Top Agent

The visionary Eileen Ford created in 1947 the concept of the modeling agency as we know it today. Tough and workaholic, the businesswoman, who passed away this past July at the age of 92, had only one regret: not signing Grace Kelly to her agency

By Gabriel Ruas Santos Rocha

The designer Yves Saint Laurent once said that “a good model can advance fashion ten years”, but a good modeling agency and managing skills have proven to advance an entire industry. Eileen Ford, who passed away, last July at the height of well lived 92 years was the sole creator of the modern day modeling agency. Mrs. Ford’s modeling agency went on to become the biggest modeling agency in the world, representing a roster populated by some of the most famous and recognizable women in the world. Cheryl Tiegs, Christy Turlington, Jerry Hall, Verushka, Naomi Campbell, Twiggy and Christie Brinkley were only a few in that lucky list.

It all began when Eileen was Pregnant and unable to find someone who would hire her. Mrs. Ford began assisting some of her friends who were models in the mid-40’s as their secretary. Eileen organized their schedules, negotiated jobs, chased after payments and by word of mouth became an agency, at a time when modeling agencies weren’t really established. Modeling wasn’t viewed as a serious profession and Eileen Ford helped evolve modeling from a mostly part-time, poorly paid hobby into one of the world’s most glamorous occupations, turning girls next door into multimillionaire celebrity supermodels. When Eileen’s husband, Jerry Ford, returned from war and resume his studies for business at Columbia University he found great potential in what his wife was doing. Jerry cemented the business and took care of the business while Eileen managed and scouted the girls. They were a perfect fit and became an instant hit.

In their first year, the Ford’s accumulated over 250 thousand dollars and by 1966 Forbes reported they were making an average of 100 thousand dollars per week, becoming the most successful agency in the business. That did not happen by chance. Ford had introduced the voucher system, which would guarantee models their earnings even if the client hadn’t yet paid the agency. Models at that time were paid by the hour, at very low fees. Eileen argued that models should earn their paychecks per day, type of work and according to the extent their images were exploited by the clients. This new practice was the page turner, influencing the way advertising works and remains today the lifeline of the business.

The typical Ford model was tall, thin and predominantly blond, with wide-set eyes, beautiful eyebrows and long neck. Very rarely her girls were shorter than 5’7 a cut-off height which luckily included the gap-toothed Lauren Hutton. Ms. Hutton became the highest paid model in the 70’s and alongside Evelyn Kuhn, one of the first two Revlon contract models. In a recent interview with Eileen, she corrected me: “That was not the first contract”! She was firm, and sharp, referring to Yardley’s of London. That was the first ever exclusive contract, designed by Eileen and Jerry so that a model, in this case the iconic Jean Shrimpton, would exclusively represent and endorse a specific brand, securing higher fees and better exposure.

Beauty however, was not everything. Ford demanded the highest level of professionalism from her models, putting them on strict diets and firing those with a taste for partying. Eileen famously used to say “Models are a business, and they have to treat themselves as a business.” Mrs. Ford took models in to live with her and her family, in her home and was adamant about having all the girls sit with the family at the dining table. Models were required to do chores around the house and go to bed at specific times in order to learn about professionalism and respect. “It was my first experience with a dishwasher” Monique adds, “I had no idea how much soap to use, it ended up in disaster, the foam reached all the way to the dining room” she completes with giggles. Anne Anka, then known Anne de Zogheb, recalls how disapproving Eileen was of her relationship with the singer Paul Anka, who she was married with for 38 years. “She thought, ‘Show business, that’s trouble’, but I think she eventually came around.”

Eileen’s hospitality was the first sign of model housing, now largely established for every agency across the world. At the time however, it was a way for her to keep a closer watch at her girls and make sure they were behaving according to good moral standards and staying away from harms way. Supermodel Renee Simonsen recalls “They took me in and made me a part of their family, and I know that the protection of Eileen saved me a lot of [bad] experiences in the modeling business, she was a tough lady with high moral standards, but she had a big heart”.

Ford reigned the industry alone until the late seventies, when the ‘model wars’ ensued with the insurgence of John Casablanca’s Elite and Wilhelmina Models. These were some of the agencies that came on strong, attacking and luring away some of Ford’s top talents. Eileen would not stand and let her business be taken from her. To her defectors, Mrs. Ford would send copies of the bible with passages about Judas highlighted in red.

It was again, time to innovate. She opened offices across the globe, from Europe to Brazil and soon enough established the first worldwide model search. The ‘Ford Supermodel of the World’, became the largest scouting network and modeling competition, making Ford the biggest agency on the planet.

With that, the supermodel factor was born and many successful models owe their careers to this model search. Victoria’s Secret Angels Adriana Lima and Chanel Iman as well as the actress Malin Ackerman and top models Elsa Benitez and Liliane Ferrarezi are probably the most recognizable names from that group. This vast scouting network helped Ford to branch out and establish a more global look.

Mrs. Ford might have been tough as nails, as some will say, but all who worked for her share their memories with fondness. “They were so nice and decent, like a big family; we shared our good times and also went through difficult times together” explains Patty Sicular, who worked for the Fords as an agent for over three decades and currently runs the Legends board at Trump Models, current agency to most of those iconic Ford models who left with Patty after Eileen departed the business for retirement in 1995. “If you worked with Eileen and Jerry you were on your toes, and as hard as we worked, Eileen and Jerry always worked harder, they were in the office when we arrived and still there when we left.” Concludes Mrs. Sicular. “Eileen wielded her power towards the electrician that came in to repair a light switch to the CEO of General Motors” recalls Ms. Beverly Johnson, “I had never seen a woman with that much power and it was intoxicating to my young mind. Eileen is responsible for shaping me into the celebrated fashion model and savvy business woman I am today.” Concludes Ms. Johnson, the first African American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue, in 1974, and today owner of a hair care line.

Ms. Johnson’s first interview with Eileen did not go well. “’Too fat’, those were the two first words Mrs. Ford said to me.” But Ms. Johnson was determined to join the most powerful modeling agency of the time and came back two weeks later, this time she was in. Eileen however didn’t always made the right choices. Among names that were rejected throughout the years, Marisa Berenson and Grace Kelly stand out – she admitted publicly later that not signing the future Princess of Monaco was her biggest professional failure.

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This article appeared originally in Vogue Brazil, September 2014