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A Q&A with Kathy Ireland

The former model reveals the importance of putting God and family first – even before managing a multi-million dollar global enterprise.

For most people, the name Kathy Ireland conjures one image: a blue-eyed, auburn-haired woman with killer legs modeling a swimsuit. Indeed, beginning in 1984, Kathy appeared in the pages of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue a dozen times and on the cover three times, including the publication's top-selling 25th-anniversary issue.

However, her modeling career is only a small piece of Kathy, and one she left behind more than a decade ago. She's also a longtime Christian (she became a believer at age 18) committed to growing in her faith and serving others—a journey that has been slow but steady.

"I'm a late bloomer," she admits. "I remained a baby Christian for a long time. Fortunately, God is faithful even when we mess up. Today my goal is that my life will be in line with his will, not my own."

That commitment is an integral part of Kathy's current roles as wife, mother of three, and founder and CEO of Kathy Ireland Worldwide. The enterprise markets $1.9 billion dollars worth of furniture and home décor products around the globe.

Kathy explains: "My priorities are my faith, my family, and then being of service to others through my work." That heart for service, specifically ministering to fellow moms, has not only influenced her company's mission statement—" … finding solutions for families, especially busy moms"—but has also inspired her to write a book, Real Solutions for Busy Moms.

With two teenage children (Erik, 18, Lily, 13), and a daughter on the cusp of adolescence (Chloe, 9), this former model is now facing a new season in her parenting with husband, Greg. TCW chatted with Kathy about her own struggles with issues such as faith, body image, and self-esteem, and how she's presently handling them with her kids.

You're known mostly for your beauty. So I have to ask, were you one of those gorgeous girls in junior high and high school that all of us average gals loved to hate?

Not at all! In junior high I felt like a loser. I never had anyone to talk to or hang out with. I wondered why God made me so dorky.

Really? But you obviously moved beyond those insecurities to become a model. How?

One day when I was in eighth grade, in the midst of feeling sorry for myself, I thought, Wait a minute. God made me, and he doesn't make mistakes. So that must make me okay. That shift in attitude gave me a new sense of self-esteem.

So did this newfound knowledge come from a deep connection with God?

No, I didn't become a Christian until I turned 18. As a child I went to church and believed in God, but I didn't have a relationship with him. My family went to church for a time because that was what we were supposed to do. Eventually, though, we stopped going.

What changed for you?

My mom became a Christian, and I noticed the change in her. She seemed stronger, more focused and at peace. I'd traveled to Paris for a modeling job, and she put a Bible in my suitcase. One night I was jet lagged, bored, and lonely, so I picked it up and began reading the book of Matthew. It instantly and forever changed my life.

With modeling, I was living in a world that often felt dominated by men of questionable character who couldn't be trusted. But I felt so comforted by the way God loved and respected women. God thinks very highly of women. Jesus spoke to the woman at the well with love and respect, and she was the first person he told that he was the Son of God. God chose to bring his Son into the world through a woman, and women were the first to see Jesus after he rose from the dead. That encouraged me and gave me strength.

That's a great point. I think we forget how often Jesus uplifted women. So what happened next? Did you begin going to church?

Not regularly. In those days I was cherry-picking my faith. I'd find Scripture passages that spoke to my heart and cling to them, and I'd find others that I'd think, That doesn't apply to me. I was trying to mold God into what I wanted him to be, rather than allowing him to mold me into the person he made me to be. So I'd rationalize that I couldn't go to church because I was traveling. Unfortunately, that meant I didn't have the accountability of other believers.

How did that lack of accountability affect you and your choices?

It prevented me from growing and kept me a baby Christian for too long. Had I been a quicker learner, I'd have been better able to cope with some of the bitterness and yucky stuff I was struggling with while cultivating fruits such as peace, patience, faithfulness, and self-control that result from putting God first in your life.

You say you were a slow-growing Christian. When did you become more committed to your faith?

It's come in spurts. Shortly after Greg and I were married in 1988, we started attending church regularly. That made a huge difference. Becoming a mom was another big step in my faith journey because I understood these aren't my children. They're God's, and he's entrusting them to me. Then a couple years ago at a women's retreat I had another conviction of the heart. God moved me to realize I have to always keep a close eye on my priorities, that God needs to be first, even before my kids.

I think every mother wrestles with that. What's one way you've been keeping your priorities in order?

I get up an hour or two earlier in the morning, and that's my God time. Usually it's just me, but I also participate in a Bible study with two other women at 5:30, when the kids are still asleep.

Did you say 5:30? That's so early!

It is. But no one disturbs me then. And I've found when I have that time with the Lord, everything else falls into place.

What do you feel is your greatest strength as a parent?

Communication. I have a rule when I'm in the car with my kids: Game Boys, iPods, and cell phones—including mine—get turned off. The drive to school takes about 12 minutes, and for that period of time, I talk with the kids about what's going on in their lives, what's coming up at school, what they're thinking about. We have some really good conversations.

What if nobody's talking?

Then they get to listen and I get to impart wisdom or tell them things I want them to know! Or sometimes, if everybody's in a funky mood, we'll just pray. For me, it's the best part of playing chauffeur.

Your daughters are approaching their teen years. How do you plan to deal with body image and self-esteem?

By talking honestly and openly. I want Lily and Chloe to get their senses of self-worth from God, not the world. I tell both my daughters, "You're princesses because your Father is the King of kings."

I want them to understand that as Christians, we see beauty in a whole new way, not as the world sees it. Someone who's walking with God in an intimate relationship radiates a beauty that's not superficial or external. You can see the fruit of the Spirit in that person's life, and she is someone you want to be around.

Still, in adolescence, most kids struggle with insecurities about their appearance. How would you respond if your daughters were to say, "It's easy for you to talk about inner beauty. You were a model!"

Well, they see me every day, the real deal. It's not always pretty! And they've seen how the photos I have taken for my company get retouched. I try to instill in my kids a balance of confidence and humility. And Lily gets it. Even in first grade, when her teacher read a story about someone who was beautiful, Lily said, "Well, beauty is really something that's on the inside." She's wise.

Many of today's fashions are tight or revealing. How can you encourage your daughters to dress modestly if they point out that you posed in bikinis?

I tell them that there are a lot of choices I made when I was younger that I wouldn't make today. But also, one of the gifts of being a parent is that we have a window of time where we get to make these decisions for our kids. Of course, they need to understand why, beyond "because I said so." They'll feel much more conviction and carry through if they understand the reasons behind a rule.

But so often, as mothers, we feel like we're communicating in competition with strong outside influences, such as movies and magazines. Since I worked in the fashion industry, there aren't many publications I feel comfortable having our kids look at. A person I love recently gave Lily a subscription to a magazine. I looked at the articles and images, and I thought, How is this going to help her? So I had to nix that.

What about the internet?

I've had to learn all about MySpace and Facebook. I've signed up to be my kids' friend on those sites, so they know I'm out there. I've made it clear I'll go through any computer at any time without prior notice. They can grumble and complain all they want, but it's my right as their mom.

We've talked about how you build self-esteem in your daughters. How do you help your son to look at women respectfully and see beyond the body?

It's difficult. A friend told me about some Christian books that help parents talk about sex with their kids. My son, Erik, was 12 at the time, and I was really embarrassed when I saw some of the things in the books: pornography, oral sex, masturbation. Then I thought, Wait a minute. This is so not about me. It's irrelevant if I'm uncomfortable or embarrassed. How uncomfortable am I going to be if something devastating happens to my son because I never talked to him?

In this age of information, kids are going to find answers to their questions. If they don't hear them from parents who love them, they'll hear them from others who don't have their best interests at heart.

Of course, kids don't always believe parents know what they're talking about when it comes to issues such as dating and sex.

That's where finding mentors can help. For Erik, we found some guys who were a little older than him and really solid in their faith. Guys he can look up to and learn from. It meant we had to change churches to find a more developed youth program, which was difficult since we'd been at our church for 17 years. But when I see him communicating on Facebook with guys who are such good examples, I feel extremely grateful.

What one piece of parenting advice have you found the most valuable?

Be an example, not a hypocrite. It's one thing to say, "These are our values." Kids need to see us living them. When Mom has a bad day and she's been rejected and people are hanging up on her, what does she do? Does she go to the phone, or does she go to her knees?

Every day is a precious opportunity to teach and guide our kids. And in return, they make us accountable. I pray I'd be as strong in my faith if I didn't have kids, but I know that, boy, they keep me on my toes.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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