Nina Blanchard dies at 81; founder of top L.A. modeling agency

Nina Blanchard, the founder of an internationally known Hollywood modeling agency whose roster included Cheryl Tiegs and other top models, has died. She was 81.

Blanchard died of cardiac arrest Sunday at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, said Ed Dawson, a longtime friend.

A onetime TV makeup artist, casting director and modeling school executive director, Blanchard started the Nina Blanchard Agency in 1961.

Booking talent for television commercials, print advertising and runway modeling, her agency was once described in The Times as "the best-known and richest of its kind outside Manhattan."

By the '80s, past and present Blanchard models included familiar names such as Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Shari Belafonte, Rene Russo, Cristina Ferrare and Catherine Oxenberg.

"There's no question she was the best agent in California," said Eileen Ford, a close friend and the founder of Ford Models, the New York-based powerhouse agency.

"She understood the business," said Ford. "She understood the needs of models."

Belafonte, the daughter of singer Harry Belafonte who was a Blanchard model for about five years in the early '80s, agreed.

"Nina was the one that truly nurtured what we know as supermodels today," she said.

As an agent, Belafonte said, Blanchard "was driven and she was tenacious; she was a force to be reckoned with. And she was very protective of her girls, too. The young ones that were first coming to town would stay at her house. She really was a supportive mother hen to all of us."

Said Tiegs, who was a teenager when Blanchard became her agent and remained close to her: "Nina was really the impetus when I was starting out in the big world of beauty and fashion, and she nurtured me. I really needed someone in the business to put her arm around me and make sure I was OK."

The gruff-voiced, chain-smoking Blanchard, who professionally often projected an abrupt, no-nonsense demeanor, was frequently asked to speak about the modeling business

"It's not the woman who thinks she's beautiful and photogenic that usually makes it," she told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1988. "Strangely enough, my best models are the ones who don't see themselves as beautiful."

In the 1980s, Blanchard was receiving letters and pictures from about 4,000 aspiring models a month. Of those, only three or four were usually invited to drop by to talk to her.

Her agency also received hundreds of calls a week from would-be models.

"The hardest thing we have to do is reject," Blanchard told The Times in 1986. She echoed that sentiment in a Times interview in 1995, the year she sold her agency to Ford Models.

Blanchard was the author of the 1978 book "How to Break Into Motion Pictures, Television, Commercials and Modeling." She also co-wrote, with Peter Barsocchini, "The Look," a 1995 tell-all novel about the modeling business.

She was born July 21, 1928, in Greenwich, Conn., and moved to Hollywood when she was about 4. She graduated from Hollywood High School and El Camino College and attended Columbia University.

After failing as a fledgling actress in New York, she became an advertising copywriter, an NBC makeup artist and a casting director. She also married TV director Ben Tomkins, returning to Los Angeles when he was offered a directing job there.

They separated several years later and Tomkins died shortly thereafter.

In need of money, Blanchard became executive director of a modeling school and then bought her own franchise, which quickly went bankrupt.

"I started this agency because I couldn't find a job anywhere," she told The Times in 1986, adding that her only assets at the beginning were $300 and a tiny office, both of which were borrowed from a friend.

She is survived by her two sisters, Victoria Samson and Jackie Peralto Ramos.