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Iman, Somali Supermodel And Former Mrs. David Bowie, Then And Now

Icons | December 27, 2020

Vogue 1977: Model, Iman, wearing a bandeau top with frilled edges and long gold-embroidered skirt by Yves Saint Laurent. (Photo by Kourken Pakchanian/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

Iman's story goes from Somali refugee to iconic supermodel to rock-star wife (that David Bowie was a lucky one) -- truly an incredible path to fame and influence. As one of the first black models to make it big, she also increased diversity in the beauty and fashion worlds. Iman's face and figure adorned the covers of the leading fashion magazines -- Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Bazaar and others -- and she appeared in ads for clothing, fragrances and other products. Along with her groundbreaking career, today she is most recognized as the muse and wife of the late rocker David Bowie in their fairytale love story.

Iman Fled Her Home Country

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Iman was born as Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid in Mogadishu, Somalia on July 25, 1955, but her grandfather advised her name to be changed to Iman with the belief that a masculine name would provide her great wealth. Contrasting with her country’s views, her parents raised her with the wisdom that she was equal to men and that there were no limitations on what she could accomplish. When Iman’s diplomat father Mohamed became the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Iman enrolled in boarding school in Egypt where women were given opportunities unavailable in Saudi Arabia, which included education. Through her studies here beginning at the age of 4, she became fluent in Arabic, Italian, French, and English. In 1969 when Iman was 14, political issues arose in Somalia and Mohamed was forced to return, but he urged his family to escape the dangerous country. At her father’s request, Iman, her mother Maryan, and her siblings fled to Kenya as refugees.

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Iman’s intelligence earned her a scholarship for the first year at the University of Nairobi in 1975 where she studied political science. One day while on campus, Iman thought a man was hitting on her as he begged to take photographs of her. She finally accepted when he agreed to pay the rest of her school tuition for her ($8,000), and this decision changed Iman’s entire life and career. The pestering man turned out to be world famous photographer Peter Beard who sent her photos to Wilhelmina Models, and founder Wilhelmina Cooper was extremely impressed. Cooper asked Iman to move to the United States, and in October 1975 Iman flew to New York City leaving her recent husband behind who she was not too fond of anyways. Beard told the press a fake story of how he found Iman herding cattle in a Kenyan bush, and people were very enchanted by this fabricated tale.      

Iman Became An Instant Superstar In America

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Iman’s modeling career took off immediately and soon she was one of the very first black supermodels posing for the most iconic fashion magazines including Vogue and walking the runways for famous designers Calvin Klein, Halston, and Yves Saint Laurent. During her early days, Iman pretended she couldn’t understand English to discover what the fashion industry really would say about her and found the workers always referring to her as “exotic” which slightly offended her. 

Getting used to life in America was difficult -- even though the country had progressed greatly in recent years, there were still plenty of subtle (and some overt) racism. Coming from Africa, Iman was surprised by some of the everyday frustrations felt by so many black American celebrities -- to cite the classic example, for all your fame, it's still harder to get a cab to stop than it is for a white person. When one magazine described her as “a white woman dipped in chocolate,” Iman demanded an apology. At a time when black models were few and far between in high fashion, the media seemed bent on portraying a rivalry between Iman and black supermodel Beverly Johnson. Iman was reportedly confused by the obsession -- why couldn't they just both be famous together?

Iman Has Claimed She Is Nothing Special In Somalia

Iman in Versace. Source: Pinterest

Iman has long maintained that she is average-looking for a Somali woman. She explained to Into The Gloss:

I come from a country that’s known for beautiful women. And at my high school ‘prom,’ so to speak, the girls couldn’t decide which boy to go with. Nobody asked me! My father paid my cousin to take me! I was not considered beautiful at all. Really. And this is what all models say. But I’m still not considered that beautiful in my country. I don’t know the beauty ideal where I come from—but it’s not me. I mean, I’ve seen it—what they considered beautiful—but it’s not me. I had terrible self-esteem issues when I was growing up. I still do, I just hide it better now.

She told Rosario Dawson,

Somalis are actually considered some of the most beautiful people in the world—and we definitely think we are. 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.'

Iman Was Humbled By A Near-Death Experience

Source: Twitter

Iman was involved in a life-changing car accident in 1983 when a drunk driver rammed into the taxi she was in, fracturing her cheekbone, eye socket, collarbone, and ribs. Although this could be detrimental to a woman whose career depends upon her appearance, Iman was just grateful to be alive and modeling was the last of her worries. Although her doctor insisted she would completely heal with no permanent scars, after five months of recovery she decided to change up her priorities. The near-death experience humbled Iman and inspired a new perspective on life so in 1989 she shocked the world when she announced her retirement from modeling. During that time she put her energy into developing her own cosmetics line IMAN Cosmetics, which officially launched in 1994 and is still sold today.

Iman Married David Bowie And They Stayed Together Until His Death

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Iman’s beauty and success attracted many famous gentleman callers. She dated actor Warren Beatty in 1977 (but then, who didn't?), and later that year married Spencer Haywood of the New York Knicks. Their one daughter Zulekha Haywood was born the next year, but the pair divorced in February 1987. Her most famous romance began when she finally met the true love of her life in 1991. David Bowie noticed Iman at a party and was immediately attracted to her and knew she would be his wife. The two fell deeply in love with each other, married in April 1992 in Switzerland and began their life together in New York. They planned to adopt a child, but Iman wound up pregnant with their daughter Alexandria who was born in 2000. 

Iman Has Always Been An Advocate For Children

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Iman stepped away from the spotlight in the new millennium and lived a happy private life with Bowie, until the day he passed away in 2016. Iman now puts all of her efforts into philanthropy and is extremely passionate about providing relief and funding for children, refugees, and those in poverty. Today she is the global advocate for the anti-poverty organization CARE, a spokesperson for the Keep A Child program, ambassador for Save The Children, and involved with the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign, Children’s Defense Fund, and The Enough Project.

Tags: David Bowie | Iman | Ladies | Models | Then And Now

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.