Christie Brinkley: Beauty before age

She was the all-American girl who became the world's first supermodel. Now Christie Brinkley's a born-again cover star - at 51
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The Independent Online

Occasionally, however, women everywhere are treated to an uplifting exception to the rule. Do we even need to mention Anne Bancroft, who so recently died, and her portrayal of the seductive Mrs Robinson in the 1967 film The Graduate?

Then there's Jane Seymour, who updated the Robinson moment in the current comedy Wedding Crashers. One of the film's jokes revolves around an over-the-hill Seymour trying to bed a much younger Owen Wilson, forcing him to paw her newly restructured breasts. But the real joke is that, at 54 years old, Seymour shows that the other side of the hill need not be so bad.

But clear the catwalk, if you please, for the woman who for decades represented beauty in the wholesome, West Coast sunshine, American sense of the word. We speak of the woman who became the world's first supermodel before the word even existed. She is blonde, bright-eyed Christie Brinkley, once known as the "Uptown Girl". Is she all washed up now that she is 51 years old? Not exactly.

The maker of CoverGirl cosmetics, Procter & Gamble, revealed yesterday that it is re-hiring Brinkley as the model and spokeswoman for one of its product lines. OK, so she will be fronting Advance Radiance Compact Foundation, make-up that is deliberately aimed at the more "mature" woman, but still, she's modelling again.

Hers might almost be the fairy tale version of the older woman who bucks time. It was CoverGirl that made her so famous in the first place - and at the same time popularised the convention of hiring models to represent beauty products - when it gave her a 20-year contract in 1976. It was the longest multi-year contract ever awarded in the industry at the time.

When Brinkley, whose nine-year marriage to the singer Billy Joel came to an end in 1994, finally finished the contract in the mid-Nineties, she says she left the company on very good terms. (The PR script even has it that she kept using CoverGirl products when she no longer represented them.) Presumably she and no one else imagined that she would be hired back. "I wish my butt didn't go sideways," she admitted in a magazine interview not long afterwards. "But I guess I have to face that."

Girls with expanding back-sides need not apply to model agencies - or so you might think. But times may be changing. Lately, there have been examples of companies eschewing models with bodies no normal mortal could ever hope to achieve. Most notably, Dove's current campaign for its firming creams features a selection of skimpily dressed women who are almost shaped like real people - they have hips and thighs.

Brinkley seems aware of the importance that some people will attach to her unlikely comeback. "There is such an age phobia in this country and this ad is showing me being comfortable with the age I am. I think it's a good, positive image, something you don't see enough of. CoverGirl is making an effort to show a wide range of beauty and different ethnicities and age groups," she told the Associated Press, taking a break from shooting a commercial on the beach in the Hamptons on Long Island.

"We've been having a ball today," she went on. "It's like a time warp. It's as if those 10 years between never happened." With the cameras on her once again, she was galloping on the sand with her horse, her dog and her two younger children, daughter Sailor, seven, and son Jack, 10. The print advertisements for the new campaign are set to break later this week.

Brinkley's life has certainly read like a fairy tale - with all a fairy tale's ups and downs. Born in California in 1954, she grew up in a media-savvy family. Her father, Don Brinkley, was a writer and producer in the early days of television, working on such series as The Virginian and The Man from UNCLE. She went to school at the exclusive Lycée International of Los Angeles, and at 18 travelled to Paris to study art. There she met her first husband, Jean-François Allaux. They married in 1973 and divorced in 1981.

Brinkley was at the peak of her success when one evening she saw Joel playing piano at a club in Long Island. As he has since told it, many times, he never believed he could capture the love of a woman as beautiful as the one who became his wife in 1985. He was shocked even though he was hardly an insubstantial figure himself, having already turned out nine bestselling albums. "Uptown Girl" was the huge hit that Joel wrote as an ode to Brinkley. The couple had one daughter, Alexa, who is now 19.

That romance ended when Brinkley was involved in a near-fatal helicopter crash at the ski resort of Telluride in Colorado in 1993. Joel flew out at once to take care of her, only, as he has since described it, to find that the other victim of the accident was his wife's new boyfriend. They agreed to break up two weeks later. Christie and her new man, a Colorado property developer named Richard Taubman, were wed in December 1994 on the slopes near where the accident happened. Jack is the son she had with Taubman. But the marriage lasted barely a year.

Nowadays, Brinkley, who says she has remained good friends with Joel, lives with a Long Island architect named Peter Cook. They have been married since September 1996.

During her modelling career, Brinkley appeared on an astonishing 500 magazine covers. She even landed the cover of the annual swimwear issue of Sports Illustrated three years in a row from 1979 to 1981. Nor is modelling all she has done. Die-hard Brinkley fans will remember her appearances with Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Vacation and its sequel, Vegas Vacation. In 1992, Brinkley had a gig with CNN presenting lifestyle segments called Living in the Nineties - with Christie Brinkley. Her less-celebrated career as a photographer extended to working as Don King's ringside photographer for some of his biggest boxing fights.

Brinkley has continued to pop up here and there, sometimes on the less-than-glamorous sets of late-night television infomercials. She may still be a stunner - she recently told Good Housekeeping magazine that she maintained her looks without Botox or other cosmetic surgery aids - but there was no hint that her modelling career was anything other than in the past.

"CoverGirl is part of my DNA and I'm thrilled to be back with 'family'," she gushed in the official press statement last nght. "I'm excited to promote a new product developed specifically for women like me, who want flawless coverage combined with the latest science in skincare." And the industry is intrigued. "Her public perception as a mother is very strong," says Andrew Sacks, president of AgencySacks, a Manhattan-based advertising agency. "People like her. There's not a diva association. For a very wholesome American brand, it's a perfect match." But CoverGirl has broken the mould before - the hardly lithe Queen Latifah already models for the company.

The people at Dove, which is a subsidiary of Unilever, seemingly went to considerable lengths to determine whether using "real people" would be a disaster. They even hired researchers from Harvard and the London School of Economics. "We believe real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages," the company now insists on its website, which also offers some statistics vital to its case. Women aged 18 to 34 apparently have a 7 per cent chance of being as slim as a catwalk model and a 1 per cent chance of being as thin as a supermodel. "Let's face it, firming the thighs of a size two supermodel is no challenge," one of the Dove adverts tells potential customers.

By the way, it was Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman, who was arguing that that Bullock is too far gone to play the role on the big screen. She also ruled out Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is only 35. But maybe Carter is speaking too soon and the conventions of when "too old" begins for a women are starting to change. Carter herself is 54 - three years older than Brinkley. Maybe she should apply for an audition. Other actresses refusing to take early retirement include Susan Sarandon (58) and Diane Lane (40).

We do not know, meanwhile, for how many more years Brinkley can expect to be working for CoverGirl now she is back in its stable. Her new contract is described only as "multi-year". We assume a 71-year-old cosmetics model would be pushing it. But then again, why not?