Before fashion models could become media moguls (Martha Stewart), successful actors (Ali MacGraw) and brands in and of themselves (Jane Fonda), there was Eileen Ford.
The grande dame of the modern modeling industry died Wednesday at age 92, leaving a legacy of changing what was once dismissed as a hobby into a bona fide profession and revolutionizing the fashion world.
Ford co-founded the Ford Modeling Agency in New York City with her husband, Jerry, in 1946. Stewart, MacGraw, Fonda, Christie Brinkley, Lauren Hutton, Brooke Shields, Jerry Hall, Kim Basinger, Candice Bergen, Christy Turlington, Rachel Hunter and Beverly Johnson were all on the Ford roster at one time or another. And Ford helped turn many of them into multimillionaire supermodels and brands by promoting their charisma along with their beauty.
An industry pioneer who helped legitimize the profession, Ford played mother hen to her models, inviting many of them to live at her Upper East Side townhouse, putting them on strict diets and axing the ones who liked to party.
“She had the first successful women-run modeling agency,” says author Michael Gross, who wrote the 2003 book “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women.” “She gave the impression that her agency was clean, morally pure and above suspicion in an industry where morality was at best a gray zone and suspicion was endemic…. She also created an agency that was respectful to models. It may not have been perfectly in loco parentis, but it also wasn’t loco.”
Ford and her husband helped to improve models’ working conditions and wages, moving away from the tawdry-seeming payment by the hour to payment by “usage.”
The ideal of beauty Ford championed was inherently American, or “blonds with twinsets and pearls,” Gross said, “posing discreetly -- not, perhaps, sexless, but far from sexy.”
The look prevailed throughout the 1950s and into the '60s. Then, the agency began to face competition from John Casablancas in the 1970s, when he established the Elite Modeling Agency, emphasizing a more loose, seductive, European look. He poached clients from the Fords, who in turn sued him. “Conventional wisdom was that Eileen and Jerry Ford wore white hats and John Casablancas wore a black hat. That Eileen was good and John Casablancas was bad,” Gross said.
But the truth is, they were just different, both products of their times, Gross explained.
Eileen Ford’s vision of beauty is a far cry from the diversity we see in magazines and on the runways today. Now, demure and sexy coexist alongside masculine, feminine and everything in between. But the modeling industry wouldn’t be the same without her.
Staff writer Adam Tschorn contributed to this report.