Model-turned-entrepreneur opens up about her multi-million dollar empire, raising three kids, and her life in front of the camera
Kathy Ireland’s face may have graced the covers of hundreds of magazines, but it’s her business sense that’s launched thousands of products. As the force behind Kathy Ireland Worldwide, this model-turned-mogul’s eponymous multi-million dollar empire brands everything from furniture to bridal wear and it doesn’t end there. She has her hand in over 15,000 products designed to help consumers get through their days a little easier.
For an ‘80s icon who adorned the pages of 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues and its hallowed cover three times, her role as CEO of one of the most successful licensing companies on the planet proves beyond a doubt that this beauty has brains. Yet, for the 49-year-old Ireland, her achievements aren’t about proving she’s more than a pretty face or improving the bottom line at all costs; it’s about a lasting legacy of altruism. “I don’t look at success in terms of dollars. I look at success in terms of sense—common sense,” says Ireland. And, it’s how you treat other people. Why bother if we can’t treat one another with respect.”
A Head for Business
Ireland has always had a knack for selling. At 4 years of age, she started her first business venture. Utilizing her love of color and design, Ireland sold painted rocks from the back of her red Radio Flyer wagon. Even today, while recalling her earliest memories of that time, she’s able to make painted rocks sound useful. “The rocks were multi-functional. They could be used as a paperweight or as objets d’art,” she says, before pointing out a less obvious use. “This was before the days of Mace for self defense, so my granny always carried one in her purse.”
Even at a young age, Ireland was able to recognize her core customer. “I’ve always known that my customers really appreciated good value. For example, when I sold those painted rocks, I sold mine for a nickel. My sister, who’s three years older, sold hers for a dime. Her designs were more sophisticated, but I did well, even at that reduced rate,” says Ireland. From painted rocks, Ireland progressed to jewelry and handbags that she’d create to coordinate with the halter dresses her mom designed in the 1970s. “It was all the rage back then,” says Ireland. “We’d sell our designs at art fairs on the beach.”
Facing the Camera
As a teen, Ireland’s all-American good looks garnered the attention of an agent for Elite Model Management and by the time she graduated from high school, she was in demand as a model for ad campaigns for companies such as Caress Soap, Fruit of the Loom, Bulova, and many others. But it was her back-to-back appearances in Sports Illustrated that catapulted Ireland to supermodel status. Surprisingly, being in front of the camera wasn’t something she enjoyed. “I never felt comfortable earning a paycheck off how someone perceived how I looked. That didn’t feel secure,” explains Ireland.
While many of the supermodels of that era were considered high maintenance and difficult to work with, Ireland’s work ethic bucked the trend. Says Ireland, “I was professional; I’d show up on time. It’s interesting because in that industry, it’s not always appreciated. In fact, it can be frowned upon. You have to show up a little late and bring a little drama, be a diva, and all of that.”
At the pinnacle of her modeling career, rather than date rock stars and live a debauched lifestyle, Ireland married Dr. Greg Olsen in 1988. The stark difference between their two careers had Ireland further questioning the long-term viability and value of her modeling career. “I’m married to a man who saves lives for a profession. Well, he’s also a commercial fisherman. When he’s not killing lobster, he’s saving lives as an ER physician,” says Ireland. “And, me, I would come up with a new pose. It wasn’t really rewarding.”
A Brand is Born
Despite her modeling success, Ireland always harbored a desire to start her own successful business and make a greater impact. Her golden opportunity came in the form of a decidedly un-glamorous job offer to model a pair of socks. A far cry from the big-budget productions of yore, it was a job when not a lot of job offers were coming her way. “I was an aging model, pregnant at our kitchen table with our first child,” she says of that point in her career. Rather than be insulted at the offer, Ireland struck a deal. She’d design and promote the socks in exchange for royalties on each pair sold. From there, Kathy Ireland Worldwide was hatched.
Since 1993, she has gone from socks to all sorts of things busy moms, much like Ireland herself, appreciate. A mother of three (ages 18, 13, and 9), Ireland recognizes the challenges women face and intuitively understands how reasonably priced, well-designed products can help her customers. For instance, Ireland’s been serving brides for nearly 16 years through Kathy Ireland Wedding Destinations. The concept occurred to her during her own wedding. After renting a beautiful estate for her ceremony, she found out they would need to bring outhouses to the location because no one was allowed inside the private residence near where the festivities were being held. Ireland, whose gown was inspired by Princess Diana and featured sleeves “poofier and bigger” than her head, says, “Trying to cram those big sleeves into an outhouse was not easy. Even on that day, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to serve brides everything they need?” Now she does, not only with luxury destination wedding venues at grand estates her company owns, but also with just about everything a bride could want on her big day, including wedding gowns and special occasion dresses.
“As we age, our bodies shift, so we focus on the foundation and the fit,” says Ireland of the designs. “When we’re talking about wedding gowns, many women over age 50 are going down the aisle for the second or third time, or they’re looking for special occasion gowns. I want her to feel beautiful at any age.”
Another part of Ireland’s success stems from her openness to advice, including Warren Buffett’s. When Ireland first got into the home industry, Buffett told her that housewares was a solid area to focus on because it wasn’t as fickle as fashion. In the ensuing years, Ireland’s home furnishing lines have grown greatly and now include all manner of lighting, mattresses, office furniture, flooring, windows, and more—all sold at reasonable prices. Because, as Ireland explains, “I’ve always worked since I was a kid, so I understand the value of a dollar.”
Although Ireland says she’s regularly accused of being a control freak, she prefers to say that she’s passionate about what she does, which is why she’s very hands-on with everything from design to marketing, quality control, human resources, shipping, distribution, retail—all of it. But she’s quick to point out that she believes in working with a strong team. “When I modeled, people used to tease me and tell me I was cheap. They asked, ‘Why don’t you buy a nicer car or buy better clothes or pay for valet parking?’ But, I was investing in people.” says Ireland, whose team now counts 42 members, many of whom have been with her for over 20 years.
Beauty from the Inside Out
Running a multi-million dollar company is no easy feat, especially while raising three kids, but Ireland makes it seem effortless, all while maintaining her cover girl looks. While she makes exercise a part of her life to stay healthy, she says she’s too rebellious to fit into a certain size, weigh a certain weight, or look a certain age. “We have very little control over our appearance,” says Ireland, which is why she intentionally built a business that has nothing to do with her personal appearance. “I want to be who I am. And, I want to be able to dance at our great grandchildren’s wedding. That’s really what I want to do.”
Ireland is also following in the philanthropic footsteps of one of her heroes, Elizabeth Taylor. Not only is Ireland involved with the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation, she’s also given of her time to the Providence Educational Foundation. As part of her efforts with the organization, she taught high school English at a school in Haiti to draw attention to their plight. “When I look at human trafficking, exploitation—particularly of women and children —and how empowering an education can be, that is something I’m truly passionate about,” says Ireland.
What’s next for Ireland? It’s not retirement. She’s looking forward to finding more solutions for families, along with working on new projects, including Kathy Ireland-branded stores. Say Ireland of the next chapter of her life, “I get excited as our children get older. I think, what am I going to be when my kids grow up?”