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Eileen Ford, Who Promoted World’s Supermodels, Dies at 92

Eileen Ford With Models Cheryl Tiegs and Christina Ferrare
Eileen Ford, center, winner of the Woman of the Year In Advertising 1983 award, smiles with two of her famous models Cheryl Tiegs, left, and Christina Ferrare in New York on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 1983, Photographer: Marty Lederhandler/AP

Eileen Ford, whose eye for feminine beauty made her agency a byword for supermodels and influenced women’s fashion for generations, has died. She was 92.

She died yesterday, according to an e-mail from Arielle Baran, a spokeswoman for Ford Models in Manhattan. The cause was complications from osteoporosis and meningioma, a tumor that can affect the brain or spinal cord.

For more than six decades, Ford represented the world’s most prominent models and raised the profile of the glamor business, which became a recruiting ground for Hollywood. Young women flocked to her agency -- which promoted itself as the largest -- partly because it paid reliably and enforced high moral standards in an industry that had a reputation for exploiting its workers.

Among the models and stars whom Eileen Ford trained and represented were Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Lauren Hutton, Cheryl Tiegs, Ali MacGraw, Margaux Hemingway, Sharon Stone, Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, Melanie Griffith, Kim Basinger, Beverly Johnson and Brooke Shields.

A one-time model at New York’s Harry Conover agency, Ford started her business in 1946 together with her husband, Jerry Ford, who handled finances. Ford alternatively cosseted and drove her “girls,” as she always called them, sending them to dermatologists and hairdressers. Most of all, she was known for her judgment about who would look good in front of the camera.

‘Best Model’

“It’s a process I cannot explain, but the prettiest girl on the block is not always the best model,” she said, according to a 1983 profile in People magazine.

Ford favored young, tall blondes -- the willowy Nordic types who dominated modeling for decades.

“I create a look and I create a style,” she said.

Girls who were less than 5 feet 6 inches (168 centimeters) tall were dismissed curtly and advised to give up modeling and catch a husband instead.

Ford often surrogate-parented the girls she accepted, putting them up at her home to “keep a close eye on them so they’d stay out of trouble and make their early-morning appointments,” she said, according to a 1996 article in American Photo magazine. They helped out with household chores and learned French with Ford’s daughters. Rebels who stayed out late were sometimes sent packing.

Leading Agency

Ford became the leading model agency in New York, with weekly billing of $100,000, Jerry Ford said, according to a 1966 New York Times article.

Eileen Otte Ford was born on March 25, 1922, in New York. She was the daughter of Loretta Marie Laine and Nathaniel Otte, who together ran a credit-rating business. The family lived in Great Neck, New York.

“We all had perfectly marvelous lives,” she said, according to the People magazine profile. “My family believed I could do no wrong. That’s probably why I have utter confidence in myself even when I shouldn’t have.”

She graduated from Barnard College in 1943 and, a year later, met and eloped with Gerard Ford, a Notre Dame football player who soon shipped out with the U.S. Navy.

Eileen Ford got into the agency business informally, helping to arrange bookings for friends who were models. After her husband joined her in 1946, the agency grew fast, taking in $250,000 in 1948, the couple said, according to a Life magazine story that year.

‘Grueling Session’

“Half the Fords’ girls have come over to them from big agencies,” Life wrote. “They have the time and inclination to take a personal interest in their careers and look after their personal welfare.” Ford was pictured washing the feet of a model “after a grueling session.”

As it grew, Ford helped set industry standards for fees and cancellations, and the agency was selective about what kinds of jobs its models would take. In those days, there were no Ford models in bra ads, in bathtubs or in nude scenes.

She traveled to Europe regularly to scout new talent, and moved her models around to new branch offices in Paris, London and Frankfurt.

Ford’s early competitors, such as Conover and John Robert Powers, faded from the scene, but new agencies sprang up in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, including one run by former Ford model Wilhelmina Cooper and another, Elite Model Management Corp. They began hiring away Ford talent and fomented the “model wars” of the 1970s, when salaries soared. Time magazine reported that Ford sent to defectors some copies of the Bible with passages about Judas highlighted in red.

“The horrible thing about being me is that I have a very good eye about what people look like. Even me,” she said in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily in 1993, two years before she relinquished the position of chief executive officer while remaining co-chairman.

Her survivors include her four children, Katie, Jamie, Gerard William Ford Jr. and Lacey; eight grandchildren; five great grandchildren; and her brother, William Otte. Katie Ford took over from her mother as CEO in 1995. Jerry Ford, Eileen’s husband, died in 2008.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Brooke Shields.)

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