Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women
Power in life is not money. He who controls women is the most powerful.” This is designer Oleg Cassini talking, one of the hundreds of highly quotable voices in MODEL: THE UGLY BUSINESS OF BEAUTIFUL WOMEN (Morrow, $25), a book that is to high fashion roughly what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was to the meatpacking industry. But there’s a surprise in this relentless evisceration of an industry normally swathed in more shadows and light than Cindy Crawford: The person who has wielded the most control over women in the modeling world is…another woman.
Eileen Ford, who began Ford Models with her husband Jerry in 1946, is the unlikely heroine — some might say villain — of Model. The book is not supposed to be about her. It intends to be the expose-of-record of the modeling business, from the early days of the John Robert Powers agency, when models earned about $25 a week, to today’s supermodels, who ”don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” And it lives up to those intentions. Author Michael Gross, a senior writer at Esquire, did a stunning amount of research. He interviewed everyone from early bad-girl model Dorian Leigh Parker and A&P playboy-turned-weird recluse Huntington Hartford to Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington. His real talent, though, is getting powerful people to go on the record with astonishing candor.
This is not fine literature, but it’s one of the next best things: raw dish. Drugs, sex, evil Milanese playboys, and choice dirt on everyone from Christie Brinkley (modeling guru John Casablancas says he has never seen a more abrupt change in personality than after Brinkley became a celebrity) to Stephanie Seymour (who, by all reports, slept with Casablancas when she was 16) — it’s all here. At 498 pages, Model will tell you more than you probably ever wanted to know about what Gross calls a ”factory that feeds on young girls.”
But the real boss of this factory for years has been Eileen Ford, a tough cookie seemingly born to dominate a business built on cupcakes. She pops up throughout the book, bullying models and battling competitors in a career spanning the days of the Stork Club and the El Morocco to watering holes du jour like Cafe Tabac and the Buddha Bar. What one former rival called her ”hard skin” is legendary. ”You’re as big as a horse!” Ford once bellowed to a prospective model. The woman weighed 127 pounds at the time. ”Get that German out of here!” she said when Veruschka, who would become one of modeling’s superstars, first showed up at the Ford agency. Ford was equally steely when fending off competitors; of all the premier modeling agencies formed shortly after World War II, only Ford is still in business. Ford herself is generally credited with maintaining an isle of rectitude in an otherwise sordid industry, but she was more of a killer than all of the big boys who tangled with her. ”I will never sleep with both eyes closed as long as that woman is around,” says Casablancas.
In real life, Ford would hardly be a sympathetic character. But given the slimy agency owners and drug-drenched photographers and models who populate the rest of Model, she comes across as the conscience of the industry. Her sheer tenacity is almost comforting in a book filled with self-destructive hedonists and lost souls. ”I made it to the f — -ing top, and there was nothing there. Nobody was home,” whines onetime top model Tara Shannon, one of Model’s many casualties. Eileen Ford, now 72 and reluctantly handing over the reins of her agency to three copresidents, including her daughter Katie, never had such illusions. ”There must be golden years but I’m just too damn busy to find them,” she harrumphs at the end of the book. ”Paradise is when you’re dead.” A-