A couple of weeks ago I was out to dinner with a few girlfriends. And as the night wrapped up, I shifted gears back into work mode...
“I’m interviewing Christy Turlington Burns tonight,” I said.
This was met with screams of delight. Both from me, and them. Despite having worked in fashion magazines for my entire 20s, I’ve never interviewed any of the famous Supermodels of the ’90s (I interviewed Elle Macpherson over email, but that doesn’t count). 30 minutes later and I was on Zoom with Christy, who is just as goddess-like in person (I mean on Zoom). Not to mention down to earth. When WWD mentioned the “S” word (as in supermodel), she replied: “It’s just silly. It was a made-up, manufactured thing, and so I didn’t feel like — I mean, first of all, it’s just a job. And I feel like model fills the experience and the job perfectly well. It didn’t need a capital S or a super in front of it. If anything, I wanted to always have the option to be outside of it and to do other things. So, to me, the more lower-case M, the better, in terms of my future choices.”
Christy and her husband, director, writer, producer and actor Edward Burns return as the faces of CALVIN KLEIN’s latest ETERNITY campaign, which explores the concept of love that lasts an eternity (sleepless nights with newborns included). Christy starred in the first ETERNITY advertising campaign when it debuted in 1988 with Ed later joining her as a face of the fragrance.
Yet, those who follow Christy will know there’s far more to her than a spectacularly successful modelling career (she left the catwalk behind at 26). After experiencing a near-fatal postpartum haemorrhage after giving birth to her first daughter Grace in 2003, she began her journey to improve medical care for pregnant women all over the world. In 2020, she founded her charity Every Mother Counts works to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere. We raise awareness, invest in solutions and mobilise action. “I became a global maternal health advocate the day I became a mother,” she says.
Here, we talk about her work in maternal health, returning as the face of ETERNITY, and what she knows about love that lasts a lifetime…
Christy Turlington and Edward Burns on the campaign shoot for ETERNITY
You have returned again to the Calvin Klein Eternity campaign with your husband Edward Burns. What have you learnt about love that lasts a lifetime?
This is obviously the longest relationship I’ve ever had. We’ve been learning and teaching one another since we met. We just celebrated 20 years together and it’s the second campaign that we’ve done for Eternity. He has taught me what commitment is like and what making a family and a life together is all about.
What does the scent Eternity mean to you?
For me, because it’s been a part of my life for so long, it really does mean something that lasts, something that lasts forever and something that continues to evolve over time.
You want every mother to have comfort and support while giving birth, and it inspired you to study for a master's degree in public health at Columbia University, then work on the 2010 documentary, No Woman, No Cry, which tells a story of four pregnant women in different countries. What are the most pertinent takeaways from the documentary?
I think that documentary remains as timely today, sadly, as it did then. In fact, a lot of the statistics that were shocking and unacceptable back then, are actually worse now, particularly in the United States where we are one of just two countries with a rising maternal mortality rate. It’s less about comfort as it is about safety and respectful care, which I think every woman and a childbearing person should have as a right. We saw in the making of that film and many, many films that we’ve made since with women sharing stories of not having respectful care, not being listened to, not being given power over their own bodies… those kind of key messages sadly remain as common, and as rampant as they were then and will probably always be.
We really have worked through Every Mother Counts to try to advocate for quality, respectful, safe, maternity care, everywhere, no matter where a woman is born or where she lives. And so that really entails training a lot of different level providers to be able to meet women where they are and families where they are and to make sure that they feel supported throughout pregnancy childbirth and postpartum.
Every Mother Counts is an organisation that seeks to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every woman. What is your mission?
It’s just that, every mother everywhere and really trying to make sure that every woman has equitable access. Equity is very much at the center of what we do and what we advocate for, and that means that every life has equal value and every woman should have access to the highest attainable standard of care possible.
What have been some significant milestones since you began Every Mother Counts?
Gosh, so many. We just celebrated our 10th year anniversary this year. There are so many from making the film No Woman, No Cry, and then having the film be embraced by the global and public health sectors. Beyond that, another milestone was when we became a grant-giving organisation it became an actual foundation, because initially, we were a campaign. A few years after that, we were able to invest in the original countries that we focused on in No woman, No Cry. Every few years there’s something that’s really meaningful. And then we started to do a lot of events, a lot of fitness events and marathons.
Being able to travel around the world and have teams out there running for this cause, and just getting the word out happens fairly frequently. It always blows me away when I see women and men and families running with a singlet that has Every Mother Counts on the shirt and that they’re willing to put themselves to such challenges, to be able to raise funds and awareness. That always kind of blows me away. In this time now during COVID, it’s also been a really big milestone for us in that health disparities have never been as abundantly clear as they are today.
The populations that we are most focused on are starting to have the attention and it’s starting to become a bit more clear what needs to be done in health systems to make sure that people aren’t falling through the cracks, especially during important times like through pregnancy and childbirth. There are constantly challenges, but also wonderful strides towards reaching our goal to make sure that every woman and every mother counts.
I'd love to know what your own mother taught you that you would like to pass onto your children?
My mother is from Central America and so very early on in my life, I was able to have a connection to people living in a different part of the world. I’ve found a way through every aspect of my life and career to be able to continue to travel and to continue to be in new places, to connect with people in other cultures and to take those experiences and those relationships and to learn from others and to hopefully grow always.
She was always very active with volunteering her time and showed me how, even when you have limited time, that dedicating yourself and your time to others was an important thing to do. I grew up just thinking that was very normal to help, to support and to try to make the lives of others better.
You introduced your mother to yoga and she started the practice at the age of 57. I'd love to know what role yoga has played in your life…
My father passed away when my mom was 57 and when he passed away, I encouraged her to start yoga because I thought it was a good way for her to keep herself healthy and to deal with the grief. Now in retrospect, that was so young to be a widow, but she stayed with it and she’s now almost 81 and continues to practice fairly regularly. I started doing yoga when I was 18. I think yoga is so good for everyone. It’s healthy for the body and for your skin and for your mind. There’s just unlimited benefits from the practice. It has been a wonderful thing to share. We’ve done a lot of yoga retreats together and when she visits me in New York, she comes with me to class. We’ve done meditation retreats together so it’s been a really wonderful thing to share with her. I hope to be able to practice as long as she has.
You've said that you had always hoped that you would be able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Tell me how meaningful work has enriched your life?
The work that I’ve done through Every Mother Counts or other advocacy over the years for other causes have given me a lot and it’s important for me to feel like I can contribute and put my energy and my resources toward more than just myself. It feels right. I think having my mother as an example early on just made that seem like a very natural thing to do. I hope to be modelling that kind of behaviour for my own children.
My children see that my work at Every Mother Counts really has taken over, but it also doesn’t take away from them, because it gives back so much and they have travelled a lot with me. My daughter is very passionate about social justice. I like to think this has a little bit to do with the work that I’ve done with maternal health.
You're now a mother of teenagers. I'm interested in how the parent-child relationship has shifted as they've become teenagers…
Well, in some ways they need you less and in some ways, they need you more when they become teenagers. My daughter is in 11th grade now, and she’s incredibly independent. She’s learning how to drive and she’s studying for the SATs and she’s had a part-time job this summer. She’s just very focused and yet she wants to know that I’m nearby. And she wants to know that I’m there when she has a question about colleges, or she has a question about something related to school or what she should take… She definitely cares what I think, which is great. And my son, he’s just started high school. And again, we’re in this strange time where they’re learning remotely at the moment. He still needs a little bit more day-to-day guidance in the sense that he’ll forget to eat if I don’t tell him to eat. He just needs a little bit more and I don’t know if it’s their gender or if it’s just who they are as individuals or the age.
I’ve enjoyed every phase of their lives and being a mother for babies through to teens. I was always a little bit nervous about parenting teenagers. I think a lot of people are with teenagers, but I have had a few great friends who have said that it can be so much fun. And some of my friends prefer parenting teens and young adults. I’m trying to stay positive and hope that we can have a great relationship all the way through. That’s my goal. I want them to want to be with me, to want to come home when they leave for college or start their own lives. I want them to want to pick up the phone and to call. And so far, all indications are that we have that kind of relationship established.
Finally, do you ever long for the day when they were little?
Not during COVID! So many of my friends that have little people around, I just can’t even imagine how they’re dealing with trying to work and help them stay focused. It’s hard. Parenting is hard. I miss the baby phase sometimes, but I get to interact with tiny children all the time through Every Mother Counts, so the baby phase feels very present. I have older nieces and nephews so hopefully, at some point, they’ll be bringing new children into the family and they’ll always have that cycle of newness. I think it does bring a lot of joy into a family. Also being able to pass a small baby who is so dependent, helps support the mom and give her a break – that family structure is really important and meaningful. I’m still taller than both of my children for now, but I actually look forward to the day that my son surpasses me!