Her name has become a brand synonymous with modeling since breaking into the industry in 1975. She told Hoda Kotb on an episode of TODAY Show Radio at SiriusXM recorded on Oct. 5 that she serendipitously stumbled upon the gatekept profession she later unlocked and broke barriers in. Iman, 67, retired from modeling in 1989, having set the standard for how to be a supermodel and how to make an industry more inclusive and equitable.
How Iman got into modeling
Iman said she was waitressing and translating travel brochures (she speaks five languages!) in Kenya when photographer Peter Beard stopped her on the street and asked if she'd ever been photographed.
"I felt, oh, white people think Black people have never seen cameras," she said through laughter. "I said, 'Of course I've been photographed.' And he said, 'By whom?' And I said, 'My parents.' He said, 'No, no, no, I'm talking professional.' And all I could think of was my brother's Playboy and I said, 'I'm not that girl.'"
After talking more about what it would actually involve, Iman said she agreed to let him photograph her in exchange for $8,000 so she could pay her tuition at a local university. Beard returned to New York and used her picture as the face of his following big exhibition, Iman shared, adding that he later called and offered her a modeling job in New York.
"I will come and check" she remembered responding before flying to New York for her first visit to the city. "The surroundings was quite weird because I've heard of Gotham City. God, I've heard everything about New York. I arrive here, there was actually a garbage strike. There was garbage everywhere and I thought, 'Really? This is like a third world country.'"
'The first time I was described as a Black model'
Iman said Beard told his peers that Iman was a goat herder and did not speak English. Iman let him dig himself into that hole and watched as he dug himself out.
"(It was) racist because if I was not Black, he would not say I was herding goats and didn't speak a word of English," the supermodel said. "I can speak for myself, but I wanted him to be in trouble. They asked a question. I looked at him waiting for him to translate it. And then I told him that I speak five languages. I'm an ambassador's daughter. But they ran with (the goat herding) story. They ran with it because it was much more interesting."
Iman said that is just one of her early experiences where she was disrespected as a Black person in the modeling industry. She said another time was on her fourth day in New York on set of her first job that she booked with American Vogue.
"There was a white model and I, and the makeup artist did her makeup," Iman recalled. "He came to me and the first question he asked me was very perplexing to me, because first of all ... I was aware that he didn't ask the other girl that question, 'Did you bring your own foundation?' Now, first of all, I had no idea what he was talking about. But I said, 'No.' And then he mixed some stuff and put it on my face and when I looked in the mirror, I looked gray."
Iman said moving to the U.S. was the first time she was treated like she was Black, as opposed to being treated as a person, like she was in her home country of Somalia and during her travels throughout Africa.
"I was watching something that was very foreign to me," she described. The first time I was described as a Black model — I never associated myself as a Black person. I come from a country 100% Black. We never called ourselves 'We’re black.' We're Somali. It’s very obvious we're Black. And I couldn’t understand what does that mean."
Iman's efforts to reshape the industry
Iman said the bad makeup experience and being socialized as Black came with pros and cons. The pro with the makeup snafu was that it taught her to bring her own makeup supplies and she shared them with the other Black hires on sets they worked together. Several years later, in 1994, Iman launched a cosmetics company named after her for "skin of color."
The con with learning she was Black came with an unintended consequence of the industry pitting those models against one another.
"There was silent but very visible tokenism. There has to be one Black model at a time. So they made the girls feel that you have to dethrone that girl to get a space for yourself."
Another con was learning that Black models were paid less than white models. Iman said she asked for equal pay to no avail, so she refused employment offers for three months until a job offered her the market rate. Her getting paid set the standard by which other Black models were paid, she said.
Iman's more recent activism efforts include partnering with fellow model Naomi Campbell and others in 2013 to make the industry more equitable. They wrote to the governing organizations of the fashion industry saying there needs to be more Black models on runways, and the organizations did it expeditiously. Iman said the quickness was thanks to social media casting a spotlight on the issue.
Meeting David Bowie was 'destiny'
Iman is the widow of famed musician David Bowie, who died six years ago from liver cancer. She said they met on a blind date in 1990, even though he had seen pictures of her and she had been to one of his concerts. Iman said timing was everything for them.
"I think if we had met in our 20s and 30s, I think this wouldn't be happening," said Iman, who had moved to Los Angeles shortly before they met.
"I had no idea why I was going to LA. I mean I don't like it. I'm not an LA person. But I moved there and my destiny was getting me there so we can meet. And literally we met eight months later.
They married in 1992.
Iman has said she won't remarry, but she is open to non-romantic love.
"I'm always open to love. I just don't know, if I'm open to that kind of relationship. It's only been six years.... "Sometimes it feels like a blink and sometimes it's 100 years."
Iman said they picked their home in upstate New York because of the white birch trees on the property and its view of the sunset.
Iman still lives there and said every time she sees the sunset, she thinks of the love of her life.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com