Model Wars and the Birth of the Supermodel
I already know I’m going to be living for the Cindy Crawford-produced model drama when it debuts on NBC sometime in 2016. The show will focus on the infamous “model wars” between three top New York modelling agencies that began in 1977 and lasted well into the ’80s. Before John Casablancas established Elite’s New York office in 1977, the two ruling agencies in the country were Ford and Wilhelmina (who was a former Ford model) and, even though Eileen Ford thought of Wilhelmina as a traitor, they tried not to step on each other’s feet. Casablancas, fresh from Paris and a member of the European jetset elite, was young more open-minded to the decadent ways of the late ’70s disco era. He made Eileen Ford look like a nun.
Aside from stepping on her territory, Casablancas recruited two of the best Ford staffers, publicist Jo Zagami (who would late become a vice-president) and the legendary booker Monique Pillard. The day Elite opened, it is said that he sent a letter to Eileen Ford asking her to set up so-sees for her models. It was signed, “Love, John.” In response, Ford sent Zagami and Pillard two Bibles with passages about Judas (the traitor) underlined in red ink.
Ford lost some its top models almost immediately — Jerry Hall, Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson — a loss which cost the agency over half a million dollars (about $2 million today) in yearly earnings. At the same time, Wilhelmina’s top earners Iman and Patti Hansen also defected to Elite. Both agencies sued Elite, Ford for $7.5 million and Wilhelmina for $4 million. The latter also sued Iman for violation and contract and the model was ordered by court to return to Wilhelmina.
For the next few years, models hopped back and forth. Elite wasn’t without loss. Christie Brinkley and Lisa Taylor (my favourite) left Ford for Elite only to return to Ford. Casablancas also lost one of his original models, the athletic Esmé Marshall to Ford. Beverly Johnson returned to Ford and then went back to Elite. After Wilhelmina’s death in 1980, a few top models who remained loyal like Gia Carangi left the agency. She joined Ford and then Elite, before quitting modelling all together due to her escalating drug habit.
Each agency was promising models more money, hence all the back and forth. Model earnings rose by 400%. In 1977, daily fee of a top model like Janice Dickinson was $750. Within two years, it rose to $2,000. Some smaller brands had to turn to still lives or illustrations for their seasonal catalogues as they couldn’t afford the escalating fees. Through this war, models became supermodels, eventually leading to Linda Evangelista’s “I don’t get out of bed for less that $10,000 a day.”
Now imagine all of this as a primetime drama series? Add sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and we might just have the greatest guilty pleasure of all time. It’s got to be better than campy ’80s Paper Dolls, Spelling’s Models Inc. or CW’s shameful TBL.
“The Spoiled Supermodels” by Antony Haden-Guest, New York Magazine, 1981
“The Dawn of the Supermodel” by Michael Gross, New York Magazine, 1995
“The Fashion World Is Rocked by Model Wars, Part Two: the Ford Empire Strikes Back” by By Salley Rayl, Harriet Shapiro, Lee Wohlfert, People, 1980