Eileen Ford, founder of Ford Model Agency, dies

07/10/2014 2:47 PM

07/10/2014 2:47 PM

Modeling agency founder Eileen Ford, who shaped a generation’s standards of beauty as she built an empire and launched the careers of Candice Bergen, Lauren Hutton, Jane Fonda and countless others, has died.

She was 92 and died Wednesday, according to Arielle Baran, a spokeswoman for Derris & Co., which handles public relations for Ford. In a statement, the Ford agency called her “an industry icon and pioneer. … We are incredibly proud and grateful for her revolutionary spirit and the values she instilled in Ford Models.”

Ford was known for her steely manner and eye for talent. She demanded professionalism from her models, putting them on strict diets and firing those with a taste for late-night revelry. Her discipline pushed Ford Model Agency to the top, making multimillionaires of both Ford and her late husband, Jerry, who handled the company’s business affairs.

“I think our success came from Eileen’s energy and her bluntness and, to some extent, her comfort with confrontation,” Jerry Ford told USA Today in 1997. “A fortune teller once told her if she wasn’t an agent, she should be, because all the stars pointed that way. She’s always loved to tell people what to do.”

The typical Ford woman was tall, thin, often blond, with wide-set eyes and a long neck. Eileen Ford was known to tell hopefuls shorter than 5 foot 7 to give up their dreams.

The Ford look changed remarkably little over the years, and set a standard for the industry. Height and a willowy build remain paramount, though Ford was disdainful of the “waif” look – typified by British model Kate Moss – popular in the early 1990s.

Ford maintained that a model’s charisma was as important as her looks, and prided herself on being able to detect successful personalities.

“There’s a cockiness to them … They’re just going to be good and you can just tell it,” she told Life magazine in 1970. “I see girls that I know – I absolutely know – will be star models within just a matter of weeks, and they always are.”

For high-fashion photography, she said, an ample bust was a disqualifier because the camera adds pounds and curves distract from the picture. “A bosom is terribly detrimental because it cuts you all up in pieces,” she told The New York Times in 1967.

Ford felt a motherly responsibility toward her models, often inviting the youngest to live at her Upper East Side apartment. She prohibited the young Kim Basinger from going out before finishing her French homework. Supermodel-to-be Christy Turlington once recalled pretending to do laundry at night so she could sneak out while the family slept.

“Models are a business, and they have to treat themselves as a business,” Ford told The Toronto Star in 1988. “Which means they have to take care of themselves and give up all the young joys.”

The Ford agency continued to grow in the 1970s, when it began representing children, including a young Brooke Shields, and men. By then, Christie Brinkley, Jane Fonda, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Beverly Johnson and Suzy Parker had all been on the Ford roster.

John Casablancas provided stiff competition for the Ford agency when he founded rival Elite in the 1970s. He became known for wooing talent from other agencies – resulting in lawsuits – and stressing a more sensual, European look.

Eileen Ford, born Eileen Otte in New York City in 1922, grew up in the leafy Long Island suburb of Great Neck, N.Y. She had a psychology degree from Barnard College and modeled occasionally as a student. After graduating, she helped several friends book modeling jobs, and founded the agency in 1946 with her husband.

Ford wrote several books including “Eileen Ford’s A More Beautiful You in 21 Days” (1972) and “Eileen Ford’s Beauty Now and Forever: Secrets of Beauty After 35” (1977), plus a syndicated newspaper column, “Eileen Ford’s Model Beauty,” in the 1970s. The agency engaged the public with events like a Supermodel of the World contest and weekly open houses in Soho that attracted 60,000 people a year.

The agency’s revenues topped $40 million a year by the 1990s. Their daughter Katie took over as CEO in 1995 but stepped down after the company was sold to an investment bank, Stone Tower Equity Partners, in 2007. Jerry Ford died in August 2008.

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