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Frankly, it's a relief to watch Cindy Crawford cleaning dog drool off the couch. Otherwise you might get the idea that things are a little too sunny in her corner of Malibu. Although she's not modeling much these days, the 44-year old Crawford still has magazine-cover looks and a near-perfect physique. And though she keeps busy with two young kids, from her marriage to nightlife honcho Rande Gerber, she manages to oversee a small empire of businesses, with signature skin-care lines on QVC and at Sephora and a vast collection of home furnishings for JCPenney. In short, you kind of need a slobbering pup like Widget, Crawford's cute Maltese Yorkie, to inject some reality into the picture.
But as she wipes the cushion clean and sits down to chat, that intimidating first impression quickly gives way to the real Crawford -- a woman who's beautiful yet accessible, sincere but the first to poke fun at her famous self. "On Twitter the other day I accidentally spelled Chile, the country, with an 'i' at the end, like the food," she laughs. Crawford is comfortably chic in a turquoise V-neck T-shirt, stylishly ripped white jeans, and gold strappy sandals. "I went right back on and wrote, 'Oops. Sorry. I was having a model moment!' The good thing about people underestimating models is that the bar is set so low you tend to impress people more easily."
Not that Crawford ever fit the usual airhead-model stereotype. Back in her hometown of DeKalb, Illinois, she was high school valedictorian and later studied chemical engineering on an academic scholarship at Northwestern University for part of a year before turning to fashion full-time, in 1984. Her look -- with that now-iconic mole -- quickly became famous. While other models were enjoying the club scene, Crawford was producing fitness videos, securing corporate endorsements, and building a brand as host of MTV's House of Style from 1989 to 1995. Today she's at ease and articulate whether she's discussing Haiti relief efforts (she participated in her friend George Clooney's telethon Hope for Haiti Now), the latest Malcolm Gladwell book, or her secrets for the best ways to stay fit.
The real secret, though, may be that Crawford has reached a level of acceptance with herself that has less to do with her looks and everything to do with how she feels inside. As she puts it, "I think I'm holding up pretty well, but what I like most is the sense of power I have. So much of your life you spend trying to prove yourself, trying to make things happen, trying to get somewhere else. But then you get into your late 30s and 40s and realize life is pretty amazing right in front of you if you can just be present in it."
Previous generations had their Twiggys and Lauren Huttons, but Crawford was among the first to turn a pretty face on a magazine cover into a household name and, ultimately, a one-woman empire. By the early '90s she helped make supermodels every bit as famous as A-list movie stars, and her fame went supernova when she married actor Richard Gere, in 1991. Three years after she and Gere divorced, in 1995, Crawford married Rande Gerber and the couple now have two children: son Presley, 11, and daughter Kaia, 8.
"I felt a real change after I had kids," Crawford says, flipping through a scrapbook she grabs from her comfortable, open kitchen. There's Kaia and Presley with huge grins at the family's getaway house in Canada. There's Gerber presiding at a barbecue alongside Crawford's still-youthful-looking mom, Jenny ("Half the secret to looking good is having great genes," Crawford says with a laugh). Crawford delivered both her children at home with a midwife and without drugs and says those experiences gave her a sense of "owning my own body. More than anything in my life, it showed me how strong I am. And you need that strength when the kids aren't babies anymore. Some days I'll say to them, 'Get dressed! Brush your teeth!' 15 times and they're still not listening."
Over in Kaia and Presley's playroom the shelves are piled with board games, there's a rack of mini wooden mountain bikes the kids can probably ride indoors (there's lots of space), and each kid has, whoa, an Apple iPad. Mom has it good, too. Crawford begins most mornings in the Jacuzzi with a cup of green tea before the kids are up ("I need that half hour to collect myself before the craziness starts," she says). There's a pool and a gym on the cliffside property, as well as a secluded beach below.
"I like living here. It's beautiful and it's fun," she says. "But we also have a house in Illinois on a cul de sac in a tiny subdivision near my mother's house. My kids ride their bikes down the street to my mom's house. I'll often say to Rande, 'I could live there. I don't need all this.' He'll roll his eyes, but it's true."
Crawford met Gerber, best known for high-end lounges like the Whiskey bars nationwide, at one of his New York watering holes. They struck up a friendship and decided to attend Crawford's agent's upcoming wedding together. "It was the first relationship where I was friends first and then [around the time her divorce from Gere became final] it turned romantic. I recommend that," she says. "The other stuff goes up and down but if you actually like the person it will hold you together." She says their marriage takes as much work as any other successful venture. "When something's wrong I'm all about talking things out. Rande's philosophy is, if everything's good, why talk about it, and if it's bad, why talk about it? He sometimes says, 'Relationships aren't supposed to be this hard.' And I'll say, 'Who says?' It's so easy to want things to be happy all the time, but happiness shouldn't be the goal. It's okay not to feel happy all the time."
What keeps them on track, she says, is their commitment to the relationship itself. That means having once-a-week date nights and making sex a priority, particularly now that carpools, soccer practice, and helping the kids with homework may foil spontaneity and chemistry. As Crawford puts it, "If you just wait for the moment to strike, you're going to have dry spells. But even if you don't start out in the mood, once you get it going everyone's on board."
At the height of her supermodel years Crawford could work out two hours a day, six days a week. "I put pressure on myself because I have that Midwestern work ethic, but it never felt unhealthy," she says. Now time with family and her hands-on business style (Crawford selects every face cream, bed sheet, and sofa for her various product lines) keep her on a three-day-a-week gym schedule. She works with a trainer for one-hour sessions, starting with stretches, then 30 minutes of cardio (usually on the treadmill), followed by a 30-minute strength and endurance circuit training (squats, steps, and lunges).
"I don't expect to look the way that I used to," says Crawford, who also goes on once-a-week hikes with her girlfriends, "because at best that would be deeply frustrating. I work out to feel good and get energized." Of course, it helps to be strong when paparazzi aim their zoom lenses her way. Unretouched candids of her splashing around in a bikini, stretch marks and all, surfaced in the tabloids a few years ago, but that hasn't stopped her from hitting the beach. "If I put on a few pounds it goes straight to my butt," says Crawford. "I risk a picture in the National Enquirer with the headline, 'Cindy Does Cellulite!' Well," she shrugs, "I do have cellulite."
To stay slim Crawford eats a mostly Mediterranean diet typically filled with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, some fish and meat. She also allows for guilty pleasures, like dark chocolate and pizza. "If the kids want to go for ice cream, I'll get ice cream, too. I don't want my daughter to think that being a beautiful woman is about depriving yourself. She sees me exercising. She sees me eating right. I want to be a good example for her."
Clearly, something's working. Even in the direct Malibu sunlight Crawford could easily pass for 35. Her daily regimen of sunscreen, moisturizer, and anti-aging night cream helps. And she's not above an occasional visit to the dermatologist for Botox injections. "When I was 30 I might have said, 'I'm just going to age in a way that honors time and is completely natural,' but I'm no longer so highbrow about it," she says. "I've tried Botox but it scares me. Plastic surgery is really scary, but as long as you don't use these things to change your face, I think it's okay."
The morning is wrapping up and Crawford has a long to-do list. She's approving packaging for her Sephora line, going over fall products for her JCPenney collection, and she has a beach date with the kids after school. And now Widget the drooling lapdog has come snuffling for her attention. Asked to sum up the key to her success, she says, "Luck has been the biggest factor. I've tried and failed a lot. But I've also been really clear about my brand. It is who I am. I'm a mom. I'm a wife. I'm 44 years old and from the Midwest. I have access to the worlds of fashion and beauty and I can translate that into what women can use in their everyday lives. I'm sexy but not intimidating. I'm not the kind of woman who's going to steal your husband."
She glances over at a Herb Ritts photograph, taken some time during the '90s, of herself arching her back on an exotic-looking beach. "I don't long to be anywhere other than where I am now," Crawford says. "I think that's what happens as you get older. Life is where you are. Whatever you're doing is enough. You don't need to do everything well all the time. Just be your best self. When you start living that way, it's a huge relief."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2010.