Eileen Ford (born 1922) was the founder and co-owner of the Ford Modeling Agency, one of the world's biggest, most prestigious, and successful modeling agencies. She was responsible for launching the careers of many famous models such as Brooke Shields, Candice Bergen, and Christie Brinkley.
Eileen Ford was the daughter of Nathaniel and Loretta Marie (nee Laine) Otte, born on March 25, 1922, in New York City. Ford and her three brothers were raised in wealth in Great Neck, New York. The Ottes owned their own company, a firm that determined credit ratings of corporations. Ford told Judy Bachrach of People Weekly, "My family believed I could do no wrong. That's probably why I have utter confidence in myself-even when I shouldn't have. I got everything I wanted from my parents: Brooks Brothers sweaters, Spalding saddle shoes. None of the people I grew up with had identity problems. We all had perfectly marvelous lives." Ford was not motivated as a child to have a career or even attend a university. Loretta Otte eventually made her daughter attend Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1943 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Ford wanted to go to law school, but the fashion industry lured her in a different direction.
Loretta Otte had been a model, and Ford also modeled during breaks from Barnard. Ford liked the allure of the industry. After graduation, she worked as a photographer's stylist at the Eliot Clarke studio for a year. Ford met Gerard "Jerry" W. Ford in August 1944 and eloped with him three months later, on November 20, 1944. Jerry Ford was a student and football player at Notre Dame University at the time of his marriage. The Fords eventually had four children: Jamie, Bill, Katie, and Lacey.
Began Modeling Agency
In 1945, Ford continued to work as a stylist at the William Becker Studio. Her husband worked for Ford's father in the family company, while attending business school. Ford held several jobs, working as a copywriter for Arnold Constable from 1945 to 1946, then a reporter for Tobe Coburn in 1946. In order to earn extra money, she began doing bookings for two of her friends, who were models. The Ford Agency grew out of this experience.
The modeling industry was rather loosely organized at the time. Agencies found work for their models, but the models were expected to set their own rates and collect their own wages. Against the grain, Ford put the interests of the models and their careers first. She bargained with advertising agencies and photographers so that her models would have better deals. From 1946 to 1948, Ford's clientele grew from 2 to 34, and the agency took in $250,000 in 1948 alone. The demands of the agency grew and Ford's husband quit school and joined his wife at the agency. Long days became the norm as Ford found new talent while her husband dealt with the financial end. She developed a savvy reputation. James Mills in Life described her as "a tough businesswoman: demanding, untiring and persistent as gravity."
Ford's business practices changed the industry, becoming standards of conduct. The Ford Agency would collect the models' fees and pay them on a weekly basis. They also set the standard of a 20% commission, 10% from the models' fee and the other 10% from the organization that hired the model. Ford was instrumental in setting fees for such things as cancellations, fittings, bad weather, and the type of modeling done. She was selective about what kind of advertisements her models would appear in. As Bachrach described in People Weekly, Ford, in the 1940s, said "no deodorant ads, no bra ads, no bathtub poses and no excessive display of bosom." This changed over time, though, reflecting changing social standards. By the 1990s, nudity and deodorant ads became acceptable.
The Ford Family
Ford treated her models differently than other agencies on another level. She was a second mother to many of them. Ford gave them counsel on what to wear and how to handle hair and skin problems. She taught them proper etiquette. Many young models lived with the Ford family when they were first working in New York City and were expected to do household chores like a member of the family. Ford believed models needed the mothering. She told Mills of Life, "They're all just little kids. The one thing that makes a model the way she is her parents. Not her beauty. Each child wants desperately to prove himself to his parents. But today there are more adults willing to give less, or afraid to ask more, than there once were. And when children have no direction, and nothing is demanded of them, they're lost." In the same article, Ford said, "Most models are emotionally abandoned. They need me. I'm their mother."
Ford expected a certain moral standard for her models, which included a nightly curfew and a limit on the number of nights a model could go out. If Ford's standards were not met, they were released from the agency. A former Ford model, Cheryl Tiegs, told Bacharach of People Weekly, "Eileen is hard where her standards of discipline are concerned. There are too many beauties around to put up with girls acting up."
Ford and her agency developed so-called "Ford models," many becoming the superstars of the industry. She had an eye for finding new models. She told James Mills in Life, "There's a cockiness to them and there's just a way about them. It's their I don't know, they're just going to be good and you can just tell it. It's a way they have of moving, and it's a way of talking to you. I see girls that I know I absolutely know-will be star models within just a matter of weeks, and they always are." As Bachrach in People Weekly wrote, "This preoccupation with what is proverbially only skin-deep is not second nature to Eileen Ford; it is her first and only nature." To discover new talent, she traveled four times each year in Europe, especially Paris and the Nordic countries, as well as other trips in the United States and Australia. Many also walked into her offices off the streets.
Ford favored a certain kind of female model. She preferred them to be blonde, with long necks, straight noses, and eyes that were wide-set, and a certain height and size cheekbones, hips, and breasts. Ford thought models with light-colored eyes photographed better. By favoring these characteristics, Ford determined the American standard of beauty for a generation, according to Bachrach in People Weekly. Ford told her, "There's no question I did that. I create a look and I create a style."
Ford did not take advantage of women who wanted to be models. Even those she did not take under wing, Ford tried to advise. Life,'s Mills quoted her as telling one such girl, "It's not the most important thing, you know, to be a model. It's just a job. And it's better to know the truth than because there are always people who want to take advantage, who will promise you things, and bad schools that will take your money." Ford told David Schonauer of American Photo that "It's the nicest thing I can do for a girl who isn't pretty enough to be a model. She has to get on with her life."
Ford's beliefs on this matter extended to her own family. She never let any of her three daughters model. She told Mills of Life, "I think that even if they could be I would rather they chose their own careers. Because when it's over, you have nothing. I don't mean financially, but inside. It's a temporary career and models are very young when it starts and their education suffers. And then in a few years you have nothing to do and you're just an old leftover model. And there's nothing in the world worse than that."
Ford's mentorship methods did not sit well with every model who worked for her. Some of her competitors do not think favorably of her either. John Casablancas had a positive working relationship with Ford when he worked exclusively in Paris representing models. But when he opened an agency, the Elite Agency, in New York City, Ford sued him. Casablancas told Bachrach in People Weekly, "Eileen is Mr. Hyde. And Jerry is Dr. Jeckyll. When I came to New York, my major problem wasn't lawsuits. It was personal attacks on how I directed my life as though I was some kind of fiend with Roman orgies. She's a sour, nasty old lady with a lot of enemies." Another rival told Bachrach in the same article, "Eileen is a very domineering lady. She is strong-willed and opinionated, and at Ford's there is fear and apprehension about anyone else making a decision. Eileen berates anyone who doesn't fall into line."
Despite what her detractors may have thought of her methods, by 1970, the Ford Agency was taking in $5 million per year, representing 180 models. Eventually the agency expanded to include divisions for male and children models (Brooke Shields was taken on as a client when she was eight). Jerry Ford took care of the male model division in the 1970s. Ford also formed a division that dealt with older models who still wanted to work in their 30s. By the 1990s, her female clientele numbered in the hundreds. Through all the years, Ford maintained a business-oriented perspective. She told David Schonauer of American Photo, "It's all about money. That might sound terrible in a magazine that's supposed to be about art and creativity, but it's the truth. Nobody gets in this business for the love of it. That's certainly true of models, and probably photographers as well."
Through the years, Ford put her experiences with models to use in a second career, as an author. She had a syndicated column about beauty for several years. She also wrote several nonfiction books such as Eileen Ford's Model Beauty, Secrets of the Model's World, A More Beautiful You in 21 Days, and Beauty, Now and Forever. In 1983, Ford received the Woman of the Year in Advertising Award.
Retired from Agency
By the 1990s, the Ford Agency lost some of its luster. Ford was seen as living in the past, her standards of beauty slightly outdated in a multicultural-embracing United States. Schonauer wrote in American Photo, "the world had changed: The era of the megamodel, in which financial stakes were higher and personal loyalties more fragile, had dawned." In 1995, Ford named her daughter Katie CEO of the Ford Modeling Agency, but she remained co-chair (with her husband) of its board. As Ford told Roberta Bernstein of Time, "We were getting old. What were we going to do, let her be like Prince Charles and wait for us to die? It was her moment. You have to give people a chance." Ford was honored for her contributions to the industry, especially in photography, at the 1996 Festival of Fashion Photography. Ford's legacy remains clear. Roberta Bernstein of Time wrote "Eileen Ford, part pit bull, part den mother, and all business, helped shape what women looked like and how they dressed for nearly a half a century."
Further Reading on Eileen Ford
Jeffrey, Laura S., Great American Businesswomen, Enslow Publishers, 1996.
American Photo, May-June, 1993; July-August 1996.
Life, November 1970.
New York, July 24, 1995.
People Weekly, May 16, 1993.
Time, September 8, 1997.