Christy Turlington Burns Wants You to Listen to Her Best Career Advice
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Doing The Work

Christy Turlington Burns Wants You to Listen to Her Best Career Advice

“You just never know where anyone is going to move on to or be.”

This year Christy Turlington Burns's so-called third child turns 13. Every Mother Counts, the maternal health care nonprofit organization she founded in 2010—and which she describes as “very much like my third child”—has reached an age that in many cultures marks the cusp of adulthood, the beginning of a life being built separate to their parents. 

It’s a milestone weighing heavily on Turlington Burns’s mind. “It's one thing to start a thing but another to stick with it, given how hard it is,” she says. “To know that I've been a part of it for as long as I have feels incredibly rewarding.”

She continues, “I've always said there's no exit strategy, and yet there has to be at some point in terms of making space for others to bring their perspectives. I'm in that place of wanting to move from founder-led to founder-inspired or founder-created.”

Turlington Burns is speaking to me from her home in New York that she shares with her husband, filmmaker Ed Burns, and her two children amid a schedule packed with work Zoom meetings late into the day. “Our daughter will sometimes be like, Are you going to take a break?” she quips.

This day-to-day grind of running a nonprofit and campaigning for better maternal care around the world feels like a lifetime away from Turlington Burns’s first act. Those of us who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s remember Turlington as the face of fashion, not activism. As part of the original supermodel set that included Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, and Linda Evangelista, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a luxury advertising campaign that didn’t feature her. Think Versace, Chanel, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Revlon, Maybelline, to name a few. 

But, in the days before social media, what few knew was that behind the scenes Turlington Burns had gone back to school at 26 to get her undergrad at NYU, and then again at 39 to get a master’s in public health. She also began her advocacy work in the early ’90s, supporting numerous efforts to rebuild postwar El Salvador (her mother’s birth country). After losing her father to lung cancer in 1997, she says, “I went out there to share his story, to share my story, to go on the Hill and to start testifying around tobacco cessation.” And then, after many years as a maternal advocate for both CARE and (RED), she launched Every Mother Counts in 2010. It has become the focus of her life.

She laughs when asked if her kids ever really knew about her life as a model. “When they were both little, I didn't really model very much,” she says. “I still don't. It’s pretty rare when I do. But my daughter, she knew I went to school, which she thought was hilarious because she would do homework and I would do homework. The fact that I could talk about ‘I have a test tomorrow’…she really liked that.”

Turlington Burns recalls a “funny night” when she came home from a job with a full face of makeup. “I don't really wear makeup,” she says. "My daughter looked at me like I had three heads, so I explained, ‘Well, sometimes Mommy sells lipstick.’ A few months later I was telling somebody about my advocacy, and then she pitches in: ‘And sometimes mommy sells lipstick!’”

Aside from the continued occasional foray into “selling lipstick,” Turlington Burns’s focus is squarely on her foundation. Here she shares her best work advice, her daily routine, and more in Glamour’s latest edition of Doing the Work

Glamour: What’s the best piece of work advice that you would give to other women?

Christy Turlington Burns: Cultivating meaningful relationships. I really do try to listen very attentively to any kind of personal story that someone is sharing with me. Not in any kind of game way, but in a true way. Because the more I can absorb in whatever amount of time that I spend with anyone, the more closely we can connect and the more that I will be able to take forward into another relationship at some point. There are so many relationships I've had since I was a teenager in my first profession that, while I don't see people very frequently, they come in really handy in other areas of life. The more you put in at the very beginning, I think, the possibilities are that much greater. You just never know where anyone is going to move on to or be.

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as a female founder? 

As a female founder in the nonprofit space, I don't have much of a circle of people who are doing the same thing. I know a lot of founders, but they're not in the nonprofit space. So I would say it can be kind of lonely. I feel very much like a parent, a single parent.

My organization is very much like my third child, and I don't say that lightly at all. So when I look at, gosh, succession and what does leadership look like in the future…I've always said there's no exit strategy, and yet there has to be at some point—in terms of making space for others to bring their perspectives. I'm in that place of wanting to move from founder-led to founder-inspired or founder-created. Looking around at my peers, I don't see anyone exactly in that same place at the same time to be able to say, “Hey, do you want to have some coffee?”

Did you ever find that people made assumptions about you because you’d come from the modeling industry? Did you feel like you had to reeducate people?

Both, I would say. So, the first part of your question, I didn't let it become a barrier because I don't ever expect everyone to know all of the things that I've done. I know that people are going to be somewhat distracted, because that's just how our brains work. 

They don't necessarily know that I've been advocating on various health issues for, really, the better part of 30 years, and it's also not my job to prove that. I don't need to like, “Oh, when I did this and I did this and I did this.” But I have, from about the early ’90s, been doing advocacy around my mother's birth country, which is El Salvador. And then a few years later my father had lung cancer, and when he passed, that was really my first public health activism. I went out there to share his story, to share my story, to go on the Hill, and to start testifying around tobacco cessation. Around at that time there really was very little known about the impacts of tobacco on women's bodies. 

How did your work with Every Mother Counts start?

I was getting closer to the time when I was deciding whether to become a mother. And then I became a mother and then had a postpartum complication, which then further put me on the path of maternal health. It took me many years of working with other groups, getting a feel of what felt the most rewarding, where did I feel the most empowered. I went back to school at 26, and then again for my master's in public health at 39. I don't expect anyone to know all of those things, because I wasn't necessarily advertising them to people that I don't know. But it's not like I woke up one day and was like, I'm going to be a founder of a nonprofit. It really has been very gradual; at the beginning of Every Mother Counts, I did not anticipate that I would start a public foundation—and that pressure. That was not the vision.

When you went back to school at 26, and then at 39, did you care about class a lot more? 

Absolutely. I was front row, I never missed a class, overachiever like you can't believe. I was not that student when I was in middle school or high school. If you didn't really move me, I was just not that inspired. It wasn't until I had the professional experience, had been living on my own, made the choice on my own, paid for my own education, applied, did all the work, and then I was ready. It was the biggest confidence building act of my life.

What was your childhood dream job? 

I had some dreams around being an architect at one point. And then the other thing was to write because I was a big reader and just loved the way that writers could really transport you. I was a voracious reader, and when I traveled, I would take a stack of books in my bag and just read. 

What was the last great book you read?

I am so bad right now at finishing books, which is so awful. Right now I’m reading Molly Shannon's memoir. It’s a light read, but the story is so moving and so good. It sounds like she's just speaking and you get a real feel for her. 

What does your typical day look like? 

I'm not a morning person at all, but I do get up at 7:30 a.m. because I still have one child living at home. He needs to be literally led to the door even in 11th grade! Once he's out the door, I start my work day. I drink a cup of coffee while I'm going through early emails. I always get dressed in the morning, because I always do either yoga or a run or something physical.

And then I'm pretty much in Zooms back to back, all day long. Because I'm a founder, I am catching up after work hours when the zooms are over. My kids aren't little anymore and don't necessarily need me to put them to bed, so there's kind of no limit to how much I can work, which is bad. My husband is a filmmaker and he writes a lot of the time, so he at least is the same as me. On the weekend it's normal for both of us to work. Our daughter will sometimes be like, “Are you going to take a break?”

What’s your biggest vice?

I don't really think it's a vice, but I would say the thing that's probably the least good for me would be red wine. I love red wine, but I don't really think of it as a vice because I just like food, and I like wine.

What’s your go-to thank you gift?

I used to give acupuncture, but then I learned that a lot of people are fearful of acupuncture! So now it’s a massage or a facial, or a product that will create that little bit of self-care.

What’s your proudest achievement since founding Every Mother Counts?

I heard this about somebody else's organization at one time. It's one thing to start a thing, but another to stick with it. Given how hard it is, and to know how much work goes into keeping an issue top of mind to see progress made, to see as many bills as there currently are around maternal health…. I am only one voice and one person who's a part of that bigger effort. But to know that I've been a part of it for as long as I have, and that continuity and that sort of stick-with-it-ness that I've had to put in and that it's recognized feels incredibly rewarding.

What’s the best parenting advice you’ve given a mom?

All the good advice is really clichéd, but I think it's that thing of enjoying every age. That’s true with anything in life—if you can be in the present, the more you get out of any interaction or any experience.