Photo by Platon
'I am the face of a refugee'
Iman is the Somalian exile whose fierce spirit drove her to become the world's first black supermodel. Now she's working to bring health and education to her homeland. She talks to Carole Cadwalladr about racism in modelling – and a secret holiday in London with her husband, David Bowie
Sunday 29 June 2014 00.04 BST
t's a warm early summer day in New York, and at a fashionable photographer's studio in fashionable Soho Iman is having her portrait taken. On the walls are dozens of enlarged close-ups of other people who have all sat, at one time or another, for Platon, the London-born photographer who has made his name and career photographing the rich and powerful.
All the greats are here: Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Muammar Gaddafi. And beneath them, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, the only black woman in a room of images of mostly white men, is doing her best to follow Platon's directions. "That's GORGEOUS, sweetheart. That's right, turn your chin just very slightly. Thank you, darling. That's fucking BEAUTIFUL!"
It's 24 years since Iman retired from modelling, but you'd never know it. She's a completely unlikely looking 58 and is sitting in front of a stark all-white backdrop simply dressed all in black – black jeans and a black jumper that emphasises her extraordinary swan-like neck – and she is completely focused. Two assistants move in to adjust the lights and Platon crouches down to whisper his next set of instructions. "I want to see your compassion, that's what this is all about. And your bravery. Show me that brave, brave woman. Show me that with your eyes."
Iman shows him that with her eyes.
"That's BOOOT-I-FUL, sweetheart!" roars Platon. The studio manager, a young woman in full Annie Hall get-up, claps excitedly. It does make me wonder about the Gaddafi shoot. Was he a sweetheart too? Iman is oblivious, however; her focus absolute. She is a pro, down to her well-manicured fingertips. But then it's not an accident that she was the world's first black supermodel. The first black model to make serious cash. The first to become the face of global cosmetics brand Revlon. That she seamlessly segued from model to businesswoman when she set up her own highly successful cosmetics brand. Or even, possibly, that she married an international music legend, David Bowie, and became one half of a global super-couple. Iman, you get the feeling, does it Iman's way.
Not least in that she is one of the surnameless, like Oprah or Nigella (or, for that matter, Platon). Mohamed Abdulmajid has played no part in Iman the brand. Every model has a sort of creation myth, the chance encounter that led to global fame, and Iman's is one of the best. She wasn't walking through JFK like Kate Moss, or Covent Garden like Naomi Campbell, though she was walking down a street. It's just that the street was in Nairobi in 1975 and she was a 20-year-old Somali refugee living and studying in Kenya. The spotter was a man called Peter Beard, a well-connected photographer and Africophile. He asked to photograph her, and when she hesitated he offered to pay her. "How much?" she asked. "How much do you want?" he said. "$8,000," she replied, the total amount of her university fees. It's a fair amount of money even today. Back then it must have been an extraordinary sum.
"Well, what could have happened?" she says. "He could have said no." She shrugs. "I mean, what's going to happen if you don't ask? My mother taught me this. She said: 'If God says to you: "I will grant you any wish you want – what would you ask for?" And I went: 'Er…' And she said: 'If you have to think about it, you're not worth it!' And I said: 'Why?' and she said: 'Look. Ask for everything! Ask for everything!'"
I get a small sense of this when we reach the café where we've arranged to do the interview. First we change tables, then we ask for the music to be turned down and then Iman orders a macchiato.
"You can have a double if you like," says the waiter. "No! Why does everything in America have to be so huge?" Her PR interrupts to tell her that she's going to order her car for 4pm, to be on the safe side. I panic slightly. This is only 40 minutes away. "No," says Iman. "Make it 3.45." And she brushes off my protests. "It's OK. I just want him to be waiting for me rather than the other way around." And then the coffee arrives. "What is this? This is huge! I can't drink that! Just bring me a normal coffee. Why is everything in America so huge?"
But then she's always been able to be forthright, even in an industry in which women are literally there to be seen and not heard. At the time she started out, there were still different rate cards for black models and white models, but she simply refused to accept them.
"I didn't even understand it. People called me 'Iman the black model'. In my country we're all black so nobody called somebody else black. It was foreign to my ears. I was doing the same job as them. Why would I get less money? It didn't even occur to me that it had anything to do with racism. I learned that quite fast. I wasn't a major in political science for nothing, so I understood the politics of beauty and the politics of race when it comes to the fashion industry."
Nearly 40 years on, not all that much has changed, it seems. Last year she launched a campaign with Bethann Hardisonand Naomi Campbell to urge brands to use black models. They commissioned original research and discovered that some brands, like Chloé, had never used a non-white model, and others like YSL, Versace, Gucci, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein hadn't for years. "It sends a message that our girls are not beautiful enough," she says. She had no issue with pointing the finger and calling them racist and urging a boycott until they changed their ways. But then she remembers the magazine editor who exclaimed at her beauty and said she was like a white woman "dipped in chocolate".
"And she didn't even realise it was insulting! I said: 'Don't take credit for it. I don't have a white drop in me.'"
Iman might have been a black girl freshly arrived from deepest Africa, but she wasn't naive. She spoke four languages, had been at boarding school in Egypt, lived in Tanzania and Kenya, had a spell in Kiev that included learning how to load a Kalashnikov –Somalia had strong links with the Soviet Union at the time – and was studying political science. Before the 1969 coup, her father had been a diplomat, and both her parents had been involved in the Somali independence movement in the 1960s.
"My mother was an activist, so was my father. They came from a generation of young Somalis who were actively involved in getting independence for Somalia in 1960. So I remember when I was five how busy our house was. People would come in the middle of the night, meetings after meetings, and protests and all that. I grew up in the midst of all of that. And she instilled that in me. The fact that nobody can take your self-worth unless you give your consent.
"She always said to me that there is nothing that the boys can do – because I had two brothers – that you can't do, if not better."
There's a bit of this that has rubbed off on the choice of the charity she supports, the Hawa Abdi Foundation, a Somalia-based organisation, run by three extraordinary Somali women focused on bringing basic human rights – healthcare, education, agriculture – to vast swathes of the Somali population who currently have none. She was introduced to the charity by the editor of Glamourmagazine a couple of years ago, when it was nominated for an award, and it's the reason why she's agreed to the interview today. The foundation focuses its efforts on women and children because modern Somalia is not a happy place in all sorts of ways, but it's a particularly unhappy place for women.
"What has happened to women in Somalia? When I was growing up women wore traditional clothes or regular western clothes. We went to school. But the schools don't exist any more. And women are not even allowed to drive any more. It's run by extremists. Somalia was 100% a Muslim country, but it had its own culture before it adopted Islam. So you were a Muslim, but you were a Somali first."
Set up by Dr Hawa Abdi, Somalia's first female gynaecologist and a nominee for the Nobel Prize, the foundation has fearlessly defended the rights of ordinary Somalis, caring for up to 90,000 people at a time despite attacks on both the compound and the foundation's hospital by Somali forces. Last year a documentary was made of its work, Through the Fire. "I didn't expect it but I cried my heart out watching it. I don't know if anyone can fathom it but the Somalia I grew up in doesn't exist any more. Whatever money I make, I can never grant the one wish my parents have, which is that they want to be buried there. They live in Washington, but they want to go back. It is their country."
It's not quite her country any more, though. Her country is New York. When she first met her now husband, David Bowie, he was living in Switzerland. Did you move there? "For a very short bit. I was like: 'Move everybody out to New York.' He knew I wasn't going to stay there. I'm a New Yorker. I was like: 'Let's go home.'" London was in the frame for a bit, she says. "We bought a house and spent two years renovating everything in it, but never moved in." London is now for holidays. "We went this summer. And no one knew we were there! We flew in on the jet to Luton and every day we went and did different things and the press never knew! It's absurd this idea that celebrities can't be anonymous. We even went on the London Eye. We queued separately, Lexi [her and Bowie's daughter] had a friend with her and they went with the bodyguard and then we all met on board."
Did David enjoy showing Lexi his homeland? "Yes! He took her to Beckenham. They went and took a photo outside the house he grew up in."
It is, it goes without saying, a radically different childhood from her own. Do you think about if you'd taken a different street on a different day, I ask, and never met Peter Beard? "Absolutely." You think it could have been another street, another girl? "I absolutely believe that. It was just my luck. I could be in a refugee camp now. There are people who have been in refugee camps for 20 years, and I could be one of them. That's one of the reasons I'm compelled to help. First because overnight my life changed from a diplomatic daughter to a refugee and my father could not fend for us. The only time I've ever seen my father cry is when he couldn't pay for us to finish our education. And the NGOs looked after us. They found me a hostel, a job, a university."
There's a genuine humility to the way she views her success. "I am the face of a refugee. I was once a refugee. I was with my family in exile. It's Holocaust Remembrance Day and my daughter has just started Night by Elie Wiesel, and I was reading with her this weekend. And they're learning this vocabulary, of what does exile mean."
It's parenthood, second time around for both Iman and Bowie. His son, Duncan Jones, aka Zowie Bowie, is now a 43-year-old film director, and Iman had her first daughter, Zulekha, when she was just 23, and they both seem to be enjoying it.
"David is even more of a homebody than I am. At least I go to parties once in a while."
He just likes his own company?
"He does. I also think there is nothing that he hasn't seen. He's been to all the parties that there are."
They've been married for 22 years and he's said that he knew instantly that she was the one, and that she'd be his wife. It sounds like it was quite overwhelming?
"For him. I was not ready for a relationship. Definitely I didn't want to get into a relationship with somebody like him. But as I always said: I fell in love with David Jones. I did not fall in love with David Bowie. Bowie is just a persona. He's a singer, an entertainer. David Jones is a man I met."
Quite a famous man, though. Lexi has recently been finding out more about him. "She asked why his hair was purple."
Iman has her own thing going on though. Her cosmetics company is worth $25m, though the money is not really the spur. "I like working. What's the other option? Sitting at home eating bonbons?"
Well, Bowie seems to occupy himself.
"He enjoys that. I enjoy working." Is it a traditional role reversal? He's at home and you're working. "Are you kidding me? He makes far more money than I do. What role reversal? I don't know why people think he's not doing anything. He's making his money work for him. That's what he's doing."
The interview has gone a bit adrift for Iman's liking. She gives me a hard stare. "I hope you are going to write about Dr Hawa. That's why I'm doing this."
I am, I say. That's why I started off by asking about her.
"Well, I hope so. That's what this is about."
So tell me more about Dr Hawa, I say. She wrote in her book that it was only when she lost her first baby that she realised she had undergone female genital mutilation, aged seven.
"I didn't know that. But genital mutilation is not my thing. This is not why I'm here. I was told this was specifically about Dr Hawa. Listen, girls cannot go to school. I can't tackle all the issues, otherwise I'm spreading myself too thin. My concern at the moment is that the country has not had any schools open since 1990. Dr Hawa has built up the first school in the south of Somalia."
So, what exactly are your plans with her?
"She's just left town and we showed the documentary and did a fundraiser. My intention is really at the end to have maybe Save the Children in Somalia or the United Nations in Somalia be able to connect with them and make… you know… Save the Children and the UN are not able to move around. They stay in their compounds."
So what's your idea, then?
"For them to work with people who are underground. So these people don't have the money, but they are able to move around."
And how would that work?
"Listen, there is a lot of money that goes into the UN. And they just stay in Mogadishu in a compound. I'm not saying just give money, I'm saying there's a way they can fund these women."
It gets hazier after this point. But fundamentally she's right: Dr Hawa Abdi is a remarkable woman and her foundation is doing important work. And if the world could find a way to help her in that work, Somalia would surely be a better place.
And then that's it. The PR interrupts to say that the car has arrived. And Iman, doing it Iman's way, announces that the interview is now over.
For information on the Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation, visit dhaf.org
* This article was amended on 14 July 2014. The original listed the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein among Platon's portrait subjects. This was incorrect. We meant the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.