Bamboo in the Wind

The USA’s strength and vitality is partially attributable to the tenacity of its immigrant population. Other countries’ ills have become our gain. Albert Einstein represented one of many brilliant minds that immigrated to our shores in order to flee the inhumanity of Nazi Germany. In more recent years, Elon Musk is an example of an exemplary entrepreneur who sought this land of opportunity.

Eleanor Simon’s parents moved their young family from the Philippines to the USA when Eleanor was a little girl. Her father, a highly educated Nuclear Engineer, had sought-after skills that he could contribute to this country, and he recognized that his children would enjoy better opportunities in the USA. So began the American journey of a truly remarkable young girl.

Eleanor remembers those days with sensibility:

“I was 6 years old when we arrived in the U.S. from the Philippines, and before we’d even unpacked, I started school. Being the child of immigrant parents, the priority in our home was having a good, strong education. I attended an engineering preparatory high school, which I’m so grateful for because when I went off to the University of Illinois to major in engineering, it really was a seamless and easy transition.

During Eleanor’s freshman year, life presented her with a fork in the road that she had never anticipated. She had already signed with a Chicago Modeling Agency. David and Lee, the heads of the agency, introduced Eleanor to Eileen Ford, the world’s preeminent model boss, and Eileen made it clear that she wanted Eleanor on her books. When Eleanor’s parents objected to their daughter giving up her education and moving to New York to live in a model’s apartment, Eileen offered her a rare privilege: to move into hers and husband Jerry Ford’s swish New York brownstone on the upper east side. It was a done deal. Eleanor’s parents finally agreed.

18-year-old Eleanor savored the experience living with Eileen and Jerry Ford, describing it like this:

“Eileen was so kind and like a grandmother to me. I respected her enormously and I learned so much from her worldliness. At the time, I was the only model living there. Some of the girls would visit and they would stay on the fourth floor. While some models avoided meals with the Fords – probably because it was intimidating – I found it a fascinating introduction to a sophisticated world, and I wanted to partake in everything I could learn from Eileen. Here I was, a young girl of immigrant parents, and not only did I learn all the correct silverware, but I learned how to delicately eat artichokes! Also, I’m genetically skinny so Eileen really encouraged me to eat more! I felt so honored to be there.”

Eleanor describes all these experiences like an ebullient explorer of life. She wanted to learn, grow, and flourish.

Unlike most models that are designated to either do print fashion or walk the fashion runway, Eleanor did both effortlessly. Her height and her naturally slender genes were her allies – particularly at a time when being reed thin was a necessity on the runway. She jetted off to Paris for the avant garde shows while her future husband, Daniel, waited patiently in Chicago for his girlfriend’s return. Eleanor recounts the speed and intensity of that period:

“In Paris I was able to work with the legends, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne and Kenzo. The following year, I went home and unusually, I just wasn’t feeling well. It was then that I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. Fortunately, I was able to navigate my way through print work, mostly catalogue, and I kept myself relevant in the business – even when I was with child.”

My husband and my sons are my rock solid foundation, and that balance has served me well in life. Modeling has always been the icing on the cake for me – and it’s the best cake and icing I could ever have imagined.

Eleanor’s relevance in the business went much deeper than that. Her hard work ethic solidified her reputation as one of the most professional models in the industry. She arrived at all her appointments on time, returned calls immediately, took direction respectfully, and made the lives of her surrounding team – a breeze.

By then, Daniel and Eleanor were married, and their two eldest sons Nikko (who is now 28) and Lucas (who is now 23) were born. Isaac followed 10 years later, and he is now 13. Eleanor welcomed her sons into the world and took on her new role with the all-in commitment that is in her DNA.

“I never knew how long I would model and where that career would take me,” she explains, “but the second my babies were born, I knew, without the shadow of a doubt, that this was my calling. I relished motherhood and, hopefully, my sons have great memories of their childhood.”

I ask Eleanor how she felt about the confluence of the two worlds: marriage and motherhood – and a career that involved chunks of time away from home. She answers with a boatload of solutions:

“Whenever I had a modeling trip,” she continues, “I always took my family with me and treated the time I wasn’t on camera – like a family vacation. To this day, I take my family with me whenever I can. Recently, Lucas (my middle son), accompanied me on a work trip to Paris, and he couldn’t believe that I hadn’t visited all the Parisian art museums. In earlier decades I really didn’t take full advantage of Paris like I should have. My friends and I never went to any of the restaurants and the Parisian nightclubs saw far too much of us! I’ve more than made up for that omission. Lucas and I went to ALL the art museums. Another work trip that I took recently was with my husband, and we went to Bora Bora. It was so beautiful. The water was so clear and we were swimming with stingrays and dolphins. I love environments that limit the intrusion of commercialization. Malibu is a lot like that.”

I have to draw the rest of the information out of mama bear because her humility prevents her from gushing about her sons’ achievements. Eldest son, Nikko, is now a New York Dental Surgeon in ER, and he is currently doing his Oral Surgery Residency. Lucas just graduated with a master’s degree in Accountancy while also performing as a college basketball superstar. In fact, all three sons are gifted athletes in volleyball, basketball and cross-country, and they’ve always participated in intra mural meets.

“My kids grew up in gyms,” recalls Eleanor, “and I have to credit my husband for his role in their athletic achievements. The boys were always bouncing balls wherever they were, and Daniel took them everywhere.”

But like Eleanor, her sons are so much more than just the sum of their academic and sports achievements: Nikko went back to his mother’s ancestral home – the Philippines – to work in an underprivileged neighborhood in the slums of Manila. He dove into the experience with all the compassion and humanity that characterizes his mother. Eleanor describes his experience:

“I wanted my children to experience going into a very different environment where the creature comforts we take for granted in the U.S. – don’t exist. So Nikko went off and worked with really young children, and he truly embraced every aspect. He even worked in the kitchen, and the kids thought he was a rock star. What is most touching is an incredibly beautiful essay that Nikko wrote about the children, and that eventually became the basis for an academic scholarship.”

Eleanor’s tightly-bonded family displays all the inviolably valuable components of highly-supportive family life. Although the family’s home base in in Chicago, Eleanor is in New York almost weekly and navigates the metro system like a regular New Yorker.

It’s always interesting to discover parenting styles that are successful. I ask Eleanor if she ever had to convey to her sons the importance of education. She responds,

Lucas, Isaac, Eleanor, Otis (family’s rescue dog), Daniel and Nikko Simon

While my parents’ voices were always in the back of my mind whenever I had to make big decisions, I still had to become streetwise and savvy. I developed a very good head on my shoulders because my career forced me to acquire key survival skills-fast.

“There’s a small, guilty part in me about never having completed college, and so I always felt it important to give my sons the latitude to make their own decisions, and to forge their own paths without my interference. I definitely took two steps back and had nothing to do with their eventual choices. Right now my youngest son is 13 years old and I’m interested to see which path he is going to choose. Let’s face it, he has big shoes to fill but I definitely don’t want him to walk in his brothers’ shadows. I’m confident that he will make the right choices.”

“Our family is very close. Every Sunday night my parents and my brother and his family all come over for dinner at our home. Sunday is family day and it’s a tradition that we cherish. Growing up, I always heard my parents’ voice – no matter where I was in the world. Their values and principles were firmly embedded in my sub conscious. I’m quietly so proud of the values and principles that my sons demonstrate.”

The ramifications of the pandemic have had far-reaching effects. Anti-Asian racism has touched very close to home in Eleanor’s family. She says,

“I was very worried about my son in New York, but especially my parents because it was the elderly who seemed to be the targets of this racism.”

Despite the challenges of the pandemic years, Eleanor is a naturally optimistic person.

“We WILL heal,” she says with firm conviction. “We are all human, and it’s so important that despite differing viewpoints, we can still be civil and courteous to each other. I have friends from high school whose viewpoints are polar opposite to mine, and yet we still see the good in each other.”

“We want to get back to a normal life,” Eleanor emphasizes. “Even during the pandemic, I made the most of the lockdown with my kids. My youngest son, in particular, and I would paint, and we even made posters with meaningful reminders of what was important to us. One of the posters read,

‘When the world stayed apart, this was my favorite place to be – HOME.’”

“We did a scrap book of everything that we did together as a family because we wanted it to be a keepsake of this time in history. The whole family partook in this exercise of documenting everything. We’d take screen shots of the news, and record the historically relevant sequence of events. My boys learned how to cook and we baked bread together. We did art classes. We pressed flowers and leaves. I said to my sons that these are the momentos of the time we were trapped together. My hope is that when somebody asks them in 20 years’ time where they were during the world’s pandemic, they will answer that they were at home – their favorite place to be.”

My hope is that when somebody asks my sons in 20 years’ time where they were during the world’s pandemic, they will answer that they were at home-their favorite place to be.

Eleanor continues: “When New York finally opened up, I went there to spend time with my two eldest sons, and we were so appreciative of the post lockdown time together. All three of us had so much energy and we ran around the city like excited children. We were talking, moving, eating, and they would encourage me by saying, ‘come on mom, you can do it!’”

Eleanor recalls an important Michael Jordan sign that was in one of her son’s bedrooms. It said, ‘Just Do It!’ Michael Jordan is the family’s all-time favorite basketball player and they respect him as the gold standard in the sport. His ‘Just Do It’ sign permeates with them wherever they go. Eleanor explains, “we are great believers in grabbing life’s opportunities, and not having any regrets about things we could have and should have done. I told my children when they asked me questions during the pandemic – to make decisions as if it were the end of the world. We also strongly believe in putting 200% effort into whatever we do. It’s vital to move forward proactively and follow through.”

The family’s basketball life is described like this: “My sons have been very involved in basketball, consequently, whenever we go to live games, coaches from all over the country recognize them, not because they are superstars, but because basketball has been such a major part of their lives. They wanted to go and watch LeBron James play the Milwaukee Bucks in a recent game, but unfortunately he was injured. It goes without saying that we were all devastated about Kobe Bryant’s death. We all felt we had lost a family member.”

“Apart from the physical benefits of sport, the team aspect is so important in anybody’s development. There is no ‘I’ in team play. If I look closely at the teams that my kids have played with, all of them are life-long friends and the bonds of trust run deeply. They are a brotherhood, and the coaches made such an effort to bond the left and the right side because a well-oiled machine is critical to a team’s success. The other lesson in team play is the healthy acknowledgment that life isn’t always fair. My sons have also learned to manage the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The key is to know how to bounce back when life punches you down. You have to shake off life’s disappointments. Also, it’s important to recognize that there is always somebody better than you, no matter how great you think you are at something.”

We discuss Eleanor’s priorities.

“My husband and my sons are my rock solid foundation, and that balance has served me well in life. Modeling has always been the icing on the cake for me – and it’s the BEST cake and icing I could ever have imagined! Every time my agent calls me for work, I am always excited and THERE! I literally book my air ticket within the hour after immediately consulting with my family members and asking who’d like to join me! The great thing is that there’s always someone in my family who jumps at the opportunity to go with me to somewhere interesting! As soon as I finish work, we take a few days vacation together.”

That optimism is central to Eleanor’s nature. She makes the most of every situation, and takes the drudgery out of life. She continues,

“The life skills that modeling has taught me are extensive. I was so young when I went on castings to different countries and different cities, and I had to navigate my way around – alone. This was pre cell phone days and all we had were phone cards. While my parents’ voices were always in the back of my mind whenever I had to make big decisions, I still had to become streetwise and savvy. I’m very grateful for that because I developed a very good head on my shoulders, and that, too, has been an asset. My career forced me to acquire key survival skills – fast.”

Eleanor is quick to sensibly dispel any notion that she has the perfect family. She says with absolute clarity,

Where we succeed as a family is that we’ve learned to pick and choose our battles. What’s also important is to learn from past mistakes and to avoid roads that don’t have good outcomes.

“Many people have asked me what the secret is to having a strong family. I don’t want anyone to think that our life is perfect. It’s not. We have disagreements, even fights sometimes. It’s not always easy and sometimes it’s really hard. Where we succeed as a family is that we’ve learned to pick and choose our battles. We have figured out what is worth holding the line on – and what is not. We debate, offer opinions, but in the end – we agree to disagree because preserving the relationship is the priority. Winning an argument is far less important, and maybe someone has to give in. At the end of the day, if Daniel and I are arguing, we recognize that the fight really isn’t worth it. We have worked really hard to keep us all together because we want to make it work. My parents made their marriage work, and their example has shown us how to work through things. What’s also important is to learn from past mistakes and to avoid roads that don’t have good outcomes. Silence is always preferable to hurting someone you love.”

Eleanor says, “my sons gave me some excellent advice recently. I was at a work assignment and a highly contentious topic emerged. It was a sign of the divide in our country over Covid-19, and I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. I sought the advice of my sons, and their answer was simple and wise: ‘Let it go, mom. Let them live their lives. You’re not going to change their views. Leave it be.’”

“That is why I have so much faith and hope for the future of this country,” Eleanor concludes. “I think that the younger generation really seeks peace and harmony, and I have learned so much from my sons.”

I ask Eleanor what the aging process has taught her.

“I love being in my 50s,” she says with genuine resolve. “I am so much more confident now than I was when I was younger, and confidence is healthy. People are attracted to confidence.”

One of Eleanor’s wise uncles made this observation of her. He said,

“You are like a bamboo. You go with the wind.”

It largely explains why 30 years later, Eleanor is still so sought after as a model. She is as much in demand in 2022 as she was in her 20s because – like a bamboo swaying in the wind – she flows along harmoniously in the direction that nature is leading her. She is respectful, considerate of other people’s feelings, and she represents a kind of vitality that the world yearns for. Working with Eleanor is uplifting, effortless, joyful, easy. She invigorates everyone around her while moving them out of their own quagmires. Her smile is genuine, and her ebullience is a lifeline to those who are jaded from life’s complexities.

The validity of this description of Eleanor is immediately ratified by her thoughtful and gracious conclusion:

“I am beyond grateful,” she says sincerely, “that 30 years later, I’m back with the agents of Ford Models, Patty Sicular, Jill Cohen Perlman and Lori Modugno. Together they now have their own powerhouse of legends at IconicFocus Models NYC/LA, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way. It’s a beautiful full-circle story.”

As for Eleanor: if she ever has any spare time, she’d be a refreshing asset to the United Nations or any world peace platform. She has that rare quality of being able to listen intelligently, absorb the information thoughtfully, and then respond with measured, articulate empathy. This metaphorically beautiful bamboo in the wind artfully flows through life – and shows us the power of joy.