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By Design : Q & A : Nina Blanchard

March 02, 1995|GAILE ROBINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

N ina Blanchard is throwing in the facial tissue. On Wednesday, the woman who discovered Cheryl Tiegs and Rene Russo signed over her Los Angeles modeling agency to New York powerhouse Ford Models. Two days before her retirement party--when she should have been cleaning out her desk, picking through paper clips and the accumulated mementos of the past three decades--she was wound tighter than an Ace bandage. In between issuing orders to her staff and fielding dozens of phone calls, she indulged in a nostalgic tour of modeling through the ages.

Question: How long has it been?

Answer: Thirty-four years, and I'm worn to a nub.

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Q: Is that why you're leaving?

A: No, I'm tired of telling people "no." It wore me down, rejecting people, to keep saying "no." There may not be anything wrong with them other than they're not model material, but in the final analysis, I've turned them down.

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Q: And in your capacity as a consultant to Ford Models, you won't have to do that anymore?

A: I won't be here at all. They don't need me. They're a huge name. And that's what it takes to be successful now. The business has become so international, so global, you have to have offices in New York, Paris, Milan, one in Miami and one here. Ford stayed out of Los Angeles 'cause I was here.

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Q: Was this by agreement?

A: Yes. There was always an allegiance and friendship there.

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Q: When did you and Eileen (Ford) become friends? Did you know her in New York before you came to California?

A: No, in New York I was a struggling actress. Then my husband and I came to Los Angeles. He was sick and I had to go to work.

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Q: Maybe you'd better start at the beginning.

A: I started at a tiny modeling agency that was part of a school, as a receptionist. That lasted not very long. Then I worked for another school. Then a friend of mine, a model, said, "You should be an agent." Her husband, Hugh French, a publicist, handled big stars like Elizabeth Taylor. He was a love. He loaned me a tiny office and I was off and flying blind.

The big thing in town then was commercials. So I specialized in print and commercials. I was the first to do that.

After about six or eight months, Hugh said I had to move out. He needed that office. I had no money or credit. Someone said go to the Jewish Free Loan. I said, I'm not Jewish. They said go anyway. So I went. They loaned me $180. It covered first and last month's rent on an office next to the old Bistro in Beverly Hills. It was a dinky little office.

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Q: How old were you then?

A: Forget it, I'm not telling you how old I was. Let's just say I wasn't 11.

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Q: Right, older than 11.

A: Not 11. The first big name I got was Dolores Hawkins. For that day, nobody was bigger. She moved out here from New York and called me. She wanted to come by the office. I told her, "No, to be honest, the office is a rat hole." She said, "Listen, I'm with Eileen Ford in New York. It's not the size of the chandelier, but how good an agent you are." I signed her and was smart enough to have (head sheet) cards made up on her. Other models came to me because they thought if she was with me, I must be somebody.

Then I signed Peggy Moffitt. (Designer) Rudi Gernreich told Peggy to come see me. She was No. 13. I had 13 girls, 11 were total neophytes, two were professionals--Dolores and Peggy. Then I went to New York.

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Q: Why did you have to go to New York?

A: Because you had to have relationships with agencies in New York and Paris, or have offices in those cities. That way when the models from New York came to L.A., I could book them on shoots here. Anyway, I went to New York with pictures of my 13 girls. When I called Vogue they said, "Oh, California--isn't that where they dye their shoes to match their clothes?"

Two people were nice to me. Eileen Ford was nice to me. The other person was (actress) Ali MacGraw. She was a stylist or whatever for Melvin Sokolsky, the photographer. She was precious to me, couldn't have been nicer. Ali and I have stayed friends since then.

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Q: What were models like Dolores making then?

A: About $30 an hour. Dolores might have gotten $50. In those days, the early '60s, famous models like Suzy Parker were not jet-setting or dating rock stars. They were known within the industry, but not like they are today.

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Q: When did that change?

A: In the '70s. I think the look of magazines changed. They no longer had wonderful, great fashion pictures by Hiro and Penn. I noticed it first in Harper's Bazaar, sometime in the mid-'60s with the jumping girls. There was all this movement to the fashion shots. And they were using new models. Some of the girls were, ah, let's say, more colorful. They got involved with rock stars, and they started living a different lifestyle.

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Q: Was this good for the business but bad for the girl?

A: The fast life may have hurt individual girls, but it didn't hurt the industry. That's when rates skyrocketed, when the models became superstars.

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