Let it be known that it was Iman’s idea to wear a wet T-shirt.
“I suggested it,” she says over a glass of pinot grigio, sitting in the lobby of the Mercer hotel in New York City shortly after the photo shoot where the accompanying image of one super-soaked supermodel was created. Iman had been asked to wear a Supreme T-shirt as a simple homage to her stature as an unrivaled deity of the modeling world, a trailblazing cosmetics entrepreneur, and a long-standing advocate for women.
Too basic for Iman. She had other ideas.
“I’m 63 — why would I have a Supreme T-shirt?” she says. “It’s just a boring T-shirt. It’s too young and too hip. So I said, jokingly, ‘Why don’t we get it wet?’ And as I said it, everybody said, ‘Yeah!’ I was like, ‘Fuck, now I have to deliver.’ ”
“Well, you know, I try,” Iman deadpanned.
With a career that has spanned four decades, Iman is such a reliably adaptable and yet physically unaltered fixture of popular culture that most people wouldn’t know she actually retired from the runways in 1989. She hasn’t so much as attended a fashion show since, though she continues to outpace even some of her youngest peers both in relevancy and in ad pages, most recently appearing in campaigns for Valentino and Balmain. Fans on Instagram are obsessed with unearthing glamorous photos of Iman from the heyday of ’80s fashion, when she appeared in Thierry Mugler shows and attended galas with Calvin Klein. Especially popular are images that show the inimitable pairing of two icons of style, Iman and her late husband, David Bowie, who reportedly once said, “You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is.”
An even more crucial reminder of her continuing legacy is that as the founder and chief executive of Iman Cosmetics, she created a collection of makeup and foundation with an extensive array of shades specifically designed for women of color decades ahead of the current beauty-industry movement toward inclusivity. And yet in person, she remains as humble, charming, and, of course, strikingly beautiful as she must have appeared to the photographer Peter Beard when he met her as a student in Nairobi in 1975.
“She’s not just a model on the outside but also on the inside,” says her friend Donna Karan, who first worked with Iman when Karan, still in her 20s, became the head designer of Anne Klein and Iman had just arrived in New York. Their connection was instant and has lasted through the years, their careers, their marriages, their children, their respective loves and losses. When Karan introduced the Stephan Weiss Apple Awards last year to commemorate the memory of her late husband (Weiss died in 2001), one of the first honorees was Iman.
“From the deep, deep essence inside her, she cares,” Karan says.
Now both women are widows and grandmothers, a detail Iman brings up as she explains that one of her latest passions happens to be needlepoint. Who would have imagined Iman as a crafter, wearing reading glasses no less? “My PR guy said, ‘I don’t want you ever doing that on airplanes or in public,’ ” she says, recognizing this sort of hobby might be considered off-brand for a supermodel. “I’m just an average girl, but I’ve always understood the importance of creating a mystique so that people don’t know too much about me.”
Though images of Iman tend to project a powerful sense of fierceness and independence, in reality she is that and much more — funny, human, warm, and, since Bowie’s death three years ago, somewhat vulnerable and a little wistful too. His absence, or rather his presence in all the small reminders of daily life, remains almost palpable in everything about Iman. She wears a necklace with his name on it. Even her beloved Cavanese mix, an 11-year-old named Max, has one blue eye and one brown, kind of like Bowie, whose eyes appeared to be different colors as the result of one permanently dilated pupil. She has begun appearing in public again, though she avoids the red carpets for fear that those conversations with reporters will inevitably lead to the subject of her loss.
“I’m fine,” she says. “But it becomes awkward, so I try to stay away.”
She has instead focused on family, encouraging Lexi, her 18-year-old daughter with Bowie, in her pursuit of a career as an artist, and spending time with her three young grandchildren. Iman pulls a phone from her purse to show a photograph of a framed needlepoint teddy bear she had been working on as a present for the youngest, Zowie, a granddaughter by Bowie’s son, the film director Duncan Jones, who also has a 2-year-old son, Stenton. Zulekha Haywood, Iman’s older daughter from her previous marriage to the retired basketball player Spencer Haywood, has a 1-year-old daughter, Lavinia. Imagining the possibilities from the perspective of a new generation has, in a way, caused Iman to wonder what’s next for her too.
“My plan is just loose,” she says. “It’s kind of weird, because I’ve worked all my life, from when I was 14 years old. I mean, I’ve never planned anything, besides Iman Cosmetics. I’ve stumbled into things, or things found me. So now I’m at a stage where I’ll just see what happens.”
Iman is reluctant to speak at length about Bowie, but she shares remembrances of him often, calling him her “forever love” or posting on Instagram a picture of herself from 1991 with a platinum blond wig created by the late Teddy Antolin, the hairdresser who introduced them. Hours after we speak, she calls to respectfully request discretion, as, in many ways, Iman and Bowie led their very private lives in public. Editor friends have been invited into their homes over the years, but none has ever been allowed to photograph them. In New York, she recalls, Bowie often ate outside at cafés, reading the newspaper, but people didn’t bother him.
“This city is how my husband — well, both of us, but especially David — was able to live,” she says. “We were going to move to London when we got married, and every time we got there, the paparazzi followed us from when we arrived at the airport until we left, so we decided we couldn’t raise a kid that way.”
Iman hasn’t left the country in seven years, not since her husband became ill and their daughter was finishing high school, but now she plans to travel. She wants to visit Morocco and all of northern Africa with Bethann Hardison, a model-turned-agent and Iman’s closest friend of 40 years. And Karan has talked her into a trip to Cuba and Haiti.
One thing is for certain, and that is she will remain socially engaged. Though I have interviewed Iman on several occasions, the first time we spoke extensively was in 2013, when I wrote a feature for The New York Times on the subject of racism in fashion and what had led to a startling and shameful lack of diversity on the runways and in advertising campaigns at the time. Many prominent advocates for diversity had been complaining about the problem for years but so politely that nothing seemed likely to change, at least not until the gloves finally came off. Hardison organized a campaign to chasten designers who continued to ignore black models. Iman went further, calling for an outright boycott of those brands.
“I remember at that time, the most coveted bag was from Céline,” she says. “Every girl, black, white, Asian, you name it, they wanted that bag. I’ve never owned one for the simple reason they didn’t use any black girls. They were saying it was for aesthetic reasons, like, velvet is out this season. They didn’t even know what they were saying.”
Since then the picture has changed noticeably for the better. In the past few months Adut Akech, a striking Sudanese-Australian who closed the shows of Valentino and Chanel, took the No. 1 spot on the annual Models.com industry-awards list, and Naomi Campbell, who also participated in Hardison’s diversity initiative, débuted her first beauty contract, with Nars, after more than 30 years in the business.
More than anything, I have found, Iman is willing to say just what needs to be said without fearing the possible repercussions. When I ask her who inspires her today, she says, “Somebody who really cares, and, yes, I’m taking a swipe at that jacket worn by the First Lady,” she says, referring to Melania Trump’s controversial wardrobe choice when visiting
migrant children on the U.S.-Mexico border last summer. “I’ve always been political. My father was an ambassador [he served as the Somali ambassador to Saudi Arabia], and I come from an activist family. I majored in political science, and, at times, I think, people have been asleep at the wheel. Now, all of a sudden, they have awakened. This is when social media does something good, when it can really galvanize people, especially young people, to understand.”
Her worldly outlook comes from her upbringing, she says. Born in Somalia, she traveled extensively with her siblings and settled in Kenya before she moved to the United States to pursue modeling and acting (she had roles in Out of Africa, No Way Out, and L.A. Story, among other films). “Regardless of what people might think of me, in my country I’m not a beauty,” Iman says, “because Somali women are known for their beauty. My father is now 89, and he looks 40.” But as a woman also of great intelligence, she has become more than a role model for many of the young women entering fashion today from Sudan, Nigeria, and Uganda to proudly display their heritages and raise their voices to fight injustices.
“In that way she is more relevant than ever,” Karan says. “She has taken the past, the present, and the future and continues to move forward.”
Iman’s beauty business was started in 1994, and while she doesn’t go into the office as often these days, she still approves its products, sold at a number of stores, including CVS, Target, and Walmart. Its significance, like that of the Naomi Sims collection of wigs and cosmetics that came before her in the 1970s, cannot be understated, certainly not to the millions of women who had previously felt unseen with a lack of products created especially for them. Still, it seems curious that the broader beauty industry has only recently embraced a more diverse palette since the phenomenal success of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty collection in 2017.
“Rihanna is the one who forced all the big, big guys to pay attention,” Iman says. “She deserves the credit, not only in beauty but also in lingerie. Even just to say ‘I’m not doing the Super Bowl’ because of what is going on politically — it takes guts to put your money where your mouth is, and she can say anything she wants. It doesn’t matter if it’s contrary to public opinion, because if it’s true, it’s true.”
And this gives Iman both solace and hope. As young people become more aware of their power, things begin to change. Looking at the results of the midterm elections, she cited the vastly diverse incoming members of Congress, including the first to wear a hijab, Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American from Minnesota. “That’s democracy,” Iman says. “That’s what makes me excited.
“I’ve seen the highs and lows of not only my personal life but also where I came from and what I ended up to be,” she says. “I became a top model. I made money. I took care of my parents and brothers and sisters through their schooling, got married, had children, and made more money. If I’m not hopeful, who’s going to be?”
Photographed by: Anthony Maule. Styling: Nina Sterghiou. Hair: Ursula Stephen. Makeup: Porsche Cooper.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.