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The Globe and Mail

Agency founder Eileen Ford set standard for modelling industry

This Oct. 29, 1977 file photo shows Eileen Ford of Fords Models Inc. in New York.

Marty Lederhandler/AP

Modelling 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 July 9 of complications from a brain tumour and osteoporosis, according to Arielle Baran, a spokeswoman for Derris & Co., which handles public relations for Ms. Ford.

Known for her steely manner and eye for talent, Ms. Ford 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 Ms. Ford and her late husband, Jerry, who handled the company's business affairs.

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Supermodel Christie Brinkley posted a photo of her and Ms. Ford on her Instagram account, saying Ms. Ford was "the best in the business. She saw something in me and with her brilliant business acumen, her knowledge, experience, and personal touch, she took me from Malibu surfer girl and guided my career."

Another of Ms. Ford's protégés, supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, said she felt "fortunate to have worked in the industry at a time when legends like Eileen Ford were still reigning. Being a part of the Ford Agency when I began my career was truly special. I will always remember Eileen and her indomitable presence with fondness and gratitude."

Ms. Ford's daughter Katie, who at one time ran the company, said in a statement that her mother's "greatest thrill was to spot a model in the daily course of life." She'd then follow the prospect surreptitiously to assess her. A few of those finds went on to fame, including Vendela Kirsebom, whom she discovered in a restaurant in Sweden, and Karen Graham, whom Ford spotted at Bonwit Teller department store and who went on to become the face of Estée Lauder beauty products.

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 Ms. Ford was disdainful of the "waif" look – typified by British model Kate Moss – popular in the early 1990s.

"I create a look and I create a style," Ms. Ford told People magazine in 1983. "American women mean a great deal to me. They're such lost souls, particularly the women of my generation. And women need so much help. They never have anyone to turn to. I help them understand how they can look better, how to do this, do that, get a job. And they're very trusting. Like little lost kids."

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

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"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.

Ms. 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. Ms. Turlington 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," Ms. 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.

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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 earned a psychology degree from Barnard College and married, then worked as a photographer, stylist and fashion reporter. After losing her stylist job when she became pregnant, according to Katie Ford, she helped several friends book modelling jobs. That led her and her husband to found the agency in 1946.

Ms. 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 annual revenues topped $40-million (U.S.) 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.

Eileen Ford leaves, in addition to her daughter Katie, her daughters Jamie and Lacey and her son Billy; her brothers Tom, Bill and Bobby; eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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