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Christie Brinkley has sold her soul to the Devil. This, as far as I can tell, is the only way a 55-year-old woman can look the way she does. While sitting with her in her Bridgehampton, New York, home, I notice just a few faint lines, no sags -- and definitely no facelift. She tells me she tried Botox and didn't like it and now covers the lines on her forehead with a curtain of beach-blond bangs. But if the Prince of Darkness has granted her freakishly youthful beauty, he has also made her life a private hell over the past few years.
In 2005 Brinkley learned that her fourth husband, architect Peter Cook, had been cheating on her with an 18-year-old office assistant. For more than a week in the summer of 2008 her divorce led the evening news with lurid revelations about Cook's Internet porn habit. When the divorce was finalized last October, Brinkley emerged victorious: She won custody of their 11-year-old daughter, Sailor, and 14-year-old son, Jack (Cook had adopted Jack, Brinkley's child from her third marriage), and ownership of their 18 properties. Still, can you put a price tag on all that awfulness? "I feel like I should apologize to everybody for them having to read all of that tawdry stuff, and having it delivered to their kitchen tables when their kids are around, you know?" Brinkley says.
No apology necessary. Unwittingly, and certainly unwillingly, Christie Brinkley did American women a favor. When a mate cheats we tend at first to blame our own physical imperfections: "If only I hadn't gained weight...." But Peter Cook cheated on Christie Brinkley. And when he did, America thought: Wow. If it could happen to her, it could happen to anybody. That thought occurred to me, too, as Brinkley and I sip tea and nibble homemade oatmeal cookies. Her labradoodle, Maple Sugar, and yorkie, Pixel, hover close by, and somewhere a parrot is squawking. Everywhere there are framed photos of Jack, Sailor, and Alexa Ray, 23, her daughter with singer Billy Joel.
Brinkley is wearing artfully ripped jeans and a T-shirt, an outfit that shows off her extraordinary body. A few days earlier at the LHJ photo shoot, we all stared a little slack-jawed at the sculpted thighs and abs of a woman who was alive when Eisenhower was president. How does she do it? "Well, I don't have a mirror in the gym," she says. "I don't try to get as buff as Madonna. I don't have that kind of time or interest to put into it, but I do work out." Brinkley's beauty -- and body -- is legendary. What other model can claim more than 500 magazine covers spanning three decades, including three consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, campaigns for products from Chanel to Diet Coke, and a CoverGirl contract that lasted 20 years? Her particular blend of leonine glamour and California athleticism have always made her seem invulnerable. How could something terrible happen to someone who looked like that?
Well, it can, and did -- but she has an inner strength that has seen her through. Recently, when Alexa was going through her own breakup, Brinkley told her she could be strong and beautiful without a man. And these days Brinkley seems to be heeding her own advice. She has a close-knit group of girlfriends from different points in her life. Her parents now live nearby. The timing of their move couldn't have been better. "It's just so wonderful having them here," Brinkley says.
One of Brinkley's other great supports during this trying time has been Billy Joel, with whom she remains close. "Billy's great. He's godfather to Jack and Sailor, and you know there have been times when I have had to spend time with lawyers or whatever and he's babysat. He lives nearby, so he's like, 'Send 'em over here!'"
Indeed, at the mention of her kids, Brinkley cheers up. What makes her happy? "The sound of my children's footsteps," she says without hesitation. Alexa is forging her own career as a songwriter and performer. "Jack is our rocker," Christie says, pointing to an enormous drums-piano-bass-mike setup in her living room. On weekdays she's there when her kids get home from school. She spends her weekends kayaking, fishing, or skiing with them. The life Brinkley has now is certainly not the one she envisioned for herself while growing up in Malibu and dreaming of a bohemian existence.
"I thought modeling was a shallow occupation, and I pictured myself at the Beaux-Arts in Paris." Which is where she ended up in 1973 when she was 18, with a starter marriage to a French illustrator. She was walking down a street when an American photographer asked her to stop by Elite, a top modeling agency. She was signed immediately and began one of the most illustrious careers in modeling history.
But if her professional life was Teflon-coated, her personal life has been a bit stickier. She divorced her first husband in 1981, then had a romance with the heir to the Moet & Chandon Champagne fortune, who was killed in a car crash in 1983. Then there were nine years with Joel, from 1985 to 1994, and a quickie marriage to real-estate developer Richard Taubman, in 1994. One year later, with a new baby, Brinkley was single again -- and in less than two years remarried to Peter Cook.
"I would never get married again," she says firmly. "With what I know I don't see why anyone would get married." Which is not to say she is not a romantic. "I totally believe in true love. And I think couples should celebrate their love over and over again." But, she adds, they needn't formalize it. "In fact, right at the beginning of a relationship, I would formalize an exit strategy."
Brinkley had said she wouldn't speak to me about her divorce from Cook, but she ends up discussing it anyway. Particularly galling to her were the accusations in the press that she kept the trial open to the public without considering the feelings of her children. "Maybe I can try again to clear this up," Brinkley says, tearing up a bit before steadying herself. "Divorce courts in New York are always open to the public. I didn't want special treatment." She felt very strongly she had nothing to hide -- and should not cower, in life or in the press.
Clearly discussion of the last couple of years is difficult for Brinkley, but she is not one to wallow. For now she's seeking solace and purpose in the things she feels she does best: her business ventures (she has a fabric collection at Jo-Ann Stores), environmental activism (she works hard on behalf of an anti-nuclear power group), and creating beautiful homes. Finally I get up the courage to ask her about men. It is, to put it mildly, a delicate subject. She says she just can't bring herself to go there. Not yet. "I haven't always followed my own advice," she says, "but I've always believed that you've got to be whole before starting with someone new. You've got to find that inner peace. I'd have to feel, 'Okay, the time is right to be open to that again.'"
As I'm getting ready to leave I spot the source of the earlier screeching. A parrot is sitting on top of his cage. "This is Kiwi Houdini Valentine," Brinkley says. "He got his name because he can escape from anything." And the Valentine part? "There were some issues with his feathers, but as you can see there's this red heart-shaped mark on his chest that's beginning to reappear." Far be it for me to look for metaphors in our avian friends, but c'mon. A beautiful creature whose feathers are ruffled, who has escaped her cage, whose heart is growing back?
Christie, really, you can't blame me.
A healthy lifestyle is a big priority for Brinkley -- and it definitely pays off. Here are her rules to live by.
Never say diet.
"As soon as you start thinking 'diet,' you feel deprived, and then food is all you can think about," she says. She sticks to three meals a day and snacks on Fuji apples with peanut butter.
Focus on healthy food.
Brinkley is a vegetarian who eats an occasional fish dish. Her diet includes a lot of whole grains, beans, low-fat yogurt, vegetables, fruit, and seeds; she steers clear of anything made with white flour or sugar.
Brinkley works out in the gym or exercises outdoors three to four days a week, but she also sneaks in toning moves throughout the day. She'll strike a yoga pose while waiting for water to boil or do squats holding on to the cart at the supermarket. "I try to get a few in there," she says.
Shield your skin.
Don't leave the house without first slathering on a moisturizer with at least an SPF 20, preferably 30. "You should avoid the sun," she says. "But everything I love doing is in the sun!"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.