Cindy Crawford turns 50 this month. She couldn’t be happier.
Author Carina Chocano Photography Yu Tsai
When I was a freshman at Northwestern University, a friend told me a story about her older sister, who was a couple of years ahead of us at school. Shortly before leaving home for college, my friend’s sister made a joke about how she hoped she didn’t end up with a Vogue model for a roommate. And then her roommate turned out to be Cindy Crawford.
By the time I heard the story, two years later, Crawford had dropped out of Northwestern, moved to New York, and become so famous that the story took on the quality of a cosmic practical joke. Decades later, it strikes me as remarkable that it’s aged as well as it has. There has been no shortage of famous models since then, and yet it’s hard to think of another name that would make for a better or more enduring punchline. It was so perfect, in fact, that as I was getting ready to meet Crawford, I wondered if maybe it was apocryphal. So I messaged my friend, and she confirmed with an exclamation point.
Crawford—who is slighter and seems more circumspect in person than in the power photos that made her famous—is delighted when I relay the story to her (she remembers the roommate, but had never before heard the anecdote) over coffee on the patio at Café Habana, her husband Rande Gerber’s Malibu restaurant. She is casual in jeans and a flowy top, but that doesn’t make the experience of sitting across from her any less disorienting. Crawford is beautiful, but her beauty, in a way, seems secondary to her quality as an icon.
Her story unfolds like an irreproducible confluence of fate, timing, vision, and lucky accident, at once improbable and inevitable. There were famous models before her, but it was Crawford, mostly, who ushered in the era of the supermodel as all-purpose media personality and synergistic celebrity brand. It no longer seems possible for a model to have the same kind of career that she had, and when I say this, she replies, “But, I mean, it wasn’t possible when I was a young model. Who was I following? There was no road map for the way my career is. There might be some luck—but also willingness to take chances and do things differently.”
Crawford turns 50 this month, and has marked the occasion by publishing a book, Becoming Cindy Crawford (Rizzoli), about her life in pictures—a way, she admits, for her to say goodbye to her days as a model. “Or maybe not say goodbye,” she says, “but move on.”
You get the sense, though, that it’s a process. That she’s willing it to sink in. “I had no idea that the book would be part of the journey,” she says, and she sounds surprised, like she’s still working it out. And now it’s out in the world and she’s wrapping up the publicity tour for it. “I feel like I’m allowing that to have been great, and I’m celebrating it. And I’m sure I’ll have my picture taken for 10 more years, but not as a model anymore. And that’s OK. I’ve done it. I’ve worked with all these incredible photographers. What else do I need to do? I can’t keep reinventing myself. I shouldn’t have to keep proving myself. I don’t want to.”
As the title suggests, the book chronicles her life, starting with her Clark Kent–ish origin story (all superpeople have them) in De Kalb, Illinois, where she grew up working class, shucking corn in the summer to make money, and never thought about modeling until a local photographer asked if he could take her picture when she was a junior in high school. “He was the one who put it in my head,” she says of that first photographer. “I didn’t know it was a real job. I knew there were models. I mean, I had Seventeen magazine. I knew who Phoebe Cates was. But I didn’t know how you got from De Kalb to being a model.”
She went to college on a full academic scholarship but left after the fall quarter to pursue modeling in New York. Not long after, she was cast in the video for George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” video with Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Tatjana Patitz, which inspired Versace to use them and the song in a show. “It was one of those cases when the sum is greater than the parts,” Crawford says. “There was something about the five of us. We looked different, our personalities were different, but we looked good together. We were cast almost like a boy band. You were like, Something’s happening here.”
Still, in retrospect, it seems clear that Crawford turned out to be the standout supermodel—the one who ushered the profession out from under the aegis of high fashion and into the wider media world. Her unusual-for-the-time career choices—hosting House of Style on MTV, posing for Playboy, doing Pepsi commercials, shooting workout videos—made modeling at once accessible and aspirational. Cable was expanding at the time, and she recognized new avenues for her work. She likens it to what’s happened now, in her kids’ generation. (Her daughter, Kaia, is 14, and starting to model, and her son, Presley, is 16). “They are all taking pictures of themselves, or having their friends take pictures for their social media,” she says. “Kaia would be modeling even if she weren’t modeling. All the girls are modeling. They are not dependent only on how a photographer sees them. They have a direct relationship with their fans. For me, it’s like I can be an excellent guide to her in this world, but also if she has the opportunity to work with a Bruce Weber or Steven Meisel, they’ll help her learn something.”
That Kaia treats these experiences as learning opportunities is important to Crawford. The heart of her book is a section devoted to the famous photographers she’s worked with throughout her career (Meisel, Irving Penn, Patrick Demarchelier, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, and others), and what each of them taught her about modeling and life: How to pose, how to do a cover, how to leave your mentor, how to jump and be silly. When Crawford dropped out of college, she did it thinking that modeling would last five years, and then she could always go back to school. But it lasted more than four times that.
Her longevity is rooted in doing things other models didn’t do, like develop her own beauty line and home collection, and not doing things other models did, like party on yachts. (Though, looking back, she wishes she’d done a little more of that.)
As her career evolved, Crawford took more ownership of her image. “At a certain point,” she writes in the book, “I started having my own opinions about how I wanted to be photographed and portrayed. On many occasions I was able to contribute my thoughts and be part of the creative process, and that felt great.” Weighing in on her image, hosting House of Style, and producing swimsuit calendars gave her the confidence to develop her own projects. “That was the way for me to feel less like a girl,” she says. “But it took a long time. I would go to a meeting and just listen. And I listened for a long time before I had the nerve to say anything.
But there did come a point when I realized, ‘I do have something valuable to say. I have learned enough. And I am the expert on Cindy Crawford.’” I remark that it’s surprising to hear this; as a teenager who paid close attention to Crawford, I thought of her as an icon of strength and power. “It was ‘strong woman.’ It was my job to portray that,” she says. “I definitely had that confidence as a model long before I had it as a woman. But that was a creation—the vision of the photographer, the styling, the hair, the makeup. In those days, I wore way more makeup even when I wasn’t working. It’s kind of a screwed-up message for a young girl: You only look good after two hours of hair and makeup. So it’s definitely conflicting.”
This isn’t so surprising, in a culture as obsessed with girls and dismissive of women as ours, and a profession in which eminence happens in reverse. “I see my daughter—you spend your teenage years wanting to be older. When are you just happy where you are? Both of my grandmothers are still alive. One is 93 and lives by herself—but she still calls me for face cream. I wonder if she looks in the mirror and asks, ‘Who is that?’ I think at your core, you’re always you,” she says. But, “for better or worse, I feel that there is that pressure. I’m out on book tour. I don’t look the same that I did 25 years ago, and I don’t want to disappoint. Maybe that’s the Midwesterner in me. I want them to like me. But when do we just be happy where we are?”
No doubt, doing press for a retrospective look at her career, being asked question after question about what it’s like to get older, must wear on her after a while, and at times she sounds a little wistful. She tells me about a coed yoga and hiking retreat she does once a year. The hikes last four hours, so there’s lots of time to talk. One day, somebody asked if everyone had found their passion in life. The men all said yes right away, but for the women it was harder. Later, on a silent hike, she thought about it more. “I was like, I love my job, but am I really that superficial that I just love getting my hair and makeup done and looking beautiful? And what I realized was that what I really love and am passionate about is communication. And the way that I have been communicating for the past 30 years has been through pictures.”
She wasn’t the only one on the hike who reflected. Some of the men changed their story, and some of the women reached a conclusion. And then someone asked: If you could remain your ideal age—say, 37—for the rest of your life, how many years would you shave off the end of your life to get that? “If you could stay 37, would you die at 70 instead of 90?” Crawford remembers. “A lot of the guys said they would, because they missed playing basketball or whatever. But none of the women did. They wanted to see their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children. There’s always another thing to look forward to. The big numbers are hard—or mind-boggling—for me. You wake up at 40, or almost 50, and you realize, I’m still me. The fact that I am doing work that I love, have a good relationship with my husband, beautiful kids, all of that makes it not totally painless—because there’s still some yearning for what was—but what would I trade for it? What day or what experience of my life would I give up to be younger?” Her famous lips curve to a smile. “Nothing.”