How this supermodel-turned-CEO shapes her figure and lifestyle.
by Allan Richter
For much of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Kathy Ireland personified the term “supermodel.” Sporting a broad smile, sparkling blue eyes and a lean figure, the auburn-haired beauty regularly graced the cover and pages of Sports Illustrated’s famous swimsuit issues, including the cover of its 25th anniversary edition.
Fast-forward to late 2008, when Ireland faced the lens not of a professional photographer but that of her teenage son Erik. Ireland had been baking cookies and Erik took a candid photo of his mom. The 25 extra pounds Ireland had put on over the years suddenly became apparent in that single image.
During her modeling heyday, Ireland was active and could largely rely on her metabolism to help keep her weight down. Now in her 40s she realized the sedentary nature of ferrying around her kids Erik, 16, Lily, 11, and Chloe, 7, did not provide the same calorie-burning workout as frolicking before the cameras along the California shoreline.
“When I gained the weight I would just eat anything I wanted, whenever I wanted and I didn’t realize I was subconsciously eating,” says Ireland, 47. “I’d be making my business calls and I’d have a bag of candy, kind of snacking and not really realizing what I was doing. When you have kids and you’re always raiding their Halloween and Easter candy and there’s always stuff, it just kind of sneaks up on you.”
Ireland studied rather than delete the photo her son took, using it as motivation to regain her health. She enlisted the help of friend and trainer Jenny Schatzle. The experience gave Ireland a renewed focus on fitness and diet. When there is little available time for exercise, she looks for the longest route to her destination. She cooks with olive oil, eats with awareness and keeps vitamins A and D handy. She initially lost 12 pounds, gained much of it back, then lost 17 pounds. “I thought, ‘This is good. I don’t need to lose the whole 25. I’m happy, this is fine,” she said. Her greatest weight loss came during her rigorous stint on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The secret to Ireland’s weight loss may also be at work in her great entrepreneurial success. She says she has long tuned out the white noise of media-created conventional wisdom and lives to her own agenda. When Ireland launched a line of designer socks in 1993, naysayers dismissed her entry into the business world. Today her Kathy Ireland Worldwide lifestyle company has topped $1.4 billion in global sales of a wide range of home goods and furnishings.
After a breakfast of Greek yogurt with fresh berries, roasted almonds and agave, Ireland spoke with us from Santa Monica, California, where she lives with husband Greg Olsen, who is both an emergency room physician and a commercial fisherman, and their three children.
Energy Times: Tell me more about how the photo your son took of you helped instigate your approach to health—and how you did that on your own terms.
Kathy Ireland: Shortly after my book Real Solutions for Busy Moms (Howard Books) was put to bed, our son, who had recently got a camera, was running around the house taking pictures of everything in sight, including me. Our youngest daughter started chuckling. She said, “Mommy you look like you’re pregnant.” I was tempted to hit delete on the camera. It wasn’t so much the weight gain because there is no shame in a weight gain; beautiful people come in all shapes, sizes, ages and colors. What was alarming was that I saw someone who just looked over-stressed, overwhelmed, over-everything and certainly not healthy, certainly not taking her own advice. I knew this book was coming out very shortly afterwards. The photo on the cover is a lovely retouched photo, and the photo that our son had just taken was a real photo. The first word in the title of the book is “real.”
It was very obvious I wasn’t taking my own advice. It was very humbling. I look at failure as education, and in that respect I am very well educated.
I decided to share the photo because I know it’s a reality for women. There is so much pressure on us to conform, to look a certain way. After my weight gain people were asking me if I was going to climb into a swimsuit again and how much I weigh. It’s not about that. What people weren’t asking me was “What are your cholesterol levels and your triglyceride levels?” An extra 25 pounds can take 10 years off your life. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in our country. That’s what concerns me and that’s the motivator. I’m too rebellious to lose pounds in order to squeeze into a certain size, that doesn’t do it for me. If society says you’ve got to be an 8 or look a certain way that doesn’t work for me. I am motivated by knowing that it’s going to add years and quality to my life so I can keep up with our kids.
I’m just inspired by people who are mature in years and continue to do great things. When I’m 100 I want to be out there surfing. I want to have fun. There is so much to do. I want to be with our great-grandchildren.
ET: Who inspires you?
KI: Elizabeth Taylor. She spent her 75th birthday going shark diving for the first time. She’s family. She’s just such a dear. Even before I met her she served as a mentor. There’s so much to learn from this woman. What’s inspiring about her is how tough she is, and I say that as a compliment. When someone calls me tough, I love it. Someone once asked me if as a CEO I’ve ever had to fire people and if I am tough. I said I hope I’m tough. I hope I would fight for our team and really protect them. You can be tough and gentle at the same time. You want to be ethical and fair and have integrity, but tough.
Elizabeth Taylor goes to battle for what she believes in. In the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was just beginning, she was frustrated that so little was being done. Her friends and her business associates pleaded with her to just let this thing alone. “It’s going to kill your career,” they said. People hung up on her when she asked for help. She received death threats. But she didn’t let that stop her. She just turned down that noise, battled forward and started her HIV/AIDS foundation.
ET: You said you are too rebellious to adapt to convention. Where else has that attitude shown up in your life?
KI: I was rebellious against modeling. It was not a career that I aspired to. I’m grateful for it, and it turned out to be a great education. It exposed me to the best designers of the world and people of all different cultures. My girlfriends used to give me such grief. They said, “I’m not going to spend money on magazines to look at pictures of skinny retouched women wearing clothes that we can’t afford. We’ll let you get away with it now because you’re wearing other people’s stuff, but when you have your own brand you better make it real. Don’t forget about us.” It really inspired the mission of our brand, which is finding solutions for families, especially busy moms, and keeping it real.
When the owner of an agency told me I had to chop my hair off because that was the look of the moment, I grew it longer. I never would do anything to really alter my appearance—I mean makeup, yeah and that kind of stuff—but I wasn’t going to starve myself in order to fit someone else’s expectations.
ET: After you put on 25 pounds, how did you address all those issues—cholesterol and triglyceride levels and concerns about heart disease—that are related to weight gain?
KI: I have become more alert to healthy choices, especially when I saw how easy it is to pack the pounds on now. I was actually a vegetarian when I was a kid. When I was nine years old I watched a lot of cartoons, and the animals had personalities; I didn’t want to eat them. My mom was getting into nutrition at the time. She realized that I can have protein from other sources so they let me do it. And this was in the Seventies when it wasn’t too cool for kids. They called me “Veggie.” I did that for ten years but when I started modeling and traveling I just got hungry being in a lot of developing countries where there just weren’t a lot of choices. You kind of got to eat what’s in front of you if you’re going to eat anything at all. So I haven’t been a vegetarian in a long time.
But I’ve kind of gone back to a plant-based diet and not having protein be the largest portion of the meal. I’ve also got a real sweet tooth so I’m just more aware of my sugar intake. When I start noticing the weight is going in a direction that’s not so good I just stop the sugar. I don’t really like deprivation. It makes me really cranky and really wreaks havoc on your metabolism.
ET: What is your exercise regimen?
KI: I’ve always loved sports. Growing up and throughout my modeling that’s how I got my exercise. I didn’t think of it as exercise because I was doing what I loved and the result was exercise. I love surfing, hiking, riding my bike. I love being outdoors. Some of my sports are seasonal, some work specific parts of the body so that can be difficult. I do try to include sit-ups and just taking some time to do some crunches, a few pushups and a few sit ups. I try to get some type of aerobic activity at least three days a week, maybe a hike, maybe just riding my bike.
Finding time to exercise is not easy. But even if it’s taking the least-desired parking spot, where you have to walk farther, or little things like taking the stairs all add up. Now I look for those opportunities. You have to make the time for exercise. Look at it as a meeting, if business or PTA meetings are part of your life. Have a meeting for yourself.
ET: What’s behind your successful transition from supermodel to CEO?
KI: When I was modeling I had the great blessing of having worked all my life. My first job was when I was four years old selling painted rocks from my wagon. I just always worked. I entered the modeling industry as a business person already. The entire time I was working in that industry I was trying and failing at businesses. Had I succeeded earlier my modeling career wouldn’t have gone on as it did. It
wasn’t until ‘93 that I started our brand with a pair of socks.
I didn’t have that desperation: “I’ve got to make it in modeling otherwise I’m doomed.” I’ve seen this happen with people in modeling: You can be the most gorgeous person but if you don’t have the look of the moment it’s very fickle. It never felt secure to me to earn a paycheck based on how someone else perceived how I looked. I was grateful, but I always knew I belonged on the other side of the camera. I looked at the clients and daydreamed about being a client someday. And I built a business today that has absolutely nothing to do with my appearance.
ET: What overriding message would you point to in your book Real Solutions for Busy Moms?
KI: It’s kind of a “mom-apedia,” a parenting guide. I really encourage women to figure out what their priorities are and then put boundaries in place. I was 40 years old before I learned that “no” is a complete sentence. As women we oftentimes want to do everything.