Who's Here: Christie Brinkley, Model/Activist
If you ever wondered how Christie Brinkley stays so thin and beautiful after all these years, I think I can tell you her secret. I had arrived at the Candy Kitchen for our meeting about five minutes early and had ordered a cup of coffee when she came in, found me and, after some pleasantries, sat down. And then the waitress came back over.
“Would you like something?” she asked.
Christie looked at my coffee, looked at the waitress and, inasmuch as we were in ice cream soda central in the Hamptons at three in the afternoon, said, “I am going to try real hard not to order a black-and-white malted milk!!”
Although in a little while, out of camaraderie, she did order coffee to match mine. And so we launched into the interview that I had planned.
Christie Brinkley was born in Monroe, Michigan, but from the time she was a year old she lived in California, and when she was eight she moved to Old Malibu Road directly on the California beach. She had a brother 18 months older than she was, and she had two parents who loved each other and both of their children very much.
“My dad, Don Brinkley, was a writer and producer for radio before TV existed and then moved to television shows,” she told me.
“He was very respected, well-known and loved. The Museum of Broadcasting honored him with a two-day event in both Los Angeles and New York for his incredible career. He wrote for everything from Ben Casey to the Kraft Suspense Theatre and, for radio, The Shadow Knows. He did a lot of doctor and cowboy shows. He wrote for The Fugitive, Ironside, Bonanza and many others. I know he had deadlines, but we never knew about them. He was always there for us. My mom was always there, too. They were our biggest supporters. I remember hearing my dad typing away late at night and I’d fall asleep listening to it.”
Christie and her brother, Greg, were surfers. The surfboards leaned against the pilings under the house. The two were in and out of the water from dawn till dusk. And her parents were up for anything. Christie remembers exciting days when her dad would burst into her bedroom early in the morning to announce they had to get ready quick because they were flying up to San Francisco to have brunch at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. They’d sightsee the rest of the day, then fly back home.
“Another time, they woke us up early in the morning to tell us we were off to Puerto Vallarta. We’d get into our bathing suits and cut-offs, and off we’d go.
“People just felt good being around them,” Christie continued. “They’d light up a room. And they were so madly in love with each other. He was the King, she was the Queen. They called one another endearing names like ‘Darling,’ ‘Sweetheart’ and ‘Wild Thing.’ I called them the best parents in the world.”
Christie remembered later in life when her parents were retired and living in Hawaii, they would fly all the way from Hawaii to the Hamptons to visit and with all the jet lag and everything, running up the gate and wanting to know right away where they were having dinner.
“Then they were the first ones up ready to beat us on the tennis court in the morning,” she said.
Twelve years ago, they started experiencing catastrophic illnesses, and six years ago Christie renovated a home for them in Sag Harbor, so she could care for them here. They spent the last six years of their lives here. “When my dad died, my mom said, ‘I can’t live without him,’ then she had a stroke the next day. They both passed away within weeks of each other last summer.”
So Christie grew up in California, and does indeed miss it sometimes today. “But then I come home to Sag Harbor and the four glorious seasons and realize how much I love it here.”
Christie attended Paul Revere Jr. High and did spend time wondering what she might do with her life. She thought she might grow up to be a marine biologist studying dolphins and being on a dive with Jacques Cousteau, but then a friend told her there was a lot of math involved, which was a subject she did not like.
Once, in seventh grade, an odd thing happened. She was taking an acting class when her teacher, giving out an assignment, told her to express anger in a made-up language. She did that. But her teacher told her the language she made up was very French, which was not the assignment.
“I thought that so strange,” she said, “because although I was fascinated with all things French, I had not had any French lessons.
French was very important to her, so much so that she imagined herself to be an artist in Paris with a beret. Then she found out there was a French school in Los Angeles, Le Lycée Francais, where courses were taught speaking French instead of English. She could choose to immerse herself if she wished.
“I attended Le Lycée from 9th to 12th grade,” she said. “I was a good student, and so, in 12th grade I asked my dad if, after graduation, I could go to Paris. He told me, whatever money I make with a summer job, he would match it.”
“What was your summer job that year?”
“I worked in a plant and antique shop for the summer. I saved $500. My dad not only matched it, he then gave me a Eurail Pass for two months as an extra gift. And so I set off for a life-changing adventure!”
“This must have been a dream come true.”
“I was so happy. I thought, I BELONG here. In California, you don’t have old things. Everything is clean and new and shiny. In Paris, I just wanted to rush up and touch the walls of these old buildings and think about who else might have touched them—Matisse! Victor Hugo! Henry Miller!”
Christie came to visit Paris for a brief stay, and she stayed four YEARS. She supported herself by working as an illustrator. And it was during this time that Christie was “discovered” by an American photographer named Errol Sawyer, who saw her in a “telephoning office’”in Paris. She was 19 now. He introduced her to John Casablancas of Elite Model Management in Paris, and to French photographers Patrick Demarchelier and Alex Chatelaine, who called Eileen Ford and told her about Christie. As a result, Christie wound up signing with the Eileen Ford affiliate in Los Angeles.
Back in Paris, now modeling for a living, she fell in love and got married to a Frenchman, Jean-Francois Allaux, a political illustrator.
“We lived in Montparnasse, in what had been a top floor maid’s room. My toilette was two flights down, and my shower was two blocks away at Les Bains Publique.
“I did some modeling and some painting. Jean sold drawings to newspapers and magazines. Then he got drafted into the military, and so I was only able to see him when he was on leave. Then, on occasion, my parents would come visit. They’d stay in a hotel around the corner, and I’d go there, or when he was home we’d both go there to have a fancy breakfast.”
When Christie’s new modeling career took off, they decided to pack up and move to Manhattan for a year. They came and they never left.
Jean sold drawings to many New York newspapers and magazines. Christie was photographed for magazine covers and, in 1979, at the age of 25, Christie Brinkley was the cover girl for the annual Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated. She was the cover girl the next year and the year after that. No woman had ever been a cover girl three years in a row. Christie Brinkley was now acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
In the years that immediately followed, Christie Brinkley appeared on the covers of dozens of magazines, and in editorial photo features about her. Her husband’s career thrived too, but the couple continued to live in rather modest circumstances on the Upper West Side.
It’s believed that over the years since then, Christie has appeared on more than 500 magazine covers, including Vogue, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and even LIFE magazine (that issue reached the highest circulation in the magazine’s history).
She traveled all over the world for photo shoots. She eventually was photographed on six continents and over 30 countries. In the advertising world, she did commercials and had contracts with Chanel, Prell, MasterCard, Breck, Diet Coke, Anheuser-Busch, Healthy Choice, Max Factor, Nissan, Noxema, Revlon, Clairol, Borghese Cosmetics, Danskin, Yardley of London, Halston, Vogue Patterns, and the list goes on and on. In 1980 she signed a 25-year modeling contract with the cosmetics brand CoverGirl, and when the time came in 2005 for it to end, they asked that it be renewed. This is believed to be the longest modeling contract in history.
Soon she began to appear in films. She had a role in National Lampoon’s Vacation opposite Chevy Chase, reprised the role in a 1997 sequel Vegas Vacation and most recently appeared as herself in Dennis Dugan’s Jack and Jill.
On TV she appeared promoting Total Gym home fitness equipment, wrote a book entitled Christie Brinkley’s Outdoor Beauty and Fitness Book, which was a New York Times bestseller, designed clothing for Simplicity Patterns, created her own line of prescription glasses and sunglasses, and came out with her own signature fragrance, Believe, and her own jewelry collection.
Christie’s marriage to Jean-Francois Allaux lasted nine years, ending in 1981. After that she married three more times, most famously to musician Billy Joel, from 1985 to 1994. She’s had three children—singer-songwriter Alexa Ray; a son, Jack Paris, captain of his school’s championship tennis team; and a daughter Sailor, who will appear in the August issue, in her first modeling assignment, for Teen Vogue.
Her home base, fittingly enough, is in a castle high on a hill just north of Bridgehampton. She does have homes elsewhere, most notably in Sag Harbor and Turks and Caicos, where she goes to retreat whenever she can in the wintertime, often with her kids.
And still Christie Brinkley remains one of the most beautiful women in the world. There she was, sitting right across from me. In 1998, she was named by Playboy magazine as one of the 100 sexiest women of the 20th century.
In our interview, I asked if she would confirm the occasion when she met Billy Joel, in circumstances so incredible, as told to me by Billy, that they seemed hard to believe.
“It’s true. It was in St. Barths in the Caribbean when word spread that Billy was at the bar at the PLM, one of the only hotels at that time. Billy was down there on his vacation along with his best friend Billy Z and his wife. He sat down at the piano. My photo crew wanted to meet him, so went to the bar, struck up a conversation and playfully urged him to sing. As he at first demurred to play, a young model from another shoot kept saying, ‘I’ll sing, I’ll sing,’ and Billy was like, ‘Shoo kid’ as he eyed the arrival of Elle McPherson, while throwing me his best ‘album cover looks.’
“That ‘kid,’ by the way, was Whitney Houston (and she did sing ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T.’ and blew us away!) Then I sat down next to Billy Joel on the piano bench and sang the Portuguese version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema.’ He accompanied me on the piano, and we became fast friends! It was hilarious because Billy liked me, but I liked someone else, and my photographer liked Elle but Elle liked Billy and we spent the remainder of our trip arranging dinners so we could all sit with the one we liked but none ever did, because they were always trying to sit with someone else. Billy and I remained friends, he was a great comfort to me after the tragic death of my boyfriend in a racing accident, and our relationship took an unexpected turn—we fell in love.”
They married in 1985 on a yacht in the Hudson River with 175 family members and friends, including Paul Simon, the Stray Cats and Don Henley.
“In all that you have done professionally,” I asked Christie, “what stands out as the most wonderful thing you ever did?”
She instantly replied. “Broadway!”
In 2012 she had been asked to try out for the starring role of Roxie Hart—a dumb, sentimental blonde woman who murders her lover and gets acquitted at trial because she’s so cute—in the Tony Award winning Broadway show Chicago.
“How it happened,” she said, “was that I was sitting with my agent and he was telling me of the offers that had come in, various offers were often coming in, and for a moment I heard the word ‘Chicago,’ and then he moved on. I said, did you say ‘Chicago?’ and he said yes, they want to consider you for Roxie but you don’t have time for that. It would take up months of your time.
“‘They can’t be serious, can they?’ I asked him. ‘You sure they don’t mean someone else? Call them back and see if they really want me.’
“He did and they did. So I went and got the script and a CD of the songs, and I popped in the iconic songs—I knew them all—and I sang along, and guess what? I could hit all the high notes. I was later told that was because Kander and Ebb tailored the songs for Gwen Verdon’s voice, and we have about the same range, so there we were.
“So I told my agent it would be great if I could audition—that way they could see if I actually had enough chops. Only catch was, I had no idea how to audition for a Broadway show! But I had an idea and a dream, so I just went with it. I put on tap shorts with fishnets, a spectacular pair of Louboutins with six-inch heels, a black turtleneck—so Fosse—and a fedora. I sang West Side Story and “Roxie,” did a fake dance and got the part!”
“I didn’t know you could sing,” I said.
“Well, all I know is, I LOVE to sing. When I was with Billy, sometimes we’d be home cooking and we’d sing together. I was out on tour with him sometimes. We’d sing on the bus. In our home, somebody is always singing.”
Christie got the part of Roxie Hart. She’d be memorizing the lines, doing the dance numbers, singing the songs. In modeling or in films, she could do a scene and then go back to the dressing room, fix herself up, and come back out to do the next scene. Here everything flowed together, singing, dancing, saying lines, all together without interruption. The producers sent out a dance instructor to her home in Bridgehampton three days a week for three hours each lesson to get her familiar with the dances before the real rehearsals with the cast began in New York, for four straight weeks, day and night.
What a great experience this was.
“I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground! Imagine it. You pull up to the stage door on Broadway in a car, and I would get so excited. Then at the end of every performance you exit the stage door and you meet all the wonderful people from all over the world all just wanting to see you and talk to you. It was so much fun and so fulfilling. I was so happy to have this opportunity to sing with an orchestra, dance with my cast and most of all make people laugh. Amra-Faye Wright played Velma…and lucky for me Amra came with me to London, where we continued on for six more weeks.”
Christie described her first day in London for the show, beginning with flying in.
“From customs, I went to my hotel and got one hour’s sleep. It was three in the morning. At four, I had to be up to prep for an early morning chat show. Then another chat show. Then a photo shoot, then another photo shoot, then to the theater to meet the cast, then a first run-through, another photo shoot, a dress rehearsal and then two pre-show interviews. Then after ALL that, the curtain rose, and we did our opening night show! This experience made me draw on strengths I never knew I had.”
After London, she was off on the national tour. How were the reviews?
“Well, they kept asking me to do more shows,” she said, “So I guess they were okay!”
Christie moved permanently to Bridgehampton in the 1980s. She has never left.
“I love our charming little towns, the trees on the edge of water, the quaintness and the history of this place. And all this is close to New York City!”
Christie is active politically and philanthropically. In 2000, she was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. She has organized demonstrations against nuclear power, and she campaigned against the restarting of the High Flux Beam Reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. She supports animal rights. She’s also traveled with the USO to visit our troops in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Locally, she founded the Christie Brinkley Scholarship, an allotment that allows students interested in art or the environment to get four free years at the Ross High School.
This summer you will find her at the 10th Annual Starlight Ball at the Ross School on Saturday, June 1, where she serves as the honorary chair. On June 15, she will be the honorary chairperson at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center in Bridgehampton at a dinner to honor Susan Rockefeller, and on June 29 she will receive an award as “Humanitarian of the Year” at the Pet Hero Award Ceremony at the home of Bob and Jewel Morris in Water Mill on Little Noyac Path. The award is for her work promoting pet adoptions from rescue shelters and her campaign to encourage homeowners to use guinea hens to curb tick infestations rather than by using hazardous chemicals. Christie will also be the Honorary Chair for Ellen’s Run Event on Saturday, August 17.