Many things have been said about modeling agencies over the years, but what most people don’t know is that it took one woman to create an entire industry. Eileen Ford, who passed away last July at the height of well lived 92 years, created along with her husband, the late Jerry Ford, the modern day modeling agency. Mrs. Ford’s modeling agency went on to become the biggest modeling agency in the world, representing a roster populated by some of the most famous and recognizable women in the world. Cheryl Tiegs, Christy Turlington, Kristen McMenamy, Jerry Hall, Verushka, Naomi Campbell, Twiggy and Christie Brinkley were only a few in that lucky list. Many of Eileen’s creations, whether they were models, beauty standards or forms of conducting business, remain in practice today. “Eileen Ford always made me think of the Queen of England… The fashion business was her Royal Court.” Shares Veronica Webb, one of Ford’s most successful models; who adds “She was a great businesswoman who created a dynasty.”
And the dynasty commenced when Eileen was Pregnant and unable to find employmemt. Mrs. Ford began assisting some of her friends who were models in the mid-40’s as their secretary. Eileen organized their schedules, negotiated jobs, chased after payments and by word of mouth became an agency, at a time when modeling agencies weren’t really established. “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 told an interviewer in 1988. In the 40’s modeling wasn’t viewed as a serious profession and Eileen Ford helped evolve modeling from a mostly part-time, poorly paid hobby into one of the world’s most glamorous occupations, turning girls-next-door into celebrity supermodels. When Eileen’s husband, Jerry Ford, returned from war and resume his studies for business at Columbia University he found great potential in what his wife was doing. Jerry formalized the agency and took care of the business while Eileen managed and scouted the girls.
By 1966 Forbes reported they were making an average of 100 thousand dollars per week, becoming the most successful agency in the business. Ford introduced the voucher system, which would guarantee models their earnings even if the client hadn’t yet paid the agency. Girls were getting paid within sixty days after their jobs now, when before, they would not see their money until sometimes a year later, if they were lucky.
At that time girls were paid by the hour, at very low fees. Eileen argued that models should earn their paychecks per day, type of work and according to the extent their images were exploited by the clients. This new practice was the page turner, influencing the way advertising works and remains today the lifeline of the business.
Eileen Ford had an eye for what the industry clamored for. Ford Model Sheila Finn explains “When I walked in the [Ford] office for the first time, Eileen told me that in six months I would make enough money to pay for a Jaguar in cash”. And Mrs. Ford was right, as Ms. Finn went to become one of the most successful models in the 60’s. Eileen had the uncanny ability to see beyond the pretty girl who stood in front her and envision a star, it was her part to turn the plain girl into that phenomenon she envisioned. And she always did. She defined what the standards of beauty should be like based on what she believed to be the best form for a model. The typical Ford model was tall, thin and predominantly blond, with wide-set eyes, beautiful eyebrows and long neck. Evelyn Kuhn, one of the first two exclusive Revlon contract models, alongside Lauren Hutton is proof of that vision. “This contract changed and educated the whole industry” claims Ms. Kuhn. However, Revlon was not the first contract ever created; that was Yardley’s of London, created so that a model could exclusively represent and endorse a specific brand, securing higher fees and better exposure. Those contracts, created by the Fords, became and remain the most sought after deals in the industry by any model. The Revlon’s of today can be found in established brands such as Estee Lauder, Lancome, L’Oreal and most famously, the lingerie behemoth Victoria’s Secret. If you are a model and have a contract, you know you made it.
Eileen Ford demanded the highest level of professionalism from her models, putting them on strict diets and firing those with a taste for partying. Mrs. Ford took models in to live with her and her family at her home and was adamant about having all the girls sit with the family at the dining table. Models were required to do chores around the house and go to bed at specific times in order to learn about professionalism and respect. “It was my first experience with a dishwasher” Monique Chevallier explains, “I had no idea how much soap to use, it ended up in disaster, the foam reached all the way to the dining room” she completes with giggles.
Eileen’s hospitality was the first sign of model housing, now largely established for every agency across the world. At the time however, it was a way for her to keep a closer watch at her girls and make sure they were behaving according to good moral standards and staying away from harms way. Supermodel Renee Simonsen recalls “They took me in and made me a part of their family, and I know that the protection of Eileen saved me a lot of [bad] experiences in the modeling business, she was a tough lady with high moral standards, but she had a big heart”.
For several decades Eileen Ford represented the world’s most prominent models and raised the profile of the business, which also became a recruiting ground for Hollywood. Since the 50’s with Suzy Parker all the way through the 90’s, Ford launched the careers of some of the most successful actresses of today. Kim Basinger, Rene Russo, Brooke Shields, Sharon Stone and Ali MacGraw are some of the most successful cases, in which high profile modeling careers leveraged an even greater acting career.
Ford reigned the industry alone until the late seventies, when the ‘model wars’ ensued with the insurgence of John Casablanca’s Elite and Wilhelmina Models. These were some of the agencies that came on strong, attacking and luring away some of Ford’s top talents. Eileen would not stand and let her business be taken from her. It was again, time to innovate. She opened offices across the globe, from Europe to Brazil and soon enough established the first worldwide model search. The ‘Ford Supermodel of the World’, became the largest scouting network and modeling competition, making Ford the biggest agency on the planet.
With that, the supermodel factor was born and many successful models owe their careers to this model search. Victoria’s Secret Angels Adriana Lima and Chanel Iman as well as the actress Malin Ackerman are probably the most recognizable names from that group. This vast scouting network helped Ford to branch out and establish a more global look. Before that time there were only a shy few models that stood out, including Naomi Sims, Dalma Callado and Beverly Johnson, who became the first African American on the cover of Vogue. Ms. Johnson used to spend most of her time in between castings at the Ford office, observing everything. “I had never seen a woman with that much power and it was intoxicating to my young mind. Eileen is responsible for shaping me into the celebrated fashion model and savy business woman I am today” Ms. Johnson explains.
All who worked for Eileen share their memories with fondness. “They were so nice and decent, like a big family; we shared our good times and also went through difficult times together” explains Patty Sicular, who worked for the Fords as an agent for over three decades and currently runs the Legends board at Trump Models, current agency to most of those iconic Ford models who left with Patty after Eileen departed the business for retirement in 1995. “If you worked with Eileen and Jerry you were on your toes, and as hard as we worked, Eileen and Jerry always worked harder, they were in the office when we arrived and still there when we left.” Concludes Mrs. Sicular.
“They always say, ‘How did you make it as a woman?’” Eileen shared in an interview to the newspaper Women’s Wear Daily in 2010. “I never had any trouble doing anything as a woman. I did it because I had to, and it worked.”
Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar Thailand, September 2014