It’s Prince, it’s Lacroix, it’s Elton John, it’s Dolce; there’s so much going on here,” says Christy Turlington Burns, gesturing at the over-the-top, ’80s-inspired Dolce & Gabbana coat adorned with bejeweled crosses she is wearing on set in New York City. Upon surveying the racks of clothes earlier, she made an educated guess that a puff-sleeved polka-dot number was by the design house of Emanuel Ungaro. She was correct, of course, not only because she understands fashion but because she’s also worn these styles before, at the time of their original incarnation. “These pieces are maybe a little shorter than the ones in my heyday and have even bigger shoulder pads, but it’s definitely an homage,” Turlington Burns says with a laugh. “A lot of it reminded me of ’80s designers who were even before my time, like Giorgio Sant’Angelo, Antony Price, and Arnold Scaasi.”
And yet can we even recall a time when she and her fellow supermodels (yes, the originals — Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, and Claudia Schiffer) were not dominating the fashion and pop-culture ether? Their collective power — industry folk still refer to them by their first names only — continues to carry weight. In the past year alone Turlington Burns has appeared in campaigns for marquee brands such as Versace, Maybelline New York, Biotherm, H&M Sustainable Conscious Collection, and Cole Haan.
Though she appreciates all the adventures of her epic modeling career, rehashing the past is not her focus. “It’s funny how removed I feel from it,” she says, having slipped into a much more comfortable sweatshirt and black trousers. “It’s not something that I think about at all on a daily basis.”
Nor does it seem to impress Grace, her 14-year-old daughter with actor and director Ed Burns (they also have a 12-year-old son, Finn), who hasn’t really asked about her mom’s legendary fashion status. “A lot of those things are just coming into her awareness now,” says Turlington Burns. “She’ll probably have more questions. Even people she’s met through me, she mostly doesn’t even know who they are or what their significance is. I remember when my niece, who is 21, transcribed something for me, and Basquiat came up. She didn’t know how to spell it, didn’t know who he was, and then a year later was like, ‘Oh my god.’ ”
In a way Turlington Burns has always had this kind of duality. She’s an iconic beauty from Northern California who prefers not to wear makeup; a high-fashion darling who went on hiatus at the peak of her career to become a student at New York University; a truly famous person who likes to live a low-key existence. She’s able to tolerate discussing the glittery moments in her life, the ones she’s most often asked about, as long as the conversation can eventually be redirected to her greatest passion, the nonprofit organization Every Mother Counts, or EMC, which she founded in 2010. Her interest in maternal health initially stemmed from personal experience: Following the birth of her daughter, Turlington Burns suffered a hemorrhage, which, had she not had the proper care, could have proved fatal.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 300,000 women die each year due to pregnancy and child-birth issues, and, says EMC, 98 percent of these deaths are preventable. Shockingly, the United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths of any developed country. Lower-income communities are the most greatly affected, particularly African-American women, who are four times more likely than Caucasian women to die from childbirth and pregnancy-related complications.
“I would say systemic racism is at the heart of it,” says Turlington Burns. “Why are there different outcomes for women [based on] whether they’re educated or not, whether they have access to health care or not?” She sighs. “We’re just trying to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible.” (So far that number is 600,000 and counting thanks to the $4 million-plus in grants EMC has provided worldwide.) Her latest trips on behalf of the organization have involved opening a midwifery clinic in Guatemala and delivering solar kits to an energy-deprived hospital in Tanzania. She is also the executive producer of an ongoing documentary film series, Giving Birth in America, which spotlights the plight of pregnant women and families all over the country.
Her positive influence is reaching her most important audience. Turlington Burns lights up upon revealing that Grace’s recent eighth-grade-graduation social-justice project was on maternal and baby health. “When you don’t tell your kids what to do, when you don’t say, ‘You should do this, and you should be thankful for this,’ they get it themselves.”
VIDEO: Christy Turlington Burns's Top 5 Fashion Moments
Turlington Burns is also determined to set an example on self-image. People have been asking her since she was 15 if she was planning to have cosmetic surgery, she says: “I guess it was an early sign about the way our culture was going, but I don’t find it attractive. I don’t find it healthy. I would never want my kids to be raised by someone who is nervous about the way they appear or to put in that much time and attention.
“Maybe my mom set the precedent of not really being that fussy,” she continues. “Even today I didn’t shave my legs. [When I got here] I was like, ‘Oh god.’ ”
She recalls once being seated across from a glistening Jennifer Lopez at a Marc Jacobs show when Grace was 6 months old. “Her skin was shiny, glowy, not a blemish. She had perfect toes, everything,” says Turlington Burns of Lopez. “I just remember looking down and thinking, ‘I should not be here.’ And I’m sure I started lactating too.”
As for her fellow supers, she sees Evangelista from time to time. Their sons are the same age. And she recently jumped at a last-minute request from Campbell to accept a life-time achievement award on her behalf at the Black Alumni of Pratt’s annual Celebration of the Creative Spirit gala. Turlington Burns says she’s never that spontaneous but threw on a dress by Zero + Maria Cornejo, her favorite designer for red-carpet appearances, and stepped out. (“When a sister calls and asks you to stand in her shoes, you say yes, and so I am here,” Turlington Burns said at the podium.)
“It’s kind of like childhood friends, right?” she adds. “So I might not see them all the time, but whenever I’m with them, I go right back into a familiarity and a comfort. I’m proud of all of them. They are awesome women.”
In a dream world there is a supermodel text chain that keeps them all connected, but Turlington Burns insists such a thing has yet to exist — though she’s not opposed to starting one. One thing is for sure: She can expect to be the recipient of a flood of Instagram tributes and messages when she turns 50 in January.
“There will be no party. I’m not a party person,” she says. “I just want my family around. It’s the day after New Year’s, so to me it’s a perfect time to reset. The only thing I don’t like about this birthday is I like odd numbers better. I don’t know why. I think of my 49th birthday as my 50th birthday. So in my mind it’s already kinda happened.”
Photographed by: Chris Colls. Fashion editor: Julia von Boehm. Hair: Ben Skervin. Makeup: Romy Soleimani. Manicure: Maki Sakamoto.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 10.