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Reluctant supermodel, billionnaire businesswoman Kathy Ireland

Kathy Ireland

Plucked from obscurity at age 16, Kathy Ireland went on to appear in 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues.

Her most famous cover was the magazine’s 25th anniversary in 1989, which featured Ireland wearing a strapless yellow bikini with slicked-back hair. Last year, SI declared it the Greatest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Cover of All Time.

But Ireland, now 52, looks back with mixed emotions on her scantily-clad time posing on the beach. When she wasn’t modeling, she tried launching several businesses that went nowhere.

“I wasted so much time just having a pity party,” she said in phone interview this week. “I was doing something that I didn’t feel was that important.”

Today, Ireland is the quintessential “modelpreneur,” considered one of the wealthiest former models in the same camp as Gisele Bundchen, Cindy Crawford and Heidi Klum. Her brand marketing company, kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) grosses more than $2 billion, according to Forbes, which also made Ireland its cover girl in a 2012 issue.

But it is Ireland’s work in global philanthropy and promotion of Christian-based education that caught the attention of Padua Academy in Wilmington. Today (4/16), Ireland will speak with students at the all-girls Catholic high school before heading to the Chase Center on the Riverfront to be honored at the school’s annual Women Achievement dinner. Tickets are no longer available.

Previous award recipients have included Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza, former U.S. Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon and former First Lady Laura Bush.

Ireland was honored for her commitment to her faith, social action and social justice, according to Cindy Mann, Padua’s head of school.

“When we say to the young women of our school, ‘Be who you are and be that well’ – know who you are on the inside – I think of Kathy Ireland,” she said in a statement.

This school year, Padua has focused on ending human trafficking, a passion topic for Ireland. The school has brought in speakers and screened documentaries.

Named an ambassador by the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles, Ireland has teamed up with Rogaska Crystal to design a line that will donate all of its profits to Nomi Network, a nonprofit organization fighting human trafficking.

Early on, the bombshell brunette staked her claim. As a preteen, she landed a job delivering newspapers, despite an ad that read “Are you the boy for the job?”

She also attended protests and rallies with her father, a labor organizer who fought for rights for migrant farm workers alongside Cesar Chavez.

Ireland cites Christian-based education as playing a pivotal role in nurturing students intellectually and spiritually.

“I believe in the mission and the vision” of Padua, she said.

Recently, Padua sophomore Abigail Houseal traveled with her father, Tim, to meet with Ireland during a college-hunting trip in California. Ireland gave the pair a tour of Providence, a K-12 Christian school in Santa Barbara where Ireland and her husband serve on the board.

The mother of three is also a pro-life advocate and an outspoken supporter of Israel. As a friend of the late Elizabeth Taylor, she has helped raise money for The Elizabeth Taylor HIV/Aids Foundation.

It’s as if Ireland’s experiences modeling string bikinis and playing Miss Destiny Demeanor in National Lampoon’s “Lethal Weapon 1” belong in another life.

Starting with a sock line at Kmart, Ireland has grown her company over the last 22 years to include home, apparel, bridal, destination weddings, fine jewelry, baby toys, pet care, crafts and more. A line of educational products for toddlers is expected to debut next month.

She is also the author of six books, including three for children. In 2009, she was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”

In honoring Ireland, Padua is telling its students “that can be you,” Mann said. “You are no different than Kathy Ireland. You are made by God just like God made Kathy.”

“But it takes drive, it takes belief in yourself and it takes a willingness to put yourself out of your comfort zone.”

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