Eileen Ford, modeling-agency pioneer, dies at 92


Eileen Ford, shown here in 1977, founded an influential modeling agency that was credited with shaping popular concepts of beauty. She died July 9 at 92. (Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press)
July 10

It was well known in the modeling world that with a look, Eileen Ford could make or break a career.

What set a million-dollar super model apart from the average pretty face? “Fire in the eye,” she once said. “Mesmerizing 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.”

Mrs. Ford, who died July 9 at 92, co-founded Ford Models, which became one of the most prestigious modeling 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.

Her family confirmed her death and said the cause was complications from meningioma, a type of brain tumor, and osteoporosis. Mrs. Ford who had lived in Califon, N.J., died at a hospital in Morristown, N.J.

Working with her husband and business partner, Gerald “Jerry” Ford, Mrs. Ford became a modeling doyenne who helped transform the industry into a global, multi billion-dollar enterprise.

Mrs. Ford’s agency defined and shaped what it meant to be an all-American beauty — and turned it into a worldwide standard. Ford “girls,” known for being fresh-faced, clean-cut and wholesome, were marketed as impeccable, but not unapproachable. Refined, but not standoffish.

As the New York Times described the typical Ford model: “the girl next door who never actually lives next door.”

Mrs. Ford once told People, “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. And they’re very trusting. Like little lost kids.”

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 wages. With rare exception, models 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 told an interviewer in 1988.

Along with her husband, she 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 in the industry as fair and ethical.

Ford Models was the first agency to create a voucher system that ensured standardized pay and work hours for models. To protect their clients, the firm developed a strict system to make sure the models were paid for their time, including during preliminary fittings and photo shoots that were canceled or spoiled by bad weather.

Under Mrs. Ford’s watchful eye, the agency enforced high moral standards from the start — models were restricted from posing in advertisements promoting deodorants and bras. They could not pose in bathtubs. And they could not 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,” Mrs. Ford told Women’s Wear Daily in 2010. “Our business was built on trust. They trusted us and we loved them.”

Her husband, Jerry, stepped in to manage the business and mechanics while Eileen focused on sprinting after desirable talent anywhere in the world, chasing down beauties in department stores, restaurants and crowded city centers.

She focused her attention on certain attributes, particularly wide-set eyes, a straight nose and a long neck. She advised anyone shorter than 5-foot-7 to seek other forms of employment. Most important were charisma and attitude.

“There’s a cockiness to them,” she once told Life magazine. “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.”

Under their guidance, models who met her standards soared to become bona fide celebrities and stars. Early Ford clients Dovima, Jean Patchett, Suzy Parker and her sister, Dorian Leigh, dominated magazine covers in the ’40s and ’50s.

Later beauties included Hutton, Cheryl Tiegs, Brinkley, Brooke Shields, Carol Alt and Macpherson. Actresses Fonda, Sharon Stone and Ali MacGraw all modeled for the Ford Agency before their screen careers. A young Martha Stewart modeled for Ford in the 1960s.

Maternal but stern, Mrs. Ford coached and nurtured scores of young models, many of whom lived with her as guests in her home. She treated them like family: They shared food, clothes, bedrooms and even curfews with her biological daughters. In return, Mrs. 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 told Life in 1970. “They need me. I’m their mother.”

She refined and cultivated every aspect of the young models, from their looks and manners to their personalities. She insisted the models 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 follow her standards of behavior, no matter how talented she may have been, Mrs. Ford would likely boot her from the agency.

“Models are a business, and they have to treat themselves as a business,” Mrs. Ford told the Toronto Star. “Which means they have to take care of themselves and give up all the young joys.”

Eileen Cecile Otte was born in New York City on March 25, 1922, and grew up in affluence in Great Neck, on Long Island. The family owned a firm that determined credit ratings of corporations.

She graduated in 1943 from Barnard College in New York City and a year later eloped with her boyfriend, Jerry Ford. He died in 2008. Survivors include four children, Jamie Craft of Washington; Bill Ford of Palm Beach, Fla.; Katie Ford of New York City; and Lacey Williams of Los Angeles; and a brother; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Ford worked briefly as a model while in college and turned to modeling management while pregnant to make extra money.

“We couldn’t afford to move, so we decided to start up a model agency,” she told American Photo magazine. “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.

As their agency grew from a husband-and-wife shop to a globally recognized agency, the Fords gained fierce competitors. In what became known as the “model wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, Ford Models became embroiled in bitter rivalries against agencies such as Wilhelmina (founded by former Ford model Wilhelmina Cooper) and Elite Model Management, run by John Casablancas.

Time magazine reported that when Casablancas entered the American market and began luring away top models and several executives — violating an unwritten agreement not to impinge on her territory in Manhattan — Mrs. Ford sent him a Bible with highlighted passages about Judas Iscariot.

“She is Machiavellian and Byzantine,” Casablancas once said of Mrs. Ford. “She is like a snake with seven heads: Cut off six, and she still has one left to bite you.”

Over time, Ford Models expanded and created divisions for children and men and, in 1980, established an international modeling competition called the Ford Models Supermodel of the World.

The Fords stepped down and installed their daughter, Katie Ford, as chief executive in 1995. Twelve years later, the company was sold to an investment bank, Stone Tower Equity Partners.

Mrs. Ford wrote five books on beauty and modeling and, at the time of her death, was cooperating with historian Robert Lacey on a biography of her life.

In the fashion world, she was often praised as a trailblazing female entrepreneur.

“They always say, ‘How did you do it as a woman?’ ” she told 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.”

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