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Behind the Scenes at Ford Models: The Making of the Super-Agent with Jill Cohen-Perlman

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Jill-Cohen Perlman started working at Ford Model agency in 1983 at the height of the “supermodel” era when she was only 23 years old. She worked her way up to High Board booker, working with models such as the young Carolyn Murphy and Amber Valetta, until she left the agency in 1993. Armed with her years of knowledge, Cohen-Perlman opened own agency IconicFocus with partners Patty Sicular, also at Ford Models, and Lori Modugno, which aims to “prove that beauty and age are synonymous.” She now represents some of the most memorable faces of the 70s, 80s and 90s including Marisa Berenson, Dayle Haddon, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Beverly Peele, Carré Otis, Veronica Webb, Patricia Velasquez, and Kara Young amongst many other legends.

JJ: Why and how did you become an agent?

JCP: I thought to myself–what can I do that I can get out there and use my best talents which are guiding and helping people. So, I decided, what’s the best agency out there? It was Ford Models. I pretended I had an appointment and I walked into the agency and said “Hi, I’m here to see Eileen Ford. I have an appointment with her.” There was a woman sitting at the desk and she very blatantly said, “Eileen’s not in town and I don’t see you have an appointment.” I was lucky enough that Katie Ford was standing there. I asked if she had a minute. She took me into her office and I told her I didn’t have an appointment but I really want to work for your agency and I love everything about it. Please give me five minutes and let me talk to her [Eileen].

What happened when you spoke to Mrs. Ford?

I met with Mrs. Ford in her office and we had a lovely conversation. She said there was nothing available and I said “I’ll do anything. I will sweep the floors. I will clean the toilet bowels.” She responded, “You’re going to clean toilet bowls?” and I said, “hand me the brush.” She said I was hired.

What were the 80s like at the Agency? Did you sense something big was happening in fashion?

I was at the clubs in the city like Studio 54, The Tunnel, and Limelight. It was like fashion was really starting to change, really getting wild. It was an incredible era for fashion because they were doing anything and everything. It was the time when they were signing the girls to million dollar cosmetics contracts. It was the era of Christy Turlington and all the supermodels. That’s when they all started [the 80s]. They were babies. I handled Carolyn Murphy and Amber Valetta when they were 16 and 17.

I am assuming you didn’t actually scrub toilet bowls...what did you do when you first started your new job at Ford?

After 6 or 7 weeks my seat was on the ‘High Board’ and I was answering phones for the agency. Any phone call that came into the agency for bookers I filtered through. Being on the High Board I got to meet all the models that came in and I got to listen as to how the women on the high board booked and did their jobs. So I was like this sponge.

Then I realized that all the clients and photographers who were calling I was speaking to first. I understood how first impressions matter so much because then you're memorable. So I started having conversations with them when they’d call and know them by name. This helped me when I eventually became the High Board booker and they knew who I was.

And then?

I went next to the Promotion Department. I learned from Stewart Rahtz who was my mentor. He was the one who made me realize that relationships with your clients are the most important thing.

I did that for six months and moved to the High Board. After one year I went from zero to the High Board. This was like being placed in a lion's den. They started me with the young girls like Carolyn Murphy and Amber Valetta. She [Eileen] gave me the young girls because they could relate to me who was not much older.

What does an agent do?

As an agent, you have to evaluate the model you have and where you’re setting the bar. Not every girl is an editorial girl. Back then editorial girls didn’t make money, but editorial produced campaigns. So if a client saw you in the editorial world, they wanted to book you for Estée Lauder and Revlon. The ultimate goal was to get a contract. A very small percentage did, but a lot of girls had repeat clients that would book them.

In your head you say I don’t want her doing bargain basement anymore. I’d rather you do less bookings and promote you towards better bookings that give you a value. Once your value goes up then your rate goes up. Once a girl made it to the High Board (not all girls did) it was about negotiating rates for the model. It’s the art of the deal.

Being on the high board it's like being on a race horse all day. You’re running and doing constantly. Because you are seeking out clients and then trying to promote your girls. And if it wasn’t your girl–because the most important thing was the agency–so whoever was right for the job is who you promoted.

The most important thing to me as an agent was making the girls feel relevant and not just like a beautiful face on a clothes hanger. That is what was important to me–being their friend. It was a very lonely and critical world out there. When I started in the business, the girls were much younger. They weren’t allowed to go out alone, so that’s how I became friends with the girls. Eileen would have me take them out at night. To make sure there were eyes on them at all times and they were never left to have anybody take advantage of them. I wasn’t that much older than them so it became natural for me to have that relationship with them.

Are the models you represent in the agency you founded, IconicFocus, the models you formed such strong relationships with at Ford?

Many of them [the models represented by IconicFocus] were from the Ford Agency. But many others were women that we felt were not being represented and they never thought they’d model again.

For me now being a 60-year-old woman, I’d like to see what people my age were wearing. We’re cool and we’re not wearing housecoats like back in the day. You have to be able to look in a magazine or go on a retail website and be able to see how you’d look in something. You need to identify that that woman is your age.

For me the perfect campaign would be a generational campaign. Fashion doesn’t end in your 20s and 30s, fashion is forever. That is the beauty of this industry now. The doors have opened for everybody.

What is the most important thing you learned in the industry?

My relationship as an agent was not only being an agent but a friend. And to make sure the models were okay physically and mentally. That was for me the most important.

This business is a cutthroat business, but they [my models] always knew that there was somebody there with a net underneath them to help them. Being positive, having an open relationship and talking was the most important. Now, they have children who are carrying on a legacy, and as parents they can support them. It goes down the line. What you learn is what you give back to the next generation.

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