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Supermodel Turned Super Entrepreneur and Philanthropist

An Exclusive Interview with Kathy Ireland

By Natalie Messina

1. Tell me the story about when you were scouted as a model.

It was an ironic adventure. Our parents were really hoping that it would be beneficial to experience what was called at that time, Charm School. It was called La Belle and the organization was led by a lady I will never forget – Betty. This was a huge investment and so much gratitude was felt for Mom and Dad. When I was little, it wasn't in the budget for me to take piano lessons or ballet or anything. So, at 16, there was a school that opened up and it was a birthday present for me for my 16th birthday. I was definitely a tomboy and I think our parents recognized how much etiquette truly was acquired – that really remains questionable. But what is absolutely true is that a modeling scout from New York visited the class and shocked everyone by saying, despite my one eyebrow, out-of-proportion large hair, baking in the sun – that modeling could be an option. That was a real shock. Frankly, it was hard to take seriously. However, Mom went with me to New York and a well-known agency offered an opportunity so the fashion world became the beginning of where our company is today.

2. Describe your favourite magazine cover experience. What was your most memorable Sports Illustrated experience?

For the first question, it is difficult to select a single magazine cover. Each session is so individual. One example is the shoot we just did for Chaarmz Magazine – it is one of my very favorites! The photographer, Kal, was so amazing. The clothes were so gorgeous! The hair and makeup were fabulous. Your creative team, and our Creative Director, Jon Carrasco – you're always finding brilliant people in fashion coming together. It always works so beautifully when you have such brilliant people coming together for work and creativity. It was just a beautiful day -- it was wonderful! As inspiration on our shoot, we listened to a great deal of praise music that made everything so beautiful and the day felt like a prayer and I’m so grateful for that gift.

In answer to your question about Sports Illustrated, each edition was led by Jule Campbell, a true genius at the intersection of fashion and commerce. Julie invented what became the concept of a supermodel. Jule printed the names of each girl for the very first time, to my knowledge, and this allowed people to know that we were real human beings and made us less objectified than many models who had been in the past. But all of my sessions for Sports Illustrated were with Jule and so it's impossible to select just one of the countless beautiful memories. I was from California, you know, so Jule always had me climb up a coconut tree or go scuba diving – and typically these photos wouldn't end up in the magazine. But, we had fun battling waves. The suits were beautiful and yet worn in a way that didn't compromise my values at that time. We all grow and there's photographs in hindsight that I likely wouldn't take today. However, with the innocence and the feeling of having Jule beside us in the early days – I've learned so much. Jule allowed me to assist her and everything from packing and unpacking, dialing, you know, even ironing sometimes. Those lessons were my education and Jule – she's amazing – her background includes the finance fashion magazines in the world (for example, Glamour Magazine). It really is the perfect illustration of that intersection of fashion and commerce that Jule uniquely understood and navigated with such brilliance. Consequently, our beloved Aunt Jule to our children, will always be family and Professor of the Ultimate Fashion University for our company. She's an amazing person, she truly is. She’s done consulting with our company and we remain very close. She lives in New Jersey, and she’s just an incredible person. I really watched her fight for the integrity of her brand and she did so brilliantly.

3. Can you tell us about your experience modelling internationally?

The locations were stunning, and we hope to revisit those locations with our family – Spain, South Pacific, Italy, Hawaii (we have a second home and investment property there), Africa, Chile, Australia, Paris, Costa Rica, Mexico – I mean the list just goes on and on. But, I love the adventure. I love meeting people of all different cultures, learning how they live is such a powerful education.

4. What advice would you give to young models and entrepreneurs? What inspired you to write your book, “Fashion Jungle”?

The advice that I would give is to know your boundaries because they will be challenged and people have agendas. Some of them are good and some are not. Often, when someone’s agenda conflicts with ours, we're not clear and we find ourselves in unnecessary conflict and compromise. No job is too important to walk away from. We can always do something else. Early in my career, a photographer said, “Without posing topless, there would be no work.” That clearly wasn't true, and his agenda crashed into mine. At first, I was polite but he refused to accept my “No, thank you” as an answer. I just gave him a punch and shoved him away and walked out of that studio. I mean, he just crossed that line with me and you've got to know your boundaries. Sadly, some people don't realize that “no” is a complete sentence. I understood that to some extent when I was younger, but I didn't fully realize that until I was 40. So, I encourage people to please be wiser and learn it early. After you learn it, please apply it to daily living. Often, we must say no to good things to keep our focus on great things.

That really inspired Fashion Jungle, co-written by an incredible New York Times best-selling author, Rachel Van Dyken. I never thought that I would be involved in fiction, but when I met Rachel and shared some of my stories, I just knew that she would be the person who could take that story and handle it so well. While it is fiction, it's based on things that happened in my life in those days and a look at the life of my roommates and girls that I've worked with. It's a cautionary tale. Rachel's written it in such a way that it's entertaining, there's romance, and it's exciting. It does expose the underbelly of that industry that, unfortunately, still exists today. You can survive it, but it's there. You've got to be alert to it in order to survive it. Human trafficking is something that I became aware of when I worked in the modeling industry. So, I tell people to have your eyes wide open to be alert.

5. How was your experience with Chaarmz Magazine during the photoshoot? Would you work with them again in the future?

Oh, my goodness, Natalie, it was incredible! I mean, it was so exciting and so beautiful. You have a wonderful, inspiring magazine and you have something that’s reminiscent of Jule Campbell. You bring beauty and creativity to everything that you do. We first noticed Chaarmz Magazine on Instagram and we recommend it to everyone who loves fashion and to follow your page.

You know, there was Kal Ata (Photographer & Publisher), Natalie Messina (Editor-in-Chief), and of course, Alli Mang (Media Correspondent & Lifestyle Editor). Then there was Luis Casco (Makeup) and Amaran Asylum (Hair). I mean, it was just a wonderful team, just incredible. The photo shoot was a wonderful experience and the magazine is exquisite.

6. What inspired you to create a music label? What was it about the music industry that made you want to get involved? What can we expect from Billy Davis Jr and Marilyn McCoo’s newest music?

The inspiration to create a music label was a great desire to bring positive music into a world filled with conflict. Talent has no expiration date. Experiencing Marilyn and Billy with pitch-perfect iconic voices, performing at this season in their lives is astounding. Billy will be 84 in September and Marilyn will be 79. Their contribution to the film, Summer of Soul, saw the motion picture win an Oscar and the soundtrack win a Grammy – and every Film Festival celebrated their appearance.

In addition to the music label, they're now working with Magnolia Hill Productions at Warner Brothers, led by my dear friend, Emmy Award winner Sam Haskell. Marilyn and Billy are co-starring in The Waltons’ film which Sam has produced and everyone is whispering about a series. Marilyn and Billy are in the studio right now with Nic Mendoza (their Producer) and they're putting together a remix of the award-winning Blackbird Lennon-McCartney Icons album.

BMG and EE1 has optioned a future album from Marilyn and Billy, which we hope will be a renewed visit with several of their award-winning classics. Sharing their historic music is very exciting and the music sector of our company is very important to us. Our clients include Michael Feinstein, Liza Minelli, Vanessa Williams and of course, Marilyn and Billy.

7. Who has given you advice when you were building your company? Are you currently working on any new projects and/or partnerships?

Mom and Dad always gave great advice and we all regret any of it that we failed to embrace. Also, there is wonderful wisdom from our genius Worldwide Creative Director, Jon Carrasco. Elizabeth Taylor, who we miss every day – so many lessons learned from incredible Elizabeth. Irv Blumkin from Nebraska Furniture Mart, our first partner in the home industry, and his best friend Warren Buffett. We've already spoken about Jule Campbell – all really wonderful mentors. You can be mentored by anyone by reading about them. Something that I do encourage, especially in young people with any mentor is to learn from them, but recognize that you shouldn’t put anybody on a pedestal because we’ve all failed. So, take the good and reject the bad.

There are always lots of new projects going on. Our fashion business is growing at a time when retail is particularly soft and we are so grateful for that. There is health care through Let's Talk Interactive. Furniture for home and office – our home collections are in partnership with Michael Amini, the founder of AICO, who is absolutely brilliant. Our office furniture was just named one of America's best-selling collections of all entities by Popular Mechanics. That’s interesting because so many men said that businesses would not buy furniture designed by a woman.

8. How did you deal with rejection as a model and as an entrepreneur — what kept you going?

Oh, my goodness – the rejection never stopped! I share with the team that if we're not hearing no each day, we aren't working at an optimum level. We have a heart beating in our chest and when we're given a new day of life, how can rejection be that important? So when this life ends, it's important for us to feel that we wasted as little time as possible. We pray that we made a little difference. So from that perspective, rejection is irrelevant. We've got a lot of work ahead of us and that really inspires us to move forward despite any rejection. We believe in the work that we're doing. We recognize that what we're bringing to market – the products and services – will make people's lives better, so we're passionate about it.

9. What is your favourite self-care practice?

Well, there are several and as we mature, which is a very chic word for age, the maintenance takes more time.

Skin changes. As kids, I grew up in the 1970s, and we used iodine to get darker – not so healthy for skin. But these days we're much more careful – SPF, moisture, and more water. I’ve been seeing a dermatologist, which is a great luxury and something I recommend to people. Especially for those of us who love being in the sun, skin cancer can be diagnosed, detected and removed with much great ease if your doctor's checking your skin.

Metabolism slows. This means a balanced diet is so essential. The days of enjoying a pint of ice cream for breakfast and losing a pound the next day – those are in the rear-view mirror. A diet filled with antioxidants and low glycemic eating. It means exercising whether we feel like it or not. Greater care for hair and nails. For women, especially vitamin D as a cancer fighter and greater bone density.

Self-acceptance. What we see in the mirror today will not be what we saw decades earlier. I say thank goodness! What some people call laugh lines, I call love lines. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, the more wear indicates a life well-lived and filled with love.

Most of all, for me, when it comes to self-care (and I never wish to impose my views on anyone) the greatest self-care of all is starting and ending each day in the Word of God and building a closer relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Christ comes first in all that I do, and all that I hope to do. That was a struggle, you know, with children and an amazing husband and family, friends, Mom, Dad, my sister, nieces, nephews – and my Aunt Dorothy, who brought my Dad during World War II to America from England. Being blessed with a full life, I just thought how will I find time to be able to place God first? Scripture reminds us that when we live in the Word of God, He restores what is lost. As each year passes, that truth definitely becomes more evident.

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