Dubbed America’s first supermodel, Minnesota native Cheryl Tiegs got her big break at the tender age of 17. She went on to grace the covers of such high-profile publications as Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and, perhaps most memorably, Sports Illustrated. Today, the 70-year-old focuses her time on activism, health and happiness. We sat down with her to discuss her fashion career, how the industry has changed and that controversial sound bite about plus-size model Ashley Graham.
You were born in Breckenridge, Minnesota, and you spent a few years here before your family moved to California. Do you have many memories of the North?
Yes, I do. I think we moved to California when I was about 5. I spent my time on my grandparents’ farm. That influenced me for the rest of my life. There were fields of corn and wheat; there was a barn with cows, pigs and hay — just about everything you can imagine on the farm. I ran around barefoot in the summer; I stole eggs from the chickens. Today, whenever I travel too much or I’m too much in the public eye, all I want to do is put on my hiking boots and get my feet on the ground, on the dirt — not on concrete. I think that’s stayed with me, and I think that’s important.
How did you get your start in fashion?
At the time, I lived in Alhambra, right next to Pasadena. My girlfriend next door kept coming over with Seventeen magazine saying, “Cheryl, you could be a model.” I thought she was crazy. I thought models were from another planet, and it was just out of the realm of possibility.
I started very slowly. I worked part-time in high school and college. I would do anything and everything. I would do fashion shows in the back parking lot of a department store for free. I would work for $5 an hour, which was great money for me at the time. I was thrilled. I just worked hard, and I did anything and everything I could.
Then Glamour magazine saw me in a several-page spread for a bathing suit. They were in New York and said, “We want to book this girl sight unseen to go down to St. Thomas.” That was almost the first time I’d been on an airplane. I did several covers down there and began working for Glamour regularly.
Has fashion always been a passion of yours?
No, not really. As a model, you have to make everything you put on look like a million bucks. But you’re not always wearing Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. I did a lot of catalog, and you have to make it look really beautiful and attractive. I was never a fashion icon.
In my own personal life, I dressed very simply. Yes, I would wear the designers, but the next day I would give it back. I had the luxury of being able to wear that clothing, but in my own life, it was very simple. Give me a sweater, a pair of jeans and tennis shoes, and I was fine.
What photo shoots and campaigns stand out most in your memory?
Oh, always Sports Illustrated and where we were around the world. You never knew if you got the cover shot until the day of practically. It was exhilarating. It was tiring. It was really a lot of work. Sometimes you’d get up at 3:30 in the morning and get home at 11 at night. It was long, arduous hours, but of course I loved it.
Another one that stands out in my mind is the Time magazine cover. I remember the red bathing suit. Hiro was the photographer. I remember everything about that day, because I knew that it was a huge part of my career.
I remember all the Glamour magazine trips and of course Harper’s Bazaar. We went on a lot of trips.
You’re often described as the first American supermodel. What do you think of that title?
Someone of course gave me that title. I think it’s a way of saying that I didn’t just drop out of sight after a very successful career in modeling; I went on to start other businesses. I worked for Good Morning America, and I started the line of clothes for Sears. When I was modeling, most of the girls became actresses, because that was the next logical step. I just decided I didn’t want to be an actress, and I started up these companies.
How has the fashion industry changed over the years?
Well, it’s certainly different. When I was modeling, I did my own hair and makeup. I put my bag over my shoulder and went to the studio. It was as simple as that. Nobody talked about their private lives. I didn’t know that half the girls were married. Then I was surprised to learn later on that one girl had three children. Nobody talked about that; it was just the other side of their lives. Today, people are very proud — and should be very proud — of their family life. I see their little babies and all of that. That was never done before.
The money is different. It’s much more now. When I was doing it, it was more or less a family affair. I went to the CoverGirl barbeques; I went to the homes of people who worked with Harper’s Bazaar; I became best friends with the editor of Glamour.
I don’t know exactly what it’s like today, but I think that it’s much more catered to the models. They’re in the limelight much more; it just wasn’t like that. People magazine wasn’t even around when I first started modeling. There was no Entertainment Tonight; there was no CNN. There were no cell phones; there was no Twitter or Facebook. So it was just the immediate. It was more in the moment, and I liked that.
Last year, you were at the center of a controversy for your comments about plus-size Sports Illustrated model Ashley Graham. Do you regret saying that full-figured women aren’t healthy?
I didn’t say it like that, and my problem is that most people haven’t seen the interview. I just want everyone to be healthy. That’s the bottom line. I’ve worked hard all my life to be healthy. I didn’t even know her name, I hadn’t seen the cover — nothing. I wasn’t zeroing in on her, because I don’t know her.
Anyway, the media sensationalized it. It’s a shame, because really all I was doing was trying to look out for the health of someone who’s too thin or going on the other side of the scale. It’s just about finding your own healthy path. That’s all. I don’t know her; I don’t know if she’s healthy or not. That’s up to her.
What advice do you have for women who are hoping to age gracefully, like you have?
You can’t just hope that it happens; you really have to make the effort. It’s a daily effort of eating the right foods and exercising. As you age, maybe you cut back on your exercise; maybe you’re not doing the fun Zumba classes you always did. But always incorporate some kind of exercise into your life. Do something that makes you happy. I love reading, and I gave that up for a while. Now I’m back to that. Find friends who make you laugh. I just want friends in my life who are positive influences — that’s where I’m at now. It’s a nice, healthy, happy state.
You’re a well-known environmentalist. What causes are you most passionate about?
Well, the world, the planet. The world is getting smaller. I think we have to reach out and be allies with all of our friends around the world, because you can’t just be an isolated entity and expect to make a difference.
There is climate change. There’s no question about it. I went up to the Arctic and lived there for about 10 days. I was able to see the Barnes Ice Cap melting. I was able to talk to the Inuits and find out how they feel and how they’re surviving.
On the opposite end, I went down to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. The only way to see the Tarahumara natives was to hike in with everything on my back. We did that for 10 days, which was really wonderful — hard but wonderful. Again, I love having my feet on the ground. I don’t just fly in an airplane from Los Angeles to New York City; I really do get out there.
I’m on the board of Earth Conservation Corps based in Washington, D.C. It’s a wonderful organization that takes inner-city kids and gets them to clean up, for example, the Potomac River. It’s full of tires and refrigerators and all kinds of things. We each do our best to help the planet.
Are there any exciting projects you’re working on now?
Oddly enough, no. It’s the first time in my life when I haven’t had to set the alarm in the morning and get up and go to work. I’m kind of on sabbatical. I think about writing a book every once in a while, but sometimes I get sick of talking about myself. Today I’m trying to just live in the moment. It’s good to take some time off. I’ve been working since I was 17.
Was going on sabbatical purposeful?
Very little in my life happens without some thought and desire. I always knew that at a certain point I would just not set the alarm and instead wake up when I wanted to and do what I wanted to that day. A lot of it is reaching out to friends who never knew where I was because I traveled so much. So I’m just establishing a new kind of lifestyle. I’m lucky that I traveled a lot during my modeling days; I saw most of the world. Today, I’m very careful where I choose to go. I just got back from Iceland, which is a beautiful, wonderful country.
What are some of your favorite destinations, having traveled the world?
I would say Africa is probably at the top on my list. I lived in Kenya for four years off and on. I was married to [artist and photographer] Peter Beard at the time, and he had a ranch there. It was the most amazing experience. It brought me up to another level in life and taught me so much about the animal kingdom and nature. It was really one of my most important adventures.
Speaking of travel, do you get back to Minnesota much these days?
Well, I don’t. When Dan Buettner and I were seeing one another, I would go to Minnesota at least once a month and he would come down here. I grew to know the Twin Cities — I love it there! My mother is thinking about moving back there. So I’ll be back again.
Lastly, what does style mean to you?
Well, I think it’s your own input on the things that come your way. It’s enveloping yourself in a world that is attractive to you. When you do that, you’re a maverick in a sense. You’re stepping out on your own, saying, “This is what I like to wear; this is the way I like to decorate my home.” Believe in it and do it.
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.