Print exclusive: Christie Brinkley, the original Uptown Girl

Discovered in a Parisian post office at 18, CHRISTIE BRINKLEY is still pulling off Sports Illustrated covers at 64 – but there’s more to her than meets the eye. MARISA MELTZER talks to the savvy business woman and mother of three about defying expectations and turning down Trump

Photography Christopher SturmanStyling Lilli Millhiser

A few years ago, Christie Brinkley went to Bhutan with her son, Jack. The pair trekked through the Himalayas before making their way back to the capital, Thimphu, where the public coronation of the fifth Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was in full swing. “It was such a spectacle of color and art, and all of a sudden I hear, ‘Excuse me, are you the Uptown Girl?’ I look around and see this very tall man staring at me. So I say, ‘Excuse me?’ and he goes, ‘You are! You’re the Uptown Girl!’” It was the leader of the opposition party; he was a huge fan. “‘Christie,’ he says to me, ‘come and meet the king.’”

Brinkley is of course the original Uptown Girl, forever immortalized in the public’s consciousness as the awkwardly dancing supermodel in Billy Joel’s (the man who would become her husband but who she is no longer married to) 1983 music video. But she was famous long before that. She began modeling in her late teens and has since appeared on at least 500 magazine covers, including most famously as Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Girl, three years in a row, wearing high-cut bikinis and maillots that wouldn’t look out of place on the beach today. She most recently featured on their cover in 2016, alongside her daughters, Alexa Ray Joel (the only child from her marriage to Joel), now 32, and Sailor Brinkley Cook, 19, from her marriage to property developer Peter Cook.

It was a return of sorts, though Brinkley has never really faded from the spotlight. She was the face of CoverGirl cosmetics for a record-breaking 25 years and was a recurring character as the hot wife of the homely Jerry on the sitcom Parks and Recreation. Her book of beauty secrets, Timeless Beauty, was a bestseller and came out in paperback this year, and her cosmetic line, Christie Brinkley Authentic Skincare, expanded into makeup last year. And then there’s her own brand of organic prosecco (including a zero-sugar version), called Bellissima, which is becoming one of the fastest rising brands of prosecco in America.

At 64, she’s instantly recognizable, sitting in the library of the chic Lowell Hotel in New York – almost unfairly so, as captivating now as she was in her twenties, with her bright blue almond-shaped eyes and trademark long blond hair and bangs, a look she has stuck to her entire career. Judging by the frequent glances of the Uptown ladies and businessmen in expensive-looking suits having lunch, her presence still generates excitement. She, in return, seems as accustomed to being an icon as one can be.

There used to be a stereotype that models were just clothes hangers. I used it to my advantage… I’d go to Washington to testify before a Senate subcommittee hearing on nuclear power plants

She’s reserved a seat for us in front of the fire and clearly knows the Irish maître-d from repeat visits. The hotel was her home from home – she lives in the Hamptons – while she was appearing in Chicago on Broadway in 2012. She orders mint tea with honey and a grilled cheese sandwich. When she is reminded that the grilled cheese has brie and apple in it, she changes her mind. “Oh right, it’s fancy-fancy,” she trills and wrinkles her ski-jump nose. She opts for a pizza with tomatoes, capers, and arugula instead. She’s wearing a Calvin Klein double-breasted tweed suit, one of her favorite designers, and even though she comes across as girly, there’s something about her that means business too. It’s easy to be charmed by her sweet and bubbly façade but the real woman within seems to be someone who is opinionated, culturally voracious and strong.

Brinkley is considered the ultimate California girl but she started off life in Michigan. Her parents, Marjorie Bowling and Herbert Hudson, divorced soon after moving to Los Angeles and her mother married successful TV writer Don Brinkley, who adopted both Christie and her brother Gregory. The family lived in Malibu and the children loved to perform little shows for their parents, who were an eager audience. She formed a particularly strong bond with her adoptive father. “I would fall asleep to the sound of my father’s typewriter at night and it was very comforting to me,” she says. “I used to love having lunch with him in the commissary at the studios because I could see everybody in their stage makeup. One day you’d be sitting next to Mel Brooks, the next a creature from the Black Lagoon.”

Why would you retire? I can see taking longer vacations, but always keep your foot in the door. Otherwise, that’s when you get old

She was also a devoted Francophile, whose parents sent her to the Lycée Français in Los Angeles. She read Henry Miller and fantasized about attending Gertrude Stein-style salons and meeting Catherine Deneuve (whose 1964 film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is still her favorite, which she demonstrates by singing its most famous song in absolutely perfect French). As a result she moved to Paris aged 18 to study art. She lived in a little garret room with a view of the city’s rooftops and when her boyfriend (Jean-François Allaux, whom she would marry later that year, divorcing eight years later) was drafted into the French military, she got herself a puppy to keep her company. One day, when the dog got sick, she put on her trench coat and beret as usual and went to the local post office to call the vet. A man who was standing to one side suddenly exclaimed, “There you are! I’ve been waiting here for you for days.”

That was her big break. The man turned out to be Errol Sawyer, a photographer who had noticed the beautiful American girl making a call and had waited every day at the post office hoping to see her again. He took her straight to John Casablancas, the head of Elite Model Management. “The day I went in, there were two young photographers doing test photos for the agency: Mike Reinhardt and Patrick Demarchelier,” she says of two of the world’s most respected fashion photographers, still working today. “They drove me back home and went straight to the post office to call Eileen Ford of Ford Models.” They told her all about the “California girl with a beret” they had just met.

Her rise was quick. She remembers shoots with Grace Mirabella, Polly Mellen, a young Vogue editor named Vera Wang, and working on countless covers of Glamour magazine. In 1976, she was picked for the CoverGirl campaign. Shoots back then were very different to how they are today. “They were such sticklers, if you had a piece of lint on you, they’d brush it off. They watched everything. Now everybody says, ‘We’ll fix it in post. Don’t worry about it,’” she says. “But I’m from the old school. I’ll say, ‘No, if you don’t want that picture to go in as is, you light me correctly right now. You’re not going to light me in post because that other picture is going to exist.’”

It was a very different time to be a model. “We could only cross our legs at the ankles,” she says. Pre-social media, models weren’t expected to speak, let alone voice opinions. “There used to be a stereotype back then that models were just clothes hangers, that we did this job because we couldn’t do anything else. I learned to use it to my advantage. Sometimes, I would go to Washington to testify before a Senate subcommittee hearing on nuclear power plants.” Defying people’s expectations goes some way to explaining her continued drive as a businesswoman today.

We are suddenly interrupted by a shopper carrying Barneys bags. “Hi, Carolina!” says Brinkley. “I have the sunglasses,” Carolina tells her. To which Brinkley replies: “I tried on the things and packed them up.” They seem to be speaking a kind of shorthand that comes from familiarity. “Christmas shopping,” she says, by way of an explanation.

When she talks about her businesses or endorsements, she seems genuinely excited. She’s also very adroit at working in mentions of them during our conversation. When I ask how she keeps her body so lithe, she says she really does use the Total Gym, a range of exercise equipment she’s been the spokesperson for for two decades. “I use it and it works because it really is good, and I’m not just saying that like an advertisement. Stretching and strengthening is the best thing you can do for your body. It keeps your muscles long and lean, and ready for anything. If you fall down, they’re ready to react. If you want to go skiing, they’re ready. If you go bike-riding, they’re ready.”

She says she has always had a balanced approach to how she treats her body. “I try and be good, but then there are days where you just have to have something, and then go back to being good,” she says. Normally, this is the kind of thing someone says and nobody really believes, but Brinkley is about halfway through eating a whole pizza that she will finish, so it does ring true. “I call dieting deny-iting. Like, oh you poor thing. Instead, I try to look at the picture of why I have that urge to do that, like I want my jeans to fit without me sitting down and getting strangled. I say in my book, when I’m in Italy, I am not going to think twice about eating a big, juicy ball of mozzarella because they do it so well there. It’s so natural and it’s delicious. Life’s too short.”

As soon as she finishes her pizza, she takes out a compact to refresh her lipstick (“when you wear this much makeup you have to touch up your lipstick after you eat”), noting that it’s from her new makeup line. “It’s pretty, right?” she says. What are her beauty secrets, I ask? She tells me she has tons. “I put that stuff in my book, Timeless Beauty.”

She tells me how she has recorded a talk show with Dr Oz, discussing how people fake her endorsement online to sell products. Her problem is that “they’re taking advantage of women who trust me.” It’s a trust she takes very seriously. This dedication and intensity extends to her hobbies. She took up ‘cutting’, a western-style form of horse-riding competition in the 1980s, which began with cowboys challenging each other to see who could herd bulls faster. Brinkley puts on a mean Texas-style drawl to make her point. She trained and competed in championships in Texas. The first year, she came in fourth; the following year, she went back and won.

I think it’s time for everybody to wake up about what women have been obliged to deal with, the fact that we don’t have equal pay. I remember going through a divorce court, I had a constant refrain in my head: It’s a man’s world

Brinkley gestures a lot when she speaks, does voices, and has an active, constantly buzzing vibe. When she’s in her Caribbean home in Parrot Cay, she tools and builds things out of driftwood and seashells. “I have never sat by the pool once,” she says ostensibly joking, but also probably being serious. At home in Bridgehampton, there’s an old majestic tree that was recently cut down in her garage waiting for her to turn it into furniture. People in Bridgehampton are used to it. “Oh, that’s Christie. She’s saving a tree,” she laughs.

“That’s the thing about my job, there is no such thing as routine. I still always have a suitcase open in my house. Ninety-eight percent of the time that’s one of the things I love about it. Occasionally, I’m like, it would be so nice just to know what I’m doing,” she says. “A friend was just saying something today about retiring and I said, ‘Oh my God, retiring? Don’t do that. Why would you retire? I can see taking longer vacations, but always keep your foot in the door.’” She smiles her Cheshire cat grin and flutters her lashes. “Otherwise, that’s when you get old.”

She’s excited because she’s in the process of buying an apartment in downtown Manhattan; her first in the city and close to where all three of her children live. She is currently single (her most recent boyfriend was John Mellencamp, now reunited with his ex Meg Ryan). Perhaps it will be a kind of bachelorette pad to launch the next phase of her love life? (She has been married four times in total: first to Jean-François Allaux; followed by Billy Joel – he was going out with Elle Macpherson when they first met and had originally thought of the Australian supermodel as his Uptown Girl – for nine years; then there was a short-lived one-year marriage to property tycoon Richard Taubman, father of her son, Jack, 22; and most recently to property developer Peter Cook, for 12, with whom she has her daughter, Sailor.) “I haven’t been on a date in a couple months,” she says. “Sailor was trying Raya,” the elite dating site where you have to be vetted to join, and which apparently has hundreds of thousands on its waiting list. “She had matched with somebody famous, and she thought it was hysterical, so she was telling me about it.” To which Brinkley told her daughter: “Oh my God, that’s so funny because I matched with him too. She goes, ‘Mom, come on. No, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Why? I mean, if that’s where everybody meets.’”

She is raising her daughters and her son as feminists, which is a word she embraces without hesitation. “I think it’s time for everybody to wake up about what women have been obliged to deal with, the fact that we don’t have equal pay. I remember going through a divorce court, I had a constant refrain in my head: It’s a man’s world,” she says. She feels that the recent allegations of harassment that have shaken up the political, media, and fashion worlds are a much-needed correction. “It’s horrifying to see the scale of this thing, but it’s also really amazing that this reckoning is taking place and that women have each other’s backs. It’s the word of the moment and it’s got the interest of the media right now, but that will only burn bright for so long because people will move on,” she says. “I’m talking when you find out about this kind of behavior in a spouse, which is happening all over the country, you know? We’re speaking in very general terms here right now,” she says, and winks dramatically. She’s undoubtedly referring to her 2008 divorce from husband Peter Cook, which was messy and involved the discovery of his affair with an 18-year-old.

She’s in a feisty mood and says, conspiratorially, “I’m done being discreet.” She tells me she has a story about the current President of the United States. Over the years their paths crossed many times. “I’ve had dinner with him,” she says. “I’ve always found him smarmy, as in, ‘Watch out, part the waves, the rich people are coming, everything is gold, solid 24-carat gold, the best, the greatest, nobody else has more gold on anything in their house than me. Did you bring a brush? Let’s gold-leaf it!’” Her Trump impression isn’t bad. Then she leans in closer. “One day I was at the Plaza Hotel. My phone rings and this guy goes, ‘Hey, Christie, it’s The Donald.’ I say, ‘Hi, Billy,’ because I was dating Billy Joel at the time. But the voice goes: ‘No, no. It’s The Donald!’ So I say, ‘What’s up?’ And he says, ‘I hear you’re leaving for Aspen tomorrow. I am too. I’d like to give you a ride on my private jet.’ So I reply, ‘Thank you, but I have already arranged my flights.’ ‘So cancel them!’ was his response and I say, ‘No, thank you. I’m going with friends.’ I knew he was married, and there he was asking me to go on his plane, he was kind of flirty about it. He was out chasing skirts.” The episode she is referring to occurred around the time Trump met Marla Maples in Aspen, who would become his mistress and then second wife.

Did she ever encounter any bad behavior on her own shoots? “I wasn’t that aware of that kind of thing,” she says with a frown. “There were stories about shipping girls to yachts. I was once asked to go on a job when I was in Paris and it was said to me this way: ‘We’ve got a plane ticket for you. You will fly into Nice and you’ll be met there by a very nice, very important man, who will take you to a store to buy beautiful gowns, and then you’ll go to a party on a ship. That ship is going to be full of lots of very, very important people. You should just be very nice to all the people on that ship. It will be very good for your career.’” Her response was polite but emphatic. “I said, ‘OK, I’m naïve. I’m fresh off the boat from Malibu Beach, but this just doesn’t feel right to me, and so I’m going to pass.’ And they never said that kind of thing to me again.” Somehow, I don’t have the remotest problem believing that.

See the full story in PORTER’s Spring 2018 issue, on sale now

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