Blessed with emerald eyes and cascades of auburn hair, Kathy Ireland graced every issue of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit edition from 1984 to 1994. She also sold her own swimsuit calendar and appeared in dozens of catalogs and magazines, earning $150,000 a year. But she wanted more: "I thought, ‘I'd rather be the client.'"
A decade later Ireland, 41, still models, but she has shed her string bikini in favor of crisp linen suits — and she sells her own wares. By renting out her name and image to 11 manufacturers that sell her products at 34,000 locations in 14 countries, Ireland generated $1 billion in retail sales last year. She likely netted some $10 million of that.
Few fashion models in the world make that kind of money, and ultimately they are supplanted by younger talent. (Christy Turlington lost her Maybelline gig two years ago at age 33.) Kathy Ireland has found a way to move beyond all that.
She employs 37 people at her firm, Kathy Ireland Worldwide, in which she holds a majority stake. In 1993 Ireland started out by slapping her name on a line of socks; Kmart picked it up and the line eventually sold 100 million pairs. Impressed, the big retailer gave Ireland her own clothing line. Now her name adorns everything from sofas to rugs to window blinds. Half of her annual sales are generated by Standard Furniture, which sold $500 million worth of furniture with her name on it last year.
Thus Ireland is a latter-day Martha Stewart, without the storied bitchiness and felony conviction (she even discourages her employees from using the Lord's name in vain). "She has a real wholesome, ethical image that appeals to the housewife and average consumer," says Robert Allen, president of Arrow Industries, which debuts a line of Ireland bedclothes this summer. Her image is burnished by her open embrace of Christianity: Her book, Powerful Inspirations, a memoir of her spiritual growth, is in its third printing; she teaches Sunday school and hopes to include a Bible study area on her Web site.
Ireland sees bigger things ahead. "We're a baby brand compared to where I see us going," she declares. She troubleshoots each offering — will the wiring on a new line of "garden critter" lights be safe even if it gets chewed by pets or children? — and meets frequently with each vendor. On a typical day in May she met at 9:30 a.m. with her staff in Los Angeles, flew by private jet (she leases it part-time) to Anaheim to meet with Arrow, then flew on to San Diego for another meeting before jetting home to Santa Barbara. "Someone once asked me how they could ‘get some of that passive income,'" she says. "I just had to laugh."