To meditate on Iman’s face, Iman’s body, Iman the woman, is to remember – to mine one’s unconscious for a memory of something so rich, so fertile, something like earth, something like oil, a mineral that is a part of oneself, a part of all selves.
The beauty of the black woman has the essential in it. Soulful, primal, virgin. Her skin speaks, it is a language of its own, dissatisfied with just being looked at, a warmth begging to be touched and held. Of all the races, it is the black beauty that is closest to Mother Earth, as if all the colours of the universe had bled into this one flesh, all the stories, all the sorrows, all the births and rebirths.
That Iman is regarded as one of the greatest beauties to ever grace this planet is, indeed, a remembrance. Look at her, and you go back to a place you can never forget, and you realise that she is not merely a beautiful object, but a beautiful experience, and the beauty you behold in her is the same beauty that is inside of you.
This is the beauty of the black woman.
Iman, supermodel among supermodels, wife to David Bowie, mother of two, head of the pioneering company IMAN Cosmetics, legend, shares with WestEast a part of her own personal journey, this amazing journey of an amazing life, a journey that the world has joyfully shared with her: The theme for this issue is EXOTIC. Please describe to us the “scene” at the time you first entered the world of fashion and modelling in 1975 – the standards of beauty, attitudes towards people of colour, and the general reaction or response to you.
When I arrived in America in 1975 the only black model working was Beverly Johnson who was considered very “all American” so they labelled me exotic!
The prevailing notion also was that the standard of beauty at that time was considered the “girl next door” and it usually meant “blonde and blue-eyed”. I was at the forefront to change that old fashion idea and wanted them to start looking at us black models as simply… beautiful! Since then the neighbourhood has changed and the “girl next door” could easily be Asian, Latina, and very multicultural and multi-ethnic.
You grew up as the daughter of a diplomat, which probably exposed you to many cultures. What was this like?
That is how I learned five languages as I travelled mostly thru the Middle East. There is nothing more educational than travelling and moving around the world. It was very exciting for me to grow up like that and have that kind of cultural exposure.
What were the most remarkable changes you’ve witnessed in the fashion or modelling scene when it comes to standards of beauty? What hasn’t changed at all?
The acceptance of different kind of beauties is miraculous, from Liya Kedebe to Alek Wek and Devon Aoki, but also in terms of today’s most celebrated beauties and actresses from Lucy Liu, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez. I have quoted Oprah in my book, The Beauty of Colour, as she said famously to Alek Wek: “When I was growing up, if you’d been on a cover of a magazine I would have had a different concept of who I was.” What hasn’t changed at all is that the masses still are divided when it comes to what is beautiful. The public still prefers a more “acceptable” standard of black beauty. But what is beautiful… that is an old argument!
We are doing an issue devoted to EXOTICISM because we feel that this old Eurocentric sense of exotic will soon die out in today’s fast-changing world. In your own personal journey, were you comfortable being regarded as “exotic”? Does this still matter to you now? Do you have your own sense of exotic?
I never liked the idea of being called “exotic”. I consider a mango an exotic fruit… but I also never liked it when Americans call Asian women Oriental as if they were carpets!
All women regardless of their ethnic background want to be viewed as beautiful. This is not the birthright of only white women. I don’t want a special label for black women like sexy, sultry, sassy or exotic! It is very political… the politics of beauty.
Let’s talk about your home country, Somalia. Do you still visit? What is your connection with Somalia?
It is very hard to visit Somalia as it has been in a “quiet” civil war since 1991. I have made several documentaries for BBC on my country including the famine in 1992. My family live in the United States and I am very close to them. I will always feel Somalia and stay close to my people.
Please tell us about your experience working with legendary photographers like Avedon, Newton and Penn. What do you think, did they bring out of you, in terms of your beauty?
Working with masters like that brings different kind of experiences, from their way of viewing what is unique and different in you to timeless images. The weight of their body of experience can be sensed in the photos. Also, they are uniquely different from the “voyeur” Newton, to the classic Penn and the esoteric Avedon.
Please share with us your insights on beauty and identity, as you spoke about in your book I AM IMAN.
I really wanted to write about my working experience as a model. The race relations and the cultural-cum-politics of good looks. I wanted to question the unserious business of fashion and beauty and its serious effect on identity. Photography is such a powerful tool as young girls look at the images celebrated and compare themselves to it… The absence of images of ethnic and diverse beauties makes young girls feel not beautiful and decreases their self-image.
What was your frame of mind when you first started IMAN Cosmetics in 1994? How have your company and your ideas evolved since then? How is your relationship with your customers?
The seed to create the IMAN cosmetic brand was planted in 1975 when I arrived in America and my first shoot was with American Vogue and the make-up artist asked me a perplexing question: “Did you bring your own foundation?” I say perplexing because he didn’t ask that question to the Caucasian model! Of course, I was clueless as I had never worn make-up in my life before I became a model and the photos when they appeared in the magazine were hideous… I looked gray!
So I learned quiet fast and started mixing and matching foundations so I could have one that looked like my skin tone. I became a foundation expert. I wanted a celebration of my own ethnicity and identity. As a model my image is my currency so I wanted it to be right.
Last year I signed a licensing agreement with Procter and Gamble to distribute my brand globally. The brand is more than cosmetics, it is also about skincare, hair care and fragrance but most importantly it is a celebration all women of all skin tones.
We are already in Europe like the UK, France and Spain but I would like to distribute in South America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
You are considered by many to be a living legend – and are also married to one! How do you and your husband deal with this iconic couple status? What do you think of the celebrity obsession – and celebrity bashing – in the media right now?
We have always maintained that there should be some sense of privacy as well as mystery. The public nowadays knows too much about everybody because almost every celebrity tells all and holds nothing back! We rarely go out to major events. We never have our kids photographed and we never photograph where we live. There has to be a difference between the person and the persona, and there has to be difference between your private life and your public life.
The celebrity obsession is rather annoying actually because we are now force-fed on a daily basis these b, c, d, e, f celebrities that I don¡¦t know who they are and care less about them… as there is no difference between fame and infamy anymore. And of course what is celebrated must be bashed… it is a guaranteed rule!
Please tell us about your charity work.
I have always been involved with children-s charities but I have now become the global ambassador for KEEP A CHILD ALIVE (www.keepachildalive.org) and I am spearheading a very important and timely campaign to help stop the dying in Africa of AIDS and getting the drugs needed affordably. The campaign is called I AM AFRICAN since the whole origin of man comes from Africa. Photographer Michael Thompson is shooting the campaign and the celebrities will be made up in a modern take on African make-up.
And I have a very strong list of celebrities who are doing the campaign from my husband David Bowie, Alicia Keys, Lucy Liu, Sarah Jessica Parker, Richard Gere, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Elijah Wood and many more.
Finally, what do you teach your children about beauty and their identity?
I try as much as I can for them to have their own identity and not be an extension of me or David. I always say everybody is beautiful and that your character is the most important part of you.
Text: Paula Nocon
Photography: X + Y Styling: Kithe Brewster @ Creative Exchange Agency, New York Art Direction & Production: D’Arcy Partners, New York Hair: Serge Normant @ Jed Root, New York Make-up: Itsuki @ The Wall Group, New York Male model: Bruno Santos @ Wilhelmina, New York Set designer: Terry T Emmons Fashion assistant: Robyn V Fernandes Flower design: Mitchell Slabach Studio: Splashlight Studios, New York Digital capture: Digitalab Solutions, New York Retouching: EMR, New York All make-up by IMAN Cosmetics
Iman is represented by One Model Management, New York Special thanks to Ali Kavoussi at One Model Management, New York and Jasmine Kharbanda at Creative Exchange Agency, New York