As we continue our “Women to Watch” series, we place our focus on more extraordinary women. Whether they be expanding opportunities for those underserved, breaking the barrier with their Olympic achievements, or trailblazing the business world with their new initiatives — all of these women have so much to offer and will continue to touch the lives of so many.
In our fifth installment of the series, we dive into the life of Christy Turlington, also known as Christy Turlington Burns. While most know her as a legendary supermodel, Turlington is also a filmmaker and founder of the nonprofit organization Every Mother Counts, which is devoted to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother. In 2010, she directed a documentary, No Woman, No Cry, about women’s maternal health journeys, which led to the creation of the aforementioned nonprofit organization. She was subsequently named among Glamour’s Women of the Year in 2013 and listed among Time 100’s most influential people in the world in 2014. Let’s dive into the unique life of Turlington and how she is fighting the good fight for women and children everywhere.
Turlington’s Early Life and Modeling Career
Christy Nicole Turlington was born on January 2, 1969 in Danville, California, near Oakland. Her father was a commercial airline pilot while her mother was a flight attendant. She was discovered by a photographer while horseback riding in Miami, Florida and signed with Ford Models — one of the world’s largest modeling agencies — two years later at the age of 14.
When she turned 18, she moved to New York City to pursue her modeling career full-time. She quickly picked up work, appearing in a Duran Duran music video and on the German edition of the leading fashion magazine Vogue. By the age of 20, she had acquired a record-setting seven-figure contract as the new face of Calvin Klein. She went on to grace the cover of British Vogue, appear in more music videos, and walk the runway with fellow models Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Tatjana Patitz for Gianni Versace. This event helped popularize the term “supermodel,” referring to models who are internationally recognized by their names.
By the mid-1990s, Turlington had signed a contract to be the new face of Maybelline cosmetics and was christened the “Face of the 20th Century” by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. She, along with other “supermodels,” continued to dominate the fashion and popular culture scene during the 1990s and were featured in such documentaries as Unzipped and Catwalk.
By the beginning of the new millennium, the “supermodel” craze had ended. Turlington went on to pursue dual bachelor’s degrees in Eastern philosophy and comparative religion from New York University and later started her own company, Turly Inc., which mostly focused on yoga-inspired clothing. In 2002, she authored the book Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice. A year later, she married actor, director, and producer Edward Burns, and by 2009 the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had recognized Turlington once again, featuring her as part of their “The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion” exhibit.
Motherhood and Activism
As noted by Melinda Gates, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ Christy Turlington Burns proves he was wrong. Christy’s second act is her tenacious fight against maternal mortality.”
In 2003, Christy Turlington Burns gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Grace. Like many women all over the world, Turlington suffered a postpartum hemorrhage. Because she gave birth in the United States, it was treated as a common complication of labor, and Turlington received prompt and reliable support. However, she soon learned that not every woman has the same luxury. In fact, approximately 800 women die of childbirth-related causes every day, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Turlington made it her mission to document the lives of women struggling to find appropriate maternal medical care. In 2010, she made her directorial debut, releasing No Women, No Cry. This powerful documentary recounts the personal stories of women all over the world who struggled to get the maternal care they needed. But more importantly, it raises awareness of maternal mortality.
Every Mother Counts
To help reach some of the women in her documentary and others with the same struggles, Turlington launched Every Mother Counts immediately after the firm was released. Its goal is to raise awareness on maternal mortality, spreading the stories of mothers so that others learn from their tragedies. Yet, Every Mother Counts does not simply recount stories. The organization also provides health education, medicine, and emergency care in the countries where women are the most vulnerable. And every $1 donation the organization receives goes to helping save women’s lives in one way or another.
Every Mother Counts “is really her life’s work,” said husband Edward Burns in a Glamour interview. “And 13 years in, I know that if Christy says she’s going to do something, it happens.”
Following the launch of the program, Turlington received numerous awards for her work; however, her greatest achievements were spotlighting and helping the women in need, which is why she debuted another movie in 2014, Every Mile, Every Mother. Completed by members of Every Woman Counts, the documentary highlights the unfortunate truth that there are many women who are too far from maternal care.
To date, the organization has served over one million women, children, healthcare workers, and community members. And, over $21 million dollars has been raised for lifesaving efforts. With how much the organization and Turlington have done in a short time, there’s no telling what will happen next.
From One Mother to Another
“I became a global maternal health advocate the day I became a mother,” said Turlington. That statement rings true for many mothers out there, including philanthropist, entrepreneur, and mother of four, Hope Smith. Hope also has a background in modeling, and, like Turlington, shifted her focus more to her family and charitable giving after many years in the spotlight. Now, she donates a percentage of all of the sales of her luxury skincare company, MUTHA™, to material healthcare programs at International Medical Corps, while also putting her support behind other like-minded charities. According to Hope, “Changing the lives of the most vulnerable amongst us makes me feel more powerful than anything else I do.”