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Beauty and the Beach

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Just what is Christie Brinkley doing to herself, sitting on a piece of driftwood in the shade of a spreading tamarind tree on Seven Mile Beach on the far-off isle of Grand Cayman in the British West Indies? Look closely. Watch how this supermodel, clad in a stupendously tight, orchid-dappled swimsuit, is holding a mixing bowl full of mashed avocado. She is stirring the green glop with a plastic beach shovel. Then, with a teasing smile, she starts spreading the viscous stuff up and down her golden brown legs. Tossing her sun-streaked blond mane, she trains her sky-blue eyes on fashion photographer Alex Chatelain, who squeezes off 108 quick frames of Kodachrome with his whirring Nikons. “Beautiful, girl, just beautiful,” he says.

“Avocado is really good for your skin,” she comments. “It looks good,” he concurs. In point of fact, Christie Brinkley looks good in anything, which is one reason why this 27-year-old California native is one of the best-known models in the world. But she also realizes that a model’s career can be mercurially brief and she is already branching out into other fields. She just completed her acting debut in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, due for release next spring. She is opening a chain of aerobic dance salons. She works occasionally as a sports photographer. And she is writing a book (for Simon & Schuster) about fashion and fitness. The working title: Beauty and the Beach. It is for pictures for that book that she and Chatelain and two assistants are encamped on sun-splashed Grand Cayman, taking 4,320 photographs of her doing everything from jogging in the surf to rubbing potatoes on her back (for sunburn) to draping cucumber slices over her eyes (to combat puffiness). Looking good has been what Christie’s life has been about ever since she accidentally became a model seven years ago. She had gone to Paris to study art and was discovered walking down the street. A photographer stopped her and sent her off to a modeling agency. Alex Chatelain ultimately shot her first session, Eileen Ford of Ford Models, Inc. lured her to New York, and the rest is hysteria.

One obvious reason for her success is her dedication to the work ethic. Even when she seems to be playing, Brinkley is working. One morning, she and her female assistant, Fran Casciaro, are sunning themselves on the beach at their hotel, the Caribbean Club. Brinkley has her yellow legal pad and is writing down lists of exercises for the book and has her Sony TCM-260 handy in case she feels moved to dictate. In a briefer-than-brief leopard-skin bikini, she is soon down doing push-ups in the sand. Then she and Casciaro jog along the surf. “This is good for your buttocks,” Casciaro says. “It’s good for your whole bottom half,” Brinkley adds.

After a quick swim, she tells a visitor why she’s doing the book. “I grew up on the beach in Malibu. [She is not related to David Brinkley. Her father, Don, is producer of Trapper John, M.D.] It was literally my front yard. Then, after I became known as a swimsuit model, I started getting mail from people asking beach questions. So the book is a beauty-at-the-beach book. Diet, exercise, hair, skin products. I love beaches, but I know that it can be dangerous to your health and so I’ve devised ways to be healthy and take care of yourself at the beach. You won’t give away any of my secrets from the book, will you?” She laughs prettily and stretches catlike in the sun, and it occurs to her visitor that the presence of her beauty, or perhaps the beauty of her presence, can be a bit unsettling. There is a good reason why she has graced more than 150 magazine covers.

The next morning, there are already gentle rays of sun touching the mimosa trees and hibiscus as Brinkley steps out of her shell-pink villa to start her workday at 7 o’clock. She is all in white: white terrycloth headband, white leotard and tights, white terry jumper, white socklets, white Capezio exercise shoes, white flash of teeth as she yawns. She slides into the passenger seat of the rented Honda as Casciaro takes the wheel and follows Chatelain and his assistant, Wayne Stambler, in their yellow Jeep out onto West Bay Road. “I got up at 6 this morning,” Brinkley says sleepily. “Normally, I get up two hours before a job, because there’s always some puffiness in the face from sleeping and I find that after two hours it’s gone. So even if I’m not doing anything, I wake myself and prop up in bed.”

The morning’s first location is the swimming pool and wooden deck of a condo complex by the ocean. Casciaro spreads a white sheet on the grass and arranges some of Brinkley’s impedimenta on it: an assortment of swimsuits, tights, towels, makeup, multihued sunglasses, exercise shoes, lemons (for squeezing onto the hair). Stambler sets up a tripod with a Nikon F-3 equipped with a 200mm lens. “This is for warm-up, right?” Chatelain says. “Yeah,” she says. “I’ll have a jump rope.” “Do color?” “Yeah, let’s.”

She stands poised at the top of a low cement wall, jump rope tied around waist, a cool, elegant image in white getting ready to work out. “Let’s do it,” Chatelain urges. She springs off the low wall, legs scissored, and turns on her high-wattage smile. When she faces a camera, something happens. It’s as if an inner light comes on. Twenty-two times she makes her little leap off the wall in the morning sunlight, and each time she does it, she becomes a transformed person.

“Good, girl, very good,” Chatelain tells her after 72 picture frames of the warm-up. “Now we gotta get started on the exercises.”

“I’ve got to have a cigarette before I start these exercises,” Brinkley protests, lighting up a Gitane. She prefers cigars but still has the occasional French cigarette. There is a certain psychology to modeling, she explains: “Models have to wear a lot of awful clothes that we just can’t stand, but we have to make believe that it’s a wonderful dress and give it an attitude or a feeling. When I put on an outfit, I decide, ‘Well, where is this dress going to be worn and by what kind of woman and for what reason?’ I make up a little story in my mind and decide, ‘Oh, now I’m very chic, now look at me.’ There’s a lot of willpower involved. Pretending it’s cold when it’s really hot. I can, on command, get rid of goosebumps as soon as the photographer says he’s ready. I can do it by thinking.”

She grinds out her cigarette and starts doing leg lunges and head rolls and oblique stretches and knee twists and the like. At 9:05, she and Chatelain confer and decide to break camp and shift to a dock a few miles away. Enroute there is a quick stop at a Holiday Inn for breakfast, which for Brinkley is part of a melon and the one cup of coffee that she allows herself each day.

In the car, she sings, “I’m on top of the world,” and leans out the window to advise a beet-red woman tourist: “You need some sun block.”

By 10:30 the crew is set up on a dock jutting out into the South Sound. For the next three hours, under a fierce sun, Brinkley forces her body through endless “leg firmers” and “pelvic squeezes” and other contortions. She is obviously in good shape. “This is the hard part,” she says. “Doing the exercises over and over and holding them for the camera. It’s real isometrics.”

During the break, Chatelain talks about why Brinkley is a top model. “It’s two things, basically,” he says. “The first is her physical attributes. She has a face that is timeless. It can never go out of fashion. And her enthusiasm and her positive qualities all come out in her face. The other thing is her professionalism. She works very, very hard. She’s graduated from the model to the personality and now she’s a professional personality and that’s what a star is. In modeling, I’ve never met anyone else so professional. Ever.”

A lunch break for Christie Brinkley. She’s back in her villa, sitting amid the ordered chaos of the living room, sipping a Margarita and putting on makeup. There are 25 swimsuits draped on the couch. There are Kamali jerseys hanging from the wall. There are huge black “coffins” (Fiberbilt fashion trunks) spilling over with snorkel gear and jogging outfits and Ray-Bans. There are eight-track tapes of Gordon Lightfoot, Barry White, Kool & the Gang, and Bobby Bare. There is a huge basket crammed with every kind of makeup in the world. There is Contrexeville water, the latest thing from France. There are tents and mosquito netting. And there is Christie Brinkley, who is talking about life after modeling.

“When you become a model, you have to realize that there’s a time limit and make plans for something to do afterward,” she says. “I always wanted to be an artist and I’ve kept up my artwork and I’ve gotten involved with photography and with acting. That’s what I’d really like to do.”

And does the thought of growing old bother her? Is that the nightmare of models? “It’s not my nightmare. I don’t think about it that much. It’s just happening, little by little, day by day. It doesn’t bother me because I have so many other things that I want to do and those have nothing to do with the way I look. I can be a photographer, old and wrinkled; I can be an artist, old and wrinkled; I can be an actress, old and wrinkled. No, it doesn’t bother me at all.” She sounds sincere.

Several hundred frames of Kodachrome later, the Brinkley team heads for the central event at the end of the day: dinner. They’ve been up since 6, worked till sunset, and later will stay up past midnight planning the next day’s shoot. Dinner is a reward. At a small waterfront restaurant called the Lobster Pot, Brinkley orders a Margarita (without salt), marinated conch and broiled dolphin. She talks about her work as a photographer. Three years ago, she says, she knew nothing about boxing. Then, she decided to check out the boxing scene, because so many of her male friends were fight fans. She became fascinated by it and met an editor of The Ring magazine and started getting assignments. Her real initiation into boxing photography came while being spattered with blood from Sugar DeLeon as she shot his fight. “I was sobbing behind the camera,” she admits. “It was the bloodiest fight I’ve seen. It really shook me up. But if they can stay in there and keep fighting, then I owe it to them to keep shooting.”

Dinner conversation goes back to the afternoon’s avocado snack a la Brinkley. Under that spreading tamarind tree, she had kept smearing avocado on her legs and, on her, it had looked good. Chatelain kept shooting and urged her on: “More on your thigh, girl, higher, more fun, girl, here we go! That’s great!” Then Casciaro broke out a bag of Doritos and passed chips around so that everyone could dip a little sweaty guacamole off her legs. Brinkley seemed delighted at being a living avocado dip. And she pealed with laughter when a slightly dazed visitor asked, “Is this lunch on you?”