The Change Agent
Supermodel, makeup entrepreneur, humanitarian and champion of black women’s rights: IMAN is a true fashion icon. The original campaigner for equality tells JANE MULKERRINS why she’s still fighting
Iman has somehow slipped into the lobby of New York’s Mercer Hotel without my noticing. From my vantage point, on a leather sofa facing the doorway, you’d imagine it would be hard to miss 5ft 10in of bona fide, Somali-born supermodel. But, after more than 40 years in fashion, and 26 years as Mrs David Bowie, she has clearly become adept at moving through the city with stealth. When I do spot her, she’s discreetly swapping her enormous sunglasses for a more practical pair of tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles. As she greets me with a hug, I notice the delicate gold chain around her neck, with a tiny pendant saying ‘David’.
Though she retired from modeling in 1989, 63-year-old Iman’s impact on the industry has been keenly felt again in the past five years. In September 2013, along with her best friend, fellow model-turned-agent-turned-activist Bethann Hardison, and Naomi Campbell, Iman launched a campaign to highlight the dearth of models of color on the catwalk. The trio sent an open letter to the heads of fashion’s governing bodies in New York, London, Paris and Milan, warning that: “Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of color.” The coalition then listed the designers and fashion houses it said were “guilty of this racist act”. The desperate tactic worked. “It is remarkable,” Iman declares, as we settle at a table in the restaurant. “We are getting visible results. Not only on the runway, but where the spoils of war are: advertising. If you pick up the magazines and look at the ads, the change is visible.” And the speed of their success is, she believes, down to social media. “When we posted the letter on social media, everyone knew, so the designers were taken to task. Everybody has a voice now, and change happens fast.”
Rapid though this revolution may have been, it is not Iman’s first. After exiting the runway stage right, she founded Iman Cosmetics, now a $25 million-a-year business, based on foundation formulations for non-Caucasian women. The brand was conceived from Iman’s own experiences; on her first job for American Vogue in 1976, a makeup artist asked if she had brought her own foundation, as he had nothing suitable for her skin tone. Iman began mixing her own, which other black models would then ask to use. “Now, every brand has 40 shades of foundation, but Iman Cosmetics was one of the first that changed the way we think about makeup,” she says. “That will be my legacy, and I am very happy to be remembered that way.”
“Iman Cosmetics CHANGED the way we think about makeup. That will be my LEGACY, and I am very happy to be REMEMBERED that way”
Born Iman Abdulmajid in Mogadishu, her diplomat father and doctor mother sought refugee status in Kenya in the early 1970s. At 20 years old, en route to a political science lecture at the University of Nairobi, she was spotted by photographer Peter Beard, and, having never worn heels or makeup, or ever having read a fashion magazine, she was soon on her way to New York. “I was trying to take care of my brothers and sisters, pay for their education, so for me it was all business,” she says.
But she quickly became aware of a deeply unjust system, in which black models were actively pitted against each one another. “It was that old adage of divide and conquer,” she says, rolling her eyes. “There was an unwritten rule of having just one black model shooting for [a publication] at a time. So, you would have to dethrone someone to get that job.” Instead, she made firm friends with her supposed ‘rivals’, including US model Beverly Johnson. “We are not interchangeable,” she notes. “Once we understood that, we could get them [the agencies and publications] to as well, and we could all work at the same time.” Black models were also, she discovered, paid less per hour than their white counterparts. Iman refused to work unless she was paid the same. “Someone had to say it,” she shrugs.
“There was an unwritten RULE of having just one black model shooting for [a publication] at a time. You had to dethrone someone to get that job. We are NOT interchangeable”
During a 13-year career, she was photographed by the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Herb Ritts and Richard Avedon, and became a muse to Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. When I ask why she walked away, she responds with a rich, deep, rolling laugh. “The philosophical answer is that I knew that there was no more that I could do, and I needed to walk away in order to start something new,” she says. “The less philosophical truth was that I had Linda and Naomi and Christy and Cindy behind me, and they were going to push me out anyway, so I had to leave with grace.”
Leaving modeling behind also meant she could focus on her family. Iman’s eldest daughter, Zulekha, from her marriage to basketball player Spencer Haywood, is now 40, while her younger daughter, Alexandria, known as Lexi, turned 18 this year. On the milestone birthday, Iman tells me, she posted 18 pictures of her daughter on Instagram. “And every agency, every designer, called me to say: ‘If she wants to, we’d love for her to model for us.’” She fixes me with the sternest of stares. “I said: ‘No, she doesn’t.’” Lexi, she tells me, is a talented painter, currently taking a gap year (“Against my wishes”). “I know why they wanted to her to model – it’s because she is David Bowie’s daughter.”
Just as Iman and Bowie fiercely guarded the privacy of their marriage, never speaking about one another in interviews, so they also protected the privacy of their daughter. “She says I am overprotective,” sighs Iman. “But I told her, this can all wait, it isn’t going anywhere. Have a life that is private while you can, because one day soon it is going to be public, so enjoy this.”
“I get the fans’ GRIEF, but it’s not the same. They have lost someone they look up to; we have lost a HUSBAND and a father. Sometimes, I don’t want people to know how SAD I am”
And she should know. If her 24 years of marriage to one of music’s greatest icons thrust her into the public glare, then his death from liver cancer in January 2016 has brought an even greater level of attention. “People take pictures of me in the street, and say [touching my arm]: ‘I am so sorry for your loss.’” She pulls a face of fierce indignation. “I’m like, don’t touch me. You just took pictures of me, how can you be sorry?” She softens a little. “I get the fans’ grief, but it’s not the same. They have lost someone they look up to; we have lost a husband and a father.”
“And sometimes, I don’t want people to know how sad I am,” she continues. “People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so strong.’” She rolls her eyes again. “I’m not strong – I am just trying to keep it together.”
I hesitantly broach the subject of whether she’d think about having another relationship. “I will never remarry,” she says, firmly. “I mentioned my husband the other day with someone, and they said to me: ‘You mean your late husband?’ I said, no, he is always going to be my husband.” She concedes: “I do feel very lonely. But do I want a relationship? I can’t say never, but no, not now.”
Lexi, who is close to Duncan Jones, Bowie’s son from his first marriage, is keen to join him in LA. “But one of her biggest fears is leaving me,” says Iman. She sighs. “I tell her: you are not responsible for me. It’s the other way around.”
“I will never REMARRY. I mentioned my husband the other day with someone, and they said: ‘Your LATE husband?’ I said, NO, he is always going to be my husband”
“One thing I want to do, which I have not done for a long time, is travel.” Bethann Hardison is onboard as her travel buddy, and they’re thinking Vietnam, Korea, Australia. The trips will not, however, involve much of the US. A close friend, she tells me, recently got divorced, bought a motorhome, and proposed a road trip through the States. Iman looks horrified. “Maybe five years ago, but America has changed. The hostility and division is palpable. When one feels scared that you cannot travel to certain places in the country, because you don’t know how hostile it is – where is the democracy?” she asks, rhetorically.
It’s not an attack on her adopted country, where she’s been a citizen since 1979. “As much as I am Somali, I am American,” says the icon. “This is the country that gave me everything, so it is my duty to stick it out.” And, with that, she swaps her spectacles for her sunglasses once more, and slips back through the streets of SoHo.
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.