Skip to main content

Rich and Famous

That's Christie Brinkley after three SI covers and marriage to singer Billy Joel

Oh, hello," says Christie Brinkley, looking up. "We were just talking about our roller coaster ride." This remark seems to puzzle Billy Joel, who has been edging slowly into the room. For a moment he looks as if he might try edging back out again. "Roller coaster?" he says.

"I wish we could have gone on it again," says Brinkley, turning to a visitor, who has been sitting at the other end of the sofa upon which she has curled herself up like a cat. "It was so exciting!"

This is a lie, of course, the kind of thing a wife says in front of her husband to remind him that she is perfectly capable of having adventures without him. The visitor, who took the ride with her, reminds her that when it was over and the safety bar that had held her in the roller coaster stuck for a moment, she began shrieking for someone to let her out. She then stated quite emphatically that she would sooner be found dead in a ditch than spend another second hurtling upside down at 55 mph.

"She's funny about stuff like that," says Joel. And with that he is gone, although not completely forgotten. A piano begins to play somewhere in the enormous duplex apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side where Joel and Brinkley live with their three-year-old daughter, Alexa Ray.

The excursion to the Knott's Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park, Calif., was conducted for Alexa's benefit while Brinkley was on the West Coast modeling for photographer Bruce Weber. After Brinkley extracted herself from the roller coaster, Alexa wanted to know if her mother had seen her waving from the ground. The matter was of considerable importance to Alexa. Unlike most people, she does not flap her hand up and down when she waves but from side to side, in the manner of someone riding on a parade float. "Alexa has always waved like royalty," says Christie's mother, Marge Brinkley.

The last time Christie had visited Knott's Berry Farm she was the same age her daughter is now. And like Alexa, who refers to her grandmother as grand-mère, she lapsed into French whenever it suited her. Christie grew up in the exclusive California beach colony of Malibu. Her father, Don Brinkley, is a well-known television producer and writer. He wrote for such notable shows as Perry Mason, Ben Casey, The Fugitive and The FBI, and produced Trapper John, M.D.

Christie spent most of her days playing in one of the world's most expensive sandboxes, the empress of the beach coolly appraising the kingdom she would one day rule. "Even when she was a little girl, she always had a womanly body," says Marge. "And she was always singing French songs, even before she actually, knew the right words. She always loved the idea of France for some reason. She even had a poster of Charles de Gaulle up in her playhouse." Charles de Gaulle?

After spending years in the thrall of those smoldering beagle eyes and basset ears, it was only natural that Brinkley would one day want to live in France and have a dog of her own. "I envisioned myself living in a garret in Paris, wearing a beret and being an artist," says Brinkley. In 1972, at age 18, she left California for France to enroll in art school, and she stayed in that country for 3½ years. She ended up getting the garret in Paris and the beret, and as for being an artist, she worked as an illustrator while in Paris. She was also married for seven years to French illustrator Jean-Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Allaux. "We had to run down the street to the public bath if we wanted a shower," she says. "It was a very bohemian life."

Brinkley might have gone on to a life of painting clowns on black velvet if her dog hadn't died, thereby forcing her to become one of the most celebrated supermodels of the '70s and '80s. She had gone to a post office down the street to make a phone call (the garret didn't have a phone) after learning that her puppy, Lucky, had contracted distemper. "I had just been told by the vet to put my dog to sleep, and I was so sad I was walking with my head down," she says.

An American photographer saw Brinkley and asked her if she had ever done any modeling. She said no and told him to go away, but he persisted, giving her his address and phone number before leaving. "I told myself there was no way I was going to go to some stranger's address and let him take pictures of me," says Brinkley. "It was the farthest thing from my mind. But I had spent all my savings trying to get this dog healthy again, and I needed the cash."

The first agent to see her test shots booked her for a job in Morocco. "I always thought modeling was something you did if you couldn't do anything else," says Brinkley. "I discovered that it gave you great freedom." What she still wanted to do most was travel and paint, so on every trip she kept an elaborate journal that included detailed drawings of her surroundings.

"Once I was discovered," she says, "I did a couple of jobs, and that would be all the money I needed to go to Greece or Copenhagen, so I would pack up and leave for a week. I think the fact that I was gone so much created a demand for me.

"It took me a long time to accept that I was going to be a model," she continues. "I kept putting time limits on it. I told myself I would model for six months, earn a lot of money, then quit. When my agents wanted me to come to the U.S., my husband and I decided we would go just for three months, make as much money as we could, then come back to Paris."

One of the first people she met on her return was SI's swimsuit editor Jule Campbell, who was in the office of Brinkley's agent in Los Angeles. Brinkley strode in wearing her beret on top of a mop of blonde curls. "In Paris they had decided that curly hair was going to be the rage," says Brinkley. "So in Cancún [in 1975, the first year she was in SI], I had this mess of a perm and, of course, the chubby cheeks."

Brinkley would eventually appear in six swimsuit issues and become the first model to have three consecutive covers (from 1979 to '81). "The first year with SI I was so chubby, and I dreaded doing bathing suits because they have no pockets," she says. "I didn't know what to do with my hands, so I was constantly squirming. It ended up being kind of funny because Jule was telling people, 'Look how she moves!' and all I was doing was trying to find a place to stick my hands."

One year she was photographed dangling 40 feet in the air from the spinnaker of a sailboat and skin-diving 35 feet underwater. "You don't get to do that if you're wearing high heels," she says. "There was a lot less cheesecake in SI then than there is now. A high percentage of the poses we did were quite athletic. I remember at the end of the day being really tired."

After her second SI cover, Brinkley, who by then was one of the top fashion models in the world, noticed that people began to treat her less like a mannequin and more like a movie star. "Being on the cover of SI puts a name to your face," she says. "Besides that, it introduces you to a whole segment of the population that doesn't pay much attention to women's magazines, so right away the SI cover doubles your recognition."

Brinkley, who is an avid photographer, got to meet some of her newfound fans in 1980, when Don King Productions assigned her to photograph the second Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight. Before the bout Duran invited her to watch him work out in a penitentiary near his camp in New Orleans. While she was shooting Duran, she was being photographed by Elle magazine, which sent her into the cellblock wearing a pair of gold lamè hot pants. This is what's known as taking a fashion risk.

Her interest in boxing started with Muhammad Ali, who got her a ringside ticket for his fight with Larry Holmes in 1980. "I was in tears when the fight ended," she says. "It was such an emotional experience. I was so devastated that Ali lost. When he took that first punch, he was stunned, and he knew from that moment on that he was never going to be as great as he had been."

Brinkley spent several years trying to learn how to photograph boxing, and she frequently found herself attracting as much attention as the fights she was covering. "I could never really be invisible the way a photographer should be," says Brinkley.

Of course, if you have one of the most famous faces in America, marrying Billy Joel isn't exactly the way to go about lowering your profile. Brinkley and Joel met at a restaurant on the Caribbean island of Saint Barthèlemy, popularly known as St. Barts, in 1983. Though he was playing a piano when she first encountered him, she did not recognize him until he introduced himself. Even then, she told him she could never take anybody with the name Billy seriously, which is why to this day she calls him Joe.

She met Joel shortly after breaking up with Olivier Chandon, the Moët & Chandon champagne heir and a race-car driver, whom someone once described as "the sort of European playboy they invented for American cover girls." Chandon was killed soon afterward, when he lost control of his car in a practice run and plunged into a canal. Within months Brinkley and Joel were such a hot topic in the gossip columns that they began to sign hotel registers under the noms de plage Rocky and Sandy Shore. "I had no idea what I was getting into," she says. "People who may have seen us on the street and gone 'Nah, it's not her,' or 'Nah, it's not him,' would see us together and say, 'It's them!' "

Brinkley and Joel were married in 1985. Their first home together was at the water's edge on Long Island, but they were pursued so relentlessly by curiosity-seekers, who sometimes came ashore in boats, that they moved inland. "People think that because you do a job that's public, you become public property," says Brinkley. "When you start to get famous, you need a backyard, a place where you can get away from it all. I told Joe one day that the second-worst thing I could think of would be to be famous and poor, because then you couldn't escape to some island."

Brinkley was once queen of all the islands, sovereign to a vast archipelago that stretched from the Seychelles (the '79 cover) to the British Virgin Islands ('80)—an empire upon which it seemed the sun never set. But the sun has a way of going down, and the world goes around, and one day you find yourself hanging upside down in midair like a bat, and that is when it happens. You look down at the ground and standing there is your daughter—not yet three—waving to you in the dignified manner of royalty. That is when you realize you have become the Queen Mother.