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Christy Turlington: Beauty and Balance

Christy Turlington has survived the turbulence of the fashion industry, tobacco addiction, illness and the death of her father. Here she talks to Psychology Today about the importance of education and the value of yoga.

The life of a supermodel often conjures images of diva designers, bacchanalian parties and jet-set extravagance. This stereotype makes models a symbol of excess, the poster children of hedonism. But when we look at the human behind the caricature, the question arises: How does a person caught up in the swirl of celebrity, money and parties at a young age manage to keep a sense of balance? The question is even more pressing when you consider that the industry is littered with people who weren't able to survive the onslaught.

Even while she was an unwilling symbol of over-the-top glamour, Christy Turlington was an anomaly in the fashion world, a polite professional who avoided arrogance and attitude. "Christy's uniqueness is a combination of maintaining personal dignity and a very firm grip on manners," explains Kurt Markus, a photographer who has worked with Turlington for years. "I have seen her tested over and over. She reaches down to a resource that comes from her family and early years. She is a rock."

Education and charity have been important aspects of Turlington's life. After spending 10 years in the spotlight of the beauty culture, she chose the anonymity of life as a student at New York University. She enjoyed studying literature and religion and graduated cum laude with a degree in philosophy. Turlington has responded to the wealth her beauty has given her by working tirelessly for charities that support children (Art Inspiring Hope), education (Intercambios Culturales of El Salvador), animal rights (PETA) and several anti-tobacco campaigns.

Most important, she has had to face tobacco addiction, illness and death. When she quit smoking and subsequently gained 10 pounds—and the reproach of the industry—her response was insightful. "It led me to rethink my career. I would rather be 10 pounds heavier, tobacco-free and happy," she said. Later, after her father died of lung cancer and she was diagnosed with early stage emphysema, Turlington devoted herself to many local and national anti-smoking campaigns. "She did several commercials for us," says Susan Islam of the American Cancer Society. "She was doing it because she lost her father, and that made a real difference. I think it has more impact when a celebrity devotes that much time because they have a personal interest."

Turlington finds much of her strength in yoga, meditation and Ayurveda, an ancient holistic science from India. Many of the Ayurvedic principles are based on discovering your balance as an individual. The philosophy holds that every person is a hybrid of the three elements called doshas (vatta, pitta and kapha). Understanding your unique combination can help you choose how to exercise and what to eat. Finding the flexibility and balance that is required for good mental health is a challenge we all face.

Psychology Today recently interviewed Turlington about how she has maintained her equilibrium in a life of extremes.

PT: How have you dealt with loss in your life?

CT: Yoga has helped me to see death as more of a gift than a loss, and that has been my experience so far. Yoga has been the best tool for managing stress and life's challenges. Everything from my studies to my father's death was eased by my practice of it.

How long have you been practicing yoga and how did you start?

I went to my first yoga class at 18. A friend was doing it, and I admired the discipline and focus. I decided I wanted that positive focus in my life to help me cope with the erratic lifestyle my career perpetuates. It was, and remains, an invaluable source of energy and inspiration for me, and all of my efforts in life, both personal and professional.

How have you adjusted your life according to Ayurveda?

It has been an organic evolution. Through my practice of yoga I was drawn to Ayurveda, a sister philosophy, and also to things that are generally better for me. My diet, and also the way that I respond to the world and the world to me, has gradually changed.

What is your dosha, and how does it reflect who you are?

I am a vata/pitta, which means that my constitution is generally pitta, hard-working, a leader, but I also have a vata imbalance, which is revealed in my skin type. I have dry skin and a small bone structure, a lot of creative energy and I speak very quickly. This is just a snapshot of how dosha qualities affect me physically, but Ayurveda is a very complex science that is 5,000 years old. We all have all three doshas and all five elements of nature in each of us in varying degrees, which makes each of us an individual.

You left the catwalk in 1994 and returned to school in 1997. Did you feel you were tired of the beauty culture?

I haven't left modeling completely; I just took a step out, and I now have the rare luxury of picking and choosing how to spend my days. I wanted to explore so many other interests that I had and still do have, and that was not possible as a full-time model. I always intended to go back to school but never expected it would be so hard or take so long. At 26, I knew I was ready and that the transition would only become harder, so I just did it. It was the best thing I ever did, apart from quitting smoking, and it gave me so much self-knowledge. It allowed me to see that I could do whatever I wanted to do going forward.

Studying philosophy and religion seems miles away from the modeling routine—was it something you wanted to do for a while? How did your studies shape your perspective on what you wanted to do when you graduated?

Everything I read in school, from Nietzche to Hannah Arendt and Victor Frankel, helped shape the way I see the world, but I was particularly drawn to religious, mystical, spiritual texts and scripture, which reiterated the essentials of life that I hold valuable. My study of religion, philosophy and art, plus my practice of yoga and my career as a model, all brought me to where I am today. I have incorporated everything I have learned and applied it to my businesses, Sundari and Nuala.

How is your clothing specifically designed for yoga?

Nuala was designed for the lifestyle of yoga, not just the practice of postures that most people associate with yoga, but the clothing had to withstand a vigorous practice as well. It was important for me to make clothes that transcended the boundaries of the workplace and working out, the external and internal experiences, travel and home life. Why do these activities need to be contradictory? I designed the collection for my lifestyle, and I have found that many women were also searching for the same thing.

You started a modeling career at 14 years old. How did you maintain a sense of balance and continue to develop as a person in that atmosphere?

I only modeled after school until 16 and then summers until 18 when I graduated, so I always maintained a fairly normal life as a teen. However, I was living a double life of sorts, with travel and exposure to the world and different people. I moved to NYC at 18, but my mother frequently accompanied me until I was an adult.

After being associated with the rise of the "supermodel," how did it feel to move away from the spotlight and the fashion industry?

That was one of the best things I ever did. I needed more intellectual stimulation, which I found the spotlight a distraction to. Without it, I could further evolve as a person.

What did you learn about women's relationship to beauty from the time you spent in the fashion industry?

Nothing. I think each woman has her own relationship to beauty. I began to understand this after I made the decision to step outside the profession to continue my studies. Life teaches you your opinion about these matters, not modeling. It just is not real or broad enough to provide the answers to those questions.

How were you able to avoid many of the difficult body-image issues that models deal with?

I guess I am fortunate in that I have maintained a very healthy self-image throughout my life. I began my career before I was aware of magazines and the power those images have on young women. And, when I was in the midst of that world and working with talented people, I simply entrusted them to worry about the way I looked.

You have been active with many charities—which ones are most important to you?

There are so many important causes in the world, but I have learned that I can be most effective through my anti-tobacco work. It has been great because it has turned so many personal negatives into positives for me. I was addicted to tobacco for many years and then lost my father to lung cancer due to his addiction to the substance. Now I can share my experience and struggle and encourage others to take better care of themselves. I also continue to help a variety of other not-for-profit, grassroots organizations in areas involving children, education, the environment and animal rights, but given my time constraints and desire to focus on making the most impact, anti-tobacco remains my platform.

What has your involvement been in El Salvador?

My mother and her family are from there, so I wanted to help when the war ended and the country was going through transitions. I continue to support cultural- and health-related organizations and earthquake relief.

We are doing a story in this issue about how obsession with the culture of beauty can make healthy romantic relationships problematic. Have you ever experienced this?

I think a relationship is not healthy if too much emphasis is focused on beauty. Obsession of any kind is intrinsically unhealthy.

What are some qualities you look for in an ideal partner?

Openness, kindness, compassion, adventure, humor.

What do you value most in your closest relationships?

The same, but I will settle for two or three.