Few women have had as enduring an impact on popular culture as Iman Abdulmajid. Modeling gave the Somali native her first taste of fame; she worked with all of the greats including Peter Beard—who discovered her as a college student in Nairobi, Kenya—Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Francesco Scavullo. Her spirited personality made her a muse to more than one designer—Yves Saint Laurent dedicated his African Queen collection to her—while her beauty would also land her small movie roles in such ’80s hits as Out of Africa and No Way Out. Later, Iman found success far from the camera as an entrepreneur and a humanitarian. She changed the beauty industry’s template for success in the ’90s with her breakthrough cosmetics brand. She continues to do charity work and has been a persistent voice for diversity on the runways.
On the eve of her 60th birthday, Iman sat down with Style.com for a lively discussion about the defining moments of her decades-long career and what comes next.
What were your impressions of the modeling industry when you first started?
I arrived in New York October 15, 1975. Peter Beard took pictures of me three, four months before that in Kenya. After he had taken the pictures, I thought that was the last of that, but the next thing I knew, Wilhelmina Cooper called me. I was attending Nairobi University, and she told me how much they had loved Peter’s pictures. Now I had no idea he was showing the photos to anybody, so this came as a shock. Wilhelmina said that they would love for me to come to the United States and become a model. At this time, I had never seen a fashion magazine before in my life; I had no idea that this business existed and no concept, really, of what she was talking about.
Did you experience any culture shock that first time in New York?
All of a sudden I was a “black model.” And to me, that was like my “welcome to America” moment. I was not aware that that would be a way to describe somebody. I didn’t know that the color that you are would be the first description of who you are. It took me by surprise because, obviously, I’d just come from a 100 percent black country, so it was a different way of describing myself.
Then I encountered the salary issues black models faced at the time. There was a huge discrepancy between what black models made and what white models made—to me that was very surprising. So I told Wilhelmina, “I get paid for the services I render, regardless of what my color is.” If the client says, “I don’t want a black woman,” it’s fine by me, but if the client’s going to hire me, they’re going to pay me just as much as they’re going to pay the other model.
I was lucky because somehow my emergence in 1975 coincided with an upheaval in black cultural identity. At that time, unbeknownst to me, black models were always described as sexy, sultry, sassy, but never beautiful. So when Peter Beard said, “This is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met in my life,” it was like a shift in fashion’s perceptions.
Throughout the course of your career, you’ve been described as a muse for designers. How do you feel about that label?
Well, muse is great. I like the word muse, because that means you inspire a photographer, or you inspire a designer. The best part of it is, when you’re a muse, you get to translate and actualize a character through the clothes and, with a photographer, through the lens, which is always rewarding. And contrary to popular opinion, we don’t just stand around and look fabulous. You know, we actually do work.
Whenever Carrie Donovan, the fashion editor of The New York Times Magazine, would be late for a fashion show, she would go to the designers and say, “Oh, just show me Iman’s rack.” That would be the collection. Because, as a muse, what happens is that designers will give you their best clothes for the collection and their worst. They say, “Oh, you’ll pull anything off.” What’s also so great about being a muse is that you work hand in hand with designers and photographers who ask your point of view. And so in that way, it’s as close as a model can be to an actor—but of course with a much better, fabulous wardrobe than actors! You know, we don’t have to do the dowdy period piece. When we do period pieces, we do Galliano!
Do you think today’s models have the same opportunity to be designer muses?
It has changed; designers have gotten so busy with all the collections they’re expected to do. It seems like every time you turn around there is another fashion week. I do hope that this generation of young designers is able to form those relationships with models and find their muses. I dislike nostalgia: A lot of times you’ll hear people say, “Oh, the models from the ’70s and ’80s were better; they don’t make them like they used to.” And I’ll just say, “Yeah, because there is a new crowd that is better for right now!” You can’t compare a Karlie Kloss to a Linda Evangelista! I think Linda is one of the greatest models of all time, but in a few years they’ll be saying the same thing about Karlie.
One of the designers you frequently worked with was Azzedine Alaïa—what has it been like collaborating with him over the past few decades?
Alaïa is a dictator! That’s why he shows a collection when he is ready to show it. He doesn’t have a timetable like other designers. But because he is a true artist, everything is about the dress. Each detail is thought through and his clothes are exquisite. Over the years I’ve given half of my closet to my friends—things that I will never wear again, you know, I’ll give. But I have never given one single Alaïa! His clothes are art pieces and they’re always one of a kind. But he’s a dictator—I have an Alaïa belt, and it is so beautiful, but there is only one hole, he won’t even give two holes, just one; either you squeeze in it or you call it a day! Still, I adore him.
Yves Saint Laurent based an entire collection on you—how involved were you in that process?
When Yves told me that he wanted to create a whole collection around me, I thought, Oh, oh, my God, of course! And I had no idea what it would actually entail. I went to Paris and we all walked into his showroom. He had hundreds of bolts of fabric, and I had to stand there while he just puts fabric on my body and without anything—no sketching, no pinning—takes scissors and starts cutting. He created the collection like that. I have never seen anything like it, and I have never worked as hard as that, because I was standing there day in, day out, as the collection was made.
In Africa, we love colors, but my sense of color and putting together outfits with color came from working with him. Yves would use colors that I never thought would go together, and then, boom, there they were. That collection was called The African Queen, and after we did the show, David Bailey came and took pictures. It was a memorable time for me. I loved it. To work with such visionaries, couturiers like that, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And I have had the privilege several times, so I consider myself truly blessed.
You commissioned a photo of black supermodels by Annie Leibovitz back in 2000—why did you feel that was important?
At the time I was writing a book. I read a lot of autobiographies, and the ones I love are the ones where people reveal everything. I wasn’t ready for that then—I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for that—but I wanted to share where I had come from and provide a backstory of my journey through the business. When I was putting together the book, I thought it would be important to have a photo of the top black models. Initially I spoke to Irving Penn—his famous group shot from the ’50s served as an inspiration—and I thought who better to capture this. The black supermodels had never been photographed as a group—maybe one or two of us at a time, but never a true group portrait celebrating all of us. Penn was honest. He said, “I want you to understand why I’m not going to do this.” He said that he’s never done, since the 1950s, a group shot because everybody else has copied that formula. Still, he encouraged me; he said, “The girls will come for you, Iman, but what you have to understand is you cannot have just any photographer take it. It has to be a top photographer. That’s what will make it an art piece.”
So I thought about it—who could capture this and elevate it to the level of art? Annie Leibovitz was the next name that came to mind. I’d worked with her before, and I told her what I wanted. Everything that Mr. Penn told me, I put it in the e-mail to Annie, and she said, “Fine, I’ll do it for you.” But she gave me one day, and it was a week before Christmas!
How did you settle on the cast for that shot?
I thought about it as though it were a story—the girl before me was Beverly Johnson, so I knew she had to be in the picture. Then it was about who came after us. And that’s why, the picture, if you look at it, it starts from the right: It’s Beverly, me, and all the other girls. But I have to tell you, everybody—from Naomi Campbell to Tyra [Banks]—they all flew in. We had Cynthia Bailey, who at the time was solely a model and now is everywhere, Noémie Lenoir, Alek Wek…
There was no drama; it was just pure magic. I had written everyone letters beforehand explaining that this kind of shoot had never been done, so everyone participating wanted to be a part of history. I still have that print in my office, in my conference room.
Why do you think that fashion still has this massive problem with diversity? They’ve had decades to get their act together.
For me, I think the paradigm shift of beauty being expressly European has happened incrementally. I think diverse models can sometimes steal the thunder from the clothes. Because, what can I say? We have personality. That’s what was lacking. At that time, when you saw the runways, all the models looked the same. They were like clones. [The designers] wouldn’t allow them to smile. They had to be a certain look.
When Bethann [Hardison], Naomi, and I did Balance Diversity, some of the designers said, “They can’t force us to hire black models.” Nobody’s forcing anybody. Then everybody asked, “Are you saying they’re being racist?” No. I know none of the designers are racists, but they are actionless, and that is a problem. It goes back to what I was saying earlier: Designers used to do their own casting. But what you have now is, the casting agent has become the Wizard of Oz. Before you see the designer, you have to see the casting director, and some of those casting people have the nerve to say, “We’re not seeing black models this season.” When he or she has the nerve to tell the agencies that, that’s racist to me. That act is racist. And nobody’s forcing anybody to take anybody. If the model is not right for you, she’s not right for you. I would hate to see a designer use the wrong black model for his show because that is saying, “See? I did it, and they’re not right.”
A go-see is about seeing if the model is right. Some of the best models have been discovered at go-sees. Liya [Kebede] met Tom Ford at a go-see and went on to do Gucci and an Yves Saint Laurent campaign. When the designer sees the model, he knows, not the casting agent. If the designers say, “Oh, we’re busy, we’re busy, that’s why we hire casting agents.” Well, nobody’s busier than Tom Ford, for God’s sake, and he handles his own casting. That’s my take on the whole thing. It was not about an act of making anybody do anything that they don’t want to do, but if your action is racist, don’t start complaining that you’re not.
You’ve been an inspiration to so many people within this industry; who do you look to for inspiration?
I’m drawn to women who are forces for positive change, like Dr. Hawa Abdi [the Somali human rights activist], who against all odds still functions and delivers service to her community. She’s amazing to me. Marian Wright Edelman is an activist for children’s rights; I saw her on Today ages ago—Bryant Gumbel was still on, which gives you an indication of how many years ago this was. She was being interviewed, and it was like hearing the Pied Piper. I called the show that morning and they put me in touch with her, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her ever since. For me, it’s those kinds of people who inspire: People who are resilient, who stay focused, who don’t get taken in by trends and keep their eyes on the prize of what they’re doing. Those are truly inspirational people. I consider Dr. Abdi and Marian Wright Edelman unsung heroes; they are like angels who walk among us.
When my family and I were refugees, the people who helped us were non-governmental organizations, people who went into conflict-countries. And to me, it’s like, “Why do you do this? I’m glad you do this, thank God you do this. But what compels you to do this?” That’s why I say, they are like angels who walk among us. If it weren’t for people like them, I don’t know where I would be. When I came to Kenya with just the clothes on my back, they got me to a school, they asked me what I could do so they could get me a job. I spoke five languages, so they took me to the minister of tourism, because they needed brochures translated. They made sure that I knew how to walk from one place to the other, and I had to check in with them. These people didn’t know me, they didn’t have to help me, but they did, and I’m forever grateful to those people.
What informs your charity work?
The charities I’m involved with are mostly centered on children and women, because being an African, I see how those are the two groups of people who are most affected. Civil wars—women and children don’t start them, men start them, and then women and children are the ones who fall through the cracks. They are the women who get raped; they are the children who become war slaves and boy soldiers. It’s that kind of monotonous, consistent, systematic violence.
I also contribute to women like Dr. Abdi. She is Somali, and she comes from the generation of my mother, in which women were educated and political. But she is in a country that is lawless. Somalia hasn’t had a government for more than 25 years, and now it has united with Al-Shabaab, which is part of Al-Qaeda, so it’s going in the direction of extreme Islam. The girls are not allowed to go to school; the rights of women have been taken away. Dr. Abdi is working among all of this. She has the bravery to look those who would threaten her right in the eye and stand her ground.
You’re in a new stage of your life and your career—what’s the next adventure?
I don’t know. I do feel there’s a third act coming up, but I have absolutely no idea what it entails, like all the other things that have happened within my life: I didn’t know anything about modeling, but here I am, and I didn’t know anything about beauty, but here I am. I’m keeping my eyes and ears wide open and seeing where this is going to take me.
I do feel that my next step will be focused specifically on my age group. I think there is a blind way that America thinks about youth, and that needs to change. Everything happens out of your own experience. And, let me tell you, a lot is happening to me now. I can never be 20 or 30 [again] and I wouldn’t want to be. I’m almost 60 and I would love to change the way people view 60.
—Janelle Okwodu, Style.com