All photos by Nikon Ambassador Dixie Dixon Courtesy of Jon Carrasco
She’s been on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (multiple times!) and Forbes Magazine — and we’re delighted that her sun-drenched smile is now on the cover of Travelgirl Magazine. Truly someone who’s gorgeous inside and out, Ms. Ireland is known for her philanthropy as much as her business acumen. She’s a success story with undeniable depth of character, and someone with a keen perspective on the evolving role of women and the issues making headlines today. Travelgirl Publisher Renee Werbin asked the supermodel turned supermogul to share some of her insights.
TG: You have had the most remarkable career; how did your modeling career begin? Did anyone in your family object to a modeling career at such a young age?
KI: My entrepreneurial career actually began long before my modeling one. First, I sold painted rocks from my wagon. I remember one day I was freshly home from school, had barely put down my books and I had homework to be done, when Dad gently shoved the newspaper under my nose. The glaring, politically incorrect, and thankfully, now illegal, employment offer read: “NEWSPAPER CARRIER WANTED! ARE YOU THE BOY FOR THE JOB?” Dad knew what reaction he was going to get.
We were raised to believe we could have any career in the world. Our parents were truly ahead of their time. I wrote a letter to the editor, and said, “No, I’m not the boy for the job… I’m the GIRL for the job. I can do this route as well as any boy.” After being hired, I won carrier of the year for as long as I held the route.
The next entrepreneurial job was fashion. Working as a model, I always felt like I was on the wrong side of the camera. I wanted to be the client. That’s a dream that’s come true.
TG: You appeared in an unprecedented 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated issues. What was the environment for women like back when you began modeling?
KI: It was a very sexist time. People who didn’t know their boundaries were easily exploited. Whenever there’s an accusation of predatory conduct, it’s important to accept that something ugly has transpired. One question that I always ask is: “Who is the predator?” For too long, women were not believed. What we’re seeing is an opening of the doors of women and men telling their truth.
It’s important not to categorize what’s inappropriate or tasteless as an attack. One of my concerns is that behaviors that require an apology are possibly being placed alongside situations where someone should be put on trial. In those cases, I believe in letting the appropriate result be the resolution.
There have been times when I’ve learned of predatory accusations. Because of my background, I always assumed no one would say such a thing if it weren’t true. What I’ve learned, after all these years, is that although it is rare, every single person who makes an accusation is not necessarily living in total integrity.
When men of questionable character tried to dominate me, I got in their faces! I remember telling one, “There’s no way I’m going to sleep with you… and you took my time, so you’re going to give me this job… and you’re going to pay me!”
Bullies must be confronted. Another photographer insisted I pose topless. Nothing wrong with that… but not comfortable for me. He went too far. He gave me a little push, and I gave him double-fisted punches in the face! He was hurt… not badly, but hurt physically… and again, I finished the job. The drugs… the sex… the exploitation of young girls was horrible.
My years with Sports Illustrated were sweet, because of a great mentor, editor and producer, Jule Campbell, who is Aunt Jule to our kids. We are still closer than close. I love the way she navigated the politics and stood strong for women during her tenure. MJ Day is the current editor of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. Like Jule, she is a strong, gifted, powerful woman.
TG: Did you have a mentor when you began your career?
KI: I’ve been fortunate enough to have many incredible mentors, starting with my parents. Dad always taught me to under-promise and over-deliver. If the customer expects the paper in the driveway, you put it on the front porch.
I learned early on to be paid for work. Some customers on the paper route were really generous. When customers didn’t pay, or bounced a check, I tried to work out a payment plan with them.
TG: You’ve had a modeling, film and television career; you are an accomplished author and your business judgment is legendary. Do you have a favorite part of your career; which one has been the most rewarding?
KI: You’re very kind! I wouldn’t call my on-camera work as an actor a career. My personal priorities are faith, family and being of service through our work. Being an entrepreneur is extremely rewarding, and being a mom is the best, and most important job I’ll ever have.
TG: You began your business career with a line of socks. Where did that idea originate?
KI: Our great partners, John and Marilyn Moretz offered an opportunity to model a pair of socks. [John Moretz is President and CEO of Moretz Marketing and was named managing director for kathy ireland® Worldwide.]
We said “no” to that (the modeling), but we did want to go into business with these extraordinary people. This is a wonderful moment to give John and Marilyn a personal shout-out of how much we love and appreciate them. That’s something we haven’t done enough of in the past.
TG: Talk about kathy ireland® Worldwide and how you turned a modeling career into a business empire.
KI: When our team learned of an opportunity to model a pair of socks, it was crucial to say “no” to that offer, and to propose a partnership strategy that is still in place today — after 23 years, and over 100 million pairs of socks sold globally. Sometimes we need to say no to good things in an effort to do great things. That disruption led to incredible growth in fashion apparel, fitness programming, and thousands of SKUs [a number used to identify an item in a company’s inventory] in the home industry.
So many female entrepreneurs, who began their careers during the same era as our company’s launch… have sold, given up, or somehow lost control of their entities. All geniuses. The market is littered with girls not winning at the boys’ game of owning your disruption.
Elizabeth Taylor… Warren Buffett… to a leader in the home industry, Irv Blumkin. All great disruptors.
The greatest disruptor of all? My best friend, Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The greatest mistake that anyone in our generation can make is being an obstacle, rather than a bridge, to your faith and your opportunities.
TG: You have an extraordinary friendship with Warren Buffett. Talk about the advice he gave you and how it impacted your direction.
KI: Mr. Buffett and I had met casually, however our friendship began through a mutual friend, Irv Blumkin, CEO of Nebraska Furniture Mart, and our first customer in the world of furniture. Irv is one of Mr. Buffett’s best friends, and friendships lead to other friendships!
Warren Buffett, who is clearly a business genius, mentor and friend, often reminds us, that despite the challenges in our country, to live in America is far more valuable… regardless of race or gender … than winning the lottery. America is the world’s most fertile soil for the uprising plant of disruption. One piece of advice given that made a great impact was, “Always do 10 things for someone else before asking for one.” That’s a philosophy we apply every day at kathy ireland® Worldwide.
TG: Your philanthropic endeavors are impressive, from the Marine Corps, to Toys for Tots, and the Friends of Sheba Medical Center in Israel — and there are many more listed on your website. Plus, you were recently named an ambassador for one organization, tell me about that.
KI: Elizabeth Taylor, an iconic film star, and beloved member of our family, disrupted our government, bigotry, schools, churches and the industries of science and medicine… by starting amFAR (American Foundation for Aids Research), the world’s largest HIV/AIDS research organization, as well as the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation for patient care, where I serve as ambassador. Before Elizabeth, everyone infected died of AIDS. Today, millions of people all over the world live healthy lives with HIV, because of Elizabeth’s disruption.
TG: Do you have a travel bucket list?
KI: I’ve been fortunate enough to visit many places around the world that would qualify for most bucket lists!
TG: What’s your favorite destination?
KI: Visiting Israel is always a dream. It feels more like home than any place besides our literal home. Also Haiti… Honduras… Spain… Africa… it’s an endless list.
TG: What advice do you have for those who hope to follow in your famous footsteps?
KI: Whatever your choice, please understand your personal values and priorities… why do you believe what you believe? Please don’t succumb to groupthink! Have conviction and put boundaries in place that will protect your values — they will be challenged. Knowing them, and making the decision to honor them, is a great protective mechanism. It’s never too late to start.
So often, we limit ourselves; if my career proves anything, it’s that everything is possible if you work to achieve your dreams. If this could happen to me, just imagine what is out there for you to go and get.