Christy Turlington, the Model Activist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because beauty is more than skin-deep.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Christy Turlington, one of the more super of the world’s supermodels, had it all trundle into her very tall lap by accident. But what wasn’t an accident? Doing it for as long and branching out as healthily as she’s done into filmmaking, charity work, campaigning and putting up with Ed Burns. All of which she dishes on during her all-too-brief visit to The Carlos Watson Show. Here are some of the best cuts from a longer conversation with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson. You can listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
The Grand Moment of Discovering Her Superpowers
Carlos Watson: When you were growing up, did you think of yourself as pretty?
Christy Turlington: No, not necessarily. I wouldn’t say I felt like an ugly duckling at all, but I didn’t get a ton of attention as a child or even as a teenager, honestly, until I started in the industry. And then it’s almost like … I don’t know. First of all, you learn a lot very quickly. And so you learn how to dress and how to wear your makeup. And so then I started getting more attention, but it certainly wasn’t something that I always thought that I would pursue, at all.
CW: And tell me again, even though I’ve heard it, tell me your discovery story. Where you literally just riding a horse and a random photographer took a photo? Or was it something more than that?
CT: It was random. Pretty random. So when we were living in Miami, when we moved there, my dad, I think in order to … try to keep us all happy — my older sister and I both rode horses — he got us horses when we arrived there. So we would ride every day after school and my sister and I would be in horse competitions as well on weekends sometimes. And I met the photographer that first took my photograph because he was taking photographs actually of two young actresses who were students at my junior high school. They were part of this arts program that our junior high school had. So that was coincidental too.
I recognized them, I knew who they were, and in between shots, he was just watching my sister and I have our lesson. At the end of our lesson he approached us and my mom was waiting for us in the car. So we, of course, asked our mom, because it seemed a little odd for a man to approach us about taking our picture. She agreed to let us do a test shoot, they call it. I was 14 at the time and my sister was 16. My sister was a lot more sophisticated and seemed very excited about the whole thing. I just kind of got drug along really.
CW: How much MeToo kind of thing did you face? I know I’ve talked to Naomi, I also know Heidi Klum a little bit, and both have talked to me over the years a little bit about some of the pressures they felt. I think Naomi more so, because she was younger, I think, than Heidi was. I think Heidi got started around 17. And I think Naomi, maybe she was 14 or 15, like you.
CT: No, not at all, actually. None. You could notice, right? You have a sort of internal radar when people are not trustworthy. But again, when you’re young, you don’t have a lot of control. So you could arrive in Milan or Paris and suddenly the person who picks you up at the airport is somebody that owns the agency, is like an investor in the agency, or weird, shifty things like that. But I was really lucky and I mean, in part, because I don’t know how savvy I was really, but I didn’t put out the kind of energy that made anybody feel like there was an opportunity. I also had a boyfriend pretty seriously from 18 to 24 and then 24 to 30.
So you know what I mean? I felt like they weren’t with me in any of these instances, but there was sort of a sense that I’m in a relationship and so I’m not looking for a date, basically. And then photographers-wise, I mean, most of the photographers were a lot older than us. I mean, our group of photographers. Like I mentioned, Arthur, he has three kids. I worked with him the day that two of his kids were born. So these are guys that were much older than us, but they were predominantly, I would say, family people.
I mean, I don’t think I worked with anybody that was kind of that type of guy that would hit on me, anyway. But I also know and knew enough that that did exist. And I don’t know if because I already had some recognition and I was already successful that that became a deterrent. I don’t know. But it doesn’t take a lot to imagine what could happen if you have a young woman who is … oftentimes models are coming from really rural, provincial places into big cities, and so you’re vulnerable, and it’s nobody’s job to look after you.
So I think I was one of the rare people who had my mom with me for those first couple of years and I think that also helped. But, yeah, no, I don’t have any MeToo stories, but I certainly saw enough of those guys that have been named lurking around at nightclubs and restaurants and bars and hotels over the years. They’re around. Predators are predators.
CW: I had a very interesting, if I’m honest, sometimes painful, conversation with Naomi [Campbell] about race and her experience about race in the modeling world. And obviously you’ve lived far beyond the modeling world, so that’s not your only reference, but what have you learned about race — good, bad or otherwise — particularly over the last year?
CT: I’m still learning about race. I think most of us are. It’s interesting with Naomi because we’ve been so close over the years. I would say she’s my … certainly, my closest Black friend. I mean, we lived together for a long time. I mean, I look back at my whole career, and it’s the two of us, and yet I would say her coming from England, her Jamaican-Chinese background … I think there’s a lot, even for me to see through her eyes, what race in America is that I might not have known or … I mean, obviously, you can’t look away right now, but I feel like that was probably really important for me as a teenager to see through our relationship.
When she would start to get angry about … she has been fighting for diversity in our industry always, and Bethann Hardison, who was a model and then an agent who’s also just has been such a … she led a Black Girls Coalition amongst the black models in the ’80s and early’90s and might still exist, I’m not sure, but it was a big deal at the time. But I just remember the conversations and I remember feeling like, “I want to be in the coalition.”
Karen Alexander, Veronica Webb and Mon, I mean, there were so many Black models that were my peers and I looked up to, and coming from all over the world, from Africa, all across the United States, all over. But through Naomi’s fight is how I started to really see what might look more fair on the outside. … I have thought the industry, especially in Europe, I felt like you would see diversity on the runway, but it was a little exoticized. Having African models on … there could be something quite exploitative about that in a way.
It didn’t feel like that, for me, it felt like “this is diversity,” but then looking back, maybe not so much, especially if you look back at what were people being paid. I don’t even know. There was an article about a Black model from a different generation over the summer at some point, and she was talking about she was the toast of Paris, but in New York, she wasn’t treated the same way.
I wouldn’t have been aware of some of that unfair behavior had I not known Naomi. If we weren’t working together and I saw her fighting extra hard to have the same rate or the same … I mean, it’s so unfair. In our industry, it’s not just even Black and white. It’s really some individuals will be paid more.
Again, it could be that their agent was tougher. It could be that they just held out and that created a negotiation game, whatever it might be. There’s no kind of salary ranges per se.
But I would say a lot of times, to do the same work, she was not paid the same amount. It’s just not fair. I’ve also seen a lot of people who have struggled during this period of time around this discourse if they’re not American. Again, racism exists in every country, I would say, but I think our conversation around racism is special, is very unique.