(The only information available about Colleen Corby is that provided by a scattering of newspaper and magazine articles (mainly from teen magazines of the Sixties) and the occasional comments about her by those who knew her that have popped up on a handful of message boards (specifically at her original “authorized” fan site, at another site devoted to Sixties fashion models, and at a fashion newsgroup). Just finding out her birth date was a difficult task. What follows is what I have gathered from the above sources.)
Colleen’s earliest experience as a model actually occurred before her move to New York, when she was still just a young schoolgirl back in Wilkes-Barre. There she was hired by a local store called The Boston Store to model some of its clothing, usually doing back-to-school ads. But after her family moved to New York City, her early dabbling in modeling was suddenly transformed into a serious career.
Whichever version is true, (and perhaps some combination of the three is closest to the truth) it’s fairly certain that Colleen started modeling with the Ford agency at the beginning of the summer of 1959, and that her very first assignment for Ford was a cover for the fall 1959 Girl Scout Equipment catalog. That same summer she also gained a non-speaking part in a made-for-TV remake of The Bells of Saint Mary, playing one of the students. (The film was released on October 27 of that year.)
Within the first few months of her career, Colleen’s modeling assignments rapidly multiplied - or so she tells us in the magazine articles of the day. (She even claimed to have become an editorial model for Seventeen magazine by the end of that first summer, quite an achievement for someone who had just turned 12. I personally have never had access to any magazines of that year except for The American Girl, the Girl Scout magazine, and Colleen does not appear at all in that magazine, not even in ads, until the middle of 1960!) Colleen did enroll in the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan in 1959, a school that allows for the irregular schedules of its students, which suggests that her modeling assignments must have been numerous enough to warrant such a move. Then again, perhaps this was merely done at the suggestion of Eileen Ford. (Colleen’s siblings also joined the school when they became models.) Colleen did become a very busy model once her career took off, however. In fact her extreme work load often left her little or no time for social activities, and most of her school work was done by mail (she even missed her graduation). As a result, she rarely dated.
Her peak years as a model appear to have begun with 1963. That year she signed a multi-year movie contract with Universal Studios. It was a contract with yearly options, but Colleen was only paid for two movies: in one she did not have a speaking part, and the second film was never actually produced. So ended Colleen’s acting career, though as usual she worked hard at trying to make it a success, taking acting lessons for months (or perhaps years - a June 1966 newspaper article still speaks of her taking acting lessons) in addition to her usual full modeling schedule and her school studies. In a recent interview, however, Colleen claimed that she was never really interested in acting as a career, and that taking acting lessons was a requirement for a model (since models are often used in TV commercials). But during the Sixties, she was often quoted as being very enthusiastic about becoming an actress, seeing it as the next logical step in her career, and in fact many successful actresses did start out as models.
During these years, the teen magazines were also noticing Colleen. They often wrote about popular fashion models, and in 1963, articles about Colleen began to appear in
'Teen magazine. There was even a UPI bulletin about her that year. (It is the earliest mention of her movie contract and the only time during her modeling career that Colleen indicates no interest in an acting career.) The magazine articles would continue into 1964 and 1965, the years of her greatest popularity. In 1964
'Teen magazine heralded her as “the most photographed teenager in the world”.
1964 was a particularly important year in Colleen’s career. That was the year her first Seventeen cover appeared. Seventeen was definitely the biggest, most popular and certainly the most prestigious of the teen magazines of the Sixties, and Colleen’s appearance there skyrocketed her popularity. Almost all of her many female fans know her from Seventeen magazine. Colleen would appear four more times on the cover of Seventeen in 1964, and throughout the Sixties she garnered a total of 15 Seventeen covers. In addition to cover shots, Colleen appeared in the magazine’s fashion layouts in almost every issue. Her image was everywhere during the mid-Sixties, as a glance at the “Letters to the Editor” of the teen magazines of that time will attest. She was also a familiar face in TV commercials, including a late-Sixties Cover Girl commercial that featured her by name.
Though she is primarily remembered as a teenage Sixties model, her career actually extended to the end of the 1970s. By the early Seventies, however, Colleen was no longer being presented to a teen audience, having apparently grown too old to appeal to that demographic. (Her last appearance as an editorial model for Seventeen magazine was in 1971, when she was 23.) She may have gone on to model for more adult oriented magazines like Glamour or McCall’s, but I cannot personally confirm that. I am certain, however, that Colleen did appear quite frequently in the catalogs of retail chains like Sears and JCPenney throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Unlike the more glamorous and enjoyable magazine shoots, catalog photography was more of a job, but that is where the big money was made. Not only was the pay per hour higher but the hours of work were long and steady. Catalog work was extremely lucrative and Colleen did a lot of it throughout her career.
In the late Seventies, Colleen's age was starting to become a hindrance to her career. Most models must give up their careers by the time they reach 30. Colleen turned 30 in 1977, but continued on for a few more years, finally quitting in 1979 when she married businessman Peter Bernuth. But after the birth of her first child in 1981, she decided to try modeling again. I’ve been told that she wasn’t successful at this comeback, but according to a 1990 US magazine article, Colleen did appear in print ads and commercials during that time and only gave up modeling for good when her second child was born in 1984. In all, Colleen’s career lasted more than 20 years, a remarkably long time for a model.
Here is an “insider's report” about Colleen and “the fashion model scene of the 60s” that was posted on the model fan site MiniMadMod60s, by Colleen's friend and fellow model Terry Reno:
Colleen moved to Miami with her husband in 1979. She has appeared only twice in a public venue since her retirement: once in the early 1990s on Vicki!, the Vicki Lawrence talk show, and again in the mid-nineties as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show. (Oprah has stated that during her teen years Colleen was her idol and the only model that she identified with.)
Tragically Colleen’s husband, Peter Bernuth, died of cancer in 1994. Here is his obituary as posted by Princeton University:
Nicolai is Peter’s son from a previous marriage. I have no pictures of Peter Bernuth except for a few photos from a 1967 short film by a young Martin Scorsese called The Big Shave. Peter Bernuth was the only actor in the film. This little film, by the way, helped launch Scorsese’s career.
Colleen’s two younger siblings, Molly and Robert, were fraternal twins, and both followed their big sister into modeling. Molly became a top model in her own right but never quite reached the fame and popularity of her older sister. By her own admission, she was never really as "into" modeling as Colleen was. Robert only modeled for a short time. Molly and Colleen sometimes appeared together in the same ads and fashion layouts. Some time around 1972, Colleen tried to start a business for herself and Molly. She opened two adjoining stores in, I believe, Manhattan. One sold clothing and the other sold accessories. The stores were named Colleen’s Necessities and Molly’s Accessories. Unfortunately, that business venture was not successful.
These days Colleen’s sons are all grown and Colleen has taken an administrative job at the University of Miami. Colleen, whom I’m told is very religious, was also a lay leader at her local church. She was, in fact, the senior warden there. Here is a 2009 write-up about Colleen from her church's website when she was still senior warden:
And here is the most recent photo I have of Colleen.