Kathy Ireland’s name may conjure up the glamorous image of a blue-eyed, tawny-maned Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, but Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg was pleased to find that Kathy’s still every bit as beautiful on the inside as she is on the surface. The mom of three and model-turned-mega-mogul — to the tune of a $1.4 billion design empire encompassing more than 15,000 products — takes a rare breather to chat about her family, faith and life in Santa Barbara.
Leslie Dinaberg: What are you doing now? I know you’re busy with all kinds of things.
My very first job, I was 4 and I grew up on Rockcreek Road in San Roque, so we had a lot of rocks in my neighborhood. My sister and I used to collect them and we’d wash them off and paint them, and we’d go door-to-door selling our rocks in our wagon. So the design and the business thing has always been a really big interest of mine. (Laughs)
But today to be able to sell different kind of rocks here at Bryant & Sons is really cool. I mean, that’s really a dream. We developed a jewelry line a few years back, and just to be able to work with such great retail partners; they are such a great organization. Then we have an online floral business that’s based out of Carpinteria: fabulousflorals.com, and it’s been really fun. I work closely with world-renowned landscape designer Nicholas Walker of J du J, which stands for Jardin du Jour, and that’s part of our brand.
... Our mission is finding solutions for families, especially busy moms, and then in jewelry we’ve expanded it to finding solutions for people in love. But everything we do has to be solution oriented.
LD: I remember you being pretty artistic in my one and only high school art class at San Marcos High.
KI: You’re sweet. My sketches are rough and I’m a little bit of a control freak. I really care a lot about what we do. Back when I used to model, way back when, I was OK but I certainly wasn’t super, and I think that’s a blessing because when we started our brand in 1993 it was really started from the ground up — with socks.
I was actually offered to model a pair of socks. It was a really tiny budget — not enough for a photo retoucher, no exotic locations — but it was a job and it was a time when not a lot of jobs were coming my way. I just thought, if I don’t close this chapter of my life I’m never going to live my dream of a designing business. I had tried and failed in so many businesses. The reason the modeling went on as long as it did is because all of those other businesses just weren’t working.
I had put a little team together ... While some people were spending money on cars and clothes I was investing in people: an art director, a creative director, experts in marketing. I know my strengths and I’m painfully aware of my weaknesses, which are many. I love the idea of working with a team, and thought it would be interesting to see what our team could bring with fashion and innovation to something as basic as a pair of socks. If women embraced it, we might be on to something. We just started the process ... and it grew.
LD: Where were you in your personal life at that point?
KI: I was pregnant and at my kitchen table when it all happened. When our son was born it was like the mission really crystallized. I quickly learned how underserved busy moms are. All moms work, whether they get paid or not, and things like taking a shower became a huge luxury. So that’s why every part of our brands, and even with our retail partners, it’s got to be a solution.
LD: I would imagine you’re pulled in a lot of different directions just with your company, let alone the other things that you’re doing with your family and nonprofit work. How do you balance that?
KI: Every day is different. I don’t always have balance but what I strive for is peace. So that’s really what I want. ... It’s hard, but my days start and end with our kids — always — and I’m really grateful I work with a great team and they really get it. I was upfront with them from the beginning.
One thing I always knew, I always changed my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I wanted to be a mom, and that’s been consistent and planned for and I work with people who get it.
We’ll take my calendar 18 months out, but we start with their calendar, what’s going on in their lives. Then the work things fall around them. And things change. Life changes on a regular basis but it starts with them. I work on trying daily to just honor my priorities, and it’s my faith, it’s my family and being of service through our work. When I do that, then I feel the peace. When I don’t, I’m a mess. (Laughs)
LD: That’s not easy to do. I saw you do the red carpet Academy Awards pre-show. How do things like that fit in with everything else?
KI: That was a real stretch in a lot of ways. I really prefer being on the other side of the camera.
KI: Oh, yeah. That’s one of the things about modeling, I knew I belonged on the other side of the camera and was just trying to get there — it just took me a little while. But I was really grateful for that experience (at the Oscars). I had just gotten back from Haiti and went straight to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), and it was such a different kind of experience from being there.
LD: I bet.
KI: It was a really good experience. Some people were really kind. A lot of people were really not kind. Somebody said to me, “How do you handle all the rejection?”
I mean you’re in business every day, doors slam; it’s just what it is. One of the great blessings of that long-ago modeling career is all the rejection. It gives you perseverance ... I listen and if there’s something I can learn from it, I’m really grateful. But it’s basically, I don’t know if you’ve read this kid’s book, it’s called You are Special by Max Lucado?
LD: I have read that.
KI: That’s what it is, it’s like the Wemmicks, and the gold stars and the gray dots, and it’s not letting the stickers stick. People will label you, they’ll put their judgments on you, good or bad. But it’s just keeping a perspective of whose opinion really matters and that’s all you really need to really worry about.
LD: That’s good grounding. Do you just evaluate opportunities on a case-by-case basis?
KI: Right. That (the Oscars) was an opportunity. I talked about it a lot with our team and it was an opportunity to connect with a lot more people than I do normally. I always kind of had to fight. In high school I was totally shy. I really didn’t know that many people and it’s something I kind of have to fight to break out of that shy and selfish shell. It really is selfish when you think about it. Mrs. Free, my fourth-grade teacher at Monte Vista, pointed that out to me. It was such a great thing for her to take the time to tell me that and she said it in such a kind way, that there’s so many needs out there, the more you open your eyes and are aware to it, there are so many. When you have opportunities to connect I think it’s important to not let opportunities slip away. You’ve got to evaluate them and make sure they are right, but, yeah, comfort is kind of irrelevant. I’m kind of over that one. (Laughs)
LD: Do your kids ever weigh in on what you’re doing?
KI: Last fall I did Dancing with the Stars and, yeah, they weighed in big time, going “Mom, you’re going to get voted off the first week.” And I made it to Week Two so I showed them. (Laughs)
LD: That looks so hard.
KI: It was. It was really, really hard. But it was really, really great, and I made a great friend in Tony Dovolani. He was just awesome; he’d come and have dinners with our family.
It was definitely hard, but I think it’s good for our kids to see me try something that I’m so not good at — and that was really hard for me — and to try anyway.
LD: Absolutely. Did Tony come to Santa Barbara to rehearse with you?
KI: Yes. We rehearsed at Adderly every day. Beautiful studio and it was kind of interesting because you’re just secluded, you know, just working with him. And like these shoes (she points to small kitten heels), I couldn’t walk in them; just flats. I grew up and I never wore shoes to school; I’d sneak in barefoot or I’d wear my flip-flops, that was basically it. When I modeled I didn’t do runway, there was a reason: I couldn’t walk in heels. So he had to teach me how to walk. It was hysterical. He was really sweet but he was like, “Santa Barbara is really different. People don’t wear shoes.”
We worked so hard so it’s so funny because you think, “Well, I’m pretty good,” because you see where you started and where you finish. And then you get down to L.A. and you see everybody else and it’s like, oh, OK. (Laughs) It’s a little humbling. ... It was a good experience, for sure.
LD: It was fun to watch. Have you always been in Santa Barbara?
KI: Pretty much. We moved when I was 3. There were a couple years where I had a condo in Malibu and when I got married I moved back here. ... I used to keep an apartment in New York but I would always come back. I really love it here.
I know I took it for granted growing up and I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to see the world — a lot of beautiful places, but no place that I’d rather live.
LD: When you’re around town, do people treat you like a hometown girl or a celebrity? Do they recognize you?
KI: No. If they recognize me it’s like “you used to water our plants” or “you delivered my newspaper.” Wherever I am, if people stop me, it’s usually women and they’ll say “Oh, I bought one of your lamps. What rug will go with it?” And I love it. That’s great. So it’s just normal.
LD: That’s nice. It doesn’t sound like you have a lot of free time, but when you do, what do you like to do?
KI: I’m working on getting a little more free time, but when I have it I do stuff with our kids. When I can sneak out and go surfing I love doing that. I’m not good, I get yelled at, but I just love being out in the water. I pick my days; I don’t go out when it’s really big. I don’t enjoy getting yelled at. (Laughs)
I like to go hiking. I’ve never been bored here. I’ve lived here my whole life and there’s always something to do. I love the outdoors so whether it’s water sports or the mountains or riding my bike, it’s really great. I get to serve on two school boards. I serve on the El Montecito School board; John Davies is the president and it’s an amazing board, and it’s an incredible school. And then I serve on the board of Providence Hall with incredible board members. Randy Clark is the president and he’s awesome. Each of the members is really great to serve with.
LD: How did you get Elizabeth Taylor involved with Providence Hall?
KI: I just was talking to her about the school and she really loves kids. She’s of Jewish faith and just in her life she’s seen a lot discrimination; she really hates that. And she said she sees a lot of discrimination against Christians right now and it makes her angry. She said I love the Judeo-Christian values that are being taught at this school. I love what’s going on. I love the curriculum. She just really fell in love with the whole program. You don’t talk her into things; she’s really smart and savvy, and she makes her own decisions if she feels passionately about something. It was the first time that she had given to anything outside of HIV/AIDS in more than 30 years — publicly.
LD: I would assume that has helped bring in other funding.
KI: Yeah, it was so helpful. Because people who know her or know of her know how tough she is. She scrutinizes things. I’ve learned so much from her as a businessperson just watching her go through her contracts and the details and the questions that she asks. She’s on it. She holds people accountable. She expects great things from the school and it’s good.
LD: How long has Providence Hall been around?
KI: This is the third year.
LD: Is there an ideal number of students you would like to have? I’m assuming you still have room for more students now?
KI: Yeah. It’s growing and, you know ,we’re really grateful that we’ve got the space and people are excited about it. The teachers are amazing. They really have some master teachers. I’m just grateful. Nothing is perfect in life but when I go and I pick our son up at school, to see teenagers who are really happy and kind, they are encouraging each other ... It’s like where’s the teenage angst? (Laughs) Where is all that? They have their share of drama but it’s different. It’s hard to explain but it’s just exciting. I love seeing happy kids.
LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?
KI: Um, tired. (Laughs) That’s a good question. I haven’t given that much thought. Let’s see ... fortunate and, well, someone told me — I take it as a compliment — I was tough. I hope I’m tough when it comes to protecting our team members at work, our family or whatever it is. Things that I care passionately about.
My mom is tough but she’s so gentle, she’s so sweet and I love her. She just did her 10th Barbara Ireland Walk for the Cure and I’m so proud of her. She started this at a time when she was having her own health issues and people were saying you shouldn’t do this, and she’s, like, “No, I’m not going to let that stop me.” And she believed in it and 10 years now and it’s awesome. ... We just developed a line of wigs, hairpieces and extensions for fashion and they look totally natural. I happen to think a bald head is gorgeous, I think it looks beautiful. But to give women a choice. If they feel like having some hair for a day or however much they want, that was a big inspiration behind that.
LD: Tell us about Kathy Ireland’s products and services.
KI: We have an in-house design team. I serve as CEO and chief designer for our company. I work very closely with John Carrasco, who is our genius creative director.
... I barely graduated from high school. I do not have any degrees in fine arts or any of that. I approach design really as a busy mom. I know what the needs are. I know what I like. I have an eye for what I believe works, but we have team members who have master’s degrees in fine arts. So they’ll take my sketches, my photographs, and they’ll turn it into something beautiful. And we’ll go back and forth always honoring that mission.
We design and market more than 15,000 products; they’re sold in 29 countries, all with that same mission. Each of our manufacturing partners has a design team and they work very closely with our design team so that everybody’s working off the same color palettes, the same design inspiration. Our team has developed style guides that span the globe. I think the key to our success is the communication with the customer and, like I told you, when I see her in life, she doesn’t want an autograph, she wants her solutions. That’s the social-messaging communication I get and I love that. That’s wonderful.
But she’s really direct and she gives me my marching orders. If I’m smart I’ll listen to her and act quickly, and one of the things that she says is I want to give my home a vacation, or a room in my home a vacation, and with our style guides they truly span the globe. ... The goal is that we’ve saved her time. It’s not matchy-matchy, but you get the seamless cohesion because everyone is working from the same page, so hopefully we’ve saved her some time and taken away some of the anxiety of putting a home together.
Our home is truly a lab. I’m always trying out new products. I’m having our kids get disgusting things out of the refrigerator and throw them on the rug to make sure it holds up. I’m encouraging them to jump on the furniture, and then they go to their friend’s house and they don’t always understand. (Laughs)
LD: All of that sounds really fun, especially to be able to have a sketch or pieces of an idea and then be able to turn to professionals.
KI: It’s wonderful. It’s really fun and our kids get involved, too. Lily and I had a design day not that long ago. She’s really interested. We would just go to the mall and bring our sketchpads and sketch what we see.
... I love things from the kids’ perspective. When I drive on field trips I’m always taking focus groups from the kids’ perspective. If you could have your dream bedroom what would it look like, and really hearing them and what they have to say.
LD: That’s fun. How long have you been married?
KI: It will be 22 years in August.
LD: Congratulations. Is your whole family in Santa Barbara?
KI: My mom and dad are here, down the street. My mother-in-law is here, my sister-in-law and her family, my niece and nephews are here. But I have a little sister who is in L.A. with her husband and her little boy and she’s pregnant again. And my older sister is visiting this week but she lives up north.
LD: That’s nice to have your mom down the street.
KI: I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do if not for my mom because she helps me with the kids. I travel with them when I can. I took them to Israel with me in January. Actually, our son was doing a little mission over there, with Jim Stretchberry, who has the American European Bethel Mission. Erik got to go along with that and they do a feeding program. They go into the poorest parts of Israel and then he ended up in the Ukraine with Holocaust survivors.
LD: What a great experience for him.
KI: Really great. I had some work over there and I was able to time it so we could fly out together, bring the girls, and we tagged along on his mission for a couple of days and then we went our separate ways. But whenever I can have them with me I love that, that’s really a great thing. But they’ve got their lives and I don’t want to disrupt their schedules too much.
LD: That’s hard. And it sounds like your husband’s pretty busy with his two careers as an emergency room doctor and a fisherman. Those are pretty demanding jobs, too.
KI: Yeah, they both are. Saving lives, killing lobster. It’s a lot.
LD: Busy family. How old were you when you started modeling?
KI: I went to the local school, Betty Mazetti-Hatch had La Belle Modeling Agency, and I went there. It was a present from my parents. I think everybody was surprised when they asked me if I wanted to go to New York for the summer. My hair was fried and my nose was always peeling, and I knew we couldn’t afford it anyway and I always had jobs. For the summer I wanted to have some fun with my friends and so I said thank you but no thank you.
And they said we’ll advance you the money and if you really hate it you can go home. So I gave it a try and it was the summer before my senior year. I went for two months. My mom came with me the first five days and I stayed at a model’s apartment, totally eye-opening experience. My whole world was as far as I could peddle my bike. I talk about it in my first book, Powerful Inspirations, Eight Lessons That Will Change Your Life.
... I went two months in the summer, and had some gnarly experiences that I got out of OK, but eye opening. I was asked to stay and go to professional children’s school but I didn’t want to, I wanted to come home. So I came back, I got my old job back at Petrini’s and finished high school and started right up after high school. When everybody went to Disneyland, I didn’t go. I had to go to Rome. I was really bummed.
LD: Do your girls have any interest in modeling?
KI: No, thank goodness. I sound like a naysayer ... but for the most part I think it’s really tough. So much of that industry is based on how you look and you have very limited control over that, and it’s a short-term career. I never felt secure earning my paycheck off how someone else perceived that I looked. When I was modeling, my girlfriends used to give me a hard time, too. They’re like, “We’re not going to spend money on a magazine to look at pictures of skinny, retouched women wearing clothes we can’t afford. We’ll let you get away with it, you’re wearing other people’s stuff, but when you have your own brand you’d better make it real. Don’t forget about us.”
That’s always stayed with me.
LD: It seems like you’ve been able to take the good aspects and parlay it into something bigger and better without being too hurt by all the negative aspects.
KI: I hope so. That’s the message I try to tell my kids is just be alert, pay attention. Hopefully, you’ll find a few good traits in your dad and me. Unfortunately, you’re going to see some funky stuff in us that we might not every be aware of. You don’t have to claim that. Take the good and reject the bad in anybody, don’t ever idolize another human being. Don’t just think that because So-and-So does it, it must be OK. Look really discerningly at what you see and make good decisions.
Vital Stats: Kathy Ireland
Born: March 20, Glendale
Family: Husband, Dr. Greg Olsen; children Erik, 16, Lily, 11, and Chloe, 7
Civic Involvement: Board member, Providence Hall and El Montecito School; Ambassador for Youth, National PTA; national chairwoman, Family Services and Parenting for Athletes and Entertainers for Kids; Special Olympics; Feed The Children; United Nations to the Youth Assembly; board member, Alliance for Christian Education; Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation; Dream Ambassador for the Dream Foundation.
Professional Accomplishments: Chief designer and CEO of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, a $1.4 billion design empire encompassing more than 15,000 collaboratively designed products in furniture, flooring, lighting and accessories, window treatments, home office and entertainment, leather and microfiber, top of bed, bedding, candles, permanent florals, hand-painted fine porcelain, decorative shelving, outdoor furniture, cabinetry, jewelry, apparel, skin care and fresh-cut flowers that are sold throughout the United States and in nearly 30 countries.
Discovered by a scout from Elite Modeling Management, by age 17 she was traveling the world as a fashion model, appearing on covers of countless magazines, including Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and Sports Illustrated. Author of Real Solutions for Busy Moms: Your Guide to Success and Sanity, Powerful Inspirations: Eight Lessons that will Change Your Life and three children’s books, What Mommies Do, An Angel Called Hope and Mona’s Favorite Words.
Best Book You’ve Read Recently: “My favorite book is the Bible and I read it every day. It’s alive and active, so there’s always something new in it. Also The 10 Laws of Enduring Success by Maria Bartiromo, When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert, Big God by Pastor Britt Merrick and Tea With Hezbollah by Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis.
Favorite Local Spot: “I like to go to the beach, I like to go to the mountains, and those are pretty much my favorites. A big treat is my friend, Camile Yesbrands, who I grew up with. Her day spa business, Camille the Day Spa & Salon, is really cool. She does house calls ... she sets up anywhere at the beach or wherever you want her to.”
Little-Known Fact: Owner of several childhood nicknames, including Veggie and Herbie (because she was a vegetarian and her class studied herbivores), and Eddie Munster “because I really just have one eyebrow but I pluck.”
Follow Kathy Ireland on Twitter: @kathyireland