Born Iman (pronounced “ee-mahn”) Mohamed Abdulmajid in 1955, in Mogadishu, the capitol of the East African country Somalia, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid is the daughter of a Somalian diplomat father and a gynecologist mother. Her mother gave her the masculine name “Iman,” the model divulged to Linda Konner in Glamour, in hopes that she would compete equitably with others since she was “a woman with a man’s name.”
Although Somalia was impoverished, Iman grew up with her two brothers and two sisters in a white house on one of the most beautiful beaches on the Indian Ocean. Throughout her childhood, Iman’s family took camping trips to the desert, which comprised most of Somalia. Asked about her mysterious demeanor as a showroom model, Iman told Konner, “Now, every time I’m on a runway, I deliberately think of Somalia, and I try to take the people watching me to where I am in my head. I want them to see what I see–the desert, and the stars that go on forever, illuminating the darkness.”
Although Somalia was predominantly Muslim and women were regarded as second-class citizens, Iman learned a different set of attitudes from her parents. Allowed to marry four wives under religious law, her father chose to marry only one woman.
Iman related to Konner that her mother, a pioneer thinker, advised her frequently, “Iman, you don’t have to lie down with a dog. You have a choice; you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. One good woman is far better than ten men.” The family relocated to Kenya after being driven out of Somalia in 1969 when Iman was about fourteen years old. She finished high school and enrolled at the University of Nairobi to study political science. Able to speak five languages, Iman was hardly the legendary cattle herder the press portrayed her as after her modeling debut, when high fashion photographer Peter Beard discovered her on his way to the country to pick up supplies.
“I really first saw her one day,” Beard recalled in Vogue, “as I was driving down Standard Street in Nairobi with Kamante, who was, as you know, [writer] Isak Dinesen’s faithful retainer. Iman was dead anxious to get out of Africa.”
In her autobiography, I Am Iman, Iman explained that she did not even know what modeling was when she was approached by Beard. Just months before Beard sent Iman’s photos to Wilhelmina, a prestigious modeling agent, Iman had married, in rebellion, her teenage sweetheart. Iman knew the marriage was a mistake, so that when Peter called with the offer to go to America to become a model, she leapt at the chance–more to escape the marriage than to become a model. In October of 1975, Iman, the young college student, traveled to New York, where upon her arrival, she thought that her new home was worse than a third world country.
A publicity blitz that bypassed the customary interview route of aspiring models brought Iman immediate employment with Wilhelmina and with luminary fashion designers, including Bill Blass. Audiences were more likely to crowd showrooms to catch a glimpse of the model-star than to view the clothes in a collection. Instantly attaining international fame, Iman divulged to Konner later in her career, “I’m a … black model, succeeding in a country that craves blonde, blue-eyed teenagers. I’ve taken work away from blonde women. I’ve even taken work away from men. I’m secure within myself–independent, a survivor.”
Working with fashion photographers more in partnership than seclusion, Iman applied her own makeup and often styled her own shots while modeling. She also commanded unheard of fees, such as $100,000 for one designer collection. French designer Thierry Mugler described Iman at the top of her profession in Vogue, “She feels the atmosphere of the crowd (and holds their attention like nobody else). She knows how to use those hips. I know how to dress them. We go to the extreme together.”
Iman’s career almost ended in 1983 when she was nearly killed in a taxi cab accident. Her shoulder was dislocated, and she also broke three ribs as well as her collarbone and cheekbones. After she fully recovered, Iman received a merchandising contract to market a line of authentic African fabrics called kikois. With an acting career underway by the 1980s, Iman revealed in Essence, “I’m a workaholic. I feel that when I wake up in the mornings, if I’m not working, attending acting class, going to the gym … the world is passing me by. Whatever this rat race is about, I’m a part of it. I’m one of the rats!”
In 1987 Iman divorced basketball star Spencer Haywood. The couple had been married for eight years and had a daughter, Zulekha. In 1989 Iman quit modeling. She simply woke up one day and said to herself, “This is it. This year I’m closing up shop.” A few years later, Iman began dating British rock star David Bowie and married him in a civil ceremony in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 24, 1992. In November of that year, the model lost a long custody battle with Haywood over their daughter. Craving more children, Iman disclosed in People, “I’m an old woman. But I’ll try to squeeze one in.” After Bowie gave her a 10.5-carat canary diamond to celebrate their union, she had a bowie knife tattooed on her right ankle. After several years of trying to conceive a child, Iman decided to rely on an African custom to stimulate fertility. The custom is to hold another woman’s baby. So, Iman borrowed fellow model Christy Brinkley’s baby and several months after, she conceived. In August of 2000 Iman and David welcomed the birth of their daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones.
Iman planned to broaden her acting career beyond the scope of cameo appearances in such motion pictures as Star Trek VI. She experimented with videos, including Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time,” in which she gives the pop superstar a kiss. She also completed a documentary called Somalia Diary for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about famine in her native country, which she visited for the first time in twenty years in October of 1992. That year a People correspondent commented on Iman’s enduring beauty: “The face, the frame, the name: all so perfectly exotic (or perhaps, since they all belong to Iman), so perfectly Ixotic.” One of the first black models to appear on major magazines covers and lure prestigious cosmetic companies to offer contracts, Iman divulged in People,
“I’m happy with my life. Everything is going the way I wanted it to.”
In 1992 Iman, who always had to mix two or more foundation colors to find the right shade of makeup, decided to create a reasonably priced line of cosmetics for women of color. Two years later the line was mass marketed and licensed to “Color Me Beautiful”, selling only at J.C. Penney department stores. In 2000 she established a couture cosmetics line for all women, I-Iman, that was sold at Sephora cosmetics stores. Her business ventures have been successful, establishing “ethnic” cosmetics during a decade when many other prominent cosmetics companies followed suit and created their own line of cosmetics for women of color.
In 2001 Iman published her autobiography, I Am Iman, not only to convey to the public who she is and where she came from, but to address universal issues such as self-esteem, identity struggles, and the pressures of pop culture. Essence described I Am Iman as “a strikingly impressive photo-autobiography.”