Before Cindy Crawford graced runways and magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan, she toiled under the hot summer sun in DeKalb County cornfields.
As different as those two worlds are, Crawford said the hard work she did growing up in DeKalb helped her appreciate the glamorous career she’s had as a supermodel.
“I learned the value of a dollar,” Crawford told the Daily Chronicle. “By the time I was actually modeling, I had worked before. I knew how to treat modeling like a job. It’s a great job, it’s a fun job, but it’s still a job. So you have to be on time, you have to show up, you have to be professional. I think I learned that from all the other jobs.”
In her autobiography “Becoming,” which was released this week, Crawford, on the brink of turning 50, chronicles her days as a bookworm DeKalb High School student who was discovered by a local photographer
to her career today as a successful businesswoman
“It was the best of the small-town upbringing,” Crawford said of her childhood in DeKalb. “Back then we didn’t lock our doors. Our parents would say come in at dark. It was such a great place to grow up. It felt very safe.”
As the second child in a family of three sisters and a brother, Cindy enjoyed playing school in the basement with her two sisters. They went on to study at Northern Illinois University and Northwestern, respectively, before becoming teachers.
When Cindy was 10, she lost her brother to leukemia.
“The reason (my parents) had the fourth child is because they were going for a boy,” she said. “My dad was so excited to have a son, and then he was the one who died. I think (my sisters and I) felt, ‘Oh, it should have been one of the girls,’ that we were interchangeable.
“Of course that’s ridiculous,” Crawford said, “but when you’re 10 years old and see your parents suffering and you’re trying to process your own kind of grief, it’s crazy the kind of thoughts that go through your head.”
Her mother, Jennifer Maki, who moved from DeKalb to Florida about four months ago, said she noticed the impact it had on her, too.
“That really put her on a path,” Maki said. “There was a while where she thought she was going to be a doctor and cure the world of all childhood diseases.”
After their family’s loss, Crawford said she and her sisters buckled down in school and behaved themselves because they didn’t want to upset their parents anymore. Crawford graduated as co-valedictorian from DeKalb High School in 1984 and received a scholarship to study chemical engineering at Northwestern, which she did for a short time before dropping out to pursue modeling full-time.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be a chemical engineer,” Crawford said. “It’s just that Northwestern was trying to recruit women for chemical engineering and I was a good math and science student. They offered me a scholarship if I went into engineering. In order to go to Northwestern, I needed a scholarship.”
Lisa Royer, who still lives in DeKalb, has been friends with Crawford since they met as fifth-graders at Littlejohn Elementary School. They’re still in regular contact, Royer said.
As high-schoolers they went to parties, bonfires and football games, and spent a lot of time hanging out at The Junction Eating Place on Lincoln Highway.
“I don’t think kids do that anymore, but back in the early ‘80s, that’s where kids hung out,” Royer said.
Roger Legel was a photographer who worked off-and-on at the Daily Chronicle in the 1970s and 1980s. When Crawford was a junior at DHS, Legel was asked to photograph a group of area high school girls who were setting up a retail store along Lincoln Highway.
Crawford was one of them.
“The difference between her and the rest of the girls was considerable, not only in how she looked, but her poise and how she acted,” said Legel, who now lives in Westmont. “She was more sophisticated, I thought.”
Legel gave Crawford his business card to arrange future photo shoots, but after realizing she was underage, asked her to pass the card along to her mother.
Eventually, Legel met with Maki at a school softball game he was photographing, and with a roll of black-and-white film and a camera, Crawford’s modeling career began shortly after that.
“We walked to a park about a block and a half from where she lived. I shot 36 pictures of Cindy,” Legel said. “I couldn’t see a single one I didn’t like. Thirty-six out of 36, that’s pretty encouraging.”
Crawford credits Legel for starting her modeling career.
“He was the first one other than your mom or your grandma telling you you’re a cute kid — and I don’t even think my Mom or Grandma thought I was especially cute or cuter than any other cousin or sister,” Crawford said. “But when he asked to take my picture, that was the very first step in that direction.”
Legel later took a photograph of her posing poolside at her boyfriend’s house that ended up in the November 1982 issue of DeKalb NITE Weekly. That photo, among many other photos, appears in her new book, and she recently posted it on her Instagram page.
Not everyone was supportive, however.
In high school, she got a call to model for a local business. But when she showed up to the business, the business had no idea what she was talking about.
Crawford said she saw the classmates who pulled the prank at their 10-year high school reunion – after she had appeared on the cover of Vogue and was living in New York.
“I didn’t even have to say anything,” Crawford said. “The last laugh was on (them).”
“I try not to hold on to that stuff,” she added. “The only reason I shared it in the book ... it’s the lesson that nobody gets through high school without an experience like that. I don’t think anybody gets out of high school completely unscathed. That’s what high school, I think, is good for too ... learning how to develop a thicker skin.”
Looking back, looking forward
For years, Crawford would visit DeKalb with her children for a few weeks every summer and attend events such as the Fourth of July parade, “where people actually throw candy and you don’t have to worry about it being poisoned.”
She eventually sold the house as her children got older, she said, but still tries to make regular appearances in town.
“I try to come back in every year,” she said. “Or at least I’m in Chicago and my friends in DeKalb or Naperville will drive in and we’ll all have dinner together in Chicago.”
Maki, her mother, said her whole career has made the family proud, and she’s avoided the pitfalls that usually come with superstardom.
“We all know there’s drugs and getting to think more of yourself than you should,” Maki said. “Cindy has avoided those and does not have a big ego. She has remained a kind, Midwestern person.”
The sex symbol turns 50 in February, and with the way a lot of women look nowadays, Cindy said, “it inspires me that it’s just another birthday.”
“Everyone looks great at 50 now,” she said. “People are taking care of themselves. I see women who are 60, 70 and they look amazing. They’re fit, they’re involved, they’re energetic.”
Cindy said it took about two years to complete her book, and it was just another “big benchmark” in her career.
“I don’t know what’s going to be next,” she said. “But for me, I don’t imagine retiring because, to me, if I get my picture taken, that’s modeling. And since I have a skincare line and I have a furniture line, I’m going to be getting my picture taken at least for the next five years. To me, that’s modeling.”
“My focus is shifting through the process of turning 50 and doing this book,” Crawford added. “That one part of my modeling life was great and I loved it and I celebrated it. Now it’s like the next chapter.”
Where to buy Cindy Crawford’s book
“Becoming” is available on most online shopping outlets including Amazon, Books-a-Million and Rizzoli New York.
Book signings in the region.
• 12:15 to 2 p.m., Union League Club of Chicago, 65 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago
• 6 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 55 Old Orchard Center, Skokie