“When the roots are deep, there is no reason to fear the wind.”
Discovered by photographer Peter Beard, she was one of the first black models to come to prominence, founding her own groundbreaking cosmetics brand for all women of colour and marrying a much-loved rock legend. Her name is Iman.
Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid was born on July 25, 1955, in Mogadishu, Somalia. “I was born in Somalia, which is in East Africa. My parents started with nothing: poor, poor, poor. They eloped, which was unheard of in my country, when my father was 17 and my mother was 14” (https://intothegloss.com) Iman’s father was a diplomat stationed in Tanzania and her mother a gynecologist “My given name was Zahra, which is the ‘flower of the desert.’ I don’t look anything like the flower of the desert. My name was changed by my grandfather to Iman, which means ‘have faith.’ And it meant to have faith that a daughter would come” (www.brainyquote.com) Iman was sent to a private Catholic school in East Africa which was considered more progressive in the 1960’s. She was a very bright young girl. “I was a very nerdy child. I never fit in, so I became laboriously studious” she told her future husband David Bowie when he interviewed her in 1994 (www.brainyquote.com)
By the time Iman was 18 in 1973, Iman was a student of political science at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and working as a translator to help pay her tuition costs. The well-known photographer Peter Beard, spotted Iman walking down the street. He followed her, and when he caught up with her, he asked if she had ever been photographed. “He asked me if I have ever been photographed, and I was very insulted,” Iman said. “Because I thought, ‘Oh, here goes, a white man thinking Africans have never seen a camera before in their lives!'” (www.cbsnews.com) She thought he wanted her for prostitution of naked pictures. “I had never seen Vogue. I didn’t read fashion magazines, I read Times and Newsweek” she laughingly told Roy H. Campbell for Knight Ridder Tribune News years later. When he offered to pay her, she reconsidered and asked for the $8,000 to cover her tuition fees. Beard agreed and after shooting Iman, he spent the next four months trying to convince her to move to New York to become a professional model. “Nobody has ever said to me that I was pretty, ’till I met Peter Beard” she revealed. (www.cbsnews.com) In 1975, Iman relented and moved to New York. “I arrive in New York on October 15, 1975. On my own, by the way. Three months before, Eugenia Sheppard wrote a full-page article with a picture of me by Peter Beard in the New York Post and she writes that I was discovered by Peter Beard goat herding. I was like, ‘what?’ It said, “She doesn’t speak a word of English.”
Iman was tall and exotic, with a slender figure, swan-like neck and fine feature. With her copper-toned skin and exotic accent she was instantly recognizable and unforgettable. She also had a natural warmth and heartfelt honesty. “I suffer from low self-esteem. I had horrible self-esteem growing up. You really have to save yourself because the critic within you will eat you up. It’s not the outside world – it’s your interior life, that critic within you, that you have to silence” www.brainyquote.com Iman had a deep spirituality which always sustained her. “I was never a practising Muslim. But I do consider myself a Muslim” she revealed (https://parade.com)
Meanwhile, Peter Beard had leaked a fanciful story about Iman to the press. She told Harpers Bazaar: “I arrive in New York on October 15, 1975. On my own, by the way. Three months before, Eugenia Sheppard wrote a full-page article with a picture of me by Peter Beard in the New York Post and she writes that I was discovered by Peter Beard goat herding. I was like, ‘what?’ It said, “She doesn’t speak a word of English.” (www.harpersbazaar.com) She was unequivocal about the story.“I was very surprised and offended that they could be so gullible to believe that all Africans come out of the jungle,” Iman told H R. Campbell. “Somalia is a desert. I had never even seen a jungle. And I was even more insulted when they started asking the questions and talking only to Peter because they thought I did not speak English and I could speak English and five (other) languages”. (www.biography.com)
Iman signed to the Wilhelmina modelling agency, and began her 14-year career as a high fashion model on haute-couture runways and in the pages of fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She worked with many highly notable photographers including Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Annie Leibowitz. “She broadened the definition of beauty. She made earthiness sensual. She helped to transform fashion into entertainment and models into personalities.” pronounced Robin Givhan of the Washington Post. (www.davidbowienews.wordpress.com) “The African Queen” collection by Yves Saint Laurent was devoted entirely to Iman. One of the most enduring images of her career was a shot of her striding down a Paris runway in a Thierry Mugler design with a leopard at her side. It was a champagne lifestyle and Iman was earning extraordinary amounts of money: “I’d spend all this money to take the Concorde to Paris for a party and then come back. And I didn’t do it just once. (Modelling) doesn’t prepare a young girl for the future.”(www.biography.com)
She first married at age 18 to a young Somali entrepreneur, a Hilton executive. The marriage ended a few years later when she moved to the United States to pursue a modeling career. In 1977, Iman began seeing Hollywood actor Warren Beatty. Later that year, she got engaged to American basketball player Spencer Haywood and in 1978 she married him. Iman was already pregnant and gave birth to a daughter that year which they named Zulekha. Iman continued to model and in 1983, she was involved in a serious car accident. She told Harpers Bazaar: “I was coming from dinner on my way home and right on First Ave and 37th Street, I was in a taxi and a car hit us and the whole taxi overturned. This side (gestures to her left side) of my face was broken. It’s all wired from the inside. It didn’t shatter, it broke in pieces and it took forever to heal. With the magic of make-up no one knows” (www.harpersbazaar.com) Iman and Haywood were together until 1987 when they divorced. The custody battle over their daughter lasted six more years. In 1989, Iman quit modelling altogether. She explained in Interview: “So, when I decided to leave, I made sure that there was no cushion for me to go back to in New York. I sold my apartment; I severed contacts there, except with my friends, so that I would never have the excuse that, when something went wrong, I could go back to that as a cushion. I think I made one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for myself.” (www.hiiraan.com)
“Iman moved to Los Angeles, and in 1990 she was introduced to English rock legend David Bowie at a dinner party. In 2000, Bowie told Hello magazine that upon meeting Iman, his attraction was instantaneous and all-encompassing: “That she would be my wife, in my head, was a done deal,” he said. “I’d never gone after anything in my life with such passion in all my life. I just knew she was the one.” (http://edition.cnn.com) A romantic courtship ensued with romantic boat rides down the Seine in Paris to tying her shoelaces. She had not wanted to get involved with a rock star: “David changed my mind. He wooed me,” Iman recalled. “I remember once the laces on my trainers came undone and David was down on his knees in the middle of the street tying them for me. I thought to myself, ‘This one’s a keeper.’ (www.eonline.com) Bowie raved to People about his ravishing wife-to-be, describing her as “a smoky blend of Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn” (www.buzzfeed.com] The couple were married in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 24, 1992, he wearing tails and she in an elegant halter-top gown. They were remarried in an Italian church two months later. It would become one of the most enduring rock/fashion couplings of the modern age. “You would think that a rock star being married to a super-model would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is” Bowie said (www.goodreads.com)
In 1994, frustrated by the lack of products for black skin, Iman launched IMAN Cosmetics, a beauty company that created the first cosmetics and skincare collection designed for all women with skin of colour. She told Lloyd Gite for Black Enterprise “I would go to cosmetics counters and buy two or three foundations and powders, and then go home and mix them before I came up with something suitable for my undertones” (www.blackenterprise.com) She teamed up with one time make-up artist Byron Barnes, to create her own exclusive line selling it at J.C. Penney stores across the United States. She has said:“I was admittedly comfortable with Iman Cosmetics being identified as a beauty brand that filled the gap for black women because it was deeply personal for me”. www.bloomberg.com It was a baptism of fire for Iman, yet the line sold an impressive $12 million worth of products the first year. In 1995 she agreed to a deal with Miami-based drug and cosmetic company, Ivax, retaining control of the company. The following year, the line grossed $30 million. Iman went on to reach a licensing and distribution agreement with Proctor & Gamble for her cosmetics brand. The deal meant that her products would be sold through such major retail chains as Target and Wal-Mart. In spring 2012, Iman signed fellow Somali designers Ayaan and Idyl Mohallim, founders of the Mataano fashion company, as brand ambassadors for her cosmetics line. Iman has said: ”I was admittedly comfortable with Iman Cosmetics being identified as a beauty brand that filled the gap for black women because it was deeply personal for me” www.bloomberg.com
Apart from her modelling career and later her cosmetics line, Iman made notable TV and movie appearances. In the early 80’s she appeared in an eye catching British commercial for Tia Maria which featured the caption, ‘After dark, Tia Maria’. She appeared twice in Miami Vice, playing Dakotah in Back in the World (1985) and Lois Blyth in Love At First Sight (1988). Also in 1988, she appeared as Marie Babineaux on an episode of In the Heat of the Night. Iman spent two years in the mid-2000s, as the host of Bravo TV’s fashion-themed show, Project Runway Canada. In November 2010, she along with friend and colleague, designer Isaac Mizrahi, also began hosting the second season of The Fashion Show. On screen, Iman made her debut in the 1979 British film The Human Factor, and appeared in the 1985 Oscar-winning film Out of Africa alongside Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. In 1987 she portrayed Nina Beka in the thriller No Way Out with Kevin Costner and also a comedy with Michael Caine. Iman worked on several successive Hollywood film productions in 1991. Among these was Lies of the Twins and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which she played a shape shifting alien. Also in 1991, she featured in the memorable TV movie Lies of the Twins which starred fellow model Isabella Rossellini. Iman also dabbled in some comedic roles, appearing in The Linguini Incident the same year opposite her then fiancé David Bowie. She also took smaller parts in the 1991 comedy House Party 2 and the 1994 comedy/romance film Exit to Eden.
In addition to running her global cosmetics company, Iman is also actively involved in a number of charitable endeavours. She has used her status as Somalia’s most famous expatriot in 1992, to raise awareness of a country ravaged by war, drought, and famine in a BBC documentary. Somalia Diary was filmed just weeks after her honeymoon. Iman continued to serve as an activist on several fronts. She became a successful fund-raiser for Marion Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, and in 1999 created a lipstick with rapper Missy Elliott called “Misdemeanor”; a portion of the proceeds were donated to Break the Cycle, an organization committed to ending domestic violence. This venture spawned the I-Iman prestige line with it’s more daring palette in 2000. Iman became a spokesperson for the Keep a Child Alive program, and works closely with the Children’s Defense Fund, among others. She also serves as an Ambassador for Save the Children, and has been active in raising awareness of their relief services in the greater East Africa region. Iman also works with the Enough Project to end the global trade in conflict minerals. She played a key part in the public campaign against blood diamonds through her termination of her contract with the diamonds conglomerate De Beers over a conflict of ethics
Iman has expanded her business empire, by branching out in fashion accessories and home décor. She has one of the top-selling jewellery lines offered on HSN. In 2010, Iman received the Fashion Icon Award from the Council of Fashion Designers. She has written two books, I Am Iman (2001) and The Beauty of Color (2005).
On August 15, 2000, Iman and her husband David Bowie became parents to a daughter they named Alexandria Zahra, who was born in a New York City hospital. “We tried to get pregnant for seven years. I was at a shoot and Christie Brinkley walked in and she had a baby. So I said, “in Africa, if you carry another woman’s baby for a day, you’ll get pregnant.” And she said, “Here!” So I carried the baby all day. I do say it took two blondes to get me pregnant – Christie and David! I was 44 years old—you hear about the miracle of birth, but no it’s the miracle of conception. That’s a miracle”( www.harpersbazaar.com) Iman is also a stepmother to Bowie’s son from a previous marriage, Duncan Jones. Both children bear Bowie’s legal surname. Iman and her family resided primarily in Manhattan and London. “Funny enough, he goes to museums, shows, music shows, especially young musicians that he likes, he takes his kid to school…I’m not married to David Bowie, I’m married to David Jones. I’ve never had members of the press in my apartment. At home, it’s home. You retain the difference between a person and a persona. And people say, “Oh, you can’t have a private life.” If you want it, you can.” (www.issuu.com)
In January 2016, Iman lost her husband. The couple had been married for more than two decades at the time of Bowie’s passing. “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer,” the statement read. “While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”(www.rollingstone.com) Around the time of Bowie’s death, Iman posted a quote: “The struggle is real, but so is God.” (www.today.com)
Words: Alex Karas
Image: Harry Johnson