Nomad Spirit: Iman on Biden, Bowie and blazing a trail

Lydia Slater
·10-min read
Photo credit: Iman wears embroidered dress by Noir Kei Nimomiya, photographed by Paola Kudacki
Photo credit: Iman wears embroidered dress by Noir Kei Nimomiya, photographed by Paola Kudacki

From Harper's BAZAAR

Under normal circumstances, I would have been daunted by the prospect of meeting Iman.

For one thing, the statuesque entrepreneur, philanthropist and supermodel has a reputation for plain speaking. Furthermore, I am labouring under a good deal of emotional baggage, since my bedroom as a teenager was plastered with posters of David Bowie, Iman’s husband until his untimely death in 2016. (I seem to recall actually weeping when they got married, though I was consoled by the thought that he had chosen a worthy consort, even if I were not she...)

Yet within moments of seeing Iman appear on my screen, a pair of stern glasses perched on her nose, and dressed with simple elegance in a black Loro Piana turtleneck, we are chatting as if we had known each other for years.

Photo credit: Iman wears JR Malpere headpiece, photographed by Paola Kudacki
Photo credit: Iman wears JR Malpere headpiece, photographed by Paola Kudacki

The first thing that strikes me, of course, is her extraordinary, ageless beauty; she is 65 but looks 20 years younger, which she attributes to her lockdown weight gain. "It kind of softens all the edges... But I’m African, and we’ve never been scared of ageing. It's a privilege, you know."

At the start of the outbreak, she decamped from Manhattan to her country home upstate, where she has learnt to enjoy the slower pace of life. "It’s about time I settled down!" she says, laughing. "I’m such a city girl, but now I’m appreciating the country. I go hiking every day – I have this great view of mountains that changes literally every few minutes." She has spent her time cooking, reading, watching films and painting. "David was a painter; my daughter is a painter. I never painted in my life, so I’ve taken it up. I learnt that I don't have to be good at something to start doing it. Just get out of your own way, go for it." She now has a Zoom art session with her little granddaughter every Sunday, she tells me with a chuckle.

Photo credit: Iman wears Maison Margiela veil and dress with a Piaget necklace, photographed by Paola Kudacki
Photo credit: Iman wears Maison Margiela veil and dress with a Piaget necklace, photographed by Paola Kudacki

This lifestyle over the past few months has given her a new perspective. "I’ve been working since I was 14, 15 years old. But you don't have to be busy all the time. It’s really not that great."

The pandemic has kept her apart from her family – alongside Lexi, her daughter with Bowie, she has Zulekha from her previous marriage to the basketball player Spencer Haywood, and is also close to Duncan Jones, Bowie’s son by his first wife Angie. "I do get lonely, but I’m one of those people – thank God – who likes my own company." And there is always Max, her 14-year-old Cavanese pooch, to enliven her solitude. "Max is part of the family!" she says. "In more ways than one – he has one blue eye and one brown eye." (Bowie, of course, famously did too.) "You couldn’t make it up. When I walked him, people would stop me in the street and say, 'You planned this!'"

I had been hesitant about mentioning her husband in case it was too painful, but Iman brings Bowie up in conversation, often in the present tense. "David is in our hearts and minds on a daily basis, for all of us," she says of her family. "You know, this was my true love. My daughter once asked me if I would ever marry again and I said, 'never'."

The pair were introduced in 1990 by a mutual friend. "My attraction to her was immediate and all-encompassing. I couldn’t sleep for the excitement of our first date," the singer later said. "That she would be my wife, in my head, was a done deal. I’d never gone after anything in my life with such passion... I just knew she was the one."

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

They married in 1992, and Lexi – Alexandria – was born in 2000. One would assume that the union of a supermodel and a rock god would be glamorously tempestuous, but Iman denies this. "It could not have been more regular!" she insists. "It was a really everyday marriage. He was a very funny, warm gentleman – you know, everyone talks about him being futuristic, but no, he was not, he liked more than anything to wear a three-piece suit." She laughs. "It was a beautiful, ordinary life and that was what was great about it. We could live in New York, pick up our daughter from school, walk everywhere... You know, I wish we had had more years."

This issue will hit the newsstands around the fifth-anniversary of Bowie’s death on 10 January from liver cancer. "That’s the saddest time," she says; but she is consoled by the sense that he is still with her. "He’s hiding in plain sight. His fans are still around, his music is still relevant." Usually, the family spends the anniversary together, but last year, Iman took herself off to San Francisco to be among the redwoods. "And on the day of his passing, I went on a hike and a bluebird flew in front of me. A bluebird, above all things!"

(As Bowie’s fans will know, the lyrics for ‘Lazarus’, the last single he released during his lifetime, include the lines ‘You know, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me?’) So she felt his presence? "Absolutely. I asked the tour guide, and he said, 'Oh, they’re very rare here, bluebirds.' And so now, instead of remembering it as sad, it is more of a joyous day." By the time she has finished speaking, my own eyes have filled up; her uncomplicated devotion is profoundly moving.

But of course, there is far more to Iman than her status as an icon's widow; and in her own sphere, she has broken as many boundaries as Bowie.

Born in Mogadishu, she was the daughter of a diplomat and a doctor. "I was raised by my mother telling me, 'Always know your worth. And if something is not serving you right, walk away from it. Don’t settle for less, because that is what you will be getting from then on.' I was aware of that. And so that was my superpower, because I was taught that way at a young age." Her ambition was to be an ambassador like her father (she speaks five languages); the idea of modelling did not occur to her and she had no interest in fashion. "I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem about how I looked," she says. "In Somalia, I was called an average girl."

Photo credit: Iman wears Lanvin dress and Chopard earrings, photographed by Paola Kudacki
Photo credit: Iman wears Lanvin dress and Chopard earrings, photographed by Paola Kudacki

But after her family fled to Kenya following political unrest at home, she was spotted by the photographer Peter Beard as she made her way to a political-science lecture at the University of Nairobi. He asked her how much she would charge to pose for him, and, mindful of her mother’s precepts, she asked for $8,000, the price of a term’s tuition fees. Beard agreed, and by the following year, Iman had moved to New York and was modelling for magazines.

Her extraordinary, gazelle-like beauty has made her an inspiration to numerous designers through the years, from Thierry Mugler, who, she says, "brought that wildness out of me", to Yves Saint-Laurent, who invited her to be the muse for his 1985 African Queen collection, draping and cutting the bolts of fabric directly on her body. "It was an experience that I will never forget," she says. "Being from Somalia, I love colour, but I saw clashes and fusions of colours that I never thought would go well together..."

Despite being successful from the start, however, she had to do battle with the institutional racism of the time; and again, the self-belief instilled by her mother was to serve her well. She insisted on receiving the same model fees as her white counterparts – "I said, I'm doing the same job, I don’t see why I am going to be paid less. So I refused to work under those conditions." She also short-circuited an attempt to set her up as a rival to the top African-American model Beverly Johnson. "I called Beverly and told her, “You know, I don’t play these games.” The idea that one of us has to dethrone the other to be in the spotlight is absurd!’ Instead, finding that they were both in Italy, Johnson to shoot for Bazaar and she for Vogue, she suggested that Johnson should also appear in one of her pictures.

Photo credit: Iman on the Thierry Mugler catwalk in 1983 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Iman on the Thierry Mugler catwalk in 1983 - Getty Images

And when, early on in her career, a make-up artist asked her if she had brought her own foundation as he had nothing suitable for her skin tone, she decided to do something about it. In 1994, she founded Iman Cosmetics to offer foundations for non-Caucasian women – "women with skin of colour", as she calls it. "I was not interested in the ethnic background, I was interested in the skin tone. I wanted to show the world how we actually have more in common than not."

By this time, she had turned her back on her modelling career to concentrate on her business, and also because she disliked the intrusion of celebrity culture into fashion. "Shows were late because they were holding them for Paris Hilton or somebody! It was ridiculous. I was like, no, I’m not going to be part of that circus." She has no hankering to go back to the catwalk today, which seems a shame – how many ageist tropes would be shattered if she did.

Instead, alongside heading up Iman Cosmetics and Iman Global Chic, her fashion brand, she works as the worldwide advocate for the charity Care. "I know what it’s like to be a refugee," she tells me later over email. "I know what it’s like to be an immigrant. I know what it’s like to not be white. I know what it’s like to not be male. I know what it’s like to adapt to a culture that’s not your own and long for the one you know. I know firsthand the extra burdens that each of these realities can bring. And thanks to the blessed NGOs like Care that were there to help me early on in life, I know that having an advocate in your corner can mean catching a break and having a chance."

She says she would love to return to Somalia if it were safe. "What I miss is the idea of belonging," she says, "where you are not looked at like you are other... That feeling never leaves an immigrant or a refugee, ever." Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric has exacerbated the issue, leaving her feeling unwelcome in the country where she has lived for the past 45 years. "Once, when I was in my twenties, I went with a friend of mine by car from the East Coast all the way to the West Coast. I have to tell you, I would never do that now, because I wouldn’t feel safe in certain places as a person of colour. That’s how divided the country is..." But she is cautiously optimistic about the election of Joe Biden, and especially about Kamala Harris. "I definitely think that this is the change we need."

Photo credit: Iman wears Alexandre Vauthier dress, Schiaparelli mask and Lanvin gloves, photographed by Paola Kudacki
Photo credit: Iman wears Alexandre Vauthier dress, Schiaparelli mask and Lanvin gloves, photographed by Paola Kudacki

And what about the future? For all her talk about enjoying a retired life, I suspect there may be another chapter to come in Iman’s extraordinary career. (She confides with a throaty chuckle how she told her friend, the designer Michael Kors, that post-pandemic, "I’ll come to the opening of an envelope!")

"Don’t count me out yet!" she agrees. "I am a Somali woman by nature. That means we are nomads. We’re in constant movement. When the world comes back to normal and I start travelling, I'll think about what’s next." I, for one, can’t wait.

Photography Paola Kudacki; styling by Jason Rembert; hair by Oscar James; make-up by Camille Thompson; manicure by Eri Handa; stylists assistants - Kristen McGovern, Eden Hurley and Wilton White; production by Heather Robbins.

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