If you're anything like me, you were probably surprised to see Kathy Ireland on the cover of US financial magazine Forbes - and not just because she's traded in her tousled '80s locks for an immaculate, Lady Bird Johnson-esque bouffant. Ireland is perhaps best known for her supermodel status, landing a feature for 13 consecutive years in Sports Illustrated's annual Swimsuit Issue. To this day, it remains the most profitable single edition of any magazine in the world, transforming bikini-clad models into sexy cash cows for the publishers.
PHOTOS: Supermodels turned moguls
So maybe it's not so surprising that Ireland, who graced the Swimsuit cover three times, displays such business acumen. Ireland has built a mega-business out her mega-modeling-brand. Last year alone, she moved an astounding $2 billion worth of licensed products at retail, making her a bigger licensor than the formidable Martha Stewart. Ireland’s empire spans home furnishing solutions from leather furniture to cabinet tops and ceiling fans, all the way to signature Kathy Ireland socks and wigs. The 48-year-old entrepreneur has also also added ‘self-help guru’ to her brand portfolio, producing bestselling workout videos and penning motivational titles such as 'Powerful Inspirations: Eight Lessons that Will Change Your Life'.
Like fellow top-earning models Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Elle MacPherson and Heidi Klum, Ireland has parlayed her youthful success in a notoriously fickle industry into a booming international enterprise of her own. The past 15 years have seen the statuesque supermodels of the '80s and '90s disappear from the catwalks of New York, Paris, and Milan, replaced by wan teenagers from Eastern Europe. Actresses like Halle Berry and Natalie Portman have long since replaced models on the cover of Vogue or in lucrative cosmetics campaigns. The few still-active models who qualify as household names, like Gisele, Heidi, or Kate, have been working for well over a decade, and even today's busiest models are scarcely known outside the industry.
Put simply, models no longer have the cultural cachet they once did.
Given the dramatic erosion of the modeling business, it's perhaps odd that women like Ireland, Moss, and Crawford continue to hold such sway with consumers. But viewed another way, their entrepreneurial success is not strange at all. Christy Turlington remains as stunning today as she was 20 years ago, but her life has evolved considerably since then. Though we might not have a handsome movie star husband like Ed Burns or a multi-million dollar Tribeca home, certainly many of us can relate to her attempt to raise two children while pursuing a master's degree. Motherhood is humanising, even for supermodels with legions of nannies and trainers to help them recover. And while their abs might be tauter than yours or mine, supermodels can't reverse the aging process. Fair or not, we're more likely to trust someone with a few laugh lines than we are a dewy-faced 19-year-old. Supermodels' appeal is still aspirational — after all, who wouldn't like to look like Cindy Crawford in a bikini? — if not quite superhuman.
A career in modeling also provides plenty of tough-but-valuable lessons for the would-be entrepreneur. It requires discipline, the ability to handle rejection and brush of skepticism and critics at every pass; resilience is key. As they meet with potential employers, models must exude self-confidence, while remaining constantly aware of their own flaws and shortcomings. Critically, the model is, from day one, her own rainmaker. She might have to go on hundreds of 'go sees' before booking a single job or collecting a single paycheck, so the job is a daily lesson in persistence. Almost by definition, a successful model must build an identifiable 'brand' long before she lends her name to anything. (Gisele's the beachy golden girl, Kate is the boho waif, Christy's the regal beauty.)
Savvy 'model-preneurs' know how to leverage their name recognition in one field into another. Most models make small leaps — Heidi Klum created 'Project Runway,' and Cindy Crawford peddles skin care products designed by her dermatologist. But no other supermodel has made a leap as dramatic as Kathy Ireland. The one-time bikini babe has licensed her name to some 15,000 different products, most of which are decidedly unsexy, from ceiling fans to entertainment centers to floor tiles. Unlike other models, Ireland refused to pigeonhole herself. The first product she licensed was a line of socks, rather than something more predictable like swimwear. This almost counterintuitive brand strategy has allowed Ireland to transcend her glamorous image, and expand her business into ever more diverse fields. It's also distinguished her from the supermodel pack: Elle McPherson sells lingerie, but would you buy a power drill from her? Probably not.
It also helps that Ireland is also relentlessly on-message when it comes to her brand identity. Her company motto, 'Finding solutions for families, especially busy moms,' might not be catchy, but it allows her the flexibility to sell a vast, hugely profitable array of products to millions of women across the country. Ireland also knows her name means something to consumers who might otherwise be overwhelmed picking out, say, the right concrete stain.
It goes to show you: never underestimate a pretty face.
This article first appeared in Forbes magazine.