Fresh from the pages of the first issue of The Daily this season: Move over, Martha! The richest model of all time isn’t Naomi, Christie, or Cindy—it’s this former Sports Illustrated face and perky mother of three who dabbles in fashion, entertaining, wedding, home décor, and even pets. Meet our favorite billionaire, Kathy Ireland!
It’s been 25 years since you last graced Sports Illustrated. Do you reminisce?
I don’t think of my images too often, but I do remember those days fondly. What an education and experience! Jule Campbell was the editor at the time, and she was such a mentor to me. Watching a woman navigate in what appeared to be a male-dominated world and fight for the integrity of her brand was amazing.
Does it all feel like a lifetime ago?
Oh, my goodness, yes.
How did you transition from model to successful mogul?
Well, thank you for saying that. I entered the modeling industry as a businessperson already. I’ve worked since I was a little kid. When the modeling opportunity came to me, I looked at it as a chance to make some money for college or to start a business. The modeling career went on much longer than I anticipated. I wasn’t all that as a model. I was okay. The publications were much more celebrated than I was, personally.
You launched your business, Kathy Ireland Worldwide, in 1993. Now, you sell candles, windowpanes, wedding dresses, and workout videos. How did you come up with all this?
Listening! I’m sensitive to that, coming from modeling, where my job description was to shut up and pose. I recognized the importance of being heard. The key to our success is listening to my bosses—the women out there—and implementing what they tell me. It all has my name on it, but it’s a lowercase k and a lowercase i. It’s not about me.
What did you sell first?
We started our brand with a pair of socks in 1993, and we entered the area of fashion for the home in 1998. We began with a mission of finding solutions for families, especially busy moms. That was my customer starting out. When I became a mom for the first time, I recognized instantly how underserved these women are. A shower became a luxury. We wanted to honor her and work with retail partners who give her a good experience. Our mission has expanded to people in business and finding solutions for people in love with all things bridal, including our Kathy Ireland resorts and destinations. We now have a resort in Fiji, two in Hawaii, five in California, and we’re looking at ones on the East Coast and in Greece.
And you have some die-hard millennial fans, too!
They don’t know me as a model. These little girls write to me and tell me they grew up in the princess bouquet bedroom set that I designed, and when they would lay in bed, they’d want me to do their wedding. Now we’re designing for babies. We have educational toys for preschoolers! We keep true to our mission. We don’t have limits. We have guys on our team who remind me to not forget about them, so we’re reaching them, too.
What do you think about modeling these days?
I’m so encouraged when I see so many young men and women in that industry taking what they’ve built for themselves. Kate Upton is a perfect example. She’s brilliant. I appreciate the work ethic that I see in her. People have opportunities, so are they going to be passive with it or take it and build upon it? You have to be strategic and have a vision. I’m always encouraging young people to not just react to what comes your way. It’s much more responsive to be proactive and figure out what you want and go after it. Something I share, particularly with women, is what a gift rejection is. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but my greatest gift from modeling was all the rejection. People would laugh at me in the face when I was starting my business and selling socks.
Do youngsters ask you for advice?
They do, and I appreciate it! I believe in mentors. I’ve been blessed to be mentored by incredible people like my parents, Jule Campbell, and Elizabeth Taylor. She turned my thinking and world around. She made me look at my life, philanthropy, and business with a whole new set of eyes. She continues to be relevant at all times and mentor me from heaven.
How did you meet Elizabeth Taylor?
We met through a beloved mutual friend. She became family. I was very well aware of her legacy, but her courage continues to inspire.
Did you graduate from college?
I did not. I barely finished high school. I’m still passionate about education. I serve on educational boards. Sometimes our kids will say something like, “You didn’t have an education, so why do I have to have one?” The public sees the glossy finish, but they see my struggles, my hard work, and my failures. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think that had I had an education, maybe this would have been a little smoother. I know that we’re not all built the same and traditional school isn’t for everyone, but education in some shape or form is critical.
Do you ever sleep?
Not enough! I love what I do. Another key to the success is our team: Most of us have been together for 26 years now. I know my strengths, and I’m painfully aware of my weaknesses. When you treat the people you work with the way you would want your family members to be treated, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish together.
What’s the hardest thing about being the boss?
The responsibility is tremendous. I’ve been accused of being a control freak, but I prefer to think of it as passionate. Early on I hesitated to grow, because I feared if we grew too quickly, how would we be able to control what was going on in all of the factories. When we started making socks, we did surprise factory inspections. You find out a lot when you show up unexpectedly. How people are treated has always been on the forefront of my mind.
What do you splurge on?
I love to take time with our family. I also love to go surfing. I’m not very good, but it’s really fun, and you can’t have a bad day in the ocean.
Have you been to NYFW in recent years?
Not recently, but our design team is there continually reporting back to me.
Who knew? Do you keep in touch with any models from your time?
When I was model, I was mostly living in Southern California. I kept an apartment in New York, but I never stayed for more than a couple of weeks. A lot of my work was on location, so I was pretty transient. My girlfriends today are the ones I’ve had since junior high school. There are a few I see every now and then, like Beverly Johnson and Cindy Crawford. They are wonderful, wonderful women.
Now you’re also doing shows for Fox Business Network!
The premise of the first show is interviewing CEOs and entrepreneurs and hearing their stories. It’s a wonderful education to hear people’s stories and their innovations. The other, Modern Living, is more fashion, lifestyle, and innovators.
You were on the cover of Vogue Italia and in the movie Alien From L.A. in the same year!
Oh, my gosh! Wasn’t that a great movie? [Laughs] Every time my mom watches that movie, she cries. Other people cry, but not for that reason. I tell people I was never an actor and I’ve got the movies to prove it! My acting career was fun and an opportunity, but I knew it wasn’t a strength. I am grateful for it, because it was fun and paid the bills. Two of the projects I am proud of were Once Upon a Christmas and Twice Upon a Christmas, which we produced.
I’m going to rent Alien From L.A. tonight and cry!
Please don’t! I dare you to sit through the whole thing! [Laughs] I’m so grateful for this interview!