Long legacy of modeling’s mother

The innumerable obituaries for Eileen Ford, founder of the storied Ford Modeling agency, contain a wide array of descriptive terms, ranging from predictable superlatives to not-so subtle critiques. Words like “imperious” and “disciplinarian” are common. As are “prescient” and “savvy.” Ford, who died last week at age 92 helped transform an industry and give rise to the age of the supermodel.

The Ford agency was founded in the late 1940s. In those early days, Eileen and her husband, Jerry sold their automobile to pay rent on a Manhattan studio space. Of course, in new York City, everybody walks.

The Fords taught four decades worth of lithe young beauties how to walk, pose and run their affairs in a professional manner. Ford transformed young women into stars through lessons in grooming, etiquette and style while running her agency like a convent. Calling her “the Mother of Modeling” the New York Times summed Ford’s approach: “A formidable manager, she was widely known for protecting models from underhanded deals and sexual misconduct and generally cleaning up the sleazy image of the business, insisting that both clients and models observe a code of ethics and decorum.”

Ford even allowed some nascent models to live with her family. Whether in their Upper East Side townhouse or the family’s home on Quoque, Long Island, she tended the fragile stars.

“They have to account for their time to me. They eat dinner with me, at table, every night. I don’t ever want to tell a mother I don’t know where her daughter is at 2 a.m.,” she told Forbes magazine in a 1984 interview.

Michael Gross author of the 1995 book, “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women,” noted the Fords’ obvious commitment to ethical dealing. Their agency, he wrote, was “a fortress of propriety and moral rectitude that was to stand for 50 years.”

She also transformed how models were paid for their services. Instead of being paid by the hour or the day, Ford began a practice where the models were paid per use of their image. This small change provided a buttress against exploitation, while helping models establish themselves as a brand.

Perhaps no former Ford model has done this better than style icon Martha Stewart. Of course, she’s hardly alone. The list of instantly recognizable Ford models is very long. Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs, Veruschka, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Elle Macpherson immediately come to mind. Then there are those who turned a career in modeling into a career in Hollywood: Suzy Parker, Jane Fonda, Ali MacGraw, Brooke Shields, Candice Bergen, Rene Russo, Kim Basinger, Lauren Hutton and Jean Shrimpton among others.

Of course Ford’s compassion and professionalism had a notoriously brusque side. She was quick to dash the hopes of young aspirants whose features didn’t meet the very high Ford standards. She was wholly unapologetic about this bald honesty. In her 1968 book, “Eileen Ford’s Book of Model Beauty” she wrote, “I interview about three thousand models yearly, and I must see almost 20 tons of excess avoirdupois annually. The average would-be model weighs about 16 pounds more than she should.”

In an age when fame is so easily constructed and just as easily lost, it’s difficult to imagine talent management with Ford’s uniquely direct, holistic and enduring approach. Perhaps that’s why her contributions to the field mattered so greatly.