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!’”