Friday, 11 July 2014

Eileen Cecile Otte Ford, model agent, born 25 March 1922; died 9 July 2014

Eileen Ford in 1948, a year after setting up the Ford agency with her husband, Jerry. Photograph: Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures

Eileen and Jerry Ford in 2008. Photograph: Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Eileen Ford obituary
Founder with her husband Jerry of the Ford modelling agency
Veronica Horwell

For an insight into what fashion modelling in the US was like before Eileen Ford and her husband, Jerry, set up their revolutionary model agency, watch the 1944 film musical Cover Girl, in which a new face is found through an open casting call and nobody ever mentions fees, contracts, working hours or practices. The movie takes for granted that photographic modelling is what the young and beautiful do because they are selling some other performing talent, or because they are wealthy and it's a fun way not to waste youth's brief loveliness.

Eileen, who has died aged 92, married Jerry, and began the lifetime business partnership that changed that world for ever, in the very year the film was premiered. Their story would have made a swell movie too. Eileen had modelled while studying psychology at Barnard College, New York; she met Jerry, a wartime sailor, in a drugstore and they eloped to San Francisco before he left for the Pacific. Back in New York, she worked as a photographer's assistant, stylist and fashion trade reporter, booking her modelling friends.

On his 1946 demob, Jerry realised that Eileen's exceptional eye for camera potential could be the foundation of a business – later, an industry. There were already agencies in the US, but they were disorganised and unprofessional – fine to model for a lark, but not quite the thing for making a living. The Ford agency opened in the house of Eileen's parents, Nathaniel and Loretta Otte, in 1947, and the following year the Fords sold their car to pay the rent on an office on Second Avenue, next to a funeral parlour: garment-trade Manhattan, nothing fancy. Jerry's revolutionary idea was to employ the models directly, on wages paid in cash every Friday. A Ford model was a serious working girl.

American fashion had of necessity gone its own creative way during the war, replacing not just the garments but also the sophisticated European females who showed them off with Hollywood glamour gals. The ideal was a sporty, quasi-democratic beauty that depended on – besides melting-pot genetics – sound health, good dentistry, glossy hair and the general abundance that the postwar world outside the US lacked far into the 1950s. Eileen knew what the new guys in photography (especially Richard Avedon and Irving Penn) wanted, and what she respected herself ("American girls mean a great deal to me"), and went looking for it, on the sidewalk if that's what it took. She could never explain what she saw in her choices: "I always said it was the X factor."

Some of those she picked out were already perfect in appearance, with a wholesome lifestyle (Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker, Jean Patchett), but Eileen oversaw many potential recruits in need of improvement, housing, feeding, grooming and educating her discoveries: "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 2am." Eileen was a mother superior, though, not a substitute mother – she was brutally blunt with wannabes, especially over their weight. The camera lens was ruthless, and so was Eileen – "I must see almost 20 tons of excess avoirdupois annually."

Jerry built the business, setting up long-term ad campaign contracts for models, with high fees (over $3,000 a week in the late 1950s for stars); the New York parent company opened offices around the world as fashion spread. Eileen had uncanny antennae for the always-evolving look of the moment – she knew exactly when to sign wacky Jean Shrimpton from London or the exotic Prussian Veruschka von Lehndorff; to update her American golden girls with Lauren Hutton, Candice Bergen, Rene Russo, Kim Basinger, even Martha Stewart, as a college student; and to diversify in shape and skin-colour – Jerry Hall, Grace Jones, Naomi Campbell. Eileen's 1947 pick, Carmen Dell'Orefice, is still on the agency books and in demand at 83; the definitive Ford model.

The Fords' first serious competitor was Wilhelmina Cooper's agency, in 1967, but the real challenger arrived in 1977, John Casablancas's Elite Model Management, founded in Paris, which encouraged defectors from Ford. There was more than professional rivalry between the Fords and Casablancas. Casablancas mocked Eileen's controlling chaperonage – he believed even very young models were old enough to manage their own lives, if not careers; the Fords thought Casablancas let the sleaze they had cleaned up creep back in.
Yet Casablancas built his financial success – and the basis of the superpaid supermodel era – on the deals Jerry had earlier negotiated. Eileen's eye was surer, and more catholic, than Casablancas's, and she exemplified the discipline she demanded of her models, always willing to interview many aspirants annually, searching hundreds of submitted pictures in the hope that just one, exactly right for now, face would show up. The agency survived by broadening its categories worldwide (children, plus size, catalogue work), and the Fords sold it to an investment bank in 2007.
Their marriage lasted until Jerry's death in 2008, despite his genuine threat at one point to decamp because of her bossiness: "She's always loved to tell people what to do. And she does know; she has a good feeling for what people ought to do." Eileen kept the peace by deferring to him over money and administration, and he acknowledged that the talent for finding the talent was solely hers.
She is survived by their children, Katie, Jamie, Lacey and Gerard.

• Eileen Cecile Otte Ford, model agent, born 25 March 1922; died 9 July 2014

Top modelling agent Eileen Ford dies at 92
Modelling agency founder Eileen Ford launched the careers of Candice Bergen, Lauren Hutton and Jane Fonda
AP in New York

Modelling agency founder Eileen Ford, who shaped a generation's standards of beauty while building an empire, has died at the age of 92.

Ford, pictured above in 1977, launched the careers of Candice Bergen, Lauren Hutton, Jane Fonda and countless others, and was known for her steely manner and eye for talent. She demanded the highest level of 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 of its field, making multi-millionaires 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 and often blond, with wide-set eyes and a long neck. Eileen Ford was known to tell hopefuls shorter than 5ft 7ins to give up their dreams.

"Models are a business, and they have to treat themselves as a business," she 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.

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