4th October 1997
FOR the 14 years of her modelling career, Iman was routinely referred to as ‘the most beautiful black woman in the world.’ She is now 42, but time has yet to blur the perfect lines of her body and face, and marriage to David Bowie has merely enhanced her aura of exclusivity.
Today, she is clad in a skin-tight black trouser suit and perched on stilettos so high that she looks as though she may fall over at any moment. To begin with, her conversation verges on the complacent: she is content with her life, her rock star husband, her looks, her new make-up range, her acting career, her many homes . . . After a few minutes of this, one begins to wonder if she has any vulnerabilities at all.
“Why should I tell you?” she asks.
To cheer up other women who find you daunting, perhaps?
“I don’t want to make other people feel better,” is her crisp riposte.
I am beginning to think that Iman is a tough cookie who glories in the way that wealth and fame have set her apart, when she suddenly comes to life. All traces of cool and jet lag vanish to be replaced by undisguised fury, as she pours out the hurt and humiliation of the decades since she left Africa for the catwalk.
We have touched on racism – a subject which has troubled her for many years but apparently never interested the media. Do not imagine, she says, that she is immune to racial stereo-typing because she is Mrs David Bowie. “In New York, if I try to hail a taxi up-town at five or six in the evening, no one will take me. They think I want to go to Harlem. The other day, I went into a drug store to buy something, and the man behind the counter and said, ‘You know this costs $25.’ He assumed I couldn’t afford it.
“Sometimes,” she continues, “I get into a lift and I see an old white lady clutch her handbag to her.” The clunky gold and jewel-studded Cartier watch on her hand flashes as she acts out a little old lady’s fear that Iman – the multi-millionairess married to an even richer rock star – might steal her purse.
Professionally, too, she feels she has suffered from discrimination.
“I have had a far worse time than Naomi Campbell,” she says, referring to the younger model who spoke to The Telegraph earlier this year about racism in the fashion business. “In my worst year as a model – 1982 – I earned $2 million. OK, $2 million sounds enough, but what matters is getting the same as others. And I got less. The white women in my league were earning $8 million.”
The problem, she says, is not so much the varying fees models are paid for catwalk shows, but the fact that black women rarely appear on the covers of glossy magazines. “Who cares about the goddamn cover – it doesn’t pay; it’s what follows from it that matters. Those covers show advertisers that you are the top face. Sure, I advertised for Revlon and Tia Maria, but the white girls in the same league got 100 times more work.”
Magazines defend their use of white models because they say issues with black cover girls tend to sell fewer copies. That is not a good enough excuse for Iman, who was once a Left-wing political science student at Nairobi University. “Those issues sell less because there is something wrong with society. Those in power should elevate the masses; change happens because someone dares to take a lead. If Vogue were to put a black woman on the cover of the most coveted issues of the year – September or October – do you think the advertisers would back out? And would it sell? Of course, it would. It would sell if the cover were a blank page.”
Isn’t it just possible that the colour of her skin has been an advantage, I ask? Didn’t it help her stand out from all the other supermodels? “I don’t want to be seen as a black model but as a beautiful woman,” she says shortly. She is equally sensitive about her mixed-race marriage: “I didn’t marry a white man, I married a person.”
What about other black women – do they ever accuse her of selling out? Take the straight orange hair extensions she is wearing now – could they be seen as a denial of the beauty of her natural short black curls?
“Look, if a white girl has her hair permed, do people say she is trying to look black? Of course, they don’t,” she replies. “What makes you a sister is not here and here,” she says, pointing to her skin and hair, “but here and here”, jabbing at her head and heart.
In many ways, Iman stands as far outside the American black community as she does from those white people who see her as an exotic alien. It did not help that, when she first arrived in New York at the age of 18, she was portrayed as an enfant sauvage. Her promoters had launched her career by putting it about that she was a Somalian goat herd; in fact, she is the multi-lingual daughter of a diplomat, and was educated at the best boarding schools in Somalia and Egypt.
The hype that surrounded her debut, combined with the way she was immediately singled out, caused resentment. “The press said I was the most beautiful black woman in the world. That was an insult to African Americans, who felt: ‘Why did they have to go to Africa to get a black woman; there are plenty of beautiful black women here.’ The press separated me from them.”
It would not be far-fetched to interpret Iman’s latest business venture as a bid for acceptance among what she calls “women of colour”. During her modelling career and her brief stint as an actress in Los Angeles, she found there were no high quality cosmetics to suit the nutmeg tones of her skin. So she has now launched Iman, a make-up range of her own.
Her publicity material claims that it is designed “for women of every skintone.” Iman herself makes no such pretence. “The products are only for women of colour. In my advertisements, there are no blonde girls. If a white girl won’t buy Vogue if Naomi on the cover, she’s not going to buy my cosmetics. Why should I court her?”
Women of colour, she says, have cosmetic needs that are not being met – an opinion echoed by other black women I have spoken to. Most foundations and powders turn grey and ashen on their skin, and they want products that will control shine without being too astringent. “The oilyness is why we age well,” says Iman, waving long fingernails over her own flawless complexion.
Racial politics may give an edge and enthusiasm to her venture, but she is applying herself to it with business-like dedication. The British launch of her range was delayed for two months so she could travel with Bowie, who was touring Europe to promote his latest album. But now she is immersed in her own work, personally overseeing the products and preventing compromise at every turn. Before long, she says proudly, she will be earning as much from this as she ever did as a model.
“I don’t need the money, but you can do things with it,” she says. Making money has always been very important to Iman, which has a lot to do with her history. She supports her family – she brought her parents to New York when her mother needed a heart operation and has paid for the education of her two sisters. And, at heart, she remains a rootless refugee whose bank account is her security.
“I share the feelings of many Third World emigres who cannot go back to their own countries and have to make a home in any city that will have them. I feel at home in New York because it’s a city that belongs to no one.”
Having once been cheated in her early twenties, she now employs two brokers and two accountants so they can check up on one another. For her, the financial pages of newspapers hold much more interest than fashion spreads.
Does she believe in supporting black businesses, I ask?
“Don’t be silly!” she says, giggling.
Iman may be feminine, but she is far from fragile; she has looked after herself since the age of six, when she was first sent away to school. When a Vogue photographer accosted her at Nairobi University and asked to take the picture which later launched her career, she demanded a cool $8,000. And got it.
She was equally sharp about modelling – frequently changing her look and making sure she baled out in 1989 while she was still at the top. She had saved enough to support herself and her daughter Zulekha (from a failed marriage to a basketball player) for five years while she tried to make it as an actress. Then along came David Bowie. On their first encounter in 1991, he was so smitten that, as he has said since, he was already deciding what to call their babies.
In Bowie, Iman has found a man with many instincts that match her own. Both have experienced failed marriages, single-parenthood and high life rootlessness. He buys European art; she buys African. He also shares her financial acumen – this year, he became the first rock star to sell bonds against his future earnings.
Although some scoffed at the marriage, fearing that two egocentric careerists could never make it work, Bowie seems to have unwound her. “I used to be a worrier, but then I realised that worrying didn’t change anything. I do feel that my whole life was a preparation in a way for meeting him,” she says. “He is my home; his love is the one unchanging thing for me. I am secure now in my life, in my marriage. I’m secure, I’m secure.”