Like Cinderella, the story of Bethann Hardison and Iman's decades-old friendship starts with a shoe. Iman had only just arrived in New York when the two met. She had been discovered by the photographer Peter Beard, who spotted her as a first-year Nairobi University student and insisted he take her picture. By the time she stepped into Stephen Burrows' downtown showroom in 1975, Hardison had already heard of her.
"She had just come into the country a couple of weeks before," Hardison remembers. "And people were wanting to see her-this woman!" At the time, Hardison, who would later embark on a career as an agent to champion models of color, headed up Burrows' studio, and he wanted to meet Iman. "So, it was like a basic go-see," Hardison says. Hardison was used to nerves, but Iman was so anxious she couldn't even lace up her shoes. Hardison swooped in, reaching down to help her slip on the heels.
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"She got down on her knees to help me put the shoes on," Iman remembers. "The whole room erupted, telling her, 'Don't do that! Now she will think because she is a princess that we all have to go on our knees." You know, all that horrible stuff. She didn't pay any attention to them. She put the heels on, and she looked up at me, and she said, 'You speak English and you understand everything they're saying, right?' And I said 'Yes' to her in English."
"From that moment, we were bonded," Hardison says. "She likes to tell people I was her Statue of Liberty, because I was the first face to welcome her to this country."
"Well, she didn't have to do that, and I've never forgotten that first kindness," Iman says. "So, we just started to just hang out together. And she has literally been my friend since-my closest friend."
They're comrades; two women in the business who care deeply about representation and the achievements of black women. They joined forces to form the Black Girls Coalition in 1988. They organize monthly dinners. They are constantly in communication. They share, according to Iman, "everything." When Iman married David Bowie in 1992, Hardison was her maid of honor. "She was the first person who knew I was dating David," Iman remembers. "I didn't even have to say to her, 'Don't tell anyone.' I knew she never would."
"From my joys to my sorrows, to divorces to children, to ups and downs of life-everything," Iman says.
They were most recently shot by photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin for #ActuallySheCan, an empowerment campaign by Allergen. The entire series is an exuberant celebration of well-known women and their mentors. But the photos of Iman and Hardison are especially evocative. Because while it's true that Hardison has been a role model to Iman and an advisor and a fount of wisdom, the photos demonstrate a mutual admiration between the women.
"As tough as she is and as strong as she is, she has a very sensitive soul, and I'm the person that she cries to," Iman says. "I'm the one who sees beyond what people see. I see her insecurities and vulnerabilities. And that's what makes this so special. Because female friendship-a true friendship-is a safe haven. It's a place where you're not criticized, but you are listened to." It's a place where women support each other, where the positions of mentors and mentees are in constant flux. Iman pauses, laughing: "At the same time, it's a place that when you fuck up, a good friend will tell you you're fucking up."
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