The beautiful women who display designers’ new fashions on the runway and grace magazine covers are more than just celebrities – they’re brand names in their own right. We even have a word for them: supermodels.
To a great extent, we can thank Eileen Ford for making all those models so super.
Ford, who died on July 9 at age 92 in Morristown, N.J., in 1947 cofounded – with her late husband Jerry – Ford Models, the agency that became the top provider of modeling talent in the world and turned modeling into what the New York Times calls “a serious business” with seven-figure contracts. As the agency’s chief talent scout, she discovered and groomed many, if not most, of the world’s most famous models, among them Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs, Naomi Campbell and Elle Macpherson. Many of her protégés – including Jane Fonda to Kim Basinger, to name just two – eventually made the leap from the runway to even greater fame in Hollywood. She even discovered future multimedia domestic diva Martha Stewart, who modeled for Ford to pay her way through college.
But Ford’s selections – in particular, her preference for the fresh-faced, healthy “girl next door” look – helped to set the world’s standard of beauty. “I create a look and I create a style,” she once said. “American girls mean a great deal to me. I help them understand how they can look better.”
Here are some facts about Ford and her career:
- Ford herself briefly modeled during summer breaks from Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1943 with a degree in psychology. She started out working as a photographer’s assistant and as a stylist and reporter for a fashion publication, and then got her start in the business end of modeling by informally working as an agent for several friends who were models.
- The Ford agency found success quickly, largely because of Eileen Ford’s acumen for spotting young women with potential and teaching them grooming, etiquette and style. But she also became known for enforcing high ethical standards, and for protecting her models from bad contracts and lecherous clients. She and her husband also negotiated deals in which models were paid according to how their photographs were used, rather than by the hour – an arrangement that revolutionized the industry and made many top models wealthy.
- Ford famously set curfews for her youngest models and even had them live in her home so that she could keep an eye on them, according to her Los Angeles Times obituary. She once reportedly told a model who’d been out late with a her boyfriend: “If you want to model, fine. If you want to fool around, that’s fine, too. But you can’t do both, so make up your mind, and that’s it.”
- Ford, who could be stinging in her rejections, wasn’t always right. She reportedly turned down Grace Kelly and Marisa Berenson, who later became movie stars.
- Early in her agency’s history, Ford’s standard contract with clients prohibited them from asking its models to pose in bathtubs, promote deodorants, or show “excessive amounts of bosom.” The latter rule eventually was relaxed, according to the Washington Post.
- While some models bristled under Ford’s rigid control, others appreciated it. “She is imperious, difficult, demanding and fierce, a vengeful fire breather,” former Ford model Stephanie Cook once said. “And yet, she loves as fiercely as she hates … because she is the best at what she does.”
- In the 1970s and 1980s, Ford became embroiled in a bitter rivalry with new competitors such as Wilhelmina Cooper and John Casablancas, in what became known as the “Model Wars.” She once reportedly sent Casablancas a Bible with the passages about Judas Iscariot highlighted.
- Ford and her husband retired in 1995 and appointed their daughter Katie to head the agency. Jerry Ford died in 2008.
- A biography of Ford by Robert Lacey is scheduled for publication in 2015.
Here’s a short documentary about Ford.
Photo: National Institute of Health
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