Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
It’s a dark and wintry day on the outskirts of New York City, but two larger-than-life personalities are about to light up our cover shoot location. In a home that could easily have been the backdrop to a Stephen King novel – complete with taxidermy hunting trophies on the walls and wooden floors that crack like in a horror movie – the Vogue Arabia team awaits the arrival of Imaan Hammam and Iman, the two stars gracing the magazine’s first anniversary cover.
What started like a happy coincidence – they have the same name, that means “faith” in Arabic – quickly became an important statement mirroring recent events making headlines around the world. Could issues related to race and religion also be addressed with a series of fashion images? Twenty-one-year-old Imaan Hammam, the first model to arrive on set and posing with confidence in front of the flashes, knows the answer is yes. She is wearing an embellished midnight blue Chanel couture gown, and her delicate face is crowned by luscious Afro curls.
Since she opened Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy SS14 show when she was just a new face, Hammam has become the poster girl for the diversity movement in fashion, which also saw the rise of Winnie Harlow, Halima Aden, and Ashley Graham. Counting a record number of magazine covers (last year alone she fronted nine Vogue editions), her name is constantly associated to the tagline “the face of now.” Her CV also counts campaigns for Céline and Shiseido, and she is one of the very few, if not the only, black Arab models to become the face of Chanel Makeup. “It is nice to know that you can come from nothing and make it in this business,” says Hammam, who is Dutch-born to Moroccan and Egyptian parents.
As the morning progresses, Hamman puts on a show, wearing a frame-hugging Balmain vinyl bodysuit and a Jean Paul Gaultier blackand-white couture look, topped with a custom-made turban by star milliner Wrap Life. Suddenly, a wave of excitement takes over the room. Iman has arrived. Even before Claudia, Naomi, and Cindy twirled on Versace runways, Iman Abdulmajid had been crowned the original top model. Now a sexagenarian, as she shakes the hands of every member of the crew, she commands the room with a regal aura. Her neck is long like a swan’s and her voice assertive, with an accent that reveals her Somali roots. After hair and makeup are completed, Iman joins the set for her first shots. Having worked with some of the most iconic photographers ever, including Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, and Richard Avedon, she moves with grace and know-how, in need of direction from no one. In fact, between shots, she approaches the computer screen. After putting on her glasses, she quickly spots what needs to be amended in order to achieve the perfect image. “I can’t pose this way because my right eye will look closed,” she notes. Was she right? Always.
Besides her undisputed status as a top model, Iman is also an important figure of contemporary pop culture. This standing was emphasized when, in 1992, she tied the knot with music legend David Bowie, to whom she was married for 24 years. During and after her 16 years of modeling, she used her worldwide fame as a platform to advocate for racial equality and she was also involved with countless charities. While running her multimillion-dollar makeup empire, Iman Cosmetics, she contributed to the Keep a Child Alive initiative, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Action Against Hunger campaign. No wonder Yves Saint Laurent described her as a “dream woman.”
“My life in fashion started when I was discovered on the streets of Amsterdam. I had just finished my classes and was outside, walking with my friends. Suddenly, a woman started running in my direction. I thought she needed help, but instead, she asked me if I wanted to be a model. All my friends got excited and pushed me to say yes. Soon afterwards, I signed my first contract. I was born in an Arab household and I have a Moroccan mother and an Egyptian father. I had a very happy childhood, surrounded mostly by women, speaking Arabic at home. Although I was a bit of a tomboy – always ready for a soccer game – I also loved to dive into my mother’s closet to try on her vast and stylish collection of dresses and high heels. From the age of nine, I staged full runway shows and looked at fashion magazines after school. I always knew I wanted to become a model.
Between the ages of 13 and 15, I trained hard to be on the runway, walking in heels and practicing strange expressions in front of the mirror. My role models were Raquel Zimmermann, Liya Kebede, and Iman. Finally, at 16, my agent thought I was ready, and I was sent to Paris. My first casting was for Givenchy, which was under the helm of Riccardo Tisci. We connected right away and he asked me to open his show. This launched my career and I started to be requested for New York. My first big Vogue US cover followed, when I was 17. It was the September 2014 issue and I was photographed alongside great names such as Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne. I was the younger girl.
Even today, when I land the cover of a magazine, it feels crazy to see myself that way. I always think, is that really me? But it does give me a feeling of empowerment and assurance that the modeling industry is changing for the better. When I started, all the girls looked the same, but now there is more acceptance of things such as natural hair and different sizes and body types. I look at girls like Halima Aden and I think it’s amazing that she is veiled and has such an incredible career. Since I also come from a Muslim background, and being a proud Muslim myself, I feel blessed to have had the support of my family from day one. This gave me the strength to use my platform to talk about issues like race and religion, with the aim to empower young girls – no matter the color of their skin or where they come from.
Today, fashion is all about having a personality – and nothing is as inspiring as the power of being you. Although I’m living in New York, I still feel very connected to my heritage. When I travel to the Arab world to see my family, I feel linked to Egypt and Morocco, though I now feel completely different things. In Morocco, I love the buzzing atmosphere of Jamaa el Fna square in Marrakech, and the gorgeous beaches where I love to surf, in Taghazout. In Egypt, there’s nothing like walking barefoot around the pyramids and feeling the desert sand under your feet.
“I was born and raised in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1955, and I’m the result of a beautiful love story. My mother was intended to be married at an arranged matrimonial, when she was 14 years old. One day, she was walking down the street and saw a big fight, where someone was being severally beaten up. That man was to be my father. They fell in love, married, and stayed together for 65 years. Throughout my childhood, there was a lot of love in my home, and my parents were also actively involved in politics. Somalia didn’t achieve its independence until 1960 and they were part of the younger generation fighting for a free a country. The home environment was always busy, with many meetings and late nights. The atmosphere was of activism, of being informed, and getting involved. Since my parents were so young, they were also very poor, but I never went to bed on an empty stomach.
With the political instability, my parents moved to Saudi Arabia and I was sent to Egypt to finish high school. From Cairo, I remember the Israeli bombing attacks – the sounds of the sirens and the shattering of glass – but it was also easy to adapt to the country. I’m Muslim and Egypt was a very progressive place. Girls like me could go to school. I completely fell in love with the people and the cultural legacy that goes far beyond the pyramids.
It was also during my four years in Egypt that I discovered some of the icons who inspired me in my career, like Faten Hamama and Umm Kulthum. When I started modeling, I never forgot how Umm Kulthum used to carry herself. From her, I learned the drama and the absolute stillness when you are on the runway and how to command with grace and dignity, but without having to be too much. When she walked on stage, everyone would hush and you could hear a pin drop.
Since I was such a daddy’s girl, I wanted to follow in his footsteps and so I moved to Kenya to study political science. During my first year in Nairobi, a man stopped me in the street and asked if I had ever been photographed. I thought he was trying to pick me up, so I ignored him, but he insisted. To get rid of him, I said, ‘Yes, of course I have.’ In my mind I was thinking, what do these people think – that I have never seen a camera? After his advances, I allowed him to photograph me. In exchange, he paid my tuition, which was something like US $8 000. He accepted, and that was my first negotiation.
The man who photographed me was Peter Beard, who convinced me to fly to the US in October, 1975. At first, I didn’t say anything to my parents. The plan was to go to New York just to check it out. When they found out, they became really concerned. They didn’t know anyone in America and I didn’t know anyone in New York. But they trusted that I was going to make the right decisions. As soon as I arrived in the Big Apple, my first shoot was for American Vogue. I was terrified! I had never modeled before, never worn heels, and I didn’t know how to do makeup… Everything was new to me and I literally learned it all on the job. When the shoot came out, I became an instant It girl. It was a weird feeling since I had no sense of what it all meant. I had never even seen fashion magazines before. Ignorance is bliss.
When I started working, black models were not being paid the same as white models. There was a very well-masked racism. At my first press conference with Peter, he told me to pretend as if I couldn’t speak any English. This was a good way of finding out what people really thought of me. This experience taught me a lot about the US. People described me as if I were not human, like if I was coming from another world. They said I was exotic… A parrot is exotic, I’m a person.
As my career progressed, I became the first black model to refuse to work for a lower wage than other girls. To me, I was providing the same service, so I had to be paid equally. If there was an editorial or ad job, and if there were three girls, the unspoken word was that one of the girls had to be black. But you were an afterthought. Since I was studying political science, I knew that this had a negative impact in society. By not being represented, young girls didn’t have role models, and could not find validation for their appearance and identity.
Today, I’m thankful I didn’t come to the US when I was younger. Since I was in my twenties, I knew how to shield myself from dangerous situations. I knew I had the power to say no and to walk away from what was not right for me. By then, New York offered a very different life to Kenya – with all the nightlife and the iconic Studio 54. The new experiences could be overwhelming if you were not prepared and did not have a proper sense of self. I took on the responsibility of taking care of my family, and I looked at modeling as a business venture, not a glamour job.
Combining my work with my religion was one of the most difficult things. It is complicated to be photographed in a provocative way, even if the pictures are artful. I shot stunning nudes with Richard Avedon, one of the most iconic photographers ever, and although I was proud of these images, when my parents would come to visit me, I would hide them under the bed. There was no way I could explain to my father that that was art. In fact, I never reconciled posing nude with my religion and family. I always say, may Allah have mercy on my soul if I have not done it right. It is an oxymoron to have your foot in the modeling business and to call yourself a Muslim, but at the end of the day, you need to look in the mirror and feel good when you ask, am I doing the right thing?
While modeling, I met some of the most amazing individuals. I was friends with Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaïa, very classy men, but also with the bad boys like Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Claude Montana. It was exciting because all the designers had different takes on fashion, so I could experience different points of view. The work environment, especially in Europe, was fantastic, but it wasn’t very professional. We were asked to do fittings at 4am. It was art and anything could go. This was also the period of the height of creativity and theatricality. A fashion show was a real show and the bigger, the better! Once, at a Thierry Mugler presentation, I had to carry baby monkeys and no one thought that once the cameras flashed, the monkeys would get scared. They ran all over my body on the runway.
In 1978, I became a mother for the first time. It was challenging to manage everything. I traveled with my baby everywhere and the minute she started school, I could not interrupt her learning cycle all the time. After 16 years of modeling, I decided to quit. I truly believe that everything has a shelf life and I always knew that I had to leave at the height of my best moment, not when they wanted to show me the door. When you are a model, before you know, your time is over. Thankfully, I had a plan B.
When I was at my first Vogue shoot, the makeup artist didn’t have any foundation for black girls – this planted the seed in my head to create Iman Cosmetics. When you work in the industry, your looks are your currency. If you don’t have a good appearance, you won’t be booked again – and no one will blame the beauty team or the photographer. This made me start experimenting with makeup from an early stage. I would buy any foundation with pigment so I could mix and match.
When I announced my intention to launch Iman Cosmetics, I was not taken seriously. In America, when you speak of women of color, people just think of black skin. But I wanted to do something more diverse. If you walk down the streets of Soho, you can see Asian girls with dreadlocks, Puerto Ricans with blonde wigs… There’s a new generation that doesn’t box itself. This was my inspiration. The launch was a success because it arrived at a time when multiculturalism was becoming big. Suddenly, the average woman didn’t have to struggle for the right makeup. It was right there.
Today, 20 years later, my company runs smoothly and I’m still involved in all the product launches. I believe that being involved is always the key. I’m even managing my own social media, something from which I receive great, positive feedback. Every day, I wake up at 6am and I just read. I post whatever comes to my mind during that moment. Somehow this connects with people. It just proves that, like most things in life, when something is authentic, it works.”