Some people may call Christie Brinkley lucky. Standing 5-foot-9-inches tall with long sandy blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, perfect porcelain skin and enviable curves, she’s definitely a winner in the genetic lottery. Then there’s her career: Brinkley has graced the cover of more than 500 magazines, including three consecutive Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions, while also forming a 25-year partnership with CoverGirl—the longest-running cosmetics contract of any model in history. Was it luck? Hardly. After watching Haute Living’s 59-year-old cover star seamlessly glide from pose to pose in a spandex bodysuit during our photo shoot in the Hamptons, it’s obvious that modeling was her destiny—even if she fell into it by chance.
It was the summer of 1972 and 18-year-old Brinkley had just left her hometown of Los Angeles to study art in Paris. “I lived in a maid’s room under the rooftops,” Brinkley says with a smile, completely unabashed of her bare bones living conditions. “My shower was two blocks away at the public baths and my telephone was down the street at the telephoning office.”
Living 6,000 miles from her friends and family had taken its toll and Brinkley began visiting the telephoning office more frequently, even developing friendships with some of the other customers. “A photographer had seen me in there and he had just gotten this job and needed a model,” she explains. “For days he waited for me to come back to the office, and then one day I came in and he said, ‘I’ve been looking for you!’ And I was like, ‘OK , I’ve heard that line before.’ He said, ‘I’ve got these clients. Would you mind if I took your picture?’” Not wanting to put herself in danger, she feigned interest, asked for his business card, and went about her day.
Weeks later, Brinkley was rummaging through her coat pockets and stumbled across the photographer’s contact information. After careful consideration—and gentle probing by her friend—she agreed to a meeting. Soon after, Brinkley signed with Elite Model Management, the sister agency to The Ford Modeling Agency. By the end of a lunch meeting with Nina Blanchard (Eileen Ford’s affiliate in Los Angeles) at the Brown Derby, Brinkley had booked three national advertising campaigns.
“When I started out, models were the proverbial clothes hangers. You were just to be quiet, put the clothes on and do as you were told,” she recalls. “Over the years, models have become brands. There’s endless potential in this career now. While modeling, I’ve also been a boxing photographer, I’ve written a book, I’ve opened lots of different businesses and I’ve also gotten political. I’ve become a delegate for the first congressional district of New York.”
Above all, modeling has allowed Brinkley the ability to shed light on various charitable organizations, such as the Radiation and Public Health Project, which aims to promote security through the elimination of nuclear weapons and power plants. She has even spoken on the organization’s behalf at both the United Nations and the Senate. “I’m very concerned with our exposure to low-level radiation. No matter where you are in the area, depending on which way the wind blows, you’re getting something,” she reveals. “Our children are the first ones that will feel the effect because their body cells are dividing at a different rate than our own.” Brinkley also sits on the Board of Directors of The Global Security Institute and volunteers for the American Heart Association, South Hampton Hospital, and the Max Cure Foundation among many others. “It’s an honor for me to be involved with organizations like this,” she notes. “It’s made all of the fluffy and embarrassing moments worthwhile.”
Modeling has also awarded Brinkley with opportunities she’d only dreamt about. In 2010, the blonde beauty received the offer of a lifetime: a leading role in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Chicago.” But accepting the part meant being away from her father, television writer and producer Don Brinkley, who was suffering from advanced-stage Parkinson’s. “My dad could no longer talk or write. He had a tube in his throat to eat with, another to breathe with, but he was right there,” she says, tearing up at the memory. “He was the wittiest, funniest, sweetest, smartest, most amazing man I’ve ever met in my whole life.”
Fraught with indecision over whether to take on the role, Brinkley went to her father’s bedside. “My dad signaled that he wanted a piece of paper, but he could hardly write because his Parkinson’s was so bad. He kept circling, and pretty soon the circling created a word… and then an exclamation point… and then he wrote, ‘Take it,’” she says, tears flowing down her cheeks. “I said, ‘Dad, I don’t know if I have the chops. I don’t know how to dance, act or sing.’ He tapped on the paper again, made a little fist, and punched the air. I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to do it for you. I’m going to do it.’”
After weeks of grueling rehearsals, Brinkley couldn’t wait to take the stage as merry murderess Roxie Hart. But on the night of her first performance, tragedy stuck. “My mom had a heart attack right as they were getting ready to leave for the theater,” she divulges. “As they were loading her into the ambulance, she kept saying, ‘Don, you have to go to the show. You have to promise me that you’ll be there for Christie.’” Thankfully, Brinkley’s mother survived, and was able to see another performance. “One of the highlights of my life was looking out there, taking a bow, and seeing my parents looking up with their eyes glistening and being so proud of me,” she continues. “I think that was my moment. I’ll always cherish that.”
Family has always remained the top priority for Brinkley, who currently lives with two of her three children, 14-year-old Sailor and 18-year-old Jack, in their Bridgehampton home. “I gravitate towards the water,” she admits, gazing onto the horizon. “I love having a bonfire on the beach and looking up at the stars. I love being barefoot. I love the sand dunes, the wind-swept beaches, it’s gorgeous out here.” Brinkley’s other daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, 27, is a budding singer-songwriter in Manhattan. “Alexa is an outspoken person who has shown that she has substance. She will not be put in a box or labeled as anything, which is something that I always tried to pride myself on throughout my career,” she explains. “I listen to her and Joni Mitchell whenever I paint or do my sculpture dolls.”
On the cusp of 60, Brinkley seems more comfortable in her own skin than ever before—and can’t believe she ever decreed herself fat during her early modeling days. “I came across an older picture of me that someone had posted on Facebook and I totally remember squirming and feeling very fat while I was shooting it,” she says with a laugh. “And I look at it now and think, I was actually really thin! How is it possible that I felt so uncomfortable in that body?”