In today’s world of celebrity– and supermodel-fronted ad campaigns, beauty contracts are commonplace. But before there was Carolyn, Joan and Constance, there was Karen Graham.
A beauty from Gulfport, Mississippi, who played muse to photographers like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon — as well as the notoriously particular Vogue editor Diana Vreeland — Graham became the first contracted model when she joined Estée Lauder as the face of the brand in 1970, a job she held exclusively until 1985, with a brief return in 1998.
“No one at the time had contracts in this business,” Graham recalls from her home in Tryon, NC, where she lives with her two horses, and her Bernese mountain dog, Oscar. “I was only 5’8”, and I’m small boned but I think the key to my success was that I have aClick above to view images from Karen’s personal archive. face that you can treat as a perfect blank slate so you can change it with makeup or hair,” Graham reasons of the Victor Skrebneski-lensed Estée Lauder photos that put her on the map. She’s being modest, of course. Legendary modeling agent Eileen Ford saw way more than that in Graham when she discovered the Sorbonne-trained high school French teacher at the Bonwit Teller department store in 1969, where Graham had gone while on a break from her bookkeeping job at a law firm. The same delicate features and irresistible, good-natured charm that likely attracted Ford made Graham one of the most in-demand models of the ’70s — and still turns heads today as she nears her 70th birthday.Click to the right for a slideshow of more memorable moments from Graham’s beautiful life.