Co-founder of Ford Modeling Agency
"I create a look and I create a style. American women mean a great deal to me. I help them understand how they can look better; how to do this, do that, get a job."-Eileen Ford
What do Kim Bassinger, Rachel Hunter, Christy Brinkley and Lauren Hutton all have in common (besides being beautiful supermodels)? They were all "discovered" by Eileen Ford. Since founding the Ford Modeling Agency more than half a century ago, superagent Eileen Ford has been responsible for launching and managing the careers of some of the world's top models. Known for being blunt, tough, difficult, protective, maternal, and very, very good at what she does, Ford's notion of the ideal height, the properly wide-spaced eyes, the correct protuberance of cheekbones, breasts and hips set the standard for models for much of the latter half of the 20th century. Through a combination of this image of beauty and hardheaded business sense, Ford revolutionized the industry and created the template for the modern multimillion-dollar modeling agency.
The pampered only daughter of Loretta and Nathaniel Otte, Ford had an idyllic childhood growing up in the affluent neighborhood of Great Neck, New York. "My family believed I could do no wrong," she reveals in a People Weekly interview. "That's probably why I have utter confidence in myself-even when I shouldn't."
She developed a love for fashion, clothes and etiquette early in life, but never imagined these could be the foundations of a career. Instead, she followed her mother's advice and entered Bernard College to pursue other studies. It was around that time she met her future husband, Jerry Ford, a varsity football player at Notre Dame. Three months later, on November 20, 1944, the couple eloped to San Francisco. But their honeymoon was cut short when Jerry was sent off to fight in World War II.
Ford returned to New York City, where she worked as a stylist for Sears Roebuck catalogs and at a Fifth Avenue specialty store. It was during this time that Ford began to develop the distinct sense of style and beauty that would become a hallmark of the Ford agency.
Two years after Jerry returned from the war, the less-than-docile Eileen, now pregnant with her first child, decided she and Jerry could use some extra cash. She began working as a secretary for two of her model friends who had become frustrated with their agencies. At that time, models were responsible for setting and collecting their own fees. Getting paid was often difficult.
The 25-year-old Ford took the job for $65 per month, and the Ford Modeling Agency was born. Ford, who had modeled briefly herself, knew better than anyone the difficulties models faced. She quickly moved from being a secretary to a full-fledged agent. When their baby arrived, Jerry stepped in and became Ford's partner and co-founder.
Ford worked hard for her models out of her small walk-up office on Second Avenue in New York City, offering services that no other agency had before. In addition to handling bookings and ensuring that her models got paid, she also gave them advice on clothes, hair and makeup. She rallied for models to receive payments for fittings, residuals for print work, and fees for bookings that were canceled for bad weather. And she even helped her models with career planning. As Ford's name and fame spread through the fashion world, models began seeking her out. By 1948, the agency was grossing $250,000 a year.
A stern but loving taskmaster, Ford set strict rules for her clients. To maintain an aura of glamour and high standards, she refused to let her models accept deodorant or bra ads, pose in bathtubs or display "excessive amounts of bosom." Unlike most agents of the time, Ford became intimately involved with her models, running their personal as well as professional lives, expecting them to conform precisely to her standards of behavior.
To one weary young model who had stayed up all night with her boyfriend, Ford once gave this adamant advice: "Look, dear, you're a mess. 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 that."
Her no-nonsense manner has riled both rivals and models alike, prompting one of her protégés to call her "a sour, nasty old lady with a lot of enemies." And to John Casablancas, Ford's chief competitor, "Eileen is simply a mean person." But others are more understanding. According to Cheryl Tiegs, who was with the Ford agency in the mid-'70s and '80s, "Eileen is hard where her standards of discipline are concerned. But she has to be. There are too many beauties around to put up with girls acting up."
Even Ford herself admits that she can be difficult to work with, but explains that in a ferociously competitive business where top models can earn $15,000 or more per day and an agency collects 10 percent to 15 percent, the high stakes vindicate her methods. And considering that when she first started out her models got $25 an hour, and now they get million-dollar contracts, her methods do indeed seem justified.
Regardless of what her detractors may think, Ford has proved that her policy of stringent standards works. In 1997, the Ford Modeling Agency celebrated its 50th anniversary. The small walk-up office has long since been replaced with a fashionable redbrick building, and Ford's original $65-per-month job has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar operation. But Ford girls continue to be assured of the close personal attention Ford pioneered more than half a century ago.
Although she handed over the day-to-day operations of the agency to her daughter, Katie, and her son, Bill, in the late 1980s, Ford has not retired. In fact, at age 77, the co-chair of the agency spends much of her time traveling the United States and Europe on the lookout for new talent. She has also found time to write five beauty books and is frequently sought out for her fashion and beauty advice.
"The last 50 years in a business like ours has been absolutely astonishing, and Eileen is one of the main reasons why," says former agent Nina Blanchard, summing up Ford's contributions to the industry. "She was the first to start everything that was helpful to models and their agents. She is truly the godmother of the modern modeling industry."
A Talent For Talent
Eileen Ford was once quoted as saying, "I can't add above 10, I can't draw a stick figure, and I'm tone deaf. So I had to be able to do something.I found that something was picking successful models." Indeed, Ford does seem to have a keen eye when it comes to picking the cream of the crop. Today her top clients include Veronica Webb, Naomi Cambell and Stephanie Seymore. In addition to becoming supermodels, many of Ford's former clients have used modeling as a springboard to TV and movie stardom, including Peggy Lipton, Ali McGraw, Lauren Hutton, Kim Basinger, Sharon Stone and Rene Russo.
The One That Got Away
After more than 50 years in the modeling industry, Eileen Ford has few regrets. But she does admit one gaffe that haunts her to this very day-her decision not to represent Grace Kelly. "Somebody asked me if I wanted to represent her and I said no," Ford reveals in a 1997 interview in The Columbian. "That was really stupid because she was one of the most beautiful women ever born. But I was in my 20s and very, very opinionated. Grace Kelly was a very commercial model; she had no interest in being a fashion model. None at all."