Iman, more than just a pretty face

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Iman can brag to being more than just a pretty face. The former super model from Somalia is the founder and CEO of IMAN Cosmetics which she launched in 1994. She promotes the IMAN brand among women of color, and now sells skincare and cosmetics around the world. Ten years after she started the company, she entered into a multi-year licensing agreement with Procter & Gamble Cosmetics for international distribution of her IMAN and I-IMAN products. As of 2010, Iman cosmetics is a $25 million a year corporation.


Iman was born on July 25, 1955, in Mogadishu, Somalia. A student at the University of Nairobi, she was discovered by photographer Peter Beard. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Iman was a favorite model in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent devoted the “African Queen” collection to her. Since retiring from modeling, Iman has done charity work in Somalia, started a cosmetics line and married rocker David Bowie.

Early life in Somalia

Retired model and business executive Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid was born on July 25, 1955, in Mogadishu, Somalia. Iman is sometimes described as her native land’s most famous export.

One of the most sought-after fashion models of the 1970s and 1980s, Iman became a successful business executive in the 1990s with her own line of cosmetics. Married to rock star David Bowie since 1992, she became a mother for the second time at the age of 44 in the summer of 2000, but it was just one of many boundaries the enigmatic entrepreneur and social activist has broken in her lifetime. “She broadened the definition of beauty,” declared Washington Post writer Robin Givhan of Iman’s stunning, exotic looks. “She made earthiness sensual. She helped to transform fashion into entertainment and models into personalities.”


By 1973, Iman was 18 and a student of political science at the University of Nairobi. She also worked as a translator to help pay her tuition costs. Photographer Peter Beard, a well-known figure in the fashion world, saw her one day on a street in Nairobi and was captivated by her long neck, high forehead and gamine grace. He began following her, and finally approached her to ask if she had ever been photographed. “The first thing I thought was he wanted me for prostitution of naked pictures,” Iman recalled laughingly about that day in an interview with Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service writer Roy H. Campbell. “I had never seen Vogue. I didn’t read fashion magazines, I read Time and Newsweek. “ But when Beard offered to pay her, she reconsidered, and asked for the amount due to the college for her tuition, $8,000; Beard agreed. Signed to the modeling agency Wilhelmina, Iman began a career on haute-couture runways and in the pages of fashion magazines

such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She was instantly a favorite with designers and editors alike, and was one of first models in her day to be successful in both print and on the runway.



More than a model

In 1978, Iman married basketball star Spencer Haywood, with whom she had a daughter. She continued to model, but was sidelined for a time in 1983 after a taxi wreck. In 1987, she and Haywood divorced, but a custody battle over their daughter Zulekha, who lived with her father in Detroit, endured for six more years. In 1989, Iman quit modeling altogether. She was adamant about leaving the business permanently and not staging a comeback, as she told Bowie in 1994, “because then there is no grace in it,” she said in Interview. “So, when I decided to leave, I made sure that there was no cushion for me to go back to in New York. I sold my apartment; I severed contacts there, except with my friends, so that I would never have the excuse that, when something went wrong, I could go back to that as a cushion. I think I made one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for myself.”

Cosmetics line

In 1994, Iman launched her own line of cosmetics for women of color. She had long been frustrated by the paucity of products for black skin. “I would go to cosmetics counters and buy two or three foundations and powders, and then go home and mix them before I came up with something suitable for my undertones,” she said in an interview with Black Enterprise writer Lloyd Gite. Teaming with Byron Barnes, a onetime makeup artist who had helped create a previous line of cosmetics for women of color, Iman came up with an innovative product line, and packaged it with her own name and very recognizable visage. The Iman Collection was aimed at all women of color — Hispanic, Asian, Native American, as well as black — and was sold at J.C. Penney stores across the United States. Like her modeling career, Iman’s newest venture was an immediate success, but she soon realized that a company as small as hers did not have the capability to expand.

Recent projects

After her experience with Somali relief efforts, Iman continued to serve as an activist on several fronts. She became a successful fund-raiser for Marion Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, and in 1999 created a lipstick with rapper Missy Elliott called “Misdemeanor”; a portion of the proceeds were donated to Break the Cycle, an organization committed to ending domestic violence. But Iman’s cosmetic venture was so successful that in 2000 she launched a prestige line, “I-Iman,” with a much more daring palette. Sold in Sephora stores, the brand was aimed at women of all colors.