ARTICLE DEREK BLASBERG, PATRIK SANDBERG & BETHANN HARDISON
PHOTOGRAPHY ORMOND GIGLI
JULY 11TH, 2014. EARLIER THIS WEEK, A TRUE ORIGINAL AND ONE OF V'S HEROES PASSED AWAY AT 92. BELOW ARE TWO INTERVIEWS WITH THE OUTSPOKEN EILEEN FORD, FIRST PUBLISHED IN V57 AND V74, RESPECTIVELY. THE FIRST WAS CONDUCTED BY OUR EDITOR-AT-LARGE DEREK BLASBERG AND THE SECOND BY FELLOW MODEL MANAGEMENT MOGUL AND FASHION ACTIVIST BETHANN HARDISON, WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY V'S SENIOR EDITOR, PATRIK SANDBERG. THE MATRIARCH OF THE MODELING INDUSTRY NOT ONLY TURNED PRETTY GIRLS INTO GLOBAL SUPERSTARS, SHE REWROTE THE RULES OF THE MODERN AGENCY. HER WORK AND LEGACY WILL LIVE ON FOREVER
"HEROES: EILEEN FORD" from V57, Spring Preview 2009
TIME magazine once described Eileen Ford, the ironfisted matron of the modern modeling agency, as “part pit bull, part den mother—and all business.” Now, as a spritely 86-year-old, the founder of Ford likes to think of herself as more maternal than canine (“I don’t like pit bulls anyway,” she says when reminded of the quote. “Couldn’t I have been a bichon with a bite?”). Seated in Manhattan’s University Club, which she prefers because it’s “across the street from my hairdresser, down the street from Escada, and around the corner from Michael’s,” Mrs. Ford is perfectly coiffed and smartly attired in gray slacks and a navy cardigan with white piping. Within arm’s length is Jerry Ford, her husband of nearly seven decades. In August, just after this interview was conducted, Mr. Ford passed away, at the age of 83. He was her business partner, protector, and the person whom she called “the other half of my life.” Together they changed the face of fashion. Cancellation fees, fitting fees, collecting payment from both the client and model all were Ford initiatives. “Girls used to have to try on endless outfits for nothing,” Mrs. Ford says, in horror. And while her husband handled the numbers, she handled the models, blurring the line between mother and manager, and redefining what it meant to be an agent. As LIFE magazine put it, “She takes sugar and spice and everything nice, and turns it into cold, hard cash.” DEREK BLASBERG
DEREK BLASBERG I’m told you modeled as a young woman,
EILEEN FORD Yes, for one month of the summer, for two years, when I was in college.
DB I imagine it’s changed since then.
EF Yes, today a model is paid. A lot! I got $5 an hour, which my father thought was a terrible sum of money for a girl, outside of being naughty. We carried hatboxes with our makeup and things. One was so proud to have a hatbox with an agency’s name on it.
DB How did you switch to the booking side? I read it started
as a hobby for two girlfriends of yours.
EF It was no hobby—it was a full-time job. I needed money! Jerry was away in the Navy during the war, and when he came home he could go on a football scholarship to Notre Dame or play professional football for the Los Angeles Rams. However, I upset all those plans by getting pregnant. The agencies then were ridiculous, just terrible. No one got to the right place at the right time, and if you asked for a blonde you were sure to get a brunette. If going to college did one thing for me it got me organized. We had no money—he was 20 when we got married, and we were living with my mother and father. So I started booking two models, each paying me $65 a month. It was 1946, so that was a sum of money. And then more models asked to come on board. Jerry, who had never booked in his life, started when I was pregnant. In those days you were supposed to stay in the hospital for ten days after you had a child, but I was kicked out after five ’cause I tied up the nurses’ switchboard booking girls from bed.
DB Did you have any idea you would spend the rest of your life doing that?
EF How could I? When you’re young, you never look to the future. But everyone was unhappy with their agencies, so
everyone came to us. We’d sit in the garden of my father’s business, at Lexington and 29th Street, with two phones. Daddy finally got fed up with us tying up his lines, too, so we found our own offices on Second Avenue. We sold our car to pay
DB Ford famously became a family affair. Were the
models looking for a den mother?
EF Sort of. They wanted a manager too. Some of them didn’t like it, like Naomi Campbell, who left us–four times. Christie
Brinkley told us recently that when she stayed with us and came down at night in her pajamas saying she was doing laundry, she’d get to the kitchen, change into her regular clothes, and put her pajamas in the oven, knowing we’d be asleep when she got home. The models ate with us, they stayed with us. I would teach them manners, if I needed to. We would go to the museum and lectures, and to the country on the weekends. We were the same age at the beginning, don’t forget. We’d eat together, drink together, stay out all night together. We had a great time—but we’d average four hours of sleep a night!
DB Surely there was at least one wild girl. Was Gia ever with you?
EF Once, for about four days. Dick Avedon called us; we told him we didn’t want her, but he promised she was totally reformed. The first thing she did was not show to a booking, so I told her not to come back. She told me that she was in a car giving her dogs a ride or something—I have no sense of humor about that sort of thing.
DB Indeed, you had little patience for misbehavior. You were mom, manager, and booker.
EF And their friend. If the girls found themselves in trouble, I helped them, got them into rehab or off whatever they were on. I just found a letter from a model that said she never thanked me for saving her life. She had overdosed, and when I couldn’t get her on the phone, I had the superintendent break her door down and shove her into rehab.
DB Were you an active scouter?
EF I’m still an active scouter. If I see someone today I’ll speak to them.
DB You had a theory: “bones and body, body and bones.”
EF I said that a long time ago. It’s still true, but now I want to amend it to include one other thing: she just has to be born to do it. It’s instinct. As Jerry said, “God made models. But he made very few good ones.”
DB What about personality?
EF Let me ask you one question about that: Naomi Campbell?
DB Hey, she has plenty of personality!
EF She has a few personalities. She could be sweet as pie one minute…but you put up with so much more now than I could. I’ve always said we’ve raised a lot of people’s children.
DB Do you think you defined generations of beauty?
EF I think I verbalized it. I didn’t make a new look—Christian Dior made a New Look. But I have a good sense of fashion. I could put people together.
DB Some of your competitors, notably John Casablancas, have criticized your tenacity.
EF Oh, if he said something unkind about me I have said a lot more unkind things about him. More than he could think of. It’s such a different mentality, that French anything-goes view. I loathed that, and I made no secret of it.
DB Who are some of the photographers you loved to work with?
EF Avedon. When he used my girls, it was a dream come true.
DB And your favorite girls?
EF From the beginning: Mary Jane Russell; we adored Suzy Parker; Jean Patchett was our Babe Ruth, the first one to hit it out of the park. And I liked other people in fashion, too–editors Eugenia Sheppard and Sally Kirkland.
DB Do you know the girls working today? Do you know Gisele?
EF We’re going to see Gisele next week, but I’m talking about the ballet. That’s as close as we’ve gotten. The only one I’ve met is Chanel Iman, and I think she’s a darling girl. We’re really out of it.
DB I think you deserve a break.
EF Don’t forget I’m 86. But we’re still interested in the industry. I still check in and send my bookers presents. This has been my life and Jerry’s life. Actually, it’s been our life. ’Cause we’ve only had one together. And it was this.
"HEROES: EILEEN FORD" from V74 Winter 2011/12
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. PATRIK SANDBERG
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 are brands unto themselves. 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.