Christie Brinkley on ageism: "We're not just going to fade to grey"

Not far from the tree: Christie Brinkley and her daughter Sailor.

Not far from the tree: Christie Brinkley and her daughter Sailor. Photo: Alexei Hay

On a bright, wintry afternoon in a modelling studio in downtown Manhattan, Christie Brinkley raises a shoulder, throws back her thick blonde tresses and flashes a toothy smile. 

A young photographer, clad in denim and crouched down in front of her, fawns. "Good, amazing Christie!" he shouts as he snaps picture after picture. Hip-hop blasts through speakers overhead. Brinkley, bathed in bright lights, moves her hips slowly, clad in a tight pencil skirt, and effortlessly shifts through a repertoire of poses and expressions. A hairstylist, armed with an enormous gold can of hairspray, stands at the ready off to the side.

"So beautiful!" yells the photographer.

Watching Brinkley performing – and it is nothing short of a performance – you could be forgiven for thinking you'd fallen through a wrinkle in time, landing in the late 1970s or '80s, when Brinkley was among the world's top models. 

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Back then, she was the ubiquitous cover star and sex symbol, the "Uptown Girl" who inspired former husband Billy Joel's song; probably the woman who most embodied the era's "all-American", flaxen-haired, aerobic-fit ideal. 

But instead it is 2015, and Brinkley is 61. Unlike the Cold War, fluffy perms or acid-wash denim, Brinkley is one defining aspect of that era which has survived the intervening years remarkably unchanged. At an age when most models have long since stepped back from public view – or been pushed out of the way – Brinkley is still at it, still flashing that corn-fed smile.

She celebrated her 60th birthday by appearing in a turquoise swimming costume on the cover of People magazine, looking as svelte and bouncy as ever (with help, she has freely admitted, from a hidden bra, hair extensions and lots of flattering lighting). 

Today, she's in the studio as part of a Mother's Day campaign for the Australian sleepwear designer Peter Alexander, alongside her 16-year-old daughter Sailor, the very picture of her mother at a younger age.

In between takes, Brinkley sits perched on a couch in a sunny corner of the studio, dressed in a pair of Alexander's bright fuchsia floral pyjamas, the daylight pouring in behind her. Sailor reclines in a nearby armchair, absorbed in her smartphone. Their dog Chester, a fluffy white mop of a creature, slumps in Brinkley's lap. Together, they look like an image from a Hamptons holiday catalogue.

Brinkley uses her whole body as she talks, gesturing theatrically with both hands. "Right now, I think we're seeing the opening up of the last frontier, which is ageism," she says with feeling, when asked about changes in the modelling industry which have allowed her to have such a long career. 

"They always said the baby boomers would change the numbers, instead of allowing the numbers to dictate to them. I think we're the first generation that literally is saying, 'A number doesn't define us any more.' And we're not just going to …" she pauses to smile and drop into a "scary" voice, "fade to grey." 

Born in Michigan in 1954 but raised in California, Brinkley didn't aspire be a model. Art, not fashion, lured her to Paris, where she moved to go to art school at age 18. But after being spotted by an American photographer, she got swept up.

"I did it out of curiosity," she says. "I love travel, and they kept offering me plane tickets to jobs all over the world. So I kind of just kept doing it."

There was no "kind of" about it, of course. She was a hit, building up a portfolio of 200-plus magazine covers, including three Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, and landing major contracts, including Chanel and CoverGirl. "But honestly, for every job I'd say, 'Well, I'll do this one more and then get back to my paintings," she says. "And then another one would come in."

Peter Alexander, in the studio for the photo shoot, remembers seeing Brinkley sashay her way through the 'Uptown Girl' video in 1985 and into the fantasies of men everywhere. "I was sort of really attracted to her, even though I was gay," he says, with a loud laugh. "She just seemed so glamorous and blonde; she was really like a living Barbie doll."

When Alexander cast her in his campaign, which features a range of mothers in different decades of life with their real kids, he says he originally didn't want to go for the big-smiling look Brinkley was known for in the 1980s. "I wanted to show her differently," he says. But on actually meeting her, "You realise, that is her. She is that big smile, she is that California girl. She's like a living toothpaste commercial, she's like, got sunshine coming out of her."

While there is a growing appetite for older women in advertising campaigns – like 68-year-old Diane Keaton spruiking for L'Oréal, or 80-year-old writer Joan Didion posing for Céline – looking decades younger than one's actual age still clearly helps. 

Brinkley is constantly – almost obsessively – asked how she manages to look so young. Her response today follows similar themes to most interviews: a vegetarian, sometimes vegan, diet, plenty of sunscreen and exfoliation, and a fitness regime that includes yoga, the Total Gym machine (for which she is a paid spokesperson) and outdoorsy activities like cycling and swimming. 

But primarily, she attributes her looks to that slightly infuriating claim of impossibly toned and smooth celebrities everywhere: "I believe that the number one thing that contributes to your outside appearance is your inside, so I think it's crucial, vitally important, that you enjoy yourself, that you have fun," she says with complete sincerity.

Positivity is a gospel for Brinkley: her Instagram feed is filled with affirmations, exclamation points and cute emojis. "I think happiness is the thing that looks the best on a person's face," she says.

Something that does ruffle her is the negativity hurled at other women, the growth of media that "face-shame" or zoom in on a bit of cellulite or delight in the so-called "flaws" of others. "Women should be complimenting each other and not looking for each other's flaws."

Brinkley recently spoke up after the "leaking" of photos of fellow supermodel Cindy Crawford, 49, with very normal dimpled belly and thighs. Brinkley suspects the images may be fake: "I just shared a dressing room with Cindy Crawford and I saw her in a skimpy pair of underwear. She looked amazing."

Brinkley's disheartened with how cruel people can be. "I think if women would look for ways to truly support each other, they'd see how good that feels," she says.

She is also concerned about the thinner and thinner models today on the catwalk and in magazines, particularly as a mother of an aspiring teen model. "I was lucky when I came in the '80s that it was about physical fitness," she says. "Some of the girls today are shockingly skinny. You can't be that skinny and be getting enough nutrition."

But she's supportive of Sailor's choice. "Obviously, a mother's job is to worry until the day she dies," says Brinkley, "but I really feel that [Sailor] is so smart and so strong, and that she's not going to get into a lot of the pitfalls."

Brinkley has had her own very personal, public ordeals to endure, notably her marriage breakdowns. Her seeming fairytale union with Joel in the 1980s was her second marriage and produced their daughter, Alexa Ray (now a musician), but they divorced a decade later.

Brinkley married twice more: to property developer Richard Taubman in 1994, with whom she had son Jack, and then in 1996 to architect Peter Cook, with whom she had Sailor. Their divorce proceedings, in 2008, were devoured by the tabloid press, with revelations Cook had an affair with an 18-year-old neighbour among the betrayals. Brinkley has since said she will never marry again, and Cook is the only topic that is off-limits in this interview.

Meanwhile, Brinkley seems to have bounced right back. Four years ago, she made her Broadway debut, singing and dancing as the vampish Roxie Hart in Chicago, before turning to comedy, hamming it up as a sweet, Stepford-ish wife in the sitcom Parks and Recreation

As well as modelling, these days she keeps busy as a passionate advocate for political and environmental causes, vocal about issues ranging from equal pay for women in the US to elephant poaching in parts of Africa. She's also recently launched her own skincare line, and has a beauty book on the way.It's a good time in her life. 

"The second I turned 50 I was like, 'Well, I'm 50 … say whatever you want, I don't care, I'm over that age,' " Brinkley says, leaning back on the sofa, the sunny smile returning to her face. "It's very liberating to me."

Image: Christie wears Peter Alexander knit, Peter Alexander PA "Classic Waffle Long Sleeve Henley", Donna Karan skirt. Sailor wears Peter Alexander floral hoodie, Peter Alexander PA "Classic Long Sleeve Henley", her own jeans. 

Styling by Paul Bui; hair by Jon Lieckfelt; make-up by Sandy Linter.