Much has been made of the light in the Hamptons: It is perfect for painting, it is perfect for sunning, it is perfect for illuminating the shingled houses, the electric-green lawns, the hedges and the pools and the soft clay courts.
It is also perfect, on this Saturday afternoon in August, for regarding Christie Brinkley. Her hair is thick and golden, her skin is tanned but only just. Her teeth are gleaming, her waist is narrow, and she’s dressed like the popular girl from your high school: tight red tank top, tight dark jeans, groovy purple sneakers laced up in some complicated unlaced way, and sporty Oakley shades. One wrist is wrapped with an uncomfortable-looking amount of beads and baubles and charms and two leather bands in Rasta colors that demand, STOP GLOBAL WARMING NOW!
She’s a month past her very public, very ugly court divorce from her equally tanned, equally gleaming ex-husband, the architect Peter Cook, but Brinkley shows no strain. She looks like she slept really well last night, and every night for her entire life, and as if she’s fortified herself with only the most local, organic, and expensive of foods since before she was born. It’s as if she’s absorbed the well-organized beauty of her surroundings through her pores, as if she’s a natural extension of the blue sky and its fluffy clouds.
“Can you believe this place?” Brinkley is saying, as she wanders the yard of the boxy Colonial whose lawn ends on the quiet, sandy edge of Sag Harbor. Across the water are the rooftops of the village, a village she is hell-bent on preserving from condos and chain pharmacies. She bought this house last year for almost $10 million, with the intention of putting up her parents, but the stairs proved difficult for them, so she plans to move them to yet another of her houses—one in town—and decided that this house, with its streaming light and views and wide plank floors, should be her office. She’s filled it with framed portraits from her modeling years: a platinum copy of “Uptown Girl,” herself on the cover of Redbook, and so on. She’s got plans: an organic farm outside and a “homework club” upstairs.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Brinkley says, throwing her arms wide. She speaks in the breathy, enthusiastic delivery of a librarian reading aloud to someone in the third grade, and she smiles almost constantly. She can talk through the smile—which reveals both top and bottom teeth at all times—almost like a ventriloquist.
“Woooow,” she exclaims, “look at the sky. Isn’t it painterly? Look at the brushstrokes. Wow. Isn’t it cool?”
Across the street from this (by Hamptons standards) modest house is a big white colonnaded Greek Revival Tara that Brinkley bought in 2003 but has yet to inhabit. She’s planning to make it her full-time home as soon as she unloads Tower Hill, the 20-acre Bridgehampton estate she has listed for $30 million. Tower Hill has a frog pond, a skateboard park, a campsite, a snowboard hill, and a path on which she and the other mothers from the Ross School like to cross-country ski. But she’s done with that life. “I just want to be here,” she says, sighing. “I mean, look at this. I just want to be here.”
A curious choice, considering that big white house factored quite prominently into the divorce: It was where Cook liked to bring his teenage girlfriend, the one he hired away from her job at a toy shop with one thing in mind. During the trial, it was stated that Brinkley once dropped by that house to find a long, dark hair on a rumpled bed.
Brinkley is wearing a pair of diamanté peace signs in her ears. The buckle of the belt that’s slung mid-hip across her tight, dark jeans is a peace sign, and the water glasses from which she sips chilled bubbly water have peace signs on them, too, as well as a slogan: back by popular demand.
“Look at the coastline!” Brinkley says, with feeling. “I just love America. I love living here.”
Brinkley’s all-American face was discovered in an unusual setting. In 1973, Brinkley, just 18, had moved to Paris to study art, and she had already married an arty Frenchman, an illustrator named Jean-François. Her beloved dog Bianca was sick, and she was carrying the dog in a basket on her way to a phone to call a vet when an American photographer spotted this bit of California walking down the street and demanded she stop by the offices of the top modeling agencies. Reluctantly, she agreed. “You have to understand,” Brinkley says, settling into an iron chair on the edge of her property, just feet from the lapping shore, “that I came to France to be so bohemian. It was all”—and here Brinkley does an elaborate Pepé Le Pew accent—“How can you mo-dell. Is so bourgeois.” She also says she sort of couldn’t believe it. “I was basically a surfer girl from California. I never looked like a model. Models were thin, and they were very sophisticated, and their poses were kind of like—” Brinkley leaps out of her chair and throws her nose up into the air. “Hoity,” she says, and sits down. Brinkley was then, as she is now, athletic and strong and approachable.
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.
She remains committed to her causes, too. “I think what I’m known for is how much I care for the environment,” she says. “I really have a deep sense of caring about the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. I want to be able to say that I was trying to protect that. And I also care deeply about children. My children, all children. And I care deeply about giving back.” She works on a number of East End charities: Save Sag Harbor being one. And she’s involved with Democratic politics on a national level, too—she was a delegate for Al Gore at the DNC in 2000; she campaigned aggressively for Kerry four years ago. Her courtroom drama has made it hard to devote herself fully to Obama, but she plans to get more involved. The only moment she drops her smile is when John Edwards comes up. “Devastating,” she says. “Devastating. I’ve met him, and I’ve met his lovely wife, and this is devastating news. But I don’t want to go there!” And the smile is back. A man in a tiny white dinghy is rowing past her house. “Isn’t that cool?” she exclaims. “Isn’t that great? God. It’s so beautiful.”
Her cell phone bleats a poppy ringtone and she answers with a full grin. “Hey, Jack-omo!” she shouts at her 13-year-old son. “Hey, dude!” When she loses the connection, she turns to texting. “He can’t,” she says, smiling, “find his skateboard.”
She won’t talk about love, except to say that she’s never getting married again. And as she walks me to my car—parked beside her hybrid SUV, which is covered in bumper stickers, including one for Obama in which the O has been replaced by a peace sign—she gestures at the lawn, talks about her plans for that organic farm. “Won’t that be great?” she asks. And it will. Of course it will. “I can’t wait,” she says. “I just need a new architect.”
Brinkley turned up to a West Chelsea photo studio three days earlier wearing those same skinny jeans, to shoot the cover of this magazine. It was one of the few straight-up modeling gigs she’d done in a while, but it was impossible to tell. She wore a number of outfits, including a starchy white Balenciaga shirt and a pair of four-inch YSL heels. Her hair was manipulated with extensions and a fan, but those tiny, sample-size hips were not. She says her body is thanks to vegetarianism and, lapsing into full spokesmodel mode, a product of the “Total Gym,” which is a contraption she’s been hawking on late-night infomercials with Chuck Norris—“He’s a total sweetheart,” she says, “he just votes for the wrong guy”—for the past fifteen years. She moved just like she did while flirting with Chevy Chase from her cherry-red Ferrari during National Lampoon’s Vacation: like the smiliest of vamps, specifically created for turning any red-blooded American man to mush. She found poses and held them, shifting only after the swoosh of the shutter. She smiled and re-angled and smiled some more. She knew just how to pop her hip out, her shoulder up, just how to position her legs, and she never, not for one frame, looked anything but totally thrilled to be there. She is what she always was, oddly unmarred by the human drama that has so recently swirled around her. “Modeling is kind of like skiing, or riding a bike,” she says. “When you get back in the right light, it all just comes back. You feel a little safer in that light.”