Eileen Ford: the original super-agent
As a model, Penelope Tree felt Eileen Ford’s wrath first hand. But a new biography has her in awe of her one-time boss
At 18 I thought I was all grown-up but, looking back, even though I’d clocked a few make-up tricks, and could look interested at a dinner table, I knew very little about anything.
Nothing whatsoever about practical matters or business and even less about men.
I could have learnt a lot from Eileen Ford, as it turns out, but we just weren’t each other’s cup of tea.
It was 1967 and I was already tenuously positioned as an editorial model in New York when she asked me to join her agency. It was a pragmatic choice on her part — I had recently been championed by the photographer Richard Avedon and American Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, and subsequently featured in a couple of issues of Vogue. Sensing a seismic shift away from the 1950s ideal of sophisticated elegance, Vreeland was enthusiastically (and controversially) espousing a younger, quirkier look in her editorials.
Ford, however, was still looking back to the good old days when models were required to be classical beauties and glamorous to boot.
In a later television interview she confessed as much. “I hated the Sixties and those arrogant photographers. Before that time, girls never went out without their nails done . . . that was their joy. The Sixties were the opposite. We used to have an American look,” she added wistfully.
Most advertisers agreed and queued up to hire her more wholesome-looking girls. Sensibly but tactlessly, she tried to persuade me to tone down my look to widen my appeal. I thought she lacked imagination, so I didn’t listen. Though I continued to get work, better-paid commercial jobs passed me by, especially after I corpsed on my first big break, a cosmetics ad that Jerry Ford, Eileen’s husband, had negotiated for me.
Shame allows only a dim memory of melting under hot lights in a cotton field in Georgia and being unable to say my lines convincingly. I tried to shrug it off but Ford was, quite reasonably, not amused and pulled no punches telling me off. Not long after, I met David Bailey and went to live with him in London. Inevitably, Ford and I parted ways, without an ounce of regret on either side.
So it came as a complete surprise to find that Robert Lacey’s unputdownable biography of Ford left me not only full of admiration for her achievements but also rather liking her, for all her faults and abrasiveness. Like most interesting people, she was a cauldron of contradictions and paradoxes: a conventional woman who paid obeisance to outmoded societal strictures and, at the same time, a champion of women. Lacey weaves riveting narratives into his account of the life of Ford, whom he describes as “a mixture of Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara Walters, but tougher”.
- She was born in Long Island in the 1920s when the beauty industry was in its infancy. Outspoken, confident and bubbly, Eileen was her parents’ favourite; she was taken to American football games by her father while her brothers stayed at home. To all appearances she was a type A personality, utterly confident in her own skin. However, she took pains to hide her Jewish roots, embracing a conservative Wasp identity in order to be accepted in the social circles to which she aspired. She also kept a shortlived first marriage secret from friends and family for most of her life.
The first professional model agency was founded by an out of work actor “over a speakeasy off Broadway” in the 1920s but it wasn’t until 1946, when Ford went into partnership with the most highly paid model at the time, Natálie Nickerson, that modelling became a respectable career option.
Eileen had worked briefly as a model and a booker, and knew that the existing agencies were poorly organised: models were often not paid for months after a job and sometimes not at all. Working with her husband she changed all that — it is largely because of the couple’s work in establishing business codes for modelling agencies that it remains one of the few professions where women are far better paid than men — and Lacey charts their rise with an eye for detail and juicy anecdotes. For instance, after the publication of her book Secrets of the Model’s World, in 1970, which included the Eileen Ford Diet, she was ambushed on TV by a group of women who accused her of promoting eating disorders in young girls. Quick as a whip, Ford replied: “I never worry about fat people worrying about thin people, because slender people bury the dead.”
From the 1940s to the 1990s, when the Fords retired, each decade at the agency was defined by models at their zenith. There are interviews and fascinating stories involving many of them, from sisters Suzy Parker and Dorian Leigh, Carmen Dell’Orefice and Dovima in the 1950s through to supermodels Christy Turlington, Erin O’Connor and Naomi Campbell. “If you were someone who was playing on Eileen’s team and followed her rules, she would shower you with love,” Lacey observes. “Yet if she ever felt you were threatening her control of herself or a situation, she could react in a very different way.”
Her famously discerning eye could also miss the point. “She told me to get my bags done and my teeth straightened,” says Jean Shrimpton, who was already in great demand, perhaps partly due to her appealing imperfections.
Ford referred to Veruschka von Lehndorff as “the Big Kraut” and tried her best to undermine her US visa application. She told Marisa Berenson that she just didn’t have the looks to model. Yet Lauren Hutton, who Ford made one of the top earners of the 1970s and 1980s after nearly not taking her on, tells Lacey: “Eileen Ford was like a cloak to us. She threw a huge cloak of safety over the girls in her care, and that made her, in my book, a great changer for the sake of women.”
To call Ford a feminist would be a stretch but she did have a strict code of ethics and made sure the teenage girls she discovered in Scandinavia and elsewhere were protected against potential predators. She had them to stay in her townhouse, took them to the ballet and opera, and to her country house for weekends. She also screened their dates and snatched food off their plates if she thought they were overweight.
For 25 years, Ford was the top agency in the US. In the early 1970s, however, a competitor arrived in the form of John Casablancas and his Elite agency.
Casablancas had very different ideas. “Fashion is all about sex,” he told an interviewer, “Why does a woman buy any item of clothing unless it’s going to make her look and feel sexier? Girls are objects of desire and they know it. They are hot.”
Elite seduced many girls into leaving Ford by reducing its commission, and also stole Fords’ chief booker and financial controller. Eileen Ford retaliated by sending bibles to former employees with passages referring to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus underlined in red. Lacey describes the ensuing and often vicious fight for dominance with relish.
Bossy and controlling, no doubt, but Eileen Ford made modelling respectable and lucrative. At her funeral in 2014, her daughter Katie observed in her eulogy: “My mother had a plan for everyone. Ask, and she would tell you. Don’t ask, and she would tell you anyway.”
source:www.ft.com July 10, 2015 4:09 pm
watch: Ford Model Agency