Iman. Supermodel and role model.
In addition to her global fame as gloriously beautiful and the first African woman to win the support of the Western fashion industry, Iman is an entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist. She has authored two books and has been a TV star as well as an actress in thirteen films.
Iman is one of the select few people famous enough and distinctive enough to be known by one name, but her full original name is Iimaan Maxamed Cabdulmajiid or, in English, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid.
She always felt a conflict between her status as a Muslim woman and her profession as a model, despite her attempts to rationalize away the tension. She even related to reporters that she hides any images likely to offend her parents when they visit her.
Iman has also disclosed that she felt uncomfortable being photographed and dealt with it by treating it as a fantasy. “You are in clothes that have absolutely nothing to do with your own life. It’s fantasy, so you can hide behind them.”
Most surprisingly, she underwent breast augmentation surgery in the Eighties “to quiet that noise in my head and fill the gaping hole in my self-esteem”. If one of the most beautiful women in the world suffered from low self-esteem, where does that leave the rest of us?
The truth is that she was an educated person who could speak five languages and had a distinguished background. Her father was at one time the Somalian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. (Her mother was a nurse midwife. The story elsewhere on the Web that she was a gynaecologist may be an embellishment.)
Although her family is Muslim, Iman was educated at a Catholic school and went on to study politics at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. While she was a student, she was discovered by American photographer Peter Beard, who offered her a modeling career.
Initially, Iman was suspicious of Beard and successfully persuaded him to pay for her university tuition fees before she would agree to model. Later, Beard was able to coax her into leaving for New York.
Her first modeling assignment was for Vogue in 1976 and caused a sensation in the fashion industry.
She became a muse for legendary fashion designers including Versace, Halston, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Issey Miyake and Yves Saint-Laurent, who called her, “my dream woman”.
There had been prominent black models before such as Donyale Luna, who was Vogue’s model of the year in 1966 and also notably, Beverly Johnson and Naomi Sims.
However, Iman is widely regarded as the first black supermodel, a term that was first used in the Eighties to describe a new generation of models who had a broad impact on pop culture and earned million-dollar incomes.
Robin Givhan of the Washington Post:
“She broadened the definition of beauty. She made earthiness sensual. She helped to transform fashion into entertainment and models into personalities.”
In 2010, Iman received a highly prestigious lifetime achievement award, the Fashion Icon Award from the Council of Fashion Designers (CFDA) for her “profound influence on fashion”
However, she has also said that “at the end of the day, my legacy will not be modeling, but my cosmetics line”
She gave up a modeling career in which she earned millions of dollars a year, and a few years later, in 1994, she founded – and is still CEO of – what is now called Iman Cosmetics, Skincare and Fragrances.
Iman Cosmetics had its origins in Iman’s experience as a woman of color being asked by makeup artists to provide her own foundation, something not asked of white models. From those disturbing beginnings, Iman Cosmetics has become a $25-million-a-year business.
Her other entrepreneurial ventures have included a range of handbags, accessories and jewelry and a range of fabrics and home decor.
Iman is active in several charities, including The Children’s Defense Fund, Action Against Hunger and Save the Children. She has also worked to increase public awareness of blood diamonds. Iman terminated a presumably lucrative association with diamond company De Beers due to human rights concerns.
A British advocacy group had accused the Botswana government of evicting San tribal communities from their ancestral lands, allegedly to enable future diamond prospecting.
From 1978 until 1987, Iman was married to basketball star Spencer Haywood. Their daughter, Zulekha was born in 1978 and was the subject of a bitter custody battle.
David and Iman’s daughter, known as Lexi, was born in 2000. Iman and her family continue to fascinate and she and David Bowie make up one of the most famous couples of the world, but as Iman said to David in her speech accepting her Fashion Icon Award,
“Move over. You’re not the only icon in the house.”