On a quest to redefine beauty

2010-04-03 11:15

IMAN’S statuesque body looks lithe and youthful for a 55-year-old.

She sits in the garden patio of the stylish Athol Place Boutique Hotel in Sandton, dressed simply in a gold sequined bolero jacket over a white tank top, blue jeans and strappy gold heels.

The supermodel-turned-entrepreneur has come a full circle. Since launching her own cosmetic range in 1994 in Europe and the US, she has finally come back to Africa.

And despite living in the US for more than 30 years, ­Iman still retains her distinctly ­unAmerican accent, something most African exports to America find difficult. Her friendly and nurturing nature immediately puts me at ease.

“It has always been my dream to bring the make-up range to Africa but we had to find the right time and people to handle the business aspects of it,” she says.

It is not her first visit to South Africa – she has been here six times for various projects.

“Every time I see the rainbow ­nation, I see the perfect market for Iman cosmetics,” she says.

Born Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid in Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu, the model is a daughter of a ­gynaecologist mother and a Somali diplomat father.

Her family fled to Kenya in 1969 ­because of political strife. After completing high school, Iman received a scholarship to study political science at the University of Nairobi.

“I idolised my father and wanted to follow in his footsteps to become an ambassador,” says the model who’s fluent in five languages?– ­Italian, Somali, Arabic, French and English.

“I was very confident and intelligent. I was just not too sure about the looks. It had never even crossed my mind that I would enter the fashion industry,” she says.

An 18-year-old Iman was “discovered” on the streets of Nairobi by ­renowned high-fashion photographer Peter Beard.

When she arrived on the New York fashion scene, she became an instant hit at Wilhelmina Models modelling agency.

She graced the covers of many fashion ­bibles such as Vogue and commanded high-paying contracts which had before only been the turf of white models.

But being from Africa gained her the distinction of being portrayed as a rural, cattle herder discovered in the jungle.

“It was actually insulting because I grew up in the most modern of homes on the beach. My father was an ambassador, for crying out loud! But nobody was prepared to listen to that. They just loved the image of ­‘rural girl’ success story.”

During an illustrious 16-year modelling career, Iman became a muse for designers such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent who famously said: “My dream woman is Iman.”

She recalls her first modelling job: “When I arrived at the shoot, there was a white model and myself and the first thing the make-up artist asked me was, ‘did you bring foundation?’.

But he didn’t ask the Caucasian model the same question.

“That was when I discovered just how difficult it was to find the right shade for women of colour. I found that very insulting and disrespectful. They want to take our money but they don’t give us the products we ­deserve.”

She started collecting foundation and mixed them until she found her “perfect shade”.

Iman took up acting roles in ­various shows and movies, and was featured in Michael Jackson’s ­Remember The Time music video.

At the height of her career in 1993, tragedy hit when she was involved in a taxi accident. “The car rolled over. My shoulder was dislocated, I broke three ribs, a collarbone, cheekbones and the brow bone on the left side of my face.

As thankful as I was that I wasn’t paralysed, I was completely convinced that my modelling days were over,” she says.

Iman recovered spectacularly with a little help from some clever reconstructive surgery.

Her love life is not as colourful as that of other supermodels. She was briefly married to a Somali man at 18 but divorced him when she moved to the US.

In 1977, she married basketball player Spencer Haywood and had a daughter, Zulekha, in 1978 only to divorce nine years ­later.

Love found her again when she met rock star David Bowie and married him in 1992.

“It wasn’t love at first for me, ­although he says it was for him. It took me a while to ease into it but when I fell in love, I knew this was the real thing,” she says. They have a nine-year-old daughter, Alexandria Zahra “Lexi” Jones.

“I gave birth when I was 45 years old, which is a miracle. I didn’t think it would be possible to have another baby.”

She is also stepmother to Bowie’s son from a previous marriage, Duncan Jones.

Iman and her family live in Manhattan, New York. “I’m glad that the paparazzi is not as vicious as those in Los Angeles. We are able to live a semi-normal life without the constant glare of flashing lights.”

Iman’s company has become ­successful mostly because it was ­established when cosmetics for ­darker skin tones were scarce.

“I always tell people to find their passion because that is where they’ll make the most money. Mine is bringing out people’s beauty.”

This certainly won’t be her last trip to South Africa as she confesses to ­being hands-on.

“I want them to change women’s perception of what beauty is. It is not what you see on the cover of magazines. It is what is within all of us. Know your self-worth.”

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