24th August 1997


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Helping children: Iman’s model act

Any number of myths have been built around her. One had it that she
was discovered while herding goats across the Somalian desert.
Another said she was spotted in a jungle. But Iman, 42, wife of singer
David Bowie, and billed as one of the planet’s most influential
models, finds all this very amusing. Ensconced in her own world,
today she is busy raising money for poor children
The windows are soundproof. The horse-drawn carriages - with their maddening clip-clop - fight for street space with squealing, honking taxis, but thick glass shields Iman from the cacophony. There’s nothing but cool silence in her Manhattan apartment.

ImamHer pied-a-terre, a piece of real estate that husband David Bowie found for her about three years ago has an expansive vista of Central Park: trees in glorious spring green ringed by watchful skyscrapers. New York’s grime is far enough away to render it romantic.

Hers is not the aloof bird’s-eye perspective on the city’s dazzling chaos. She’s close enough to see the details in the dress of passers-by. She can make out the harried expressions on their faces.

The city is her live television show, with the sound on mute.

Rich, famous and renowned for her beauty, Iman lives in a reality that is the material of most people’s fantasies. Among the family pictures scattered on a table is a glamourous black-and-white Bruce Weber photograph in which she is embracing Bowie, her husband of five years. While others scrimp to put a few dollars away in mutual funds, she prefers Bowie bonds - a bit of investment wizardry that netted Bowie $ 55 million against future royalties.

"I don’t even understand how it works," she says. "But every rock star wants to do it." Like a lot of well- to-do and famous folks, Iman has the ability to keep unpleasantness at a distance. And who wouldn’t want to? But she has also led journalists to report on strife in Somalia, and she raises money for underprivileged children. When such people plunge into causes, their motives are inevitably questioned. Is it a desperate attempt to be taken seriously, as when celebrities boast about their IQs or models declare that The Economist is their favourite magazine? When good deeds are captured by video cameras, does it make them any less admirable? Everyone - aside from her closest friends, the ones who see her in knockabout clothes with her hair dishevelled - must try to discern her sincerity from small signs.

Doormen, waitresses, building workers - they study every nuance of her body language waiting to pronounce her down-to-earth or aloof. Of course, she knows that.

With the savvy of someone who has lived her life under the scrutiny of a camera, she knows that reality is often no more than what television, newspapers or magazines say it is.

It’s a lesson one learns early in modelling.

Iman, one of the world’s most influential models, retired from the runways in l989.

"It wasn’t really any revelation. I felt it was time. I was getting bored. It wasn’t a challenge. I had really done everything it was possible to do," she says. "I couldn’t get excited about another dress."

Since then, she has launched a cosmetics company that bears her name. She led a BBC documentary crew on a 1992 trip to her native Somalia, when the country was in civil turmoil. Then she made the rounds of news chat shows to raise awareness about the suffering there.

She has become involved with the Children’s Defense Fund, helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars to benefit poor youngsters. And for old times’ sake, she did a star turn in the Donna Karan advertising campaign for spring.

She also received the Woman of the Year Award from Fashion Group International of Greater Washington, D.C. One could make a fine argument that Iman’s voice is her most distinguishing feature, for it lingers in the ear long after the colour of her eyes and the length of her legs are forgotten. It rises from the depths of her diaphragm and makes the long trip through her luxurious swan neck. Then it bubbles up rich and deep - an irresistible vintage.

It is not tinged with the pretentious pseudo-British accent that has afflicted the speaking styles of Tennessee- born Tina Turner, Pennsylvania’s Sharon Stone and Michigan’s Madonna.

Nor does it have a continental sound. To an American ear, it is purely, but nonspecifically, African.

Strong and sure, it bursts through a glut of reticent muttering.

And it emphatically shatters stereotypes about models. Yet when she arrived in New York in 1973, she didn’t say a word.

She was spotted by photographer Peter Beard when she was a political science student at the University of Nairobi - but better tales were soon concocted. One had her discovered while herding goats across the Somalian desert. Another said she was spotted in a jungle. She supposedly spoke no English. Reports described her as more than 6 feet tall. She’s barely 5-9.

"The older I get, the more amusing it is. Actually, it was an amazing gimmick," says Iman, now 42. "As a young woman, a black woman, I thought, ‘How dare this white man say he discovered me. "Where was I? l wasn’t lost. I thought it was racist and sexist. Of course, now I know that Peter isn’t like that at all."

She quickly realised that modelling could be a lucrative business.

"Modelling makes you a spoiled brat You earn an extraordinary amount of money almost for nothing at a very young age," she says.

"When I was young, I’d spend all this money to take the Concorde to Paris for a party and then come back. And I didn’t do it just once. (Modelling) doesn’t prepare a young girl for the future." Iman, however, was different.

Although born in Somalia, she grew up in Tanzania, where her diplomat father had been exiled. (Her parents now live in Virginia.) "I come from a generation of people where the buck started with me. I didn’t inherit any money.

"My mother sold all her jewellery to put me through boarding school, because that was the best education for girls," she says.

"Being in boarding school ... it’s like being in boot camp."

Iman was dubbed an exotic beauty. She says that her looks are typical Somali, but to the Western eye, they were unusual, mysterious. She broadened the definition of beauty. She made earthiness sensual. She helped to transform fashion into entertainment and models into personalities.

"No one can show clothes like that woman can," says Patti Cohen, Donna Karan’s spokeswoman and long- time friend. Iman appeared in the debut show of Karan’s signature collection. "She had an individuality that only a few of the top (models) do," Cohen says. "Nowadays, they all look the same, except for a few top girls."

Iman understood that while a walk down the runway lasts only a few seconds, the picture endures. So she made sure that the photograph was always right. She would subtly open and close her lips - making a "fish mouth" is what one former fashion editor used to call it - so that each picture captured her with a slightly open, seductive pout.

Even now, as she walks down a New York street, excitable young men call out her name and decree "Number one beautiful woman in the world!"

She is black, so people do not always see her beauty. "lf someone walks into a room with two people - one white and me - something is missing, they’re going to come to me first."

She ticks off other indignities: "I get into an elevator and an elderly white woman clutches her bag."

Shopping in an expensive store, a sales representative is quick to announce an object’s price, as if to suggest that a woman of colour could not possibly afford it. "I could see if I looked poor," she says bluntly. "But 1 don’t look poor."

It’s the same old story. Not even celebrity is a perfect shield against bias. Just recently, model Naomi Campbell complained to a London newspaper about racism in the fashion industry. ‘There is prejudice and it’s a problem," Campbell said. "I feel I have to speak out.

At the heart of the frustration are the magazine covers that can lead to multimillion-dollar advertising contracts. Black faces seldom appear. Editors repeatedly have said that magazines emblazoned with pictures of black models don’t sell.

"I’ve even heard that O.J. made it worse," says Iman, with the tone of someone happy to be out of the fray.

More seriously, she says that magazines should lead, not follow, their readers. "People need to be educated," she said. "That’s what the media is supposed to do.... ‘Do I identify with Claudia Schiffer?" she continues. "I buy the magazine for the information that’s inside, to see what’s new in make-up....

‘They always put black models on the weak issue that doesn’t sell anyway. Put Naomi Campbell on the September issue she says, suggesting a black model for the biggest month of the fashion magazine year. "People will buy it." She’s willing to bet her own money on it. The marketing strategy of Iman cosmetics is to use Hispanic, African, American, Asian and Native American models in advertisements that underscore what will be the reality in the next century: The majority of consumers will be people of colour. Iman is selling to the generation that golfer Tiger Woods has come to represent, folks of mixed heritage who cannot be easily pigeon- holed. Her licensing deal with Ivax Corp. gives her creative control while the nuts and bolts of production and distribution are handled by Ivax. Retail sales for the three-year-old line totalled about $30 million last year. (It’s available in about 1,000 locations.) In the company’s offices just off Lexington Avenue, Iman is deep into beauty- speak, expounding on the importance of moisturisers and skin care.

Her potions for staving off the ageing process are created for women of colour who tend to be concerned about skin texture.

She’s launching a sun protection line, even though it’s commonly assumed - incorrectly - that dark skin doesn’t tan, let alone burn. She perches, with legs crossed, on the boardroom table. It’s impossible to tell whether she has chosen this seat because it’s comfortable or convenient. Or because she knows that from that position, she’ll malke a great picture. - Friday

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