Kathy Ireland Reflects on Her Iconic Modeling Career and What She 'Loves' About Getting Older (Exclusive)

The supermodel and businesswoman continues to have a full plate — and she wouldn't have it any other way

<p>Getty(2)</p> Kathy Ireland in 1983 and 2023


Kathy Ireland in 1983 and 2023

In the 1980s, you didn't pick up a magazine without seeing Kathy Ireland's big blue eyes staring back at you. And while she's mostly stepped away from the modeling world ("I think I ran out of poses a long time ago," she jokes to PEOPLE), the 61-year-old has managed to spin her brand and platform into places she can make a difference.

Modeling was "such an education," she tells PEOPLE exclusively. "And it was never my plan — it caught me by surprise. The look of the moment was changing in the '80s when I started."

Traveling the world for work (most notably for her 13 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues) opened a young Ireland's eyes to "needs that are so much bigger than us, and opportunities that are so much bigger than us," she says. "So rather than getting overwhelmed by the needs, I thought, 'What can I do?' We can all do something."

To that end, she's done a lot. In addition to her business ventures — everything from her Fashion 360 line for HSN and her fragrance collection to her Kathy Ireland Worldwide licensing brand and Ireland Pay credit card processing company — she also has her philanthropic pursuits, like serving as an ambassador for the Los Angeles Urban League's Whitney M. Young Jr. Awards Dinner on May 30.

<p>SGranitz/WireImage</p> Kathy Ireland in 2000


Kathy Ireland in 2000

Related: '90s Supermodels: Where Are They Now?

"It's certainly a privilege," she says of working with such organizations, "and I'm grateful for the people doing this great work."

Aside from a cultural education, Ireland's career also taught her what she calls the "gift of rejection."

"I certainly didn't appreciate it at the time," she says. "But it was powerful when we started our company and people would slam doors in my face or say things like, 'Well that's a stupid idea.' It didn't destroy me or stop me. 'No' meant, 'Now we're talking and I'll come back tomorrow and maybe your circumstances will have changed. Maybe you'll be in a better mood.' "

She continues, "We can learn from criticism. We've got to be humble enough to recognize people will have good advice. They might not deliver it in a kind way, but we've got to be able to hear it and take it apart and discern if there's something to learn from it, while not letting it harden our hearts."

Rebecca Sapp/Getty Kathy Ireland in 2023
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Kathy Ireland in 2023

Related: Kathy Ireland Shines a Light on the 'Terrifying' Anxiety Crisis of America's Youth in 'Anxious Nation' (Exclusive)

Ireland says she has young models reaching out to her for career advice, and often "I'm hesitant about encouraging anyone to get into that profession for many reasons," she admits. Along with rejection, it's "an industry that can attract a lot of people of questionable character."

In Ireland's early days, she felt fortunate to find a mentor in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue founding editor Julie Campbell.

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<p>Getty</p> Kathy Ireland in 2000


Kathy Ireland in 2000

"She came from the sports world and it had a different feel than traditional fashion," Ireland says. "Traditional fashion is wonderful, but from a sports perspective it felt like camaraderie. And Julie really set that tone — it was eat, go enjoy the sun. I watched her fight for the integrity of her brand, and there were so many business lessons for me during that process."

Now, as she focuses on her own businesses, as well as her philanthropic work and her family, Ireland says she's thankful for the continuing lessons she picks up along the way.

"One of the things I love about getting older is maturity," she says. "I just learned to enjoy the adventure more, and there's no fear, and that I'm so grateful for."

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