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Supermodel Kathy Ireland morphs into super mogul

It was so early in the morning that SouthPark mall hadn’t fully woken up. Although morning exercisers were already walking briskly throughout the mall, they breezed past stores that were still asleep.

But inside the mall’s Belk department store, Kathy Ireland was wide awake.

The supermodel, wearing a black dress and matching black open-toe shoes, her new line of dishes arranged on a display, had the full attention of a few dozen Belk officials. They were there to listen as Ireland, whose bikini-clad image used to find a home on the covers of Sports Illustrated, thanked Belk for giving floor space to her plates and cups.

It’s just the latest product line for the 49-year-old model-turned-business mogul, whose company, Kathy Ireland Worldwide, has ballooned into such an empire that Forbes put a photo of her -- pink dress, big hair and arms folded in an executive power-look -- on its February cover last year.

“Kathy Ireland outsells Martha Stewart – and she’s richer, too,” the Forbes cover read, continuing, “The strange but true triumph of a swimsuit icon.”

What does Ireland’s company sell? A better question: What doesn’t it sell? Her name has been put on furs and candles, furniture and rugs, greeting cards and jewelry, clothing and window blinds -- not to mention the villas her business offers as wedding destinations. The list goes on.

Last Wednesday, as she unveiled her dishes to Belk – the Charlotte-based company, which turns 125 years old this year, is the first retailer to sell them – Ireland told the Observer about her path to becoming an entrepreneur. The mother of three -- two daughters, 9 and 14, and a son, 18 -- talked about her entrepreneurial failures, and what it’s like doing business in the South. The following are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity and space.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?

Sometimes women will come to me and they’ll say, “Well, it’s easy for you because you were known in the modeling world, and doors opened to you.” And I honestly believed that if I just showed up at a business meeting with my sketches and my business plan that my ideas as a CEO would be taken more seriously, much more quickly. The person with a clean slate, there’s no preconceptions; you can build your brand however you want to do that. And that’s the real gift of anonymity when you’re starting out.

Q: Does that mean you regret your modeling career?

I’m not complaining about that long-ago career. I’m grateful. It was an amazing education. It can open doors, but not necessarily the doors I wanted to enter. I was interested in building something that would be lasting. The entire time I worked in that industry I was trying and failing at businesses. Q: Belk has a Southern image, but you’re from California. What do you think of the South?

I love the South, and I love with Belk it’s “Modern. Southern. Style.” Elizabeth Taylor (was) a mentor. There was a time in her life when she lived in the South. And we started our brand here in North Carolina. High Point is a place we visit frequently, with the furniture markets here.

Q: Lately, people have been debating the value of a college degree. As a person who runs a major business despite not having a college degree, what are your thoughts on higher education?

I barely finished high school. My son said to me one time, “Mom, why do I need to go to college? You didn’t go.” And I said, “Son, you just answered your own question. You see how hard I worked. You see my failures.” And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think, “Had I had this education, might this have been a bit smoother, might I have done this differently?” Whether or not you have a college degree, there’s no excuse for not learning, for not growing, for not reading. With the Internet, there really is no excuse for not growing every day. Q: The modeling industry is often accused of setting unrealistic expectations for women, particularly young women. Do you think the industry sets a bad example?

I had criticism of that industry as well, when I worked in it. One of the frustrating elements to me was so much of it is unattainable looks, unattainable prices. I think if you take it for what it is – fantasy -- that’s fine. But when it’s presented that this is how we’re supposed to look … I reject that. When we first started in design and fashion apparel, one of the first things I fought for was plus sizes. It was so interesting to me how much pushback I got on that.

Q: Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Have a passion for what you do because you are going to experience days of great challenge. Work with great people. Take time to get to know them. Be a good listener. Look for people who have strengths in areas where you may not have strengths; it’s OK to ask for help. Don’t be afraid of rejection. Don’t let fear paralyze you. Use it as a fire to just ignite you into action. Take care of yourself.

Roberts: 704-358-5248 Twitter: @DeonERoberts
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