay the scene of her pulling away in the red Ferrari as my friends in my university room dissolved laughing two continents away.
“I always wanted to be an artist in Paris. That’s what I set off to do when I got sidetracked into modeling. I saw the French musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg when I was a kid and I was enchanted by it. All the great artists had their salons in Paris and they met and conversed with each other.”
I continue to describe Christie’s impact on my and other people’s lives. Back in the ’80s I had seen her in Glamour Magazine standing at a Venetian door wearing a gorgeous blue dress that floated in the breeze – and I rushed off to buy the fabric to re-create the exact dress. Christie responds as if she is just a regular person by saying unaffectedly, “I saw an outfit that Joni Mitchell was wearing, and I too rushed off to ask somebody to replicate it!”
That humility is extended as Christie describes her modeling career:
“I honestly thought that each shoot I did was going to be my LAST. When another one came up, I thought I had lucked out one more time, and then that would it! All OVER! I always worried going into jobs and often felt that I really wasn’t model material. I didn’t want to disappoint anybody. I usually had a stomachache from worrying and I’d find ways to cope with the stress by keeping it all in perspective. The goal was to do the job to the best of my ability. I had been working as an Illustrator in Paris before modeling and it’s interesting how sensitive I was about my artwork. I would be personally insulted if someone asked me to change anything in a drawing that I did. Creating art was very important to me so I was emotional about it – but I viewed modeling practically. It was an opportunity to make money so that I could continue to draw and be free in my spare time.”
Christie puts it in perspective:
“Modeling was a job that I was grateful for. I loved traveling to locations. I was definitely up for the challenge and I wanted to learn and grow from each experience. That constant thought process I had of the last shoot being my last job helped me to diversify and create the longevity of my career. I was always interested and open to exploring other things. When Sports Illustrated had used me in their calendar, I thought that it would be a wise business move to create my own calendar. It was a trend that other models followed. I wrote my first book – so I’ve had two New York Times best sellers. From there I began to dabble in acting. National Lampoon’s Vacation and its sequel was where my acting career began and then I branched into Broadway. My curiosity and willingness to fail became an asset because I always viewed each new venture from the perspective of having tried something – and trying is better than never having tried. I’m a go-getter and I think that philosophy has served me well in life.”
By this time I fully understood that Christie reveled in traveling. I ask her how it nourished her and she answered passionately with great inflections in her voice:
“When you get to go out and see the world, even if it’s just a short adventure of just four days, it is spectacularly amazing how much you pack into a 4-day itinerary. It is living life to the max where every day is packed full of enrichment. When I’m at a shoot in a beautiful place, we’re up at dawn – and savoring the absolute natural splendor of that dawn. Some of my favorite shoots were with Sports Illustrated because we visited so many incredible places. I loved going to Kenya in Africa where we’d rise before dawn to get to our location. The thrill of that bumpy, dusty drive with Africa’s red earth being churned up; the dust particles silhouetted by the rising sun. We had one of Ernest Hemingway’s trackers with us on the jeep and the sense of being a part of literary history was magical and thrilling. During one of our excursions, he taught us how to purr like elephants (a sort of rumble – purr) as we were getting charged by the elephants. His reason for teaching us the purr was to calm the mother elephants that were protecting their babies. This purring is also how elephants calm and communicate with each other. There have been so many impactful places I’ve visited. On a trip to Japan, people would walk up to me in crosswalks and touch my hair. Blondes were rare in Japan! Some of my favorite places include Morocco, the Seychelles Islands, the Caribbean. So many places hold special memories.”
When Christie was married to legendary musician Billy Joel, he made history in the 1980s by bringing his entire production team to the Soviet Union for its first live concerts. This was before the Soviet Union’s collapse and St. Petersburg was Leningrad at the time.
Christie describes their visit:
“We took our daughter Alexa with us on Billy’s historic tour in the ’80s of the Soviet Union. People would surround Alexa because they weren’t used to babies from other countries visiting their part of the world. They’d also touch my skin because they were fascinated by the smoothness of my adult skin: clearly they didn’t have access to the good nutrition and the advanced beauty products that I had. We traveled from Leningrad to Tbilisi in Georgia and there was such a sense of being part of history. When you travel you get to see the world from so many different prisms. You experience that part of the world’s culture, their food, their perspectives. It’s such an immersive, important experience. You also develop such a great appreciation when you come home and you realize how fortunate we are to live in the USA.”
Christie and I discuss all that is associated with Mother Nature. She’s a tireless advocate for the protection and preservation of our natural environment, and begins the conversation by describing a trip that she and daughter, Sailor, took to Kenya recently.
“We traveled to Kenya and met with Dr. Paula Kahumbu who has devoted her career to protecting elephants from environmental changes and poachers. A renowned conservationist, Dr. Kahumbu is in charge of the Kenyan President’s campaign to protect Africa’s elephants. She educated Sailor and I on the complexity of the poaching problem. When you have so much extreme poverty around you, some people will sell their souls by participating in the ivory trade – just so that they can put food on the table. There are criminal and terrorist groups all involved in the illegal smuggling of elephant ivory and rhino horns. Combating it is a multi-pronged effort. Servitor Branson (son of Richard Branson) runs the Mahali Mzuri Safari Camp in Kenya, and he is diligently addressing the issue of poverty by supporting the local communities around the camp and building schools for the children. It’s the only way to address the bigger issues. The villagers are incorporated into the conservation program and they become the beneficiaries of the Safari Camp’s earnings. They then step up and help to protect the wild animals. It’s a beautiful plan that is working and functioning. Sailor and I fell in love with the elephants and rhinos, and when we returned to the USA, we went on TV shows like ‘The View’ to put a spotlight on the positive strides that are being made to combat poaching. We also took part in the march across New York City to raise awareness. Nobody should be buying any ivory. It’s not a status symbol. It’s a symbol of a torturous death that these animals have suffered. I’d love to be able to go back to Kenya at some point to do more outreach.”
Interconnected with the loss of our wildlife is climate change. Christie speaks with strong conviction:
“We took our daughter Alexa with us on Billy’s historic tour in the’80s of the Soviet Union. We traveled from Leningrad to Tbilisi in Georgia and there was such a sense of being part of history.”
“Climate change is evident before our eyes. In the 2000 Presidential elections, I became a delegate for Al Gore in the first congressional district, and I did it because the Department of Defense had given me concern that we had two oil men (Bush and Cheney) running for office. My goal has never been to alienate people or drive a wedge between Americans, but to make us aware of the critical crossroads that we face. The Department of Defense gave warning, too, that when we destroy our natural environment and thereby create climate change, we inadvertently cause war. When we run out of water and basic necessities, we eventually go to war with one another because everybody wants a piece of our dwindling resources. We have misused the earth’s soil so badly that we only have 60 more years left of arable soil. Without it we can’t grow food. We have messed with the basic necessities of our survival. In drought-scorched western areas, people are having their water supplies cut off. I don’t see the sense of urgency about this issue, and that is what is so concerning to me. I often wonder if we changed our wording to say, ‘climate change is causing premature wrinkling’ or ‘weight gain is caused from climate change’ – would we pay more attention? Even more perplexing to me is that most of the climate change deniers are in hurricane and tornado alley. They are experiencing weather on steroids; their homes are being flooded or blown to smithereens, and yet they are still putting party politics ahead of science.”
“The second you become a parent, you start looking at the future in a way that you’ve never done before. I instinctively became so aware that all children should have a right and the ability to enjoy our natural resources in a way that has always been intrinsic to my sense of wellbeing. Nature replenishes our souls and keeps us human. Our national parks are priceless and they have to be preserved. We go to the ocean so that we can breathe deeply again. When we walk in a forest, we enjoy the abundance of oxygen that the trees provide – instead of the carbon overdose that we’ve caused.”
Christie’s lifestyle is steeped in healthy activities. She loves sailing and communing with mighty Neptune.
“I love sailing! First of all, you are on the ocean, and I love looking at the shoreline with its bays and beauty. It’s a thrill to harness the power of nature. You are pulling that wind in – and off you go! On a small boat it’s exciting and I have a sense of that ‘woohoo’ feeling. On bigger boats, it’s so relaxing as you glide along and sit back with friends. I love it all, and the places you can access from the boat make it a wonderful adventure. Having grown up in Malibu, I have great memories of stepping off my deck onto my paddleboard or surfboard or raft. But I’m especially blown away by the shoreline of the east coast. There are so many edges to the water and you can stop off at these charming little villages, tie up the boat, have lunch in a quaint setting, and then set off again. It’s oil-painting-like with its huge trees at the edge of the bay.”
I suggest to Christie that it is also her artistry that propels her towards the beauty in nature and she agrees wholeheartedly.
“Oh yes! Nature is so important in my life. I am enthralled by the varying shades of light as it moves across the clouds. It is all so comforting to me.”
So enamored is Christie by the natural world that last year she installed bee hives in her garden. She enthuses,
“It’s been fascinating learning about all the idiosyncrasies of bees, and we got 100 pounds of honey this year from our bees. It’s so important that we plant pollinators so that bees and butterflies can survive and do important work for the environment. My garden is organic, and I’m largely a self-trained gardener. That’s really how I got onto Instagram because I wanted to encourage others to try their hand at gardening. I never use chemicals and yet my garden is thriving and gorgeous. We don’t need to use chemicals. Let’s do the earth a favor and prevent chemicals from polluting the environment and causing cancers in our bodies. My kale was covered with caterpillars so instead of spraying them off, I picked each one up and took them over to the chickens so that they could join the food chain.”
Christie sits on The Global Security Institute whose aim is to promote security through the elimination of nuclear weapons. Christie is also a board member of the RPHP whose aim is to promote security through the elimination of nuclear power plants. She has spoken on their behalf at both the United Nations, and the U.S. Senate. Her knowledge on the topic is vast and she offers this educated perspective:
“The Fukushima nuclear disaster that occurred in 2011 because of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami still hasn’t been taken care of. Nuclear radiation is still leaking out of Fukushima. Similarly, there are still issues coming out of Chernobyl (from 1986) because of reactor design flaws. Radiation and public health is a huge issue. Back in the 1960s, John F. Kennedy initiated the ‘Tooth Fairy’ radiation study. Children’s baby teeth were collected and they were tested for levels of radioactive strontium-90 (Sr-90). Sr-90 is an isotope that is not found in nature. It only exists as a result of nuclear radiation. When it comes into contact with the human body, the body is tricked into thinking it is calcium and so it deposits it in our teeth and bones. Studies were done back then on children’s baby teeth when they fell out, and they found Sr-90. What most of us don’t realize is that today in the USA there is daily low-level radiation being emitted by nuclear power plants.”
“The justification for building nuclear power plants decades ago was that they were being built in areas less populated by humans. But as the population density has increased and we have less space, we’ve put people in areas close to nuclear plants. The RPHP is continuing the studies and continuing to find radiation in children’s teeth. We are also tracing the children who were in the original study of Sr-90-infected baby teeth, and checking to see whether they have developed cancer in adulthood. We have a press conference scheduled soon in which the evidence from the studies will be made public.”
“We have also been involved in permanently shutting down the High Flux Beam Reactor – which was located on Long Island. We’ve shut down the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York as well as the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey. We still have a lot of work to do. The burden of proof is on the people who live next to nuclear power plants. The plants themselves are certainly not going to tell us that they’re hurting us. The RPHP is dedicated to strengthening international cooperation in the fight against the dangers of nuclear radiation.”
“The second you become a parent, you start looking at the future in a way that you’ve never done before. I instinctively became so aware that all children should have a right and the ability to enjoy our natural resources in a way that has always been intrinsic to my sense of wellbeing. Nature replenishes our souls and keeps us human.”
Our conversation expands to the world’s complexities as technology advances rapidly. I ask Christie if she feels that her now-adult children, Alexa, Jack and Sailor belong to a particularly pressurized generation. She responds sensibly:
“There is no doubt that they feel a lot of stress and they know that there are many things that need to be addressed. But they have also become experts at balancing their lives with healthy activities. It’s not good to worry continuously so they compartmentalize with relaxation time that balances them.”
It’s clear that Alexa, Jack and Sailor have brought extraordinary dimensions of happiness into Christie’s life. She confirms that with these words.
“The greatest joy in my life is having my children. I’m not necessarily very introspective but I always knew that I wanted to be a mom and an artist. When children are little, there is so much magic in the home. Through them, I have gotten to re-live all life’s magical moments. All these little miracles came flooding back to me as my children took me on this beautiful journey through their inquisitive and uncorrupted eyes. We’d watch in awe every facet of nature from the underside of a leaf to insects going about their daily activities. Children remind us of the beauty in the world. The sky and the stars are illuminated again through their little eyes. Everything is in bold Technicolor and life excites them. Sharing all those wondrous moments with them is a privilege. They are little teachers – and they remind me of what matters in life. When our perspective gets jaded, they remind us of what is important. They constantly affirm all that I have to be grateful for. I have three happy, healthy children who have grown into kind, compassionate, empathetic adults and that’s the most important thing in the world to me.”
In 2011, Christie helped launch the ‘Move Your Way’ campaign for active wear company Danskin’s ‘Move For Change’ campaign. Known worldwide for her commitment to health and fitness, she wrote and illustrated a health and beauty book, ‘Christie Brinkley’s Outdoor Beauty and Fitness Guide’ which topped the New York Times bestseller list. With her ageless beauty, she was featured on the cover of People Magazine celebrating her 60th Birthday. The point of this summary is that in 50 years, Christie has been a part of the beauty industry’s necessary evolvement. I ask Christie about the positive change that has taken place in the industry.
“Without a doubt, I think the beauty industry is in a healthier place now. Back when I started, it was much more homogenized and the industry followed algorithms. For instance, in February of a particular year, they were fixated on a particular image that they felt the marketplace wanted: it had to be a blonde girl looking over her shoulder – and she had to be holding a kitten. Their marketing research told them that this was what was going to sell.”
She continues: “Glamour Magazine told us that the only way we could cross our legs was at the ankle. That was ladylike. Then that changed as time went on. I’ll never forget the first day when they said ‘you can put your ankle on your knee.’ That was considered bold and brazen. From little changes like that, the industry has moved towards vastly more representation. If you open a credible magazine now, there is diverse representation and there is no longer a stereotypical beauty standard. That is the most important change that has taken place and it’s been a long time in coming. Young women used to pick up fashion magazines and feel horrible because all the models were reed thin and they looked nothing like the girls who were reading the pages. Now, when you open a fashion magazine, you see people of all different ages, ethnicities and shapes – and that representation is so important. We are so much more inclusive than we used to be – but we also have a ways to go. The fact is that the skinniest models are still the girls who are working the fashion runways the most – and there are sometimes practical reasons for that – like the one-off clothes that go to the runway shows that are only available in a particular small size. But generally, we are moving in the right direction and we have to keep moving forward. It’s important that we stop comparing ourselves to other women. Everyone is unique. It’s also important that as a society, we stop judging people and that we stop using words that are soaked in negativity. For instance, when I refer to certain foods as fattening, my daughter Sailor will say to me, “Mom, please don’t use that word. A more positive way of wording it is to say, ‘that food is not healthy for me’ or ‘it’s not going to provide me with the fuel that I need.’”
Christie shares one of her key beauty secrets. “I wake up in the morning and start with a lemon turmeric drink.” Medical experts have long touted the benefits of turmeric for longevity and optimal brain function.
I ask Christie what her favorite weekend indulgence is.
“I love to hike – shoot out to Montauk and run along the cliffs. I also love to find pieces of driftwood and make something from the piece. I spend a lot of time gardening. I have a vegetable and flower garden and when I have a spare moment I’m in it dead-heading and picking flowers. I love to beautify my home, decorate it and move things around. I love arts and crafts and being creative.”
“National Lampoon’s Vacation and its sequel was where my acting career began and then I branched into Broadway (Chicago). My curiosity and willingness to fail became an asset because I always viewed each new venture from the perspective of having tried something – and trying is better than never having tried. I’m a go-getter and I think that philosophy has served me well in life.”
With the upcoming Holidays, we veer towards family traditions, and Christie sets the scene:
“Thanksgiving is very special. I decorate the table the day before and I cook a big meal for the whole family. I love it when everybody is in the kitchen together. I make sure they stay there by serving caviar, smoked salmon and lots of my family’s favorite delicacies on an enticing platter.”
“Last Christmas we stayed home and decorated the tree. We all sing Christmas carols together and it’s very spirited and joyful. I printed up copies of all the songs and made them into little booklets so that everybody has our favorite family carols intact.”
As for Christie’s favorite food, the answer is swiftly delivered:
“Non dairy vanilla ice cream made out of coconut milk!”
Given that Christie is a gifted artist, I ask what her favorite art pieces are in her home. Her answer is indicative of her substance:
“I have a stairwell with the kids’ art. Alexa, Jack and Sailor are all very artistically talented. One of the pieces has a cool story behind it: I had read ALL the Harry Potter books to the kids at night, and Jack particularly loved this ritual. I would get fully into character and then I’d emulate Harry with total commitment so as to make the book come alive. Jack was so enthralled by these Harry Potter evenings that he painted Hogswarts on one of my giant canvases (before the movie had come out) and then he painted a portrait of Harry. I found an antique frame with a chip missing in it and it happened to be the right size for Jack’s canvas. When Jack signed his name, the tale of the K extended further out, and the chip in the frame fitted perfectly with the loop at the bottom. I have that hanging on a wall near my kitchen and I love it so much. I also did a portrait of Alexa and a portrait of Sailor and I love those too. Alexa sat with me for just a few minutes but I think I really captured her expression. Sailor wouldn’t sit still so I painted her portrait from a photograph I took of her and I adorned it with shells. If there’s ever a weather-related calamity near my home, those would be the three art pieces I’d rescue first.”
Christie received critical acclaim in 2010 when she made her Broadway stage debut as the merry murderess, Roxie Hart, in the Tony Award-winning hit musical Chicago. I ask her about that experience.
“I absolutely loved every second of it, ” she answers unequivocally. “I did my first run on Broadway and that was for four months. After New York, they asked me to do London and I headlined the national tour. Right before Covid hit, I was able to go back and do it again. We played Las Vegas and returned to Broadway again.”
As for Christie’s greatest wish for 2022 she says earnestly,
“2020 was supposed to be a year of such clarity. I hope that all those hopes and expectations that were sidelined in 2020 – come to fruition in 2022. I also deeply hope that the leaders and forces that persuaded and encouraged us to hate another group – don’t succeed in that destructive quest. Nobody should ever hate. I hope that people understand that we are all in this together and we have to find a way to get along and work together – for the sake of our children and future generations. The only way to do that is through positivity and love. The golden rule is always to treat other people the way you would want to be treated.”
Christie’s dad impressed upon his daughter that she had the power to write her own life script. She’s written an exceptionally powerful one in which the most important human characteristics feature strongly. Importantly, Christie continues to work her extensive public platform in a societally responsible way, and her genetic good fortune – combined with exemplary effort – has produced a life story that history will remember.