From the covers of Vogue to public health poster child, Christy Turlington-Burns is a model in every sense of the word. Though she hates the label—and all labels, really—she’s been globally recognized since the age of 18 as one of the original supermodels. Now a mother of two, social-entrepreneur, director, author and activist, to name a few, Christy sat down with Dress for Success to share why she believes success must be earned and how her decision to go back to school helped chart a diverse career course that affords her the status she’s now most comfortable with: role model.
A graduate from one of the top universities in the country, Christy will be the first to tell you she was not the best student in high school. Discovered as a model at the young age of 14, she didn’t have much time to map out her future like many of her classmates, but as the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. While many of her peers were still receiving an allowance from their parents, Christy was traveling the world and probably making more money than their parents.
At first, she was only modeling on school breaks and summers, but as she neared the end of her teenage years, Christy’s career took off and she was working full-time, leaving little room for traditional schooling.
“I didn’t think I would model for more than a few years, but things never slowed down and it got harder and harder to stop when I was doing so well. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity,” says Christy about her decision to focus on her career and forgo the academic path that many young adults are encouraged to pursue.
By the time she entered her twenties, Christy was part of an elite modeling trio dubbed the “holy trinity.” Along with Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, the group became the breakout supermodels in the 1990’s. A fresh and buzzworthy term at the time, “supermodel” referred to the rare handful of women who were prized for more than just their looks, but were regarded for their overall star quality, securing not just jobs as walking mannequins, but garnering top-notch endorsement deals from international brands—positions that were once reserved for only a handful of elite actresses and musical acts. But this, too, was another label that Christy did not care for.
Unsatisfied with the instantaneous success modeling brought, Christy knew she needed to forge her own path. Five years later, arguably at the height of her career, she decided it was time to walk away for a while.
“As soon as I was out of high school and modeling full-time, I knew I would go back to school. I always wanted to be thought of as more than a model—because I am.”
Setting out to prove herself, Christy enrolled in New York University Gallatin School of Independent Studies and earned a bachelor’s degree in Eastern philosophy and comparative religion. Though it was a huge risk walking away from the lucrative career she spent the last 10 years building, Christy still maintains that it was the best decision she ever made.
“I don’t know if any of the careers I have had would have been as meaningful to me had I not gone back to school when I did.”
Christy credits her mother for inspiring her to pursue her degree and keeping her grounded through years of chaos growing up in the public eye. Her mother, Maria, was a flight attendant and went back to school for her bachelor’s degree in her fifties. Watching her mother courageously start a new chapter later in life encouraged Christy to act on her instincts and pursue her true interests while she was still young.
While in school, Christy’s father passed away from lung cancer. A long time smoker, Christy developed her own habit at an early age. Fueled by his loss, she began to share her struggle to empower others to quit. Here, she found her voice advocating for public health and began a career campaigning for smoking prevention.
Although she was innately ambitious, Christy’s education gave her passion legs and over the years her personal experiences became inspiration for some of her most meaningful work. In 2003, she suffered a post-partum hemorrhage after the birth of daughter that led her to create her first documentary film “No Woman, No Cry.” The film was aimed at raising awareness for maternal mortality and the global maternal health crisis. Two years later, she founded the non-profit Every Mother Counts, an organization dedicated to making child birth safe for all women.
Modeling on and off throughout her life, Christy can still turn heads, but now she does so more strategically, directing them towards the causes she truly supports.
Although she did not follow the tradition educational trajectory, Christy believes the challenge of returning to school as an adult was actually an advantage that gave her the confidence to forge her own career paths. Going back to school on her own terms, Christy recognized both the literal lessons she studied as well as the ones she learned about herself, that are often lost on many younger students.
“I learned that personal success is about using all you have within you to overcome adversity and that kind of success is the most gratifying. By the time I graduated, I knew I had so much more to do and share with the world,” she says.
Despite a career in modeling, Christy is anything but still. At 45, her resume reads as though she’s already lived a few different lives, but she would never confine herself to a piece of paper.
Recently resuming a longstanding role as the face of the campaign Eternity for Calvin Klein, Christy turned the attention to Every Mother Counts aligning the philanthropic initiatives of the fashion powerhouse with her non-profit. Dedicated to spreading maternal healthcare programs globally, Christy’s constantly meeting with health leaders around the world and says her classroom these days just doesn’t have any walls. Following a nontraditional route from the beginning, Christy’s education model has no ceilings.