Christie Brinkley: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Icon And Clark Griswold's Crush, Then And Now

Entertainment | February 2, 2021

Left: Brinkley in 'National Lampoon's Vacation.' Right: On the cover of the 1979 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Sources: IMDB; Sports Illustrated.

Christie Brinkley became one of the great beauties of the '80s with her multiple Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue covers, ever-presence in advertising and fashion ads, and appearances in Vacation and Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" music video. At the height of her powers, when she was the face of everything from Noxzema to Diet Coke, there was little doubt that Christie Brinkley was the ideal of human pulchritude. While it's hard to imagine Brinkley as anything but a modeling superstar, there was a time when she wasn't planning on modeling, when she was just a cute California surfer girl. Then, in 1973, the fresh-out-of-high-school Brinkley was "discovered" by some very important people in the world of modeling, and the progression from Vogue to Sports Illustrated to supermodel-dom was underway. 

But Brinkley isn't just a model. As a businesswoman, actress, and humanitarian she's done it all. She even painted the cover to Billy Joel's 1993 album River of Dreams long after the two were an item. If there's one thing to take away from this retrospective of Christie Brinkley's life it's that she's a busy, busy woman.

California girl

source: pinterest

Born in Monroe, Michigan, on February 2, 1954, Christie Hudson wasn't a Midwest girl for long. Her family moved to the Canoga Park area of Los Angeles when she was a girl, and after her mother married TV writer Donald Brinkley, Christie and her brother Greg were adopted and changed their names to fit the new family aesthetic. Thus, Christie Brinkley was born.

Life in California suited the young Brinkley. She worked out, she hung out at the beach, and she attended school at a private bilingual academy where she learned French while taking in the rest of her courses. After graduating from high school in 1972 she moved to Paris to focus on her art and eventually become a painter. The world had a different plan for her.

She was discovered in Paris and sent back to California

source: pinterest

Brinkley says that she never intended to become a model. She felt that she was the quintessential "surfer girl" who just happened to have runway ready looks. Her decision to escape the Hollywood culture of Los Angeles happened to put her in the fashion capitol of the world, Paris, where she was almost immediately discovered by Errol Sawyer, a photographer known for his high contrast black and white photo work.

In 1973, she was married to a French illustrator named Jean-François and all she wanted to do was take care of her dog. She was making her way to a phone to call a vet when Sawyer stopped her and insisted that she become a model. Brinkley was reticent, but she allowed Sawyer to take her first photos and introduce her to Elite Model Management impresario John Casablancas.

It wasn't long before Brinkley was back in Los Angeles and having lunch with Eileen Ford affiliate Nina Blanchard. By the end of the lunch Brinkley's next three months were booked with ad campaigns. She said of the life changing power lunch:

These people kept walking up and saying, ‘Nina, where have you been hiding her?’ and Nina would say, ‘She’s my new model,’ and they all said, ‘We’d love to sign her up.’ One of them was a Noxzema commercial, and they wanted to fly me to Arizona, and I love the Wild West, so I was like, Wow. This is fantastic.

 The forever model

source: reddit

After he fateful meeting with seemingly every influential person in the modeling world in the mid-'70s Brinkley was poised to be a star, but no one knew that her career would take off quite as well as it did. She appeared on the covers of Elle, VogueEsquire, Rolling Stone, and Cosmpolitan among others. If it was a huge publication she more than likely appeared on the cover at some point. As cool as it is being a cover girl, the most fantastic of her appearances are the three consecutive Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue covers on which she appeared from 1979 to 1981.

While she was appearing on every important magazine of the '70s, Brinkley was also working her contracts with everything from Chanel to Nissan, to Diet Coke, and Master Card. By the 1980s, if there was a large scale product being sold you better believe that Christie Brinkley was helping to sell it.

Brinkley's first marriage deteriorated as her star rose, and she quickly found herself the apple of pretty much every guy's eye. While she dated around, it was after her appearance in 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation as "the Girl in the Red Ferrari," that she met Billy Joel in St. Barts. Two years later the couple married on a yacht in the Hudson. 

Piano Woman

source: getty images

Brinkley never stopped modeling (she's actually still modeling), but by 1985 she was branching out into more acting roles and getting back to her roots as a painter.

She painted the cover art to Billy Joel's 1993 album River of Dreams, about which Brinkley told the New York Times "It was voted the best and the worst album cover of that year. It was actually the first acrylic painting I made."

No longer just a painter/model, Brinkley started making seashell art in this era and while speaking with the New York Times she revealed that she's incredibly uptight about them. She said:

My seashell sculptures took so much time to do, and they are irreplaceable. I always put them somewhere where they aren’t going to get knocked over or have a skateboard fly into them.

She survived a helicopter crash

source: reddit

While on a ski trip to Colorado in 1994, Christie Brinkley was in a horrific helicopter crash over Telluride. She and five other survivors barely walked away from the incident, and Brinkley was left with hip pain that resulted in a full hip replacement in 2020. The model says that she knew that she needed to have her hip replaced for more than a decade, but found the surgery daunting. She wrote on Instagram:

Quarantine put a damper on any plans so I decided to finally take time for myself and do something about the pain that had progressively influenced my decisions. I wanted to be ready to be able to say yes to opportunity. I had my surgery at Thanksgiving and I was dancing in my kitchen by New Years Eve.

Time has been kind to Christie Brinkley

source: sports illustrated

Even as her marriage to Billy Joel deteriorated in the early '90s the couple remained friends. Relationship troubles didn't keep her down. In '97 she became one of the spokespeople for the Total Gym home fitness experience, an opportunity that brought her into the homes of Americans in the late night hours.

She continued acting with appearances on Parks and Recreation, the stage version of Chicago, and The Goldbergs. While all of that was going on she somehow found time to co-host Anderson Cooper Live while winning humanitarian awards for her work with the March of Dimes, the USO, the American Heart Association, and the Make-A-Wish foundation.

Today, Brinkley splits her time between her humanitarian pursuits while shepherding her children through their own work in the entertainment industry.

Tags: Billy Joel | Christie Brinkley | Ladies | Models | National Lampoons Vacation | Sports Illustrated | Then And Now

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.