She’s 178 cm. with red hair and blue eyes, a former supermodel with a figure to die for and the owner, founder and CEO of a $1.4 billion lifestyle business: Kathy Ireland might just be Israel’s perfect public diplomacy ambassador.
“I love Israel, it’s very close to my heart,” says the 46-year-old born-again Christian. “Because of my faith it’s very special to me.”
Ireland was here recently to film a promotional documentary for Sheba Medical Center. Titled Holy Land Heroes, the documentary aims to expose the work being done at Sheba with wounded soldiers and victims of terror attacks.
“Holy Land Heroes is bringing awareness of these heroes of Israel to the rest of the world,” says Ireland. “I’ve had some incredible life-changing experiences spending time at the hospital meeting with patients, doctors, researchers, nurses and volunteers who are dedicated and committed to rehabilitating these heroes.”
Ireland is a passionate advocate for Israel, with an unwavering belief in the righteousness of its actions. Her faith is such that even the most adept spin doctor would be hard pressed to come up with so much positive PR.
“I think so often Israel is not fairly portrayed in the media,” she says. “Meeting with the military, the air force, [I saw] the efforts that go into the strategy of not hurting civilians and the heroic efforts of these soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way to rescue the wounded, even when the wounded might be their enemy.
“In America, we’ve been so spoiled not to have really known, our generation, what it is to be at war. But that’s changed, and really regardless of someone’s faith, it’s very apparent that if Israel is not safe, then the rest of the world is not safe.”
Faith is central to Ireland’s attitude.
“As Christians, we have such a debt of gratitude to Israel and the Jewish people,” she explains. But, Ireland adds, there is also another kind of debt owed by the Christian world. “I’ve just come from Yad Vashem, and it’s horrific to think that this could happen just a few generations ago. Israel, which is a chain of generations, saw six million links in that chain destroyed. Look at the present dangers today and what could happen today if threats are not taken seriously, and what responsibility the rest of the world has.”
LOOKING OUT over Jerusalem’s Old City from the business lounge at the David Citadel Hotel, Ireland explains that she became a Christian after her mother put a Bible in her suitcase when she had just started out her modeling career.
“Out of jet lag and boredom [I started to read it], and my life was forever changed,” Ireland confesses. “Sadly, I’ve remained a baby Christian for so long, and I’m still such a baby. It’s a lifelong journey, but what’s very clear to me is God’s love of Israel and His chosen people. They are the apple of His eyes, His chosen people, His bride, His beloved, His firstborn etched on the palms of his hands. The Abrahamic covenant is unconditional and it is forever. As a Christian, it is a privilege to be of service whenever one can.”
After a modeling career that saw her appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated three times – a feat tied by Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs, and surpassed only by Elle Macpherson – Ireland turned to business.
She started out with a line of socks, or as she puts it, “I worked from the ground up.”
“Socks are so basic, and I liked that,” says Ireland. “Some people didn’t think that was such a great idea. but I liked it because it was so basic, and if women embraced our socks then we might be on to something.”
Today, 17 years on, Ireland’s company, Kathy Ireland Worldwide, designs and markets more than 15,000 products sold in 29 countries, including a line of Dead Sea skin care products.
Her transition from model to mogul was natural, Ireland insists.
“I entered the modeling industry as a business person already, and I always knew I belonged on the other side of the camera,” she says. “When I was four, I sold rocks that I had painted designs on from my wagon with my sister.”
“Modeling,” Ireland reflects, “was never anything I aspired to do. I’m very grateful though. It was a wonderful education, and it was in many ways my college. I was exposed to the best designers in the world.”
Ireland doesn’t miss an opportunity to get in a good word for Israel, and adds that many of the designers she was influenced by were from here.
“This truly is such a place of inspiration,” she says.
WHILE BEING a model might have served as a crash course in design, being a household name didn’t necessarily open doors for her, Ireland says.
“There might have been some people who were curious, and maybe they’d take a meeting. But I think it’s been more challenging than it’s been helpful because oftentimes my ideas might not be taken seriously,” she says. “But that’s OK. I’m certainly not complaining about that, and I’m always up for a good challenge, but I think that an unknown person has a clean slate and doesn’t have preconceived notions and stereotypes to deal with.”
If there is one stereotype that Ireland fits, though, it is not that of a beauty queen wishing to bring world peace, but rather that of a high-powered, fast-moving CEO. “It’s always time to go” is the motto with Kathy Ireland, her personal assistant tells me when the interview moves from the business lounge to the elevator, and along the corridors of the hotel as she prepares to head out for an audience with President Shimon Peres less than an hour after returning from her visit to Yad Vashem, and after squeezing in an interview with Channel 2 news.
With three kids and a career, Ireland, who is married to an
emergency-room physician, is used to juggling things around. So much so
in fact that she has written a book on the subject: Real Solutions for Busy Moms
But the author of a “guide to success and sanity” admits that even she
has a bad hair day sometimes with a schedule that starts as early as 4
a.m. with a contemplative prayer session, continues with getting the
kids ready for school and goes on late into the night with her duties
as CEO and chief designer for her Santa Barbara, California-based
“Some days, not well at all,” Ireland says when asked how she manages.
“I think for me though, what’s key to juggling it all is honoring my
priorities. I think it’s important to figure out what your values are,
and then put boundaries in place to protect them. For me, my priorities
are my faith, my family and then being of service through work. When
those priorities are not honored, then it’s very obvious.”