She has the distinction of appearing in 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, but it’s Kathy Ireland‘s post-modeling career that’s really impressive. Starting in 1993 with a brand of socks crafted from recycled materials and sold at Kmart, she grew her business into Kathy Ireland Worldwide, which now includes everything from apparel and luggage to home furnishings and design products.
According to the latest estimates from Forbes, Kathy has a net worth of $360 million, making her one of the wealthiest former models in the world. “I was the annoying kid that would go door-to-door selling things. My first adventure was when I was 4 years old. I painted and sold rocks from my wagon,” Kathy, 57, tells Closer exclusively in the latest issue, on newsstands now. “Modeling was a wonderful education, though it was never part of my plan. It enabled me to pay some bills, but I always knew that I belonged on the other side of the lens.”
Where do you think you got your aptitude for business?
When I was a kid, my mom did everything from babysitting to starting a housekeeping business. She was an Avon lady. She sold dresses and I’d make handbags and jewelry to go with them and we’d sell them at beach fairs. [Meanwhile] my dad worked in labor relations. As a girl, watching him fight for those who were being oppressed had a huge impact on me.
Did you enjoy your years as a model?
Yes and no. I’m grateful. It exposed me to the world and I got to travel to amazing places. But I learned the dangers. I met some wonderful people, but I also met predators who were preying on children. There are some really unsavory people in the industry. There was an incident where I punched a photographer and ran.
Did you put some of those experiences into your recent novel, Fashion Jungle?
Yes. It’s fiction, but it’s based on true stories that happened in my life and in the lives of my roommates and the girls that I worked with. I hadn’t planned on sharing a lot of those stories, but when I met [co-author] Rachel [Van Dyken] I quickly learned that I could trust her with this information. Fashion Jungle is a cautionary tale because modeling can be a tough business.
Did being a model open doors for you in business?
There were certain doors that were open to me, but they weren’t the right doors. They weren’t doors where people were taking my ideas seriously. Ultimately we wasted each other’s time. What I tell someone is that if you have the gift of anonymity, no one has a preconceived notion of who you are, and you can design your image however you want.
Did success as an entrepreneur come easily to you?
We’ve had our shares of failures and struggles. We survived a bankruptcy with our then-only retail partner Kmart. Those days were pretty rough. We put in a lot of sweat equity. But that’s what I’d like to share with people, if I can do it, anyone can do it.
What lessons have you shared with your three children about success?
What I teach our kids is to figure out what your values are and put boundaries in place to protect them because they will be challenged. Know what you believe and why you believe in it.
That’s great advice. How would you place your values?
For me, it’s faith, then family and then being of service in our work. When those priorities are out of order, it is always a disaster.
How involved are you with the products you sell?
I get accused of being a control freak! I prefer to think of it as passionate. I am very passionate about all of it. That includes the “how.” How are things being made? Are people being cheated in the factories? We’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in our human rights contracts, this comes from my parents and my experiences in the modeling industry.
You are also very passionate about giving back. You’re an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
I loved Elizabeth. In the 1980s, her heart was broken because people were dying of AIDS and nobody was doing anything. She was like, “Wait a minute, I’m somebody, I can do something.” She had such courage, strength and kindness. Even when she was in physical pain, it never stopped her from trying to help whoever was in need. She became family to me.
What are your favorite personal memories of her?
There are so many! One time, I came home and there were guys in our yard. We live at the base of a mountain and Elizabeth knew that the winds would come and the power would go off sometimes. Without telling me, she had the big gest generator installed! Two weeks later, there was a huge fire. My kids were safe at their grandparents but my husband I ran home to get the animals, and then the power goes out and the generator kicked in! She had such vision.
You also are the International Youth Chair for the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.
I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t been impacted by the horrors of cancer. But with all of the research that’s done, only 4 percent goes toward children. And every day 43 children are diagnosed with cancer in America. So we have Team 43, encouraging people to give 43 cents or $43 or whatever increments of 43 you can, toward this important cause.
How much do you lean on your faith?
My relationship with Jesus is my foundation. I can’t imagine my life without that, but I don’t impose my faith on anybody. I work with an incredibly inclusive team made up of people of every race, ethnicity and belief system. I believe in diversity.
What advice would you like to give to your younger self?
I would say don’t worry about the small stuff. Figure out a solution when there’s a problem but do not worry and do not be afraid. That’s all just wasted time.
For this story and more, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now.