I chose Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty, because I wanted to learn what one woman did to create a business by women, in many ways for women, in a time when women weren’t prominent business leaders. Before picking this book up, I didn’t know much about Eileen Ford or modeling as an industry. I’m a woman so it’s fair to say that I have lived my life as a target of the modeling industry! But I do know a lot about entrepreneurship, so this made for an interesting and insightful read.
Readers should be aware that this is ultimately a biography about Eileen. While the early chapters about Eileen’s life before modeling certainly shaped who she was as a business owner, I didn’t find them nearly as intriguing as the later chapters.
The Big Idea
The Dragon Lady
"Eileen could pick out the best… From the very beginning… the title 'Ford model' carried a cachet all its own. Ford models were seen as the aristocrats of their profession… stature in every sense of the word, including mental discipline and punctuality."
In today’s age of women being told to “lean in” and support one another, I was at times surprised at how harsh and direct Eileen was throughout her career. She was known in some circles as the Dragon Lady. Her opinions and criticisms were never meant to be personal. She had an eye for what types of girls would be able to sell advertising, photos, and products. If you weren’t it, she wasn’t shy about letting you know. But once you were in, you were family.
Like any good business leader, Eileen protected her investments, which were her models. She had stringent standards for decorum, for both her girls and the photographers shooting them. She also had certain types of products and photo shoots that were beneath the standards of what it meant to be a Ford model.
My greatest takeaway is how Eileen was both strict and loving. At the end of her life, she had so many people that were grateful for what she did for them. In the moment, and from the outside, it may have looked like she should relax her standards. But her high standards are part of what built the business that she built and changed the industry for the better.
Empower your people
"I consider that I am directly carrying on my mother’s work. Freedom for All is about fighting for the protection of women against largely male abuse, while giving them empowerment to build up their own lives. That’s exactly what my mother and father fought for in the world of modeling."
Eileen grew up in a household where she was expected to do great things. At a time where women were considered the “weaker sex”, Eileen had great ambition for herself and her models. She helped to change modeling. It is no longer a profession where, ultimately, women are controlled by men. Eileen and her husband Jerry Ford helped the modeling industry become a world where women could demand top dollar for their looks and talent, and be paid for what they helped create. They are no longer the “hired help”. She began a movement for empowerment.
I don’t live or work in the world of modeling. But I do live and work in a world where empowerment is important. It’s easy to fulfill the status quo. But true growth and breakthrough comes when you look for ways to empower your people. Eileen had a way of identifying girls that she knew would be top models, and then empowering them in front of the camera by encouraging them, as well as in their personal lives by making sure they were taken care of, often in a motherly way if necessary. She made sure they had food to eat and a place to sleep, or something to move on to after their modeling careers ended. She told them that they would be stars. She helped to lift them up. How will you empower your people to make a difference for themselves and for others through their work?
Find the right partner
"Eileen had always cultivated the style of the scrappy shop steward in her protective demeanor toward her girls. Now Jerry engaged in the same battle for better pay and conditions… 'It was Jerry... who introduced cancellation fees, fitting fees, and weather-permitting fees to the modeling business, without any shouting.'"
As it always seems, many business partnerships come together as if by magic. Eileen’s husband Jerry never had aspirations of going into the modeling business. As luck and circumstance would have it, Jerry was the perfect yin to Eileen’s yang.
The earliest version of the Ford Modeling Agency was a partnership between Eileen Ford and Natalie Nickerson in the 1940s. Ultimately, Eileen acted as a secretary and booker for Natalie, and Natalie helped to get more models on board. The challenge with the agencies in the 1940s is that they were disorganized. Although they booked the models for jobs, models didn’t always get pertinent information on where to go, when to be there, or what supplies and accessories they should have with them. Eileen’s fierce attention to detail was what made her agency different.
Though Natalie was Eileen’s first partner, it was Jerry who really helped to transform the business. He inadvertently stepped in to help when Eileen was in the hospital after the birth of their first child and he never left. While Eileen had a good eye for talent and what made the business run, Jerry had a great sense for people and business. Among many other things, Jerry negotiated some of the highest earnings for models for decades. Without Jerry, Ford never would have been as dominant as it was.
While Eileen often got the lion’s share of the credit, she never could have done it alone. It’s important to find people that balance your talents, strengths, and weaknesses with their own. Forge great partnerships.