Iman Talks About The Politics Of Being A Colored Supermodel


You all know her face and her name: Iman. One of the world’s most well-known Supermodels, and wife to rock legend David Bowie. She has her own cosmetics brand worth $25 million, has a degree in political science, and has graced the covers of the biggest fashion magazines in the world, including Vogue.

Despite her success, nothing came easy for the Somali-born beauty, who told the Guardian in an interview her upbringing and skin color played a huge part in her determination to be the best. When she first moved to the US for her career, she had no concept of how people marginalized others for their skin color, because where she came from everyone looked like her.

“I didn’t even understand it. People called me ‘Iman the black model’. In my country we’re all black so nobody called somebody else black. It was foreign to my ears.”

Along with the physical prejudice she encountered was the discrimination of being paid less because she was black. Can you imagine?!

“I was doing the same job as them. Why would I get less money? It didn’t even occur to me that it had anything to do with racism. I learned that quite fast. I wasn’t a major in political science for nothing, so I understood the politics of beauty and the politics of race when it comes to the fashion industry.”

The politics of race in fashion has not exactly disappeared, by the way. More recently we’ve seen Iman join fellow black Supermodel Naomi Campbell and fashion activist Bethann Hardison form the “Diversity Coalition” which monitors fashion events around the world and speaks out when designers and brands shun any models of color.


“There were more black models working [in the 1970s] than in 2013,” she said. “There is a time when silence is not acceptable at all. And if the conversation cannot be had publicly in our industry, then inherently there is something wrong with the industry,” she said about the issue of diversity on the runway.

The group also commissioned original research and discovered that some brands, like Chloé, had never used a non-white model, and others like YSL, Versace, Gucci, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein hadn’t for years.

“It sends a message that our girls are not beautiful enough,” she says to the Guardian. Here’s a story that will make your jaw drop, Iman was once told by a magazine editor that she was beautiful like a white woman dipped in chocolate. Whoa! Iman had no idea at the time it was racist, but today there is no doubt she would speak her mind.

Iman comes from a strong family line and didn’t come to New York as a naive African girl. Her father and mother were both activists, and were involved in protesting the independence for Somalia in 1960. Iman speaks 5 languages, and was taught by her mother that she could do whatever she wanted in life.

“She always said to me that there is nothing that the boys can do – because I had two brothers – that you can’t do, if not better.” The spirit of revolution and activism was the breeding ground for Iman to grow up knowing she wasn’t limited to how other people defined her.


“I grew up in the midst of all of that. And she instilled that in me. The fact that nobody can take your self-worth unless you give your consent.”

Iman is also passionate about advocating the rights of Somali girls and women today. She is involved in a charity called the Hawa Abdi Foundation, run by three Somali women fighting for healthcare, education and agriculture.

Today Somalia is run by Islamic extremists and there are very few educational options for young girls and women are not allowed to drive. It’s as if the independence it fought for has been washed away over the years.

Dr. Hawa Abdi was Somalia’s first female gynecologist and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Iman first heard about the organization through a magazine editor a few years ago, and she knew immediately she had to get involved.

One of the things the organization tries to fight is female genital mutilation, which the Supermodel was a recipient of as a young girl. Many of the FGM operations happen because of a fear of violating tradition, and communities throughout Africa don’t have enough education or awareness of the damages it does to women’s bodies.


Today thankfully there are men, women and org’s fighting to get the right information to the people making decisions about FGM because it has been recognized internationally as “a violation of the human rights of girls and women” according to the WHO.

It’s easy to see why Iman is passionate about working against the racism that still exists in fashion and advertising. Being a woman who has come from such a tumultuous cultural setting, it’s only natural the passion she feels is an extension of that. The fact that she could be living in poverty today if she wasn’t lucky enough to be spotted by a fashion photographer is not lost on her.

“I absolutely believe that. It was just my luck. I could be in a refugee camp now. There are people who have been in refugee camps for 20 years, and I could be one of them. That’s one of the reasons I’m compelled to help. First because overnight my life changed from a diplomatic daughter to a refugee and my father could not fend for us. The only time I’ve ever seen my father cry is when he couldn’t pay for us to finish our education. And the NGOs looked after us. They found me a hostel, a job, a university.”

For a woman who could easily rest on her laurels and spend her days counting her millions, she sure is setting a great example of a woman who knows that fight is far from over. Reaching success isn’t a reason to stop working toward the goal of equality, in fact it is the very opportunity to have access to even more resources to be able to make a difference.

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