Proving that her preternatural beauty runs deep, Christy Turlington-model, mother, documentarian-has set out to make the world a safer place to be born
When Christy Turlington Burns set her mind to doing good, she didn't just throw money at a PR-friendly cause or host the odd fundraiser to earn herself the title of philanthropist. On the contrary, when Turlington learned that, globally, 500,000 women die in childbirth each year-and that 90 percent of their deaths are preventable-she embarked on a master's degree in public health at Columbia University, directed and self-financed No Woman, No Cry, a documentary about the global maternal mortality rate (MMR), and launched a nonprofit, EveryMotherCounts.org, to raise public awareness. Such full-tilt absorption is all the more unusual given that, at 42-more than twice the age of many of today's top models-she's still doing rather well in her day job, with recent campaigns ranging from Louis Vuitton to Maybelline.
Turlington's leap to activist-slash-documentarian started with her own delivery complications, a retained placenta after the birth of daughter Grace (with her husband, actor-director Ed Burns) in 2003. Though she'd opted for natural childbirth with a midwife, Turlington delivered in a hospital where doctors were one floor away. She didn't realize just how fortunate she'd been until two years later. Pregnant with her second child and on a trip sponsored by the anti-poverty organization CARE to her mother's home country of El Salvador, she saw firsthand not just the lack of pre- and postnatal care in poor countries, but also the dearth of basic necessities such as fresh water. "That was the trigger," she says. "I've always thought, What if I was born there? It's the randomness of where you're raised."
She struck upon the documentary idea soon after the birth of her son, Finn, in 2006. For a year and a half, she and a small crew filmed high-risk pregnancies in four countries that have exceptionally high MMRs: Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala, and…the United States. (America ranks fiftieth of 171 countries worldwide and has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among developed nations.) Labor and delivery being difficult to script, Turlington gave the women cell phones so she could track each pregnancy. "I honestly thought I was going to be delivering a baby," she says of a few close calls, when her crew drove women who'd been in labor for days to clinics located hours away. "I thought, Between the sound recorder, producer, and cinematographer, I'm most versed in how to do this."
Since the film debuted at the 2010 TriBeCa Film Festival, Turlington has personally screened it at medical schools, Fortune 500 companies, and global health conferences around the world. She has also presented the facts on the MMR everywhere from Planned Parenthood in Salt Lake City to Al Jazeera television. In May, the film had its TV premiere on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network-fittingly, on the eve of Mother's Day. And Turlington lobbied Madonna, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Sheryl Crow, Jennifer Lopez, Martha Wainwright, and friend Gwyneth Paltrow to contribute songs-some original, some never previously released-for the fundraising CD Every Mother Counts.
No Woman, No Cry opens with snippets of Grace's birth, shot by Burns on Super 8. It's jarring to see a celebrity-or any woman-in such a vulnerable state, and Turlington struggled over whether to include such intimate footage. "This is what started the whole journey, and hopefully that helps people to look back at their own experiences," she says. Still, hearing herself on the audio track came as a shock, even to her. "I mean, when you don't have pain medication…it's like a weird, primal sound."