Supermodel Iman wants widespread education and earnest activism

When Iman arrived in New York, in the fall of 1975, the photographer Peter Beard hosted a press conference introducing her at his friend’s apartment. The crowd was surprised to hear she could speak English. Beard, who had discovered the 20-year-old college student in Nairobi, had returned to the States with his roll of film and slightly dubious stories about an otherworldly African beauty the likes of whom no one had ever seen. As it turns out, Iman, the daughter of a Somali diplomat, spoke five languages and was as intelligent and self-possessed as she was beautiful. While she went on to become one of the most sought-after models of the ’70s and ’80s—a muse to scores of photographers and designers—Iman has always been a cultural force all her own.

Despite retiring from modeling in 1989, her legacy in fashion endures. In 1994, she founded her makeup line, Iman Cosmetics, which introduced difficult-to-find shades for women of color. With her husband, the late music legend David Bowie, she lent her time, her voice, and her face to dozens of humanitarian causes, from AIDS research to education. At 62, Iman continues to run her beauty empire while also raising her teenage daughter. To be an activist, as she tells her friend, the actress Rosario Dawson, you have to be active.

ROSARIO DAWSON: I want to start by saying how much I love you, Iman, and how blessed I’ve always felt knowing you. I’ve watched you start a cosmetics company that was inclusive, and I’ve watched you work to save children and highlight the issues of conflict minerals with the Enough Project. Where did the drive to help people come from?

IMAN: My father was a teacher, but he ended up becoming a diplomat in the Middle East because he was knowledgeable about the politics of Somalia at that time. When my mom and dad met, Somalia didn’t have independence. I was born into a family that was very politically active. Growing up, the house was bustling with people; my parents were holding meetings and discussions, so I was constantly aware of what was going on. There were no barriers between men and women because everybody was fighting for independence. My parents used to say, “To be an activist, you have to stay active.” It’s not something you can choose to do when you want to or when it’s trendy.

DAWSON: You’ve proven that over and over again. Education also seemed vital to you—so much so that when you were discovered as a model, you traded being photographed for college tuition. You were studying political science at the time, right?

IMAN: Yes, I was. I cannot stress enough the importance of education, especially for girls. When I started school—this is how I knew how important it was for us—my mom sold all of her jewelry to put me in the country’s best school. My father taught me there was nothing I couldn’t do better than my brothers. That instilled in me self-worth, which has sustained me all my life. When people know that you can say no and walk away from things that aren’t right, they see your power. They see that you’re powerful.

DAWSON: I thought of you this past year when I was in Liberia and Sierra Leone for a month. It was so fascinating. Even after Ebola and all of the different things that have hit these places a mudslide happened in Sierra Leone just as I left—there’s still so much infrastructure that was being built and development that was happening. You could see a lot of progress. I couldn’t believe how many people had cellphones! There’s still such a lack of awareness around what they’re doing to communities in the Congo.

IMAN: I remember my parents used to make sure we didn’t drink Coca-Cola. They were dumping all of this Coca-Cola into third world countries in the same manner as cigarettes. Nobody smokes more than people in the third world. And the same applies to iPhones and all of that. At the end of the day, awareness is the most important part. A lot of people, especially young people in Africa, don’t understand what’s going on with minerals used in smartphones and how they’re affecting places like the Congo. People are kind of loaded up on unimportant stuff nowadays. I’m so glad about what’s happening with the #TimesUp movement. When people are aware of what’s going on, true change happens. And it usually starts underground. It does not happen from the top down. It goes from down to up.

DAWSON: It feels like a shift in cultural consciousness.

IMAN: People really need to pay attention. I’m worried about the new generation of young people who are not fully aware of what’s going on. They’re tuned in but not for the right reasons. “Oh, I’ll be nude and I’ll put it on social media.” Well, what’s your point? What are you trying to say? I love social media because you can showcase what you want to say, but a lot of times it’s just noise. It doesn’t matter, and it goes so fast; five minutes later it’s gone, and everyone’s moved on to something else.

DAWSON: I think it’s unfortunate how nudity has so often been proliferated because of the male gaze. And it’s been about making it taboo or fetishizing certain aspects of it. I personally find it very empowering. I grew up around nudists. I heard a story about a teenage girl—she and her boyfriend were going to be intimate for the first time, and he freaked out when they got naked because she had a labia, and she had hair. In all of the pornography he had seen, there was no hair.

IMAN: [laughs] Yes, there’s no hair!

DAWSON: He was used to Barbies. So this moment that should have been really special between these two people who loved each other ended up turning into this crazy situation because we are so distanced from any kind of healthy exposure and acceptance and expression of our bodies and ourselves. I have been seeing a proliferation of art exhibits that are showing all different kinds of vaginas. I think that’s actually critically important. It’s not always perfect, but that’s what makes us human.

IMAN: That is art to me—showcasing what the body looks like, rather than posing and putting a filter on it.

DAWSON: I find how messy it all is actually kind of empowering.

IMAN: The world is messy.

DAWSON: There is no one right way to do anything. And what I’m just grateful for…Wait, my dad’s about to go on a 20-mile bike ride. [to her dad] I love you. Text me. Make sure you check in with me! I’m nervous. [laughs] Wow, what a great moment to interrupt.

IMAN: [laughs] The keyword is messy!

DAWSON: It is! It’s messy and complex. We’re seeing this as we’re getting more into #TimesUp and into #MeToo and understanding that it’s beyond people just telling their stories and healing—it’s work.

IMAN: Absolutely.

DAWSON: When you first started modeling, what was that like for you? You’ve joked about the fact that you were just like any other Somali woman. So how crazy was it to suddenly have to make all of these decisions about how to represent yourself?

IMAN: Somalis are actually considered some of the most beautiful people in the world—and we definitely think we are. [Dawson laughs] I was an average girl. Somali people still say, “If Iman can be a model, any girl in Somalia can be a model because we’re all that beautiful.” But for me, where I came from, beauty was secondary compared to your mind and your thoughts. I pushed myself toward education. I looked at everything in terms of politics. So when I came to the United States, it was all about the politics of beauty. When I first arrived, one of the top models was Beverly Johnson. At first, I had no notion that there was any competition between us, because I had never seen a fashion magazine in my life. But they actually pitted us against each other. I also compared myself to the white girls. They were paying white models more money than black models. I’d refuse to take those jobs. I’d say, “I’m providing a service. It doesn’t matter what color I am. My services should be paid the same as the white model.”

DAWSON: What are your thoughts about sexual and power dynamics in your industry, like the allegations against Bruce Weber and Mario Testino? How do we allow for body positivity within an industry that can prey on very young people? Where does the line get drawn around manipulation and freedom of expression?

IMAN: I stopped modeling in 1989, but I don’t think the industry has changed in any big way. In terms of being taken advantage of by a photographer, that never happened to me. But I can see how it happens, because it’s a power thing—because of the suggestion that if you are topless, it will make a better picture, and that if you don’t do it, somebody else will. At the same time, as you said, where does one control the artistic endeavor of the business? A lot of these models start very, very young. I started when I was 20, and I was clueless about what modeling was—but I was not clueless about life. I personally don’t know why anybody would allow their own children to go unchaperoned. It’s an adult business, and it’s very difficult to protect a child.

DAWSON: My very first film was Kids [1995], so there were a lot of young people. I was 15 when I did the movie, and my parents worked, so they weren’t there for my first rehearsal. They let me go and spend quite a lot of time with a bunch of strangers, really. I was a very body-positive person. I was raised with nudists and with a lot of activism; I knew how to speak up for myself. I was very comfortable in my body. But there were moments when that was exploited. I don’t necessarily think my parents did a bad thing by not being more present; they trusted me, and that was really important to me. But there were times I felt taken advantage of. And that’s why I find this moment so critical, because it is complex. It is a full spectrum.

IMAN: When I was 14, I could also make a decision for myself. But I know a couple of young kids, my daughter’s friends, or even my own daughter, who I don’t think would be able to be in those positions. My daughter might not know that she has the power to walk away from something.

DAWSON: I love how travel is such a big part of your story. So many people in this country do not travel. They don’t travel city-to-city, state-to-state, let alone country-to-country. How do you feel that this is affecting the conversations that we’re having around everything? For me, travel is an education.

IMAN: I totally agree. There is nothing more educational than travel. The only way you will understand how other people think is by going to where they live. Somalia is a nomad country, so we’ve always been on the move. For me, moving is essential. Books are great, googling is great, but there is nothing that can replace traveling. I’m so surprised when I hear young people who are not really curious about travel. I started traveling when I was 9—without my parents. I went to high school in Egypt; I visited Beirut. I went to Syria. In my generation, we did the Peace Corps after high school. My parents always said, “You’ll have time in your adult life to travel to the west. How are you going to see Africa? You’ve got to see Africa before your 20s. You have to travel through Africa to understand where you came from.”

DAWSON: Your name means faith, right? My name means rosary. I feel like I worry about everything all the time. [laughs]

IMAN: It’s appropriate!

DAWSON: How has your name guided you?

IMAN: Funny enough, my given name, when I was born, was Zahra. Which is a flower of the desert. It’s an oxymoron: flowers and desert. But my grandfather changed my name to Iman, because I was the first daughter in six generations of just sons. I think if I were Zahra, I would be a totally different person. I am Iman. I am totally my name. I have big female and male parts in me. Iman in Somali is a man’s name; it’s not a woman’s name.

DAWSON: Rosario can be either-or, too. I’ve met a lot of male Rosarios.

IMAN: See, your name makes you. You’re outspoken and fearless; those are the qualities that they attribute to boys. When a woman gets a man’s name, they get that with it. I think if I were Zahra, I would be much more soft-spoken. I would be one of those feminine girls, which I’m not.

DAWSON: I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all male and female. It takes a sperm and an egg to create a human, so we’re equally half. I remember I didn’t like my name when I was younger, and I’ve definitely grown to love it more.

IMAN: I was the same, because I was the only female with a man’s name in my country. I was the first girl Iman.

DAWSON: We started off with notoriety.

IMAN: All those things shape you. Tough things shape you, sweet things shape you, hugs shape you as much as tears shape you.

DAWSON: It’s women like you who make me excited about getting older, and hopefully one day also being able to proclaim that I’m wise. I’m not quite there yet.

IMAN: You will be.