EILEEN FORD

From V Magazine’s Winter 2011 issue, V74 The Model Issue

THE BIG-MONEY BUSINESS OF MODEL-MANAGING OWES A MILLION—IN THANK-YOU GIFTS—TO THE WOMAN WHO CREATED IT

Text Patrik Sandberg

At nearly 90 years of age, Eileen Ford is still her forthright, honest, dynamite self. “I have to admit, I don’t go to church anymore,” she confesses with a knowing, sheepish smile. “Well, you know, I object to things, and I’m so strong-willed.” The legendary founder of Ford, the modeling agency she opened and ran along with her husband Gerard “Jerry” Ford for fifty years, not only established one of the most prominent fountainheads for beautiful women the world has ever seen, but simultaneously created another type of model—one built for success. Establishing the industry’s very first voucher system, through which Eileen and Jerry would pay models advances on completed jobs, Ford  got a long leg up in the business, and later went on to earn their girls salaries in the seven figures and beyond. In doing so, Eileen revolutionized the business of being in front of the camera—and wielded a notoriously iron fist while doing so.

Sitting in a room at midtown New York’s University Club, Ford finds herself employing the use of a walking aid. She has felt off-balance as of late, perhaps in conjunction with the fading of her hearing. Her memory, however, is sharp as ever. “God gave me my memory and took away my hearing,” she jokes, when asked by Bethann Hardison how she remembers the details of her life with such clarity. A legendary modeling agent in her own right, Hardison spoke with the mother of the modern agency about making a name for herself, setting misconceptions straight, and what modeling means to the millennial generation.

BETHANN HARDISON If you can, talk about the modeling industry as you know it now.
EILEEN FORD I don’t know it now.

BH Good answer. But opposed to then?
EF Well, modeling has always been a business. But it was not the way it is today where models have clothing lines. Look at Kate Moss. Back then, models were stars, but they were not at all commercially successful as brands because nobody ever thought of using them that way, except maybe CoverGirl.

BH But there were other beauty brands for you at the time, too.
EF
We lived on things like Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. But their products weren’t named after the girls, it was all about the product.

BH Celebrities have eaten into our business a great deal.
EF Yes, the models, believe me, were celebrities! You could go into places like the Star Club. Nobody could get in, but a model could just walk in. And that was nice for us. It really was. But to me, and I don’t know this to be true, it seems like it is all without heart now. When Jerry and I had that model agency, we were all so close with each other and the photographers. Look how after all these years, Carol Alt and I will have lunch. We were all just friends and it was a business—make no mistake about that. But it was so…everyone sort of won. Well, not everybody.

BH Did you see challenges in your day as a model manager? Because you were the pioneer of making the girls important. You gave them a great deal of education. You gave them manners.
EF I taught them how to eat artichokes! [Laughs.] It was Carol, who is not a girl anymore. She lives up in Cape Cod. She wrote me not long ago and said, “You taught me how to eat my first artichoke. I’d never seen one before.” We used to do things besides dancing and staying out late. We took courses on Renaissance furniture and painting at the Metropolitan Museum. That was part of what I tried to do.

BH You wanted to educate them so that they could have a better life after modeling.
EF A lot of them did. But you see, it isn’t like that anymore. I figured out that the models don’t think that way anymore. Ford has been sold, as you know, and so I am totally out of touch with what is happening right now. I know what my daughter does, though. Do you know what Katie does?

BH No, I don’t.
EF She works to prevent human trafficking and slavery. And I’m very proud of her. But very few people think of a model agent as being that involved with all of mankind as she is. But don’t forget, I was different, I was very strict. Naomi Campbell left us four times. The first time was when she was 16, and she was living with us, and I wouldn’t let her smoke. So she left us, and then there were various other things. But every time I would put down a new law.

BH It would get hard for them.
EF I’m sure anybody who’s had a teenage daughter can understand that I saved their parents a great deal of trauma.

BH When you think about your business and that era, what was the most challenging part?
EF I never thought of myself as challenged. I loved what I was doing. Fashion is fashion. And if you don’t change with it, you might as well just forget all about it. To this day, I live to know whether a skirt is long or short.

BH Recently, there has been a determination to find models in other places, and Eastern Europe has opened up. But you were the first one, I know of, who went to Europe.
EF I was the first one to go to Paris. That was because of Jacques Fath coming here. He had the first French models who were ever brought over. Then Norman Parkinson said to me one day that he’d been working in Sweden, and he said you should go there and look. So I went there, and I met a very nice man named Michael Katz, who was an editor. He had a contest—and it was the first time they ever had something like that—if you wanted to become a model you had to send in a picture, and I got one of the best models we ever had from it. She’s now a countess in the North of Ireland. Norman also found Nena von Schlebrügge, who’s Uma Thurman’s mother. She was a really good model; he found her wearing a school uniform when she was in school in London. I had great luck in Sweden, but I guess it becomes like a fish stream, it runs dry. So then you have to move on and find another stream.

BH That’s a good way of putting it.
EF Well it wasn’t all misery, I can tell you. We had a very good time traveling. We would buy champagne in each airport and open it when we got to the hotel.

BH Do you remember a time when your job was very difficult?
EF
When John Casablancas opened and had all the French photographers. That, for sure, was difficult. The whole Studio 54 scene was really a problem too, you know. That was really a tough time for us. The models and the waiters would be naked up in the balcony together—they were mad.

BH When you thought of the Ford girl, who was she?
EF I never thought of it that way. It was always said that I only liked California blondes, which if you think about who we represented over the years, it could not have been further from the truth.

BH We talk a lot about diversity in the industry. What has your experience been?
EF There were black models. Diversity is gradual. We did the first modeling competition in Beijing, and the girl who won couldn’t get permission to leave China. So it’s hard to accept what isn’t, but if she’s a good model she’s a good model. Business is business, and it’s very practical. If you can find a girl who can sell the merchandise, she’s your model. Models are saleswomen.

BH You had a good commercial eye, but what happened when the client didn’t like the girl? That must have happened sometimes.
EF If it didn’t work, it didn’t work, and I was always amazed to find that somebody didn’t agree with me. But with a girl like China Machado, she was from Portugal, actually, and I just loved the way she looked. The first thing I did was send her to Muriel Maxwell at Vogue, and Muriel—from the Bronx with a British accent—said, “Oh, she’s too chinky for us.” I was crying and crying. Dick Avedon was around the corner, and I called and told him, and I was crying away, and he said, “Send her to me, let me see her.” And he made her.

BH What is one of your proudest moments in the business?
EF Both Jerry and I were so proud, not in a snide way, but we were so happy with what Ford was and how it was and being a part of it. I guess that was it, being a part of Ford. The other part is that I raised four wonderful children somehow. You know, there wouldn’t be a me without Jerry. There really wouldn’t. Everybody always told me, “You’re the boss,” but, and everybody knows this, one day Jerry told me I had to change, so I quit being bossy.

BH He looked out for you. We were on a panel discussion together and he was so charming, so gracious. I was very impressed by him.
EF I don’t know anybody who didn’t love Jerry.

BH When you think about your legacy, and I hate that word, because I have a difficult time when people ask that of me…
EF I’m about to be 90 in March, and I don’t like to think of the word legacy.

BH I’m glad to hear you say that!
EF How am I to know what other people will say about me? People say, you made history… I know Jerry and I made an industry where there wasn’t one. That’s probably our greatest achievement.

Famous Ford models, 1966
Photography Ormond Gigli

Top row, from left: Barbara Janssen, Wilhelmina, Iris Bianchi, Tilly Tizzani, unknown, Diane Colon, unknown, Agneta Freiberg. Fourth row, from left: Sondra Peterson, Hellevi Keko, Terry Reno, unknown, Donna Mitchell, Veronica Hamel, Renate Beck. Third row, from left: Dolores Hawkins, Agneta Darin, Vicki Hilbert, Editha Dussler, Ann Turkel, Martha Branch, unknown. Second row, from left: Babette, unknown, Astrid Schiller, Heather Hewitt, Sunny Griffin, unknown. Front row, from left: Anne Larson, Heidi Wiedeck, Astrid Heeren, Samantha Jones