Supermodel Christy Turlington Burns has gone superwoman on us.
Fueled by her interest in charity work, travel to exotic lands and her own two children, Turlington Burns is back at school, getting a master's degree from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and directing a documentary on the risks and successes of maternal health around the world.
Still sought after by the fashion world -- note her recent campaign for Escada, a contributing editor gig at Marie Claire and her prominence in The Metropolitan Museum's new "The Model As Muse: Embodying Fashion" exhibit -- Turlington Burns says her focus shifted after the death of her father 12 years ago.
"It was an organic progression," the Walnut Creek, Calif. native said. Her dad died of lung cancer; she had been a teenage smoker. He was diagnosed with cancer and died within six months; it took her five years to fully quit.
"I wanted to share my story, his story. I approached the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the American Lung Association. I volunteered my services in any capacity," she says.
At first, they weren't sure what to do with her, she recalls, but she filmed an emotional black-and-white public service announcement -- and then co-produced more of those with MTV. She targeted adolescent girls because that was the story she knew best.
"I thought, `This is what I'm meant to do,"' she says.
All that led to public speaking and development of a Web site, SmokingIsUgly.com. At age 26, she decided to complete her undergraduate degree in comparative religion and Eastern philosophy at New York University. After that came two fashion-related businesses and then marriage to actor Ed Burns.
Yoga has been one of the constants in her life, even in her days as one-third of the "The Trinity" with Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, who once said she didn't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. And service, the 40-year-old explains, is one of the main tenets of yoga.
She asked herself, "Where can I make the biggest difference?" she says, and her thoughts went to the connection she felt to women, and especially mothers, wherever she went.
There were some complications during her own natural childbirth of daughter Grace, now 5, but when mother and daughter were so well cared for at top-notch facilities in New York, Turlington Burns started to think about what could have happened had they been elsewhere.
She started taking trips with humanitarian organization CARE to Central and South America, and to Africa on behalf of (RED), an anti-HIV/AIDS initiative founded by her friends Bono and Bobby Shriver. The visits aimed to raise the profile of the mothers who truly live a world away from women like herself: the women who walk miles for clean water or who unknowingly transmit to their babies the AIDS virus.
"I don't see this as being something I'll be involved with for a short time. I'm a mother forever -- and I have a daughter -- and I want to do it for her and her generation," Turlington Burns says.
It's a mix of commitment and calmness that make Turlington Burns the ideal spokeswoman, says Shriver. Instead of being a too-passionate reactionary who might grow bored, she is thoughtful, collaborative and delves into learning more. "She doesn't have any kind of attitude thing. ... She grasps it very deeply and she cares about motherhood and illness."
He adds, "If she ever wanted to run for office, she'd be very good. She could get elected and could do a lot of good."
That's not part of Turlington Burns' immediate plan. She says she wants to finish her degree as well as her still-unnamed documentary that highlights maternal health in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Guatemala and New York.
After that, law school could be in her future, maybe with a focus on human rights. "The more I delve in, the more I want to do. I'm at this place when everything is very connected."
When she comes home from her worldwide travels and looks at her own fortunate kids, she sees traces of the children stuck in such hard struggles. It tugs at her heart, of course, but it's not all sadness.
"You also see there is always joy in children. Kids everywhere are still playing. They're still kids in whatever environment you find them in -- and that's hopeful."