It’s 1969 and a small, chic figure with a helmet of carefully coiffured hair is chasing a beautiful young woman down the staircase of a New York department store.
It’s the end of her lunch hour and Karen Graham, 24, is returning to her job as a bookkeeper. By the time she reaches the bottom step, her life has been transformed. “I have the world’s biggest, best model agency,” the woman tells her, handing her a business card. She is Eileen Ford, founder of Ford Models, and Graham, she muses, is the definitive “Ford Girl” – long neck, wide-set eyes, straight nose. A year later, under Ford’s watchful eye, Graham is chosen as the “face” of Estée Lauder and joins the ranks of the world’s most beautiful elite.
Ford Models’ most famous signings are a roll call of answered prayers: Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, Christie Brinkley, not to mention actresses Jane Fonda, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen and Lauren Hutton. While most got their start by landing an appointment in Ford’s esteemed office (as opposed to being chased across a department store by the woman herself), Ford nurtured their careers as if she’d personally plucked them from obscurity (except for Grace Kelly, whom she regretfully turned down). In the process, Ford defined our concept of beauty for a generation, revolutionised the modeling industry and became a standard-bearer for what women could achieve. “Eileen Ford was a liberated woman decades before women’s lib,” says her close friend and model Carmen Dell’Orefice, who was 16 when she signed up to Ford’s fledgling agency and is now the world’s oldest working model at 83). “Eileen single-mindedly gave birth to a new industry. All who came after her could not equal her achievements – only emulate!”
Asked what she looked for when spotting new faces, Ford once replied, “Fire in the eye. Mesmerising energy, intelligence, an I-know-who-I-am look. It’s an elusive quality best described by the words charisma, excitement, magnetism. It’s a star quality I pray for.”
Ford died on July 9, 2014 aged 92. She had been receiving radiation treatment for a brain tumour for a number of years. “She was the most powerful and compelling personality, an empress and express train rolled into one,” says biographer Robert Lacey, who was working with Ford on her life story before she passed away (the book, Model Woman, will be published by HarperCollins next April). “She was raised by parents who instilled her with extraordinary self-belief. She grew up being told that she could accomplish anything she put her mind to – and that’s a pretty useful lesson for mothers and working women today.”