Kelly Emberg ~ Model For The Ages
Smiles and Laughter Became the Trademark of Her Photo Shoots
Born in the small town community of Bellaire, Texas, and while in high school setting a career goal of interior design, fortuitous events led her to become a favored cover model for magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue, among others, experiencing a years-long love relationship with rock star Rod Stewart, studying architectural and interior design at UCLA and after years of canned and frozen foods, growing passionate about healthful living, and thereafter hosting a radio show depicting healthful ways with noted guests who excelled in the field of nutrition.
We caught up with Kelly tilling her garden at her home in Fairbanks Ranch, and were offered a healthful beverage as she sat to speak about her illustrious career.
Q: Were you part of a large family?
A: It was my Mom, Dad, sister and a brother. Scandinavian heritage blended with some American Indian, German, English and Irish.
Q: While attending high school, had you planned on a modeling career?
A; My primary goal was to attend college and study interior design. I was fully intent on joining my friends to study at the University of Texas when all of a sudden destiny played its hand within my life.
Q: At what young age did you first have a photo shoot as a model?
A: My first photo shoot was for a newspaper while still a senior in high school.
Q: Were you inspired by your parents to consider that role?
A: At age 40, my Mom decided to model. She booked informal modeling and runway jobs for local department stores. She would take my senior photo to various stores in Houston and they hired me to model for their newspaper ads. Later, Allan Martin, the photographer that took my first photo, sent my picture to John Casablancas, founder of Elite Model Management. After much success in Europe, John decided to open up a New York Agency. He visited Houston scouting for models and set up a meeting with me through my Mother. If I were successful, I would have to pay him back; if I wasn't, i would have a 2-week free vacation. I was reluctant because I really wanted to go to the University of Texas with all of my friends, but my Mother convinced me that it was a good opportunity and that I should at least try it.
Q: Did modeling before the camera come naturally or did it require effort?
A: Modeling requires you to be relaxed and natural. Some of my roommates really wanted to be a model and practiced posing in front of the mirror, which worked against them. I was much more relaxed in front of the camera because it wasn't my dream and didn't stress about how I looked, so I guess it proved natural in the photo.
Q: Did you have an early confidence or did that confidence evolve over time?
A: You certainly become more confident over time and begin to learn and understand the look that the photographer or the client wants for the shoot. Every job was a little different depending on whether you were shooting a cover of a magazine, editorial, advertising ads or shooting for a catalog.
Q: Generally speaking, was it a man's world or were there female agents and photographers?
A: Eileen Ford ran one of the most prominent agencies in New York at the time. A female model opened up another agency in 1967 called Wilhelmina that was extremely successful. There certainly was no glass ceiling when it came to agencies. Women ran some of the best and biggest agencies. Most of the photographers were men.
Q: Did you find camaraderie with other models or was it a competitive business?
A: I only remember working with a few models that were competitive; most of the girls were plucked out of their hometown and we all became fast friends, since all we had was each other. Interestingly enough, the majority of the successful models had not chosen modeling as their primary focus. They were discovered while attending school, in a shopping mall or crossing the street.
Q: Was working with an agent a pleasure or a necessary evil?
A: Without an agent you wouldn't work. Within the agencies there are a number of bookers who actually handle their own models and book them jobs. I would talk to my booker every day and she would tell me where to go, when to be there and how much to charge the client. You become very friendly with your booker as they actually take on a Motherly role.
Q: Of all the photo shoots, which was your least favorite?
A: The catalogs where I modeled Moo Moos. You know those tent dresses? They were created to hide the body. It is amazing what a good photographer, great hair, make up and a smile can do for the photo!
"With Rod Stewart, I was young, blinded by love and never thought that I would change him."
Q: How was it that you and Rod Stewart met?
A: I was filming a drama-documentary called "Portfolio". My role had me as the model turned singer in the story. The director of the film told me that Rod Stewart was going to be singing the soundtrack and needed to meet me, since I was the singer in the movie. None of that actually was true. I later found out that Rod had seen me in the film's dailies and asked to meet me. His coming to the set had nothing to do with his singing on set.
Q: You must have known his reputation with women. Did you think that you could rein him in on a shorter leash?
A: I actually didn't know much about Rod or his life at the time. I was 23 when I met him and it was a business meeting in my mind. I was blinded by love and never thought that I would change him. i just fell in love with him and I thought he with me.
Q: Surely you had your favorite photographers, but were there some that you simply preferred not to work with on photo shoots?
A: Honestly, that was not an issue. I got along with all of the photographers. Patrick Demarchelier was certainly one of my favorites. He knew lighting so well and had such an easy style. We would finish up so early and he produced such great results. He always made the model look their very best. Of course, there were other greats like Scapula, Alvedon and Irving Penn that were iconic and to be shot by them was a real honor.
Q: What were the most tedious requirements of the job?
A: Most often you shoot the opposite season, so I might be in a swimsuit outdoors in New York in the winter and then in a fur coat in the heat of the summer. Not all of the shots were glamorous, particularly at the start of your career where you might be among some 5 or more other models all waiting your place in line for the next shoot. As you grew within the industry, the comfort level improved immensely and you were prioritized, not having to wait your turn to be called.
Q: Of all the photo shoots, which was your most favorite?
A: British Vogue, shot in Egypt was one of my favorites. Traveling down the Nile, stopping off at Aswan and Luxor. Witnessing the pyramids as the sun rose without a sea of tourists was a real treat! Shooting in Petra with the King and Queen of Jordan certainly comes to mind. it was a time when the Bedouins still lived in the caves.
Q: Fame and success brings an abundance of followers. How selective were you in choosing friends?
A: When I was modeling, I was so busy working that my best friends were other models that I worked with on shoots. Getting booked on the same job along with my good friends Kim Alexis or Nancy Donahue made the trip so much more fun. The agency would keep us working all the time and we were traveling everywhere on a very hectic schedule.
Q: Did being with Rod Stewart take your modeling career to a new level?
A: No, actually quite the opposite. I was at the height of my career as a model when I met him. I started modeling in 1978 and after going back and forth from Manhattan to California for two years, I finally moved to Los Angeles in 1985. Had I continued to focus on my modeling career, I would have done so much more. I should have been in New York City where the deals are made. Once the industry factored in that they would have to fly me from Los Angeles to NYC for work, and they would have to book me between Rod's concert tours, I actually lost work.
On the other hand, I never really wanted to be a model, so I was excited and ready to move to Los Angeles and shift gears. Modeling took me all of the world. I got to meet and learn from the most creative and interesting people and got so much out of my career as a model, but it was never a passion for me. I'm a pretty causal, no fuss kind of girl. Give me a well-worn pair of jeans, some garden tools and some seeds and I'm good. I can't recall the last time I purchased a fashion magazine, although I do appreciate and respect what my career has given me.
Q: Whatever led you to choose architectural and interior design at UCLA?
A: I had it in mind since high school. While modeling in NYC, I actually signed on for a course, but I never had the time to attend the sessions because I was always out of town on modeling assignments.
Q: Has that been more of an avocation than a full time career path?
A: I was very excited changing my career at the time and took it very seriously. I was over modeling and always loved interior design. Finally, I could follow the path that I had wanted from the very beginning. When I began lessons, my daughter Ruby was 3 at the time, so juggling raising a small child, pretty much on my own, and going back to school took a lot of effort but I loved every minute of it. Right out of school I worked for a well-known designer Michael Smith for a year and then went to work on my own. I never advertised and found clients by world or mouth. I worked for a lot of well-known actresses and even worked for Rod and his wife Penny.
"After years of canned and frozen foods, I grew passionate about healthful living."
Q: Models generally watch their diets carefully. Was that the motivation that inspired you toward a healthful meal plan?
A: Actually not. Diet 7-up and ice cream were the only foods you would find in my refrigerator when I was modeling. I was young and traveled a lot, so I never cooked for myself. Growing up, TV dinners were a staple and our vegetables were either frozen or canned, so I learned to appreciate the taste of fresh food when I moved to NYC. After my modeling career and work as an interior designer, I got married to Mike Padilla and moved to Fairbanks Ranch. Mike suggested that I start a greenhouse to take care of the orchids that I had been re-blooming, however, they failed to thrive.
So instead of cultivating orchids, I stared growing vegetables with huge success. That's when I really took a closer look at how healthy food affects the body. I felt a need to get the word out to others. I was asked to develop and host my own Talk Radio show on iHeart Radio. I named the show FOOD MADE SIMPLE - "simply growing, cooking and simply understanding your food". My guests were leaders in the field of heath, food and chronic disease prevention. It was a weekly show that ran for over a year. I learned so much and I loved sharing healthy information with my listeners.
Q: It seems as though whenever you choose a new path, you jump in with both feet. Have there been choices that simply did not work out?
A: New paths are so much fun! It is a time to learn more about things that you are passionate about, and it makes you want to jump out of bed and seize the day. I never measure the paths I have taken by success or failure. I always consider them a success in some way. Perhaps to others they might not seem like it, but for me there is always value in learning something new and inevitably, I will be able to use that information for something else in the future.
Q: Having been the cover girl in the top publications worldwide, having traveled the world multiple times, rubbed elbows with the most notable international personalities, to name a few experiences, which stands out as the pinnacle of your long and illustrious career?
A: I honestly don't think that I have reached the pinnacle as yet. My greatest challenge is how will I be able to do all of the things that I have yet to do. I am a multi-tasker. I just need more time in the day and a few more of me.
Q: Of all the individuals that you have come to meet or known over the years, who impressed you the most?
A: My Father. After overcoming so many obstacles throughout his life, he always found the silver lining every step of the way. He lost his Mother and baby sister in a fire at the age of 5 and was raised by a stepmother that didn't care for him or his sister. He worked as a child during the depression and contributed financially to the family. Having received a football scholarship, he put himself through college; served in the Korean War, and returned to start his own business, which was highly successful. He was the world champion in handball up into his 70's. At 87, he continues to run the business, is rock solid and there whenever you need him.
Q: Has it been difficult with all of the focus on your beauty and glamour to show people that you have an inner self vey much alive with a beauty all its own?
A: I am very down to earth and I really think that I always came across as the person who I really am. I never let the celebrity or glamour of the moment take rein. I simply did not feel that way and I chose my friends accordingly.
Q: Given the opportunity to retrace steps and make one important change in your life, what would that be?
A: A relationship or two perhaps, however, then I would not have had my children, now so dear to me.
Q: What is the next big career plan?
A: I still work as an interior designer, but with my spare time, I would love to finish my books on healthful eating. That would be a good start toward completing some of my goals. Life is always unfolding. I can choose my path, but then sometimes destiny takes over. I'll just have to fasten my belt and enjoy the ride. Thus far, it has been quite the journey.
Q: Is retirement in your vocabulary?
A: It sounds so boring to me. I have too many things that I want to do. There simply never seems enough time in the day to fulfill the variety of interests in mind, be it with family, writing or in the garden.