'First of all, I was born in Somalia, which is in East Africa. My parents started with nothing: poor, poor, poor. They eloped, which was unheard of in my country, when my father was 17 and my mother was 14. They were political activists, and they were part and parcel of the youth of that generation in my country that actually got independence for my country. Later, my father became the [Somalian] ambassador for the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Egypt. So, I went from having nothing to being an ambassador’s daughter living abroad who was taken to school by a chauffeur-driven car. But then we had a revolution, were sent back home, and then people started disappearing or being put into court and put in jail.
My mom decided one day that we should leave the country, so she put us in a van in the middle of the night and we crossed the Kenyan boarder by foot with nothing but the clothes on our back. We instantly became, in 1970, refugees. I was barely 15. The Kenyan government granted us asylum and also gave us scholarships—the kids—but we were only given, like, two years after that, at which point we should be fending for ourselves. I decided that I was going to get a part time job, and the only thing that I could come up with was the Ministry of Tourism in Kenya—I spoke five languages and tourism was just becoming big there, especially French and Italian. But there were no brochures for them, because everything was in English, so I began to translate the brochures into French and Italian. It was easy because I could just take the brochures to the [university] campus and translate them at my leisure.
One afternoon, on my way to the campus—I was majoring in political science at Nairobi University—a photographer by the name of Peter Beard stopped me in the street and asked me if I’d ever been photographed. And first I thought he was going to kick me, and second, ‘Why do people always think that we’ve never seen cameras?’ [Laughs] And I said, ‘Of course I have.’ Now, in the meantime, I had never seen fashion magazines—I was 16, 16-and-a-half. So, he proceeded to talk to me about modeling and all this, and I had never heard of modeling, I’ve never seen fashion magazines, makeup, heels, nothing. I had no concept of what he was talking about. And he kept walking with me and talking and then he said the magic words: ‘I’ll pay you.’ [Laughs] I said, ‘How much?’ And he said, ‘How much do you want?’ And I said, ‘$8000,’ because that was the tuition for university. For me, it was like zero from zero, what do I have to lose? He said, ‘Isn’t that a bit high?’ And I said, ‘That’s the tuition I need!’ [Laughs] He said, ‘OK, I’ll pay for the tuition.’ He took pictures; some of them are here [in my office], like the one with the necklace . I thought that would be the last time I was going to see him. He paid my tuition.
I think five or six months later, a friend of mine who worked at Pan Am—that’s how long ago it was, Pan Am existed—Peter called her office, since I didn’t have a phone, and told her to get ahold of me and that he’d call me from New York the next day. It was him and the woman who owned Wilhelmina agency [Wilhelmina Cooper] on the phone. Apparently Peter had a gallery opening, and on the cover of the invitation was my picture, and that’s how Wilhelmina saw it. And it was like, ‘We’ve got to get her here, blah, blah, blah.’ I listened, but I had a couple of problems: I was not 18 yet, so I was still underage and I couldn’t leave the country without the consent of my parents. And my parents would not have given me consent to leave. Second of all, I didn’t have the cash for it and I couldn’t get a passport unless they signed for it. So I forged the passport, didn’t tell [Peter or the agency]—the only thing I told them I needed was a return ticket [to Kenya]. I was thinking I could go there, check it out, and come back. If I wanted to stay, then I’d get permission from my parents. But I had no idea what I was going to be doing in New York. So [Peter and the agency] agreed to the airfare, they sent the ticket and the open return ticket and I didn’t tell my parents anything. I thought, ‘What could happen? I’ll go, check it out—as if it was around the corner—and be back.’ And I’ve been here since.
But you know how my parent’s found out? I arrived here and literally there was a press conference waiting for me the next day. Apparently, there had been a one-page story in the New York Post by the late Eugenia Sheppard a few months before I arrived. A whole page on me! There were pictures of me that Peter took, and the story said that they were trying to get me here to become a model, that I was a goat herder… I mean, I’d seen goats, but really? And that I didn’t speak a word of English. I spoke five languages! Totally mythology. I had no clue about that… I arrived, and the next day, I had 64 members of the press. They started asking questions to Peter, and I was like, ‘I can answer in English!’ And they were like, ‘You can speak English?’ [Laughs] That’s how it happened. I told the media exactly who I was that day, and in hindsight, years later, people have said that it was very racist, or that Peter Beard was racist and all of that. But to me, it was not racist because I was in it. You know what I mean? I was a conspirator, I was co-conspirator. For god’s sake, I forged my passport to get here! It’s not like somebody lied to me. So no, I didn’t think it was.
There were African-American models, yes, but I was treated differently. This is because I come from a very political family, and I was foreign. Certain things were so strange to me, like when people would describe me, whether they’d seen pictures in the papers or in front of me, they’d say, ‘She’s a black model.’ I was like, ‘What? Why am I called ‘black’?’ Because nobody has ever called me black—I come from a black country so who is going to call me black? [Laughs] But also, it wasn’t lost on me—why I was being treated differently—because they were treating their own [black] models as separate from me. I think, in general, people are much kinder to a foreigner, especially when it comes to race issues. They were saying I was the most beautiful woman they’ve ever seen—I mean, come on, there were beautiful girls here! Beverly Johnson was one of the top models at that time. So, they didn’t treat it the same way. This applies to foreigners even when they’re white, from Eastern Europe or wherever—there’s a different way of treating [foreigners].
I come from a country that’s known for beautiful women. And at my high school ‘prom,’ so to speak, the girls couldn’t decide which boy to go with. Nobody asked me! My father paid my cousin to take me! I was not considered beautiful at all. Really. And this is what all models say. But I’m still not considered that beautiful in my country. I don’t know the beauty ideal where I come from—but it’s not me. [Laughs] I mean, I’ve seen it—what they considered beautiful—but it’s not me. I had terrible self-esteem issues when I was growing up. I still do, I just hide it better now. That’s one of the things that’s good about age—you come to accept it all. It’s like, if I’ve gotten this far, it’s got to be something good. To get into modeling with bad self-esteem, it’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It’s a place where all of your insecurities are heightened. You think you look great and Cindy Crawford walks in and then you’re fucked. [Laughs]
I learned about modeling on the job, and I had a system. Remember that most people didn’t think that I spoke English, so I devised a system where I didn’t say much. People freely talked in front of me, and I listened as I went along and learned how to maneuver this minefield that is fashion, because you know, you’re so replaceable, so exchangeable. To me, it really was a business transaction, it was not anything else. It was a way of taking care of my family, of putting my brothers and sisters through schooling. I had a vested interest in a different point of view, and I always had longevity in mind—it’s about how to make this thing work for you. That helped in the negotiations. The power’s not always in someone else’s hands, because I could walk away from it; there was no desperation. And as a black model, it’s even more important because then you will know how not to be abused. When I came here, there was a certain price [in a model fee] that they would pay the white models and not the black models. And I said, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ I always thought, ‘What do I have to lose? Nothing! I can always go back, I have a return ticket.’ [Laughs]
There are highlights when you become irreplaceable as a model, like when you become a muse to designers. They look at you differently; you’re not a coat hanger for hire. Saint Laurent asked me to be his muse for a couture collection, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be exciting, great, I’ve never done anything like this.’ But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The job description: you walk into this atelier and they give you a white lab coat, silk black pantyhose, like from the 1940s, with a seam at the back. And they give you stiletto heels—of course, YSL’s. You take your bra and underwear off, put the lab coat on, and you’re ushered into the showroom. And the salon had bolts of fabric, and literally there was no sketching—he just took hours on end and actually cut the fabric on my body and then it was sewed in. He created the whole thing on me, and when the collection was finished, he called it ‘The African Queen.’ Saint Laurent was particularly receptive to models of color—he was a champion of that. I think, first of all, because he was French, and second, he had a love of color. He grew up in Morocco. And it wasn’t just black models—he had Indian and Pakistani models, he had Balinese models, he had Thai models. It was part of how he mixed things, and his concept of colors. I think about him when I’m designing my fabric collection. I mean, you would see the colors he would put together and at first, you would say, ‘This is so garish.’ And then, it becomes magic.
Out of all of my projects, including my line for HSN, Iman Global Chic, and my website, Destination Iman, my cosmetics are the thing I’m most proud of. Actually, the seed for Iman Cosmetics was implanted in my head in 1975 on my first job for American Vogue. It was a white model and me, and the makeup artist asked me if I brought my own foundation because he had nothing for me. And I had no idea what he was talking about. [Laughs] I said, ‘No.’ And he proceeded to put something on me and when I looked in the mirror, I looked grey. And you have to understand that our currency as models is our images—it’s photographs. Nobody cares how you really look, it’s how do you look in pictures. That day, my saving grace was that those pictures came out in black-and-white, and black-and-white hides lots of things. [Laughs] But after the shoot, I went to every store I could think of and asked for foundation, looking for something that had any pigment like mine. And whatever came close, I bought. I remembered what [the makeup artist] did, he mixed things. And that’s what I did, I mixed. I'd try on the foundation that I just mixed and I would take a Polaroid to see how it came out in pictures. And if it was too red, then I’d mix another one. When I found something that looked good or reasonable in the pictures, I made a batch. I would bring my own foundation to shoots and then, after that, most black models would ask me, ‘Can I use your batch?’ It was just mixtures of things—some of it was creamy eye shadows. Anything to make a pigment that had the right color. I created my line in 1989, after I stopped modeling.
Modeling is about making something of yourself, becoming irreplaceable for the designer. It has to be a thought-through thing, how do you become more? That’s what it is to be professional model: what do you bring to the game? How do you dress when you go to see a designer? It’s those small things that make you have longevity. A lot of young girls don’t understand it. They say, ‘Oh, I love Linda Evangelista.’ But she was working for, like, ten years before she hit it. And once she hit it she knew everything about it, so there was no way that she couldn’t get her throne.
Young girls don’t understand that it takes knowledge. You’ve got to look at the old magazines, you’ve got to look at the old pictures, the old poses, to be able to deconstruct it and make it modern—make it you. You can’t say that you want to look like somebody else. Who cares? This is a different time, they want somebody new. Nowadays when you hear people say, ‘Oh, models, they don’t make them like they used to in the ‘80s, the supermodels,’ I don’t know what they’re talking about. Coco Rocha, Karlie Kloss—they’re as good as Linda Evangelista! They’re great models of their time. You can’t revisit pasts. You have to be of your time and make that time shine and become unique to you.”
—as told to ITG
Cover photo: 1980s Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche campaign (Claus Ohm).