Rock superstar Billy Joel’s romance with supermodel Christie Brinkley was the talk of the town in the 1980s. The best-selling artist behind Uptown Girl, Joel had written that song in part about meeting Brinkley, and for nine years the lovestruck celebrities were happily married. The union ended, however, following a surprising series of events.
In 1994, while on a break from Joel, Brinkley was in a helicopter crash that almost ended her life. Soon afterwards, she divorced Joel to wed Richard Taubman, a fellow survivor of the crash. But while Joel plunged into depression, never to record another rock album, Brinkley’s marriage to Taubman proved even more ill-fated than her relationship with the Piano Man.
Billy Joel was born in Brooklyn on May 9, 1949. A high school dropout, his talent as a pianist won him spots in several bands before he began a solo career in 1971. Joel’s earliest albums included Cold Spring Harbor and Piano Man, but it was his 1977 LP The Stranger that shot him to fame. Subsequent hit singles including It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me, Tell Her About It and We Didn’t Start the Fire would cement Joel’s position as one of the top musicians of the 80s.
Christie Brinkley, meanwhile, was born on February 2, 1954, and raised by her mother Marjorie and her TV writer stepfather Donald Brinkley. After graduating from Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles in 1972, she moved to Paris to study art and start a modelling career. Brinkley rose to fame as a Sports Illustrated model and the face of CoverGirl, as well as for a brief but memorable appearance opposite Chevy Chase in 1983 movie National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In 1983, while Brinkley was going through a breakup with her boyfriend Olivier Chandon de Brailles, a racing car driver, she took a vacation in St Barts in the Caribbean. On one star-studded night at a bar, while rubbing shoulders with singer Whitney Houston and model Elle Macpherson, she met Billy Joel.
Joel – who was dating Macpherson at the time – was also fresh out of a relationship, having recently divorced his first wife, Elizabeth Weber Small. Hoping to impress Brinkley, Joel played As Time Goes By at the bar’s piano, with Houston singing along.
Brinkley and Joel later struck up a conversation and became friends, although Brinkley recalled she didn’t consider him “boyfriend material,” noting that Joel (who she didn’t initially recognise) was “burned, he was red as a lobster, he was shiny. He was in a Hawaiian tourist shirt.”
Nevertheless, shortly afterwards, Brinkley and Joel began dating. One of Joel’s best-loved songs, Uptown Girl, was released soon afterwards, and there has long been speculation that it was about either Macpherson or Brinkley; Joel confirmed in a 2010 Howard Stern interview that Brinkley (who also appeared in the Uptown Girl music video) was the song’s real inspiration.
Marriage under the spotlight
Following a romance of two years, Joel and Brinkley got married in a ceremony aboard a yacht in New York Harbour in March 1985. Later that year, they welcomed their daughter Alexa Ray (born December 1985).
Despite their busy home life, both Joel and Brinkley remained hugely successful professionally throughout the 80s, with Joel releasing two multi-platinum selling albums and Brinkley remaining in demand as a model, actress and personality.
Joel was quick to praise his wife in interviews, noting that she was often belittled for being a model. “What bothers me is when because of what she looks like and what she does for a living, people fall back on the stereotype of her as being a dumb blonde – which she definitely is not,” he told Rolling Stone.
“They say ‘supermodel’ like that’s supposed to mean she’s vapid and shallow – which she’s not,” he added. Joel’s busy touring schedule eventually put a strain on the marriage, however. There would also be reports that Joel had been unfaithful, which the musician denies to this day.
According to New York Magazine, the couple separated in November 1993, eight years after they married. Brinkley later said of the split, “I’ve always adored him. I just couldn’t live with him anymore.”
This would only be the beginning, however, of a dramatic period for Brinkley.
The helicopter crash
In spring 1994, while Joel and Brinkley were separated and he was on tour in Chicago, Brinkley and eight-year-old daughter Alexa took a skiing trip in Telluride, Colorado with a new acquaintance, LA real estate developer Rick Taubman. Having been introduced by a mutual friend, Brinkley and Taubman had grown close; some claim they may have even become a couple by the time of the trip.
As Taubman owned a chalet in the Telluride area, he invited Brinkley on a heli-skiing tour over the San Juan mountains. Four other people joined them on the helicopter flight – Brinkley’s friend Sandra Will Carradine, Sandra’s 11-year-old son Cade, ski guide Mike Friedman and pilot Tom Sharp – while young Alexa declined.
Things went wrong when the helicopter took an unexpected sharp turn, and subsequently crashed into a mountain at 12,800 feet, before tumbling down a 200-foot slope. Reflecting on the experience, Brinkley recalls the noise inside the plummeting vehicle: “Just boo, boom, boom, pow! I would look out the window and see sky-mountain-snow, sky-mountain-snow…. [I thought] I am going to die. Right now? Like this? A ski trip? Today?”
Seeing Taubman slip towards the helicopter’s open door, Brinkley tried and failed to grab him, before he fell out of sight. Soon afterwards, she also fell out of the helicopter, tangled up in a nylon cord still attached to the vehicle.
Initially assuming she was the only survivor, Brinkley found that all of her companions were alive among the debris, though many had sustained injuries – and thoughts 0f her daughter left her determined to stay alive.
Thankfully, over the course of multiple trips, a rescue helicopter soon attended the site and transported the group away by cable. Brinkley suffered only minor injuries, while Taubman’s were more severe, including broken ribs, a punctured lung and a broken collarbone.
At Telluride Medical Center, Brinkley was reunited with Alexa and Joel, who had postponed his tour to accompany Brinkley to their shared home in Long Island. Brinkley remembers how Joel was “on a mission” to look after her. Reconciliation, however, was not on the cards.
Marriage to Taubman
Less than two weeks later, Brinkley and Joel formally announced their separation; soon after that, and while still married to Joel, Brinkley announced her engagement to Rick Taubman.
Brinkley and Joel’s divorce was finalised on August 25, 1994, with details withheld from the public. Suffering from depression, Joel began to experience alcoholism and withdrew from celebrity circles in the wake of the divorce. After 1993 album River of Dreams, he even stopped writing and recording new music. (Aside from a 2001 collection of classical recordings, Fantasies and Delusions, Joel hasn’t made another record since.)
Brinkley married Taubman on December 21, 1994. The couple tied the knot in a mountain ceremony, just six miles from where their helicopter had crashed earlier that year. They were accompanied by Alexa, aged eight, and Taubman’s son from a previous marriage, Wyatt, who was also eight. At the wedding, the couple announced that they were expecting a baby.
“What I have with Ricky is what I’ve always wanted,” Brinkley told the press. “I was searching for honesty and I’ve found it.” Brinkley even named her new signature perfume Believe, in reference to how her new partner had renewed her belief in love.
But all was not well behind the scenes. “I must have been suffering from post-traumatic stress [since the crash] because everyone seemed to realise what a mistake I was making, except me,” Brinkley later noted. (It was revealed during their divorce that both Brinkley and Taubman were indeed treated for PTSD after the crash.)
Brinkley explained that Taubman was an emotionally abusive man who “presented a totally false person for me to fall in love with. He never went to work and didn’t have a job.” After Taubman borrowed $1.5 million from her, Brinkley fled their home whilst seven months pregnant. Their marriage was officially over before the birth of their son, Jack Paris Brinkley, on June 2, 1995.
Friendship with Joel
After Brinkley and Taubman split, Joel was reportedly hoping he and Brinkley would reunite, but it wasn’t to be. By September 1996, Brinkley had remarried, to architect Peter Cook, an old friend from her modelling days. They had one daughter together, Sailor Lee Brinkley Cook (born July 1998), but split in 2008 after Cook had an affair. With four failed marriages behind her, Brinkley has never remarried.
Joel, meanwhile, married his third wife – celebrity chef Katie Lee – in 2004, but they divorced five years later. Then, in 2015, Joel wed former Morgan Stanley executive Alexis Roderick, with whom he has remained since. They have two daughters together, Della Rose Joel (born August 2015) and Remy Anne Joel (born October 2017), and while Joel hasn’t released any new music in over two decades he continues to perform live.
Despite their divorce, Joel and Brinkley remained good friends throughout the decades and their various whirlwind romances. In particular, they often spent holidays together with their children.
“Many years after our divorce, Billy would still come to my house for the Christmas singalong and play the piano, and all our friends would come over and sing Christmas carols,” Brinkley has said. “Singalongs are one of my favorite things to do. And you know that’s what makes everybody happy.”