How Eileen Ford made modeling a real profession

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    Eileen Ford

    Ford Models founder Eileen Ford with Westfield CEO Peter Lowy in 2007.

    - Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ford Models

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    Eileen Ford

    Modeling matron, Eileen ford, graces a 1984 issue of Life magazine.

    - Nina Leen/ WordPress

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    Eileen Ford

    Ford is responsible for the careers of many models - here, Ukraine Natalyia Gotsky accepts her award here at the Ford Models' Super Model of the World contest in New York City.

    - Evan Agostini/Getty Images via Ford Models Contest

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    Eileen Ford

    Ford also helped launch the career of Christie Brinkley, pictured here with Billy Joel.

    - Photo by Diane Freed

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    Eileen Ford

    She also gave British model Naomi Campbell her start. This is Campbell in 1999.  

    - SINEAD LYNCH/AFP/Getty Images

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    Elle Macpherson

    Australian model Elle Macpherson, too. 

    - Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

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    Eileen Ford

    Eileen Ford also helped launch Brooke Shield's modeling career.

    - Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Buffalo David Bitton

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    Christy Turlington

    Even model Christy Turlington went through Ford.  

    - Mark Von Holden/Getty Images

You might not recognize the image of Eileen Ford, who died this week at the age of 92. But you surely know some of the faces she made famous: Christie Brinkley, Naomi Campbell and Elle Macpherson, to name just a few.

She also made them rich. Ford and her husband Jerry created Ford Models, which was for decades the most influential modeling agency in the world.

When they launched the enterprise in the 1940s, modeling wasn't really a business. Some held it in low regard.

"First of all models were one step above showgirls and showgirls were one step above prostitutes," says Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women.

Gross says Jerry and Eileen Ford made modeling a true profession and revolutionized how models were paid, by setting up a fee structure.

"A model would take a picture, but her pay depended on how that picture was used. So if it was used in an ad she would get one check. If it was used in a tag hanging off a dress she would get another. The Fords were amazing at doing that and at raising the daily rate and the hourly rate of models," he says.

Gross says by the 70s models were pulling in as much as $100,000 per fashion show. Today, supermodels like Naomi Campbell make millions.

Some of Ford's discoveries went on to big successes in other professions, including media mogul Martha Stewart, who was a Ford model in the 1960s.

Despite the fact that Eileen Ford built an empire, she regarded herself as a woman of limited talents, which she wryly noted in a documentary.

"Let me point out to you that I have absolutely no talent. I could only do one thing. I could find models," she said.  

Ford Models is no longer owned by the family, but it's still big in the business of multi-million dollar faces.

About the author

Annie Baxter is a senior reporter for Marketplace covering a range of topics, with a focus on agriculture and food, from her perch in St. Paul, Minnesota.


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