10 Life Lessons From Cindy Crawford

Cindy Crawford—supermodel, mom, and mogul—has led a remarkable life. From working with the biggest names in fashion to posing for countless now-iconic images, Crawford is an enduring force within the fashion industry, and ever since the late September publication of her autobiography, Becoming, she’s now become something of a font of fashion wisdom. Crawford celebrated the release at The Irvington last week, and with famous fans like Tyra Banks spotted reading the book, there feels like no better time to delve into the biographical tome.

Imparting advice from Crawford’s extensive career alongside legendary photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Steven Meisel, the book provides insight on everything from Crawford’s initial reaction to George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” music video to what it’s like to go toe-to-toe with Helmut Newton. Introspective, self-deprecating, and, best of all, honest, Crawford provides budding models—and model fans—with plenty of words to live by. Here, the Tao of Cindy:

1. There’s much more to modeling than a blank expression.
“I always credit [Richard] Avedon with teaching me how to do a cover. He insisted how important it was that I, as the model, always have an idea in my head when I looked into the camera. He’d tell me to have a thought, even if the thought was simply ‘Buy me. I’m $3’ (the price of Vogue at the time). He taught me how to look away from the camera between each click and come back with a fresh thought. I still do that to this day. While a young girl’s face can be pretty enough with a blank expression, Avedon didn’t want blank. If you started to zone out, thinking about your grocery list, he knew it. He wanted to see the sparkle in your eyes looking back at him under his black cloth. And he knew it when he saw it.”

2. Not everyone is impressed by your Vogue cover.
“I remember how excited I was when my first Vogue cover finally hit the newsstands. At the airport on my way back to Chicago, I picked up three copies to show my mom and excitedly approached the cashier, hoping she would recognize me. She didn’t even look up as she tallied my purchases. All she said was, ‘You know you have three of the same magazine, right, honey?’ ”

3. Models shouldn’t be afraid to say no.
“I know it’s a model’s job to try and bring the photographer’s vision to life, but I also believe it is the photographer’s job to keep the model safe. When I realized that wasn’t always the case, I understood that I had to protect myself and have a more forceful voice about what was acceptable to me. Slowly, I found ways to say no.”

4. You’re a performer—don’t forget it.
“At one point, [Helmut Newton] had me in a bathing suit and heels—the Newton ‘uniform’—standing on a street corner. He put a hat on the ground and would offer every passerby a Polaroid shot with me in exchange for 100 francs. It was a great deal—we played at this until we made enough money to buy lunch. Talk about singing for your supper!”

5. That smile is a skill, too.
“In modeling, as is the case with most jobs, your skill set improves with practice. You learn how to work your face to its best advantage and finally how to smile naturally on demand. (It took me at least 10 years—I think that’s why I didn’t smile much in photos in the beginning of my career and thus perfected my look with my mouth slightly open and teeth showing a bit.)”

6. You never know what will catch on.
“When I first saw the finished [‘Freedom! ’90’] video, I remember being slightly disappointed, feeling like my part was the least glamorous. All the other women looked so gorgeous—Naomi [Campbell] strutting her stuff in a tight leopard dress, Tatjana [Patitz] looking so cool with a cigarette—while I was stuck in a bathtub with a towel on my head. At the time I wasn’t able to see what everyone else saw. People loved it; the video became a huge hit and played nonstop on MTV.”

7. Serious about a career in fashion? Hit the books.
“I applied myself to modeling the same way I had applied myself to school. As a young model I wouldn’t have dreamed of showing up to Avedon or [Irving] Penn’s studios without familiarizing myself with their work and their style. I also paid attention and did my homework so that when the photographer or stylist referenced ‘film noir’ or ‘Jean Shrimpton,’ I could speak the same language and know what they wanted from me.”

8. Travel is more than just a job perk, it’s your very own finishing school.
“With each trip, I saw a little more. I learned about art and architecture, food and fashion. I had a fling with an Italian, danced all night at a Parisian nightclub, swam topless on countless beaches. When I started traveling I was a young girl from a small town—until, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. Traveling was the ultimate finishing school. And the greatest lesson for me was that even though there are so many distinct cultures, in the end we as humans have more in common than we have differences.”

9. The power to change fashion is in your hands.
“The pendulum always swings back and forth, from Marilyn Monroe to Twiggy, from supermodels to heroin chic. That’s how designers, photographers, and editors get inspired. Second, consumers must realize that the power is in their hands (or, rather, their wallets). If they don’t like the images they see, they have the power to stop buying the magazine or the designer’s dresses. Above all else, fashion is a business, and sometimes change can only happen when the bottom line is affected. That said, it is exciting to see the current fashion embracing a broader idea of beauty. To my mind the most important message I can promote and exemplify is one that supports diversity and health.

10. Even supermodels sing the blues.
“I’d love to tell that hardworking girl with her nose buried in a book that it is okay to live it up a little bit. I know for sure I never would have been the girl at the nightclub dancing on a table without any underwear (that story is for a different book), but I could have let myself experience more. Life goes by quickly, and I’ve learned that decisions made from a place of confidence—rather than one of fear—are the ones that get me to the place I want to be.”