Chrissy Teigen May Just Be Adweek’s Most Unexpected 2019 Brand Visionary

Rare celeb who can win TV, book, product and endorsement deals with startling candor and stinging clapbacks

Chrissy Teigen
Dress by Elenareva; shoes by Gizeppe Zanotti; vintage belt by Judith Lieber; necklace by Vhernier Photograph by Mike Rosenthal; Styled by Monica Rose, Makeup by Kristine Studden, Hair by Justine Marjan
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Mass communication is Chrissy Teigen’s lifeblood, with Twitter being her favorite platform (and sometimes weapon) of choice. But the road to social media superstardom has had its potholes, like her July leak of the full premiere episode instead of a brief clip of NBC’s competition show Bring the Funny.

In her patented self-deprecating style, she joked that she’d been fired as a judge for the gaffe: “thank u all for your kind texts and DMs please send job opportunities to same number.”

Other mea culpas in her feed include this 2013 gem: “i am basically the worst person at promo ever hello hi i’m chrissy,” after she had implied that a certain razor was tougher to find in New York City than street drugs. (She was a brand ambassador for the company at the time, and C-suite honchos were not amused). 

Dress by Jonathan Simkhai; earrings by Marco Bichero; rings by Le Vain
Photograph by Mike Rosenthal; styled by Monica Rose, makeup by Kristine Studden; hair by Justine Marjan

“I remember being so anxious about deals back then. I’d ask my team, ‘Do they know how I am? Do they know I’m like this?,” she says about those nascent sponsorship days during a late summer interview at her sleek, contemporary Beverly Hills home, where she’s nursing a stomachache and considering probiotics while sipping LVE rosé (husband-recording artist John Legend’s brand). “I hate disappointing people or letting them down. It’s the worst feeling.”

But she’s not apologizing for a recent high-profile scrap where she shut down the grenade-lobbing social media rant of none other than Donald Trump. (There’s a marked difference, she says, between going rogue and taking a stand.)

POTUS lashed out at Teigen and Legend over an MSNBC town hall (in which she didn’t take part), saying he and other Republicans deserved more credit for passing criminal justice reform (the First Step Act). “Guys like boring musician @johnlegend, and his filthy mouthed wife, are talking now about how great it is—but I didn’t see them around when we needed help getting it passed.”

Teigen responded: “Lol what a pussy ass bitch. tagged everyone but me. an honor, mister president.”

With those three profane, cut-to-the-quick words, Teigen fortified her reputation as queen of the clapback, added to her 11.9 million-strong Twitter following and turned a president’s insult into a rallying cry for every #filthymouthedwife on the planet. That single post garnered 125,000 retweets, 20,000 comments and 800,000 likes inside of two weeks, and lit up the internet with trending hashtags and memes.

As a digital-native millennial, staying silent wasn’t an option, especially since Trump “can’t not attack women at every opportunity,” she says.

“I typed out a million different things. I backspaced,” Teigen says a few weeks later, shortly after the dust had settled. “Do you make a grand statement, or do you go with your gut?”

Ultimately she posted a comment she thought would pierce thin skin, in keeping with the breezy yet biting tone she’s established for various trolls and haters, including the commander in chief.

“Obviously I’m not going to reason with this guy,” she says. “You’ve got to laugh at him and the whole situation.”

All in a day’s work for the self-described “de-motivational speaker” and former “catalog girl” turned multi-hyphenate, a sought-after brand spokeswoman whose every move generates press, from accidentally posting her email address (and taking FaceTime calls from random fans as a result) to scouting grievances for her upcoming Judge Judyesque project on Quibi.

Director: Mike Rosenthal; DP/Editor Brian Henderson

The best-selling cookbook author, TV host and fledgling entrepreneur says she’s often too busy these days for Twitter battles (she’ll make exceptions, of course), but she won’t curate her social presence, come what may from the White House or elsewhere.

“It’s hard for me to be quiet about things because I want to share,” she says, surrounded by her constant companions, a mix of helpers, bulldogs and family members, including 3-year-old daughter Luna, 17-month-old son Miles and her BFF-mother, Vilailuck “Pepper Thai” Teigen. “I feel weird holding back because I feel like I’m being dishonest with people.”

To Teigen, who occupies the highest-paid-model strata with the Jenners and Giseles of this world (estimated net worth: $11.5 million, per Forbes), being opinionated isn’t a calculated move. And perhaps counterintuitive in a landmine-filled climate, it hasn’t dimmed her commercial prospects—in fact, just the opposite. She’s endorsed heavyweights like Procter & Gamble, Samsung and McDonald’s, which latched onto her unvarnished realness, forged alliances with beauty and fashion players and assembled early-stage food and media empires—and for all these reasons, we’re honoring her with Adweek’s 2019 Brand Visionary Award.

A transparency that brands embrace

There’s a charismatic yin and yang to Teigen’s identity: She’s glamorous yet grounded (she’s been called the down-to-earth version of Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow), posting yacht photos that recall her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit shoots and videos of herself face-planting on a kid’s slide. She has no qualms about doing an interview with me makeup free, wrapped in a bath towel, with Luna streaking through the sun-lit living room after a swim and Miles babbling and toddling toward a sharp-edged coffee table. (Don’t fret—there’s always someone from the tribe there to catch him.)

“She’s a new-world-order personality—she’s Lucy meets Goldie meets Chrissy,” says Casey Patterson, executive producer of Paramount Network’s Lip Sync Battle, which aired its fifth season this summer with Teigen as its “colorful commentator.” “She’s incorruptible. She won’t compromise her place in the world, and she has so much credibility because she’s completely transparent.”

Teigen’s vibe—“bubbly, genuine, hysterically funny”—made her stand apart from the typical runway professionals of a decade ago, says Lisa Benson, vp at IMG Models, who wooed Teigen early in her career to the New York agency that later merged with William Morris Endeavor.

Top by VASKA; pants by Styleland; rings by Le Vian
Photograph by Mike Rosenthal; styled by Monica Rose; makeup by Kristine Studden; hair by Justine Marjan

The same qualities that attracted her proved to be challenges in the days when a model’s value was in being seen, not heard, Benson says.

“I knew Chrissy wasn’t going to be a model that didn’t talk,” Benson says of their initial meetings in the 2000s. “But being outspoken wasn’t sellable back then. No one knew how to take it, and it was frustrating. Now people can’t wait to hear what she has to say, and brands want to stand for something.”

To execs at Pampers, Teigen’s an ideal partner, giving the brand “a unique and relatable connection” to consumers, says Mark Christenson, brand director, Pampers North America.

“Chrissy’s creativity, her willingness to be herself and to share her life with her audience makes her a powerful force for any brand,” he says. “She speaks from experience and authenticity when talking about subjects such as postpartum depression, mom shaming and infertility.”

Teigen has been “the brains behind quite a few of our social campaigns, collaborated on brand creative and even created unique designs for Pure”—Pampers Pure is a fragrance-free, parabens-free line that has no chlorine bleaching—“inspired by her fashion expertise,” says Christenson. (That bulldog on the bum of Pampers Pure? It’s a rendering of one of Teigen’s photogenic family pets.)

Teigen’s two-year alliance with Pampers has expanded to include Legend, Luna and Miles. In February, the ad “Stinky Booty Duty,” complete with an original song and Hollywood cameos, ran during the Super Bowl. (She helped write the catchy jingle.)

In addition to working with Pampers, Teigen has appeared in campaigns for McDonald’s (she hyped the chain’s dollar menu items in a meta spot that aired during 2018’s Golden Globes), Chase (she destressed by buying last-minute holiday gifts with rewards points) and Smirnoff (she took shots at “fake crafty” and “pricey” competitors, touting the vodka’s accessibility).

For Google Home Hub, she’s tested recipes for a Thanksgiving feast and, with Legend, touted the Google Assistant in a subtly slapstick commercial that aired during the Oscars in March. (The Google product, as the pitch goes, could’ve put an end to her incessant and fruitless tapping on the TV remote.)

Her co-marketing lineup, with Pepsi, Samsung, Stella Artois and Vita Coco, among others, is robust but measured, never about “a big paycheck,” Benson says, and is curated carefully so as not to oversaturate her audience.

“She’s passed on a lot of lucrative opportunities that she didn’t feel were right for her,” says David Levin, her longtime business manager. “She has to truly believe in the product. If it doesn’t resonate with her, it’s respectfully denied.”

Producers of Lip Sync Battle wanted Teigen to be a reflection of the audience and made a point of capturing her real-time reactions to the on-stage live performances.
Courtesy of Paramount Network

Parameters are important, too, with Teigen insisting on the max amount of freedom. “When I first started there were so many rules, and I tended to not do so well under those conditions,” she says. “But now brands are more open to showcasing a real voice, and they want it to appear natural. It’s never super structured anymore.”

Teigen is partial to tie-ins, she says, preferring to work with established brands rather than launch products from scratch in beauty, clothing and accessories. “I’ll humble myself and admit I’m not an expert,” she says. “I’d rather partner with someone who’s doing it right,” like Becca Cosmetics for makeup collections, Revolve for a fashion line and Quay Australia for light-blocking shades.

The exception is food, which is squarely in her wheelhouse. She launched her So Delushious food blog in 2011 under the tagline, “Personal random ramblings from a girl who loves bacon and can’t be fat,” starred in Cooking Channel specials and served as a judge on MTV’s Snack Off. Food has been a go-to way to build her own brand—she’s debuted a must-have cookware and kitchen line at Target called Cravings by Chrissy Teigen (new product for fall and holiday is moving quickly), and aligned with Blue Apron to offer her recipes through the meal kit. Those deals follow her New York Times bestselling, highly caloric cookbook, Cravings, and its sequel, Cravings: Hungry for More, which birthed her first step into experiential marketing with CravingsFest (likely to expand from its 2018 single-city debut).

Camera ready

Though plenty of Sports Illustrated fans already knew her, Teigen’s breakout role arrived in 2015 on Lip Sync Battle with LL Cool J, in a part specifically designed for her. Tapping into Teigen’s “amazing comedic sensibility,” producers didn’t force her to be a traditional sidekick. It was part of the plan for the celebrity-heavy show to be “less precious, a little more undone, less polished and uptight,” says Paramount Network’s Patterson.

Teigen fit in seamlessly because “she’s so unbelievably clever and fast on her feet,” she says. “It’s not something she rehearses. That’s her organic timing.”

Teigen appeared on the cover of the 50th anniversary of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue with fellow models Nina Agdal and Lily Aldridge in 2014, after having been named the magazine’s Rookie of the Year in 2010.
Sports Illustrated

She’s famous for her antics on the show—trying to rap, flirting with Magic Mike dancers, being ridiculous with props—helping buoy the project to viral-juggernaut status, Patterson says.

“Her barometer has been invaluable to us,” Patterson says. “She understands audiences better than the networks she works for.”

She has since become a larger presence on television. This past summer, Teigen, alongside Kenan Thompson and Jeff Foxworthy, starred in NBC’s reality series, Bring the Funny, the season’s highest-rated new show, and she and Legend hosted a holiday special at the network last Christmas. (He’s a judge on the hit singing contest The Voice.) She turned down a gig to take over NBC’s late show from Carson Daly (the spot eventually went to Lilly Singh), but has a number of TV projects in the hopper.

A newly inked development deal with Hulu, via her Suit & Thai Productions banner, could include scripted, talk, documentaries, true crime or any of her other small-screen passions. (“She moves culture by serving as a voice for her fans,” says the streamer’s vp, brand and culture marketing, Nick Tran.) She’s also shopping ideas and TV concepts to a number of outlets.

With longtime friend, restaurateur-chef David Chang, and Vox Media, she’s working on a series tentatively called Family Style, a hybrid cooking-talk program, as Hulu plants its flag in original food programming.

On a faster track, Teigen has a short-form series arriving soon on Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile-first service, Quibi. Chrissy’s Court will adjudicate petty squabbles, á la Judge Judy.

She put out a casting call on Twitter in late summer—“Bought a bridesmaid dress for a wedding that never happened? Shitty roommate? Significant other watch a show without you? No claim is too small!”—for the 10 episodes. Each will run under 10 minutes and will be “jury duty you don’t want to miss,” she says. And her mother will be her bailiff.

She’s relaunching and rebranding her website, now Cravings by Chrissy Teigen, with food, recipes and community so she can interact with her readers. “Whether it’s questions about cooking, relationships, kids—I don’t care what it is, I’ll answer anything,” she posted on Twitter.

Twitter’s heavy hitter

Lara Cohen, Twitter’s head of global partner solutions, started a chat via DM with Teigen that’s turned into a yearslong friendship. She has often asked Teigen’s opinion on new Twitter features and creator tools and included her in advertising partner summits.

“She’s so invested, it’s like she works here,” Cohen says. “She could have a key card anytime she wanted one.”

Prime example: A few months ago, when Twitter had a technical snafu and went dark, Cohen got a text from Teigen “within two minutes, asking what was going on.”

Teigen likely benefitted in recent years from popular listicles that compiled her best tweets, with her following ballooning from 2 million in 2016 to about 11.9 million today. Another boon? Her no-filter attitude and a feed that “genuinely reflects who she is,” Cohen says. “It’s not schtick.”

Teigen’s Twitter feud with Trump goes back almost a decade, pre-White House, though she started campaigning for his impeachment as early as 2017. She’s called him “a national embarrassment” and told him, via tweet, to “Grow. The fuck. Up.”

Whether that’s live tweeting the Met Gala, where Teigen and Legend were home eating pizza instead of walking the red carpet, sharing thoughts on 90 Day Fiance or debating political views, the star “both drives and participates in some of our most vibrant conversations,” Cohen says.

“I don’t think she gets enough credit for inventing a template for how public figures can communicate with their audiences,” she says. “There’s a true skill to that.”

From her earliest introduction to social media, via AIM and chat rooms and message boards, into the present on her preferred platform, Twitter, “People never felt like strangers to me,” Teigen says. “They were friends.”

Though she’s not concerned with the data, she feels the responsibility that comes with a massive following (more than 60 million combined with Legend, but she’s not keeping count).

“You know there’s a risk in speaking your mind on social media, and you just have to accept it all, good and bad,” she says, with the #PresidentPAB flap, for one, finding plenty of kindred spirits. “I may be forever known for that, and people yell it out when I get on planes. But that’s fine.”

Check out all of our 2019 Brand Genius coverage:

This story first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
Publish date: November 3, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT