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.
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