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Christie Brinkley's sprawling wood-shingled home, perched on the top of a hill in the Hamptons, is decorated to reflect her whimsical, eclectic style. The kitchen sports two shimmering chandeliers with dangling red and purple glass grapes. Her own handmade shell-encrusted picture frames are scattered through the house along with Early American paintings. The powder room is hot pink, and her living room, with zebra-striped couches and chairs, is dominated by son Jack's drum set and daughter Alexa's piano.
On this sunny day the perfectly groomed blonde with the startlingly familiar CoverGirl face wants to sit outdoors on the terrace overlooking her vast backyard, with the Atlantic Ocean visible in the distance. It's a serene setting -- the large stone Buddha, the birds chirping, the flowers planted in the shape of a giant peace sign -- but Brinkley is emotionally unsettled. As she explains, she learned "just a few seconds ago" about the latest salvo from her philandering ex-husband Peter Cook, in their long-running and contentious divorce.
Today's sore subject: her wedding dress. Brinkley, who threw out her sheets and mattress several years ago after discovering that Cook had cheated on her with a teenager, was recently asked to donate gowns for a charity auction for Haiti earthquake victims. Spying her ill-fated wedding dress in the back of her closet, she sent the white extravaganza off along with six other dresses. New York's Daily News had reported the donation this morning, including comments from her ex. "Why would anyone want to buy a wedding dress from someone who has failed at marriage four times?" Peter Cook reportedly told the press. "I suggest that anyone who buys the dress and wants to have a happy marriage burn it immediately."
Appearing to be stung by his words, Brinkley tries to take the high road, telling me, "I think that quote is very revealing. This is somebody who just doesn't understand trying to help other people." Moving to change the topic, she adds, "I don't want to waste time feeding his narcissistic supply."
Wearing a blue-and-white striped Ralph Lauren knit dress, oversized gold hoop earrings, and a blue cashmere shawl, Brinkley remains iconically stunning at age 56. Though she has graced more than 500 magazine covers since she began modeling at age 18, the California golden girl is keenly aware of her own flaws. ("I went bathing suit shopping yesterday," she confides, "and for the first time in my life I've put on a little weight around the middle.") With a net worth estimated at $60 million, Brinkley presides over several thriving businesses (a new nature-inspired jewelry line that is scheduled to be sold on QVC starting next month, branded sunglasses, eco-friendly fabrics, spokeswoman for Total Gym equipment).
Yet her personal life has hardly been enviable of late, with a litany of Job-like woes. "Christie's stress level is beyond what you can endure," says Lisa Greenberg, a Hamptons friend who speaks to Brinkley several times a day. Brinkley's daughter Alexa, 24, was hospitalized last winter after taking too many pills. ("She's doing great now," her mother insists.) Brinkley's parents, Donald and Marjorie Brinkley, who live nearby, are both in failing health: Her father suffers from Parkinson's and scoliosis. "He's been on a feeding tube for over a year. He can't even have a sip of water," says Brinkley, choking up with emotion. Just 18 months ago Brinkley suffered an excruciating back injury that required major surgery (a chair with wheels "skooched away" as she was sitting down and she hit the floor). And the fallout from her bitter divorce from Cook, with whom she shares two children, Jack, 15, and Sailor, 12, is unending. Ask how she manages to sleep at night and Brinkley flashes a wry smile and describes cuddling up with her heating pad for comfort. "That's my secret. Things get stressful, I'll wake up in the middle of the night. My eyes will shoot open, and I'll go, Nope. Don't think about it. Get your heating pad, focus on that, breathe, sleep." As Manhattan art dealer Mindy Moak, the godmother to Brinkley's three children and a friend for 25 years, puts it, "Christie is resilient, but this has been brutal."
So perhaps it's not surprising that as we sit on the terrace for three hours and her cook, Kim, serves farfalle pasta with beans and swiss chard (Brinkley is a vegetarian), the supermodel repeatedly veers between laughter and tears. The portrait that emerges is that of an inherently sunny yet vulnerable woman experiencing a difficult life transition. Fiercely devoted to her family, trying to maintain her sense of humor, she frequently stops mid-sentence to marvel over the flowers and the birdsong, reveling in the healing power of nature.
Brinkley is still thanking her lucky stars that her daughter Alexa is now okay. Brinkley had been aware that Alexa had the blues over a romantic breakup but was stunned when she called her in December, just to chat. Her daughter's cell phone was answered by a girlfriend, who blurted out, "I'm actually in an ambulance rushing Alexa to the hospital. It's sketchy; she took some pills." Moak, who was driving with Brinkley in the Hamptons, describes doing a U-turn and racing into Manhattan. "Christie was crying, then she shifted into Mama Bear mode and went to work making calls, talking to doctors," Moak says. "By the time we got there, Alexa looked fine." Brinkley, who crawled right onto the hospital gurney to cuddle her firstborn, now says that Alexa was distraught and overreacted. "She tried to do something dramatic to prove to her boyfriend how much he hurt her," says Brinkley. "I think many people can relate to that excruciating pain of love gone wrong. I'd rather have a broken arm than a broken heart." She adds that it wasn't really a suicide attempt since Alexa had only taken homeopathic aspirin. "She's not the kind of kid who hangs around clubs and does drugs.
"Your job as a parent is to listen," she continues. "And to dole out as much love as you can. That includes tough love. I told Alexa, 'You got yourself worked into such a tizzy. You need to examine that, you need to seek professional advice.'" Alexa, who spent two weeks in the hospital, is still in therapy but has been focusing on her career lately, including a new ad campaign for Prell shampoo, the same brand that decades ago featured her mother. As Brinkley proudly adds, "I've never seen her quite so radiant as she was coming home from her photo shoot for Prell."
Throughout the ordeal, Brinkley relied on the support of husband number two, Alexa's father, Billy Joel. (Husband number one was French artist Jean-Francois Allaux, whom she met as a teen; husband number three was real-estate developer Richard Taubman, Jack's biological father.) Married for nine years, Brinkley and Joel divorced in 1994. "With Billy, I'm dealing with a decent human being, a good guy," she says, adding that he is godfather to her other children. "He'll come for dinners; we'll go to his shows."
It is hard to imagine, however, that she will ever have kind words for husband number four, architect Cook. Their sensational 2008 divorce trial was full of seamy revelations about Cook, including his payoff of $300,000 to a teenage mistress to keep silent. Brinkley, who had a prenup and owns extensive Hamptons real estate, won the lion's share in their financial battle.
But sharing parental responsibility for two children (Cook legally adopted Jack) means that the warring couple still have to deal with each other. The children live with her but have regular visits with Cook. Every decision, such as whether the kids will attend summer camp, lurks as a potential minefield. "She is constantly wronged by him, belittled by him," says Lisa Greenberg. "Unfortunately, there are children involved.? Another intimate says Brinkley is "worried sick" over how the ongoing hostilities affect the kids.
Ask Brinkley about her children and she literally beams with pleasure: Blonde, winsome Sailor wants to be a filmmaker and the equally photogenic Jack acts in school plays. "All my kids are funny, they do great imitations and voices," says Brinkley. She looks at her watch; she will have to leave soon to pick them up from school.
Though Brinkley jetted around the globe in her supermodel heyday, she has artfully transitioned to a multifaceted career that allows her to work on projects like designing jewelry but still be available for carpool duty. "Christie is an amazing businesswoman," says Moak. Her smile may dazzle, but an inner steeliness has helped her chart a financially successful career. "Early on someone tried to get me to put my signature where it didn't belong," recalls Brinkley, which would have entailed giving away a large percentage of her earnings. "I did a lot of research before I met with my next accountant."
As an activist concerned about the dangers of nuclear power plants, she can knowledgeably cite facts and figures about the issue. "Christie cares, but it's more than that,? says Joseph Mangano, the executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, of which Brinkley is a board member. "The issues we deal with are very sophisticated. Christie is very fluent in discussing Strontium 90 and children's cancer rates." Even with the stresses of recent years, she has remained committed to that cause and pragmatic about using her celebrity to gain media attention. "I know when I go someplace that they're going to want to find out about what I'm wearing instead of what I'm saying," Brinkley says. "But to be able to get something about a nuclear power plant on Extra or Access Hollywood is incredible."
A yoga enthusiast who also kayaks and plays tennis to stay fit, she looks back with sympathetic amusement at her younger self. Fans have been posting her old covers on her Facebook page (she reads it avidly and responds to many comments). "Some of these pictures I haven't seen in 25 years," she says. "I can remember posing and thinking, Oh, I've got to hide my big hips. I look back at the pictures now, and it's like, Oh my God! I thought I looked fat? And I had that body?"
Brinkley skips lightly over the topic of finding a new romance for herself, quipping, "This is not exactly Dating Central out here." When pressed on the topic she replies, "I still feel that the right guy is out there somewhere. I'm not looking for the same things I was looking for earlier in my life." After such an ugly tabloid divorce, she is understandably wary. "It's hard for Christie to trust someone," says Greenberg. "She's been badly burned."
Every newspaper revelation about cheating spouses -- this morning the tabloids were full of stories about Sandra Bullock's straying husband, Jesse James, plus coverage of John Edwards's antics -- brings a fresh reminder of her pain. "That's heartbreaking," she says of the Bullock story. "It's an epidemic of male narcissism gone wild. That someone could cheat on any woman with cancer -- or an Academy Award winner...." Brinkley is nonetheless starting to test the waters. As Moak says of her friend's romantic life: "She's interviewing."
For Brinkley, the most poignant element of her life these days is visiting her aging parents, a five-minute drive away. Donald Brinkley, a renowned television writer (The Fugitive) was just released from the hospital after a bout with pneumonia and remains fragile. "It's been excruciating watching these two people who are so in love with each other, who really are surviving these [health issues] so they can get back with the other one," she says. "It gives them the will to live."
Talking about her parents is profoundly emotional. She pauses to take solace in the landscape, eagerly pointing out two doves perched on a tree branch, nuzzling one another. The scene gives her comfort. With the sun on her famous face, Brinkley luxuriates in the moment, saying, "Some days I feel like I'm in a Disney movie -- the birds are going to come and take my sweater and pull it up around my shoulders."
It's been a long, leisurely afternoon, and now we are winding down; Brinkley offers a few parting comments, trying to sum up her feelings. "I may not have been lucky in love, but I have been lucky," she says. "I am happy. I've dealt with a lot of stress and drama and trials and tribulations. But there are people who wake up with no legs or no eyesight. Everyone is faced with their circumstances. You try to appreciate what you have." Her voice rises with emotion, and she adds, "A little hand to hold. The birds around. I'm so appreciative and grateful I could sob." She wipes away a tear. Sitting on the terrace with America's golden girl, you wish that you could make her happy-ever-after Disney dream come true.
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