With her perfect posture, polished cream suit, bouncy thick hair, and glittering diamond bracelets, Kathy Ireland is still runway ready at 55—but this is no fashion show she’s bounding into.
Moments after filming back-to-back episodes for her TV shows, Modern Living and Worldwide Business, the supermodel-turned-business mogul is at a table with 15 men strategizing over her latest retail venture.
No, it’s not new living room furniture or women’s clothing or anything else you might associate from her already robust product line. It’s cannabis.
More specifically, CBD oil, or cannabidiol, which has been used for years for anything from arthritis pain management to anxiety relief and insomnia cure.
Before you start imagining Ireland baking brownies with Snoop Dogg, it should be noted that CBD is just one of a variety of extracts found in the plant—and it does not contain any psychoactive properties like THC, the compound in cannabis that gets people high.
Ireland’s meeting in Burbank, California, is with executives from Isodiol International Inc, a major manufacturer of CBD products. Her vision is to bring CBD to the same masses that snap up her Kathy Ireland Home curtains, bed linens, lamps, and towels.
The new venture will be called kathy ireland Health & Wellness, an offshoot of her $2 billion company. (Her first and last name will be lower case, she insists, because she wants to be “more about the customer,” less about her.)
Ireland is at ease and helps herself to a plate of catered food, while the others in the boardroom stay focused on her. Between spoonfuls, Ireland makes the case for why this is a smart expansion for her billion-dollar empire. It’s an opportunity to do good, she says, to help people suffering from chronic pain, to educate them on the benefits of CBD, and to give cannabis a makeover for folks who would otherwise shy away.
“There’s a stigma attached, and there’s no reason for that,” says Ireland, noting that beyond pain management, CBD can help women feel energized, alert, and well-rested. Cannabis oil products should no longer be relegated to dispensaries or hushed circles, she continues. “It belongs in Walgreens.”
The “pretty head” has brains
The iconic supermodel founded kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) in 1993, hot off the heels of her swimsuit fame. She was getting a bit tired of her place within the fashion industry and wanted more. She had ideas, a knack for what she thought could sell, but unlike the men now hanging on to her every word, execs had little regard for a professional beauty. One even told her not to worry her “pretty head,” and asked point-blank why she didn’t want to just stay home and get pregnant instead.
“I was coming from a background where my job description was ‘shut up and pose,'” Ireland tells Fast Company, “which is something I reject today.”
Not that she wasn’t presented with opportunities. Plenty of companies offered Ireland lucrative endorsement deals, though that seemed just like a further extension of modeling. There’s nothing wrong with lending your name, she clarifies. “It’s just never been a choice for me.”
“People call me a control freak . . . I prefer to think of it as passionate.”
Ireland tracks her fighting spirit as far back as age 11, when she became the neighborhood papergirl despite an ad saying boys only need apply. One customer yelled she’d never last in a boy’s job, she once told Investors Business Daily—but instead she was named the local Carrier of the Year three times in a row.
That independence carried over into her modeling career. At 17, a photographer tried to pressure and physically push the model into posing topless. “So I decked him,” she told ET.
It all started with socks
Ireland’s business started small–with socks (coincidentally, made with hemp). Advisers attempted to steer her back into her wheelhouse, like bikinis and beauty products, but Ireland stayed the course. As she saw it, if she could win consumers over with a basic like socks, she would win their trust with other products. Start small, start intentionally, she thought.
The budding brand sold over 100 million pairs, prompting Kmart to eventually offer an exclusive clothing and accessory partnership. (The two went their separate ways in 2003.) The initial focus included products catering to busy moms and families, but the target exponentially grew in the coming decades.
By the late ’90s, kiWW sold fine jewelry, home furnishings, bridal, crafts, pet care, flooring, and shipping containers. You can now buy Kathy Ireland window blinds, rugs, chandeliers, and underwear. There are more than 17,000 products that carry her name.
By 2015, Ireland’s brand was generating $2.5 billion in annual retail sales. Her net worth is thought to be north of $420 million. Warren Buffet now opens each Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting with Ireland and, of course, Bill Gates.
At this point in the company’s maturation, Ireland insists she doesn’t feel the need to extend the brand unless it’s for a product that will “make our world better.” That may sound too hokey to be true, but sitting with Ireland, the words come off as sincere. She says the keywords that now lead kiWW’s growth are: teach, inspire, and empower. “We take that very seriously.”
It’s that guiding entrepreneurial light, says Ireland’s team, that led her to CBD. “It is important for the world to know that industrial hemp, without THC, has no psychoactive effects, just like eating a grape before it is fermented into wine,” Ireland writes to fans on her product’s website.
Bringing CBD to the masses
Public sentiment is shifting. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated there have been no reports of public health problems associated with pure CBD.
“CBD has been found to be generally well-tolerated with a good safety profile,” the WHO concluded at its Geneva convention. “There is no evidence that CBD is liable to similar abuse and similar ill-effects as substances . . . such as cannabis or THC.”
Ireland getting behind CBD might just help usher it into the mainstream, and, she says, ease some suffering.
“I know there is a lot of controversy around it,” says Ireland. “There were people telling me not to touch it.” She pauses, and adds, “But I just loathe hypocrisy.”
Ireland stresses that, by all accounts, CBD works, treats pain, and is sustainable. Having spent two decades working in the health and wellness space–a board member on numerous medical charities and as an ambassador for the City of Hope cancer treatment and research center–she feels competent that she has the network to vouch for product quality and usefulness.
“There are great results,” she says, disregarding naysayers. “I understand the benefits. And I believe in it.”
It seems a smart investment: The cannabidiol market will grow 700% by 2020, reaching $2.1 billion, estimates market intelligence firm Hemp Business Journal. Granted, that’s just one piece of the booming marijuana industry, which is poised to hit $57 billion by 2027, with recreational marijuana use composing 67% and medical marijuana the remaining 33%.
For its debut into the market, kiWW partnered with Canada’s Isodiol, which sells everything from CBD-infused coffee to skin cream. It also grows and harvests hemp on an industrial scale.
The two powerhouses collaborated on consumer products for three brands under the Level Brands umbrella, a marketing and brand licensing company backed by kiWW: kathy ireland Health & Wellness (women’s products), Chef Andre Carthen (edibles), and I’M1 (men’s personal care products).
These include creams, oral sprays, body care products, and supplements. The goal was to begin with starter products that could have a daily impact, like body washes.
The kathy ireland Health & Wellness collection ranges from $59 for a bottle of 30 capsules to $99 for a 2 ounce tincture. The product names run rather straightforward, with goals such as “Rest” (induce relaxation and sleep), “Ease” (reduce inflammation), “Mend” (improve joint function), and “Defend” (immune system boost).
In addition to collaborating on the product development and marketing strategies, Ireland also serves as the brand’s “educator in chief,” which taps her celebrity to reach women across the country. Although the Isodial partnership includes three brands, it’s evident the kathy ireland Health & Wellness line will prove most lucrative, considering the founder’s appeal with women.
Women are the fastest-growing demographic for CBD products, accounting for 58% of “CBD-only” products. Over 50% who turn to CBD do so to treat joint pain and inflammation, followed by migraines (35%), which women are twice as likely as men to suffer from, as well as chronic pain (32%).
The therapeutic extract has also proven useful in treating PMS and menopause. Autoimmune diseases, meanwhile, affect 1 in 5 adults, with women comprising 75% of sufferers.
CBD in its many forms can treat arthritis, diabetes, and inflammation. Meryl Streep, for one, is a fan: She recently told Jimmy Kimmel that CBD lotion relieves foot pain caused by high-heel use. “It’s an amazing thing,” she laughed, adding, “so then I started rubbing it everywhere.”
But despite its many healing properties, many women are averse to hitting up the local cannabis dispensary, in part because of the stoner rep.
Distribution is one area Ireland’s vast empire can certainly influence—now it’s just the matter of luring in first-timers.
“If my name means anything at all, it’s really because we’ve built our brand on such a grassroots level and we’ve earned the trust of our customers,” says Ireland. Does she think such consumer trust can extend to a sector overcoming taboos? “Yes. With the customers whom we’ve been able to earn their trust, I do believe it will make a difference.”
She takes none of this lightly, stressing her hunt to partner with a company that can deliver consistency and product quality, two areas often problematic in the CBD categories: “Trust takes a very long time to earn, and it can be lost instantaneously,” she notes.
Ireland highlights one category that significantly solidified the company’s relationship with consumers: bridal. Her brand sold a bevy of products for the big day—wedding dresses, tableware, and even reception villas.
“If we can earn her trust on that most special day, then she trusts us and other areas of her life,” says Ireland. “We’ve really been able to grow a great relationship with young people through this [strategy].”
While kiWW built a strong base with baby boomers, the 18-34 demographic is now the company’s largest customer base. The average household income tops $100,000. It makes sense: They are now increasingly becoming head of households.
As Ireland notes, it also goes back to her first mission statement, when she started with socks: “Finding solutions for families, especially busy moms.”
Though nascent, the battle to become the national brand in the crowded CBD market is on. There’s anything and everything you can imagine: body lotion, bath salts, lip balm, and tea. Isodiol believes the gold rush is far from over, and that Ireland possesses the ability to speak to an untapped market of female consumers.
“Kathy speaks to [the American] woman,” says Isodiol spokesman Christopher Hussey. “She lends credibility. She’s a leader in [the health and wellness] space.”
Birthing the “baby brand”
The line is available for purchase online and in stores this fall. Isodiol also plans to roll out a nationwide network of branded automated retail kiosks filled with the CBD goodies. The kiosks will be found at high traffic locations and inside retailers—pharmacies, convenience stores, wellness centers, gyms, and more. (Units will comply with the appropriate legislation in each jurisdiction.)
But those are just baby steps, says Hussey. Long term, he sees CBD being as popular and ubiquitous as any other mainstream ingredient, stripped of its controversial status.
He sees it in Walmart and supermarkets not in the coming decade, but in the coming 24 months. “We’re already beginning to see that,” says Hussey.
For Ireland, this mission is more than just business: It’s a way to bring something she holds dear to her heart to those who have fallen prey to the “propaganda” against cannabis-adjacent products.
She, the woman who sells $400 million worth of namesake vinyl and plastic replacement windows per year, can also help ease your pain, she says.
Although an entrepreneur for 25 years, Ireland is excited by this very new challenge—a “baby brand just getting started.”
There’s a lot to teach–or rather, unteach, she explains.
“There’s so much there globally, so much that we can do,” she says with a hint of excitement. “We’re just getting started.”