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This Year’s Model

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Brinkley’s first professional head shot, taken by Albert Watson.   

At the Elite agency, she met the photographer Patrick Demarchelier, and then she went home to California and had lunch with Nina Blanchard, who ran an Eileen Ford affiliate in L.A., at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills. By the end of lunch she was booked for three national ad campaigns. “These people kept walking up and saying, ‘Nina, where have you been hiding her?’ and Nina would say, ‘She’s my new model,’ and they all said, ‘We’d love to sign her up.’ One of them was a Noxzema commercial, and they wanted to fly me to Arizona, and I love the Wild West, so I was like, Wow. This is fantastic.

Brinkley never made it back to her dream garret in Paris. “She was so gorgeous,” Eileen Ford says, “my business of course is beauty and I had never seen anybody so qualified. She had this very warm beauty.” She went to the Wild West, and then a week later she was in Vermont, and then she was everywhere; she was on the cover of Glamour multiple times, and on the cover of the three consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. She had a twenty-year relationship with CoverGirl—something no model has had before or since. She’s sold a signature fragrance (“Believe”) and hosted a lifestyle show on CNN. She’s endorsed Nissan cars, Prell shampoo. And when, in 1984, she posed for Playboy, she kept all the important bits neatly covered up.

Brinkley’s look defined the Reagan Cold War years—a kind of aggressively innocent American sunniness—but she was also the last of her kind. Models don’t look like Brinkley anymore: These days, they are angular and often strange; they are a series of complicated proportions that add up mostly to string bean. In the era of Kate Moss and anorexia deaths, it’s hard to imagine a popular fashion model who could credibly write a book on nutrition or fitness, or reasonably sell anything based on the idea that the world is a wholesome, avocado-fueled place. “She’s a believable human being,” Ford says, “approachable.” And Brinkley’s morning-in-America looks actually reflected a fiercely protected interior innocence. Asked how she resisted getting caught up in the cocaine culture, Brinkley unflinchingly says, “I always knew I wanted to be a mom, and I always wanted my body to be healthy for those kids. And besides, it felt disrespectful to my parents.”

Asked how she resisted getting caught up in the cocaine culture that ensnares many models, Brinkley says, “I always knew I wanted to be a mom, and I always wanted my body to be healthy for those kids. And besides, it felt disrespectful to my parents.”

Of course, her marriage to the Frenchman didn’t last. “He’s a great guy,” Brinkley says, “but my career took off and it strained the relationship.” There was another serious romance, with the heir to the Moët & Chandon Champagne fortune, but he was killed in an auto-racing wreck. After she became an American icon, she married Billy Joel, who further gilded her legend by writing “Uptown Girl” about her. They stayed together for ten years, and together had a daughter, the now-22-year-old Alexa. She went on to divorce Joel and immediately fell into a brief, hectic marriage to Ricky Taubman, a real-estate developer with whom she’d been in a helicopter accident while still married to Joel. One day she was photographed schussing down a Colorado mountain in a wedding dress and ski boots, and less than a year later she was divorced, with an infant, and in litigation. But she, somehow, just kept on smiling that impossible grin. She kept her hair blonde, her image squeaky clean. She moved out to the East End and met Peter Cook, a sort of Ken to her Barbie. He adopted the son, Jack Paris, from her short marriage to Taubman, and then together they had a daughter they named Sailor Lee.

Here, on this sunny Saturday afternoon, on this lawn before the seagulls and the bobbing boats and the golden sunset, she is still the American Dream. Never mind that it’s public knowledge that her husband sent e-mails to a swingers’ site announcing, “I’m a horny dude!” She’s not allowed, in the terms of her settlement, to discuss the divorce, so we can’t know why she fought to make those sad details public. (Many have speculated that Cook wanted a piece of the real-estate pie—it may have been her money, but he, the architect, did quite a bit of advising—and that humiliating him in public was the quickest way to head him off.)

It’s all dirty, sordid stuff, but she has clung throughout to her bright, shining Americana: “I had the picket fence,” she said tearfully on the stand. “I thought we were happy.” And: “All I ever wanted was a big, happy family.”

Right now, she’s focused on Christie, Inc.: She’s going to design a line of organic bedding, and towels to match. She’s considering a line of green furniture, and she’s going to get back into making art—painting and “shell work.” She’s going to relearn how to surf.


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