Eileen Ford: Modelling agent who transformed the industry into a global enterprise worth billions of dollars


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With one look Eileen Ford could make or break a career. What set apart a million-dollar super model? "Fire in the eye," she said. "Mesmerising energy, intelligence, an I-know-who-I am look. It's an elusive quality best described by the words charisma, excitement, magnetism. It's a star quality I pray for."

Ford co-founded Ford Models, which became one of the most prestigious US agencies in the industry. She helped launch the careers of cover girls and future actresses including Jane Fonda, Suzy Parker, Jean Patchett, Lauren Hutton, Christie Brinkley, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Elle Macpherson.

Working with her husband and business partner, Jerry Ford, she helped transform the industry into a global, multi-billion dollar enterprise. Ford's agency defined and shaped what it meant to be an all-American beauty and turned it into a worldwide standard. Ford girls, fresh-faced, clean-cut and wholesome, were marketed as impeccable but not unapproachable, as The New York Times put it, "the girl next door who never actually lives next door."

When she started her business in the late 1940s after a brief stint as a model herself, models were generally unrepresented and expected to negotiate their own wages. With rare exceptions they were poorly paid, if at all. Most worked part-time and were vulnerable to exploitation by advertisers and photographers. "There were model agencies, but one of the owners would go to jail, and I thought a different kind of agency was needed – one you could trust," she recalled.

The Fords set out to build an agency that would champion young models and command professionalism. Their New York-based company, which began in a Second Avenue walk-up, became known as fair and ethical. Ford Models was the first agency to create a voucher system that ensured standardised pay and working hours, making sure models were paid for their time, including preliminary fittings and photo shoots cancelled or spoiled by bad weather.

She enforced high moral standards – models were not allowed to promote deodorants or bras, pose in bath tubs or expose "excessive amounts of bosom." (Some of these prohibitions vanished as public mores changed.) "Their lives were very important to me. It wasn't just a business," Ford said. "Our business was built on trust. They trusted us and we loved them."

Jerry managed the business while Eileen talent-spotted in shops, restaurants and city centres. She focussed on certain attributes, particularly wide-set eyes, a straight nose and a long neck. She advised anyone shorter than 5ft 7in to seek other forms of employment. Most important were charisma and attitude.

"There's a cockiness to them," she said. "They're just going to be good and you can just tell it... I see girls that I know – I absolutely know – will be star models within just a matter of weeks, and they always are."

Models who met her standards soared. Early clients like Dovima, Jean Patchett, Suzy Parker and her sister, Dorian Leigh, dominated magazine covers in the 1940s and '50s. Later beauties included Lauren Hutton, Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Brooke Shields and Elle Macpherson. Actresses Jane Fonda, Sharon Stone and Ali MacGraw worked for the Agency before their screen careers. A young Martha Stewart modelled for Ford in the 1960s.

Maternal but stern, Ford nurtured scores of models, many of whom lived in her home, sharing food, clothes, bedrooms and curfews with her daughters. In return, Ford insisted she be permitted to approve their friends and dates, where they went and how long they were out. "Most models are emotionally abandoned," she said. "They need me. I'm their mother."

She refined and cultivated every aspect, from their looks and manners to their personalities. She insisted they be responsible, dignified and ladylike and chaperoned them to courses on Renaissance furniture or painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Eileen Ford inspires awe, respect, anger and fear, but most of all fear," wrote former Ford model Stephani Cook in 1982. "She is imperious, difficult, demanding and fierce, a vengeful fire breather. And yet, she loves as fiercely as she hates ... because she is the best at what she does."

If a girl did not match her standards, no matter how talented, Ford was likely to sack her. "Models are a business, and they have to treat themselves as a business," she said. "Which means they have to take care of themselves and give up all the young joys."

She was born in New York in 1922 and grew up in affluence on Long Island. The family owned a firm that determined credit ratings of corporations. She graduated in 1943 from Barnard College in New York and a year later eloped with Jerry. She worked briefly as a model while in college and turned to management when she was pregnant to make extra money.

"We couldn't afford to move, so we decided to start up a model agency," she recalled. "After the baby was born, I told myself I'd go to law school, but by then I had eight models." Within a year the agency had grossed $250,000.

The Fords gained fierce competitors. In the "model wars" of the 1970s and 1980s, they became embroiled in bitter rivalries with agencies like Wilhelmina (founded by former Ford Model Wilhelmina Cooper) and Elite Model Management, run by John Casablancas.

Time reported that when Casablancas entered the American market and began luring away models and executives, violating an unwritten agreement not to impinge on her territory in Manhattan, Ford sent him a Bible with highlighted passages about Judas Iscariot. "She is Machiavellian and Byzantine," Casablancas said. "She is like a snake with seven heads: Cut off six, and she still has one left to bite you."

In 1995 the Fords stepped down, installing their daughter Katie as chief executive; 12 years later, the company was sold to an investment bank. Ford wrote five books on beauty and modelling, and had been working with the historian Robert Lacey on a biography. "They always say, 'How did you do it as a woman?'" she said in 2010. "I never had any trouble doing anything as a woman. I did it because I had to and it worked."

Eileen Cecile Otte, modelling agent: born New York 25 March 1922; married Gerald Ford (four children); died Morristown, New Jersey 9 July 2014.

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