Eileen Ford revolutionized the modeling industry more than 60 years ago when she founded Ford Models. Together with her husband Jerry, Ford established practices that transformed model agencies into the organized businesses they are today. Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs are just two of the famous faces she shepherded to superstardom. Having thrived in a trade built on presentation, no detail is lost on Ford. At 88, she is immaculate. Long red nails and double-strand pearls accent her dark knit pantsuit. Over an Earl Grey tea, Ford casts her eagle eye on today’s model industry and reveals how she stays on top of her game.
This story first appeared in the May 7, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
How do you define beauty?
Wide-set eyes, full lips—nobody invented full lips—long neck, legs long. Good legs are essential. I’m sick and tired of seeing that the answer depends on the soul. You see those fl owers there? They’re beautiful. If you look at Venus Rising From the Sea, she could have been a good model.
How have you seen beauty standards evolve since you started in 1946?
Beauty changes. Physical beauty is easy to define. Certain features don’t change. However, a “look” changes. Looks change because clothes change. Skirt lengths change, shoulders change, and therefore the person in them has to be different. For instance, now you see girls with big bosoms. Back when I started, no one had bosoms. Things like that change. It’s always fascinating to watch. I’ve seen everything change.
Beyond having the right look at the right time, does a model’s personality matter?
Caring is very important to your continued success. You can be famous for a while, but when you see girls who’ve been in the business as long as they have, you know that they care.
How do times of recession impact our notions of beauty?
The recession will have no effect whatsoever. Would you give up moisturizer? Mascara? [Other women] have been using it a lot longer than you, and do you think they’re going to give it up? They’re not.
How have you seen the beauty industry change?
Look at men and men’s products. A man was lucky if he had a badger brush, soap and a sharp razor, and then some of them wore perfume. Now, men take care of their skin and watch what they eat. And it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s a wonderful transition.
Is the modeling industry the same now as when Ford models began?
It’s different. I just had my 88th birthday and I heard from over a hundred former models. Their lives were very important to me. It wasn’t just a business. Our business was built on trust. They trusted us and we loved them.
What do you think about the trend of celebrities replacing models on fashion magazine covers?
It’s very bad for the model business. It didn’t surprise me—it troubled me. I felt very sorry for them because covers count for the model. On the other hand, my idol was Katharine Hepburn. I loved the way she looked, the way she dressed—everything about her.
Plus-size models seem to be gaining more success, including Ford’s Crystal Renn. What does that say about the industry?
They act as if the revelation has come: “There are large women.” Of course there are large women. It’s not new. It’s been around ever since I was a stylist when I was 22 years old.
What’s your beauty regime?
First I cleanse. I use Lancôme. And, if I don’t use Lancôme, I use L’Oréal. I don’t know why I have so many soaps. Then, I use moisturizer and lip moisturizer. I use different things. I’m just as earnest a preserver of my youth as the next woman. I’ve written four books about beauty. When I look in the mirror, I wonder if I took my own advice in time.
How do you take care of your mind and body?
I’m very strict about what I eat and about how I take care of my skin, because it isn’t going to take care of itself. I exercise every day of my life. I read the Financial Times every day, The Wall Street Journal and the [New York] Post. I like biographies. Have you read Dancing to the Precipice [a biography about Marie Antoinette]? You know, when you read them, you realize that women really have always played a part somehow. They always say, “How did you do it as a woman?” I never had any trouble doing anything as a woman. I did it because I had to and it worked.
How do you feel about the agency being sold [in 2007]?
We’re not going to live forever. We know that. And we gave it to the children. I don’t think you can give a business to a child and say it’s yours and then tell them what to do. My daughter sold the agency and she’s devoted her life to prevent human trafficking. I’m so proud of her.
What advice would you offer to young people starting out?
My advice is to their parents. Let your children know that you believe in them. That’s true about being a successful model agent, too. The model has to know that you believe in her. And gosh knows we did.
What’s your career highlight?
Marrying Jerry Ford! Jerry and I worked together and then we’d go home to see our children. We were married two months short of 64 years. And Jerry’s two-and-a-half years younger than I. I’m an original cougar.
Do you have a motto?
I don’t. I live day to day, and so far it’s worked out. I’m really lucky. That’s a good song, “Lucky to Be Me.” I am lucky to be me. It isn’t that I’ve wound up the richest woman in the world. I’m not the poorest woman in the world, but I certainly think I’m one of the happiest—and luckiest.