New Chapters for Iman

TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

Like great actresses of the silent screen, models are often at their most powerful when they remain mute objects of fantasy. The person below the surface is rarely as interesting. But iconic Iman, who left modeling 12 years ago, upsets that common notion.

Known today as a savvy cosmetics entrepreneur, wife of David Bowie, new mother and a Muslim, Iman shows the potential for storytelling from a model's perspective in her first book, "I Am Iman" (Universe Publishing, 2001, $45).

With a few autobiographical chapters and contributions from colleagues such as Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi and Isabella Rossellini, the book is rather like Iman: a composite. She offers herself up as a tableau upon which her chosen observers project their interpretations of her in the worlds of fashion, feminism and race. As a model, she often served the same function: She'd pose, and the image-makers created their fantasy fashion scenarios.

The public and the private Iman did battle in writing the book. "I didn't want it to be an autobiography because I feel an autobiography should reveal a lot," the regal Iman said during a Los Angeles stop of her book tour. "I wanted to share but not to reveal my life." The final product is a sort of image book that should help sell her makeup line--and the Iman legend.

"At the age of 46, I thought I had a story in me," she said. "There has been a distance between me and the fashion industry. I haven't been a model since 1989. So I could look back objectively."

Her career began nearly 27 years ago when brash photographer Peter Beard spotted the 19-year-old university student on a busy street in Nairobi. In one of fashion's best pickup lines, he said, "I hope you're not going to let all those aesthetics go to waste. Don't you think we should just record some of it on film?" Beard famously concocted a tale, almost laughable today, about how he discovered her, a teen tribeswoman tending 500 cattle and sheep in a Kenyan game preserve. When she arrived in New York in October 1975, Beard secured Iman's promise that she'd play along.

"I've always said that I was an accomplice to the Iman mythology, never a victim," she writes in the book. The truth, and her ability to speak five languages, soon burst the fantasy, but the tale had secured her place in the press. The Somali-born daughter of a diplomat and a nurse midwife became the first African to be widely embraced by American fashion, though African American models such as Beverly Johnson had already made historic inroads.

Iman's book examines her impact on standards of beauty, particularly for black women during the '70s. Feminist critic bell hooks wrote that Iman possessed the same characteristics of beauty that the white world treasured--naturally straight hair, a tall, thin frame, an aquiline nose, angular cheekbones and a perfect complexion.

Iman often insists that her looks are merely and typically Somalian. She is lithe, long, lovely, but narrow at the shoulders and roundly feminine at the hips, the opposite of America's athletic standard for models. Still, her looks sparked criticism among some African Americans, who were critical that home-grown beauties had been overlooked in favor of an "exotic" African. In 1976, Marcia Ann Gillespie, then the editor in chief of Essence, stingingly wrote in her column that Iman " ... looks like a white woman dipped in chocolate."

Though the young Somalian girl had to be smart and strong enough to weather the attention, negative and positive, "it was her type of style, her look that made her be well accepted by the white press, white photographers," said longtime friend Bethann Hardison, a manager and model agent in New York. "It wasn't something she did special. The fact that they liked her beauty inspired them."

Those inspirations often led to stereotypical depictions of Iman as an African goddess. She gracefully played the role, and once even while a live monkey crawled around her body during a Thierry Mugler show. Photos of that moment and many others are some of the book's 200 images.

One longs, however, for details about remarkable fashion moments that she witnessed as the muse of Yves Saint Laurent, Issey Miyake and Calvin Klein. But writing made her intensely uncomfortable. "I edited myself so many times," she said. "I didn't have a strong voice. I had the intention of talking honestly, but I wasn't writing honestly." This confession comes from a woman who learned to hide.

"I've never been comfortable in front of a camera," she said, adding that she often copes by concentrating on one person. Modeling outrageous fashions actually helped conquer her fears of photos and of crowds. "You are in clothes that have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with your own life. Or anybody else's life," she said. "It's fantasy, so you can hide behind them."

Writing helped her discover that she had rationalized the "constant tension" between being a Muslim and being a model. "This is not what I am supposed to be doing as a Muslim girl," she said. "I thought I had really resolved it, but I really didn't."

She made excuses "by saying it's a business that has given me money to support my family and to put my brothers through school," she said. "But, still, at the end of the day, I feel like the conflict is there."

The pressures of modeling, and of polishing her image, sometimes won over her beliefs. "In the mid-'80s," she writes, "I had breast enlargement to quiet that noise in my head and fill the gaping hole in my self-esteem." The result made her ultra-curvaceous and turned her into a living version of a computer game's goddess. If she had her life to do over, Iman said she wouldn't become a model. "I would go into business. I have a flair for it."

Indeed, when Iman launched her makeup line in New York seven years ago, she emerged as one of the few model-entrepreneurs to speak intelligently about her business venture. She credits knowledge to her mentor, Robin Burns, whose fast rise through Calvin Klein, Estee Lauder and Victoria's Secret has made her one of the respected names in the beauty business. The two businesswomen often discuss strategy, and the raising of their daughters, including Zulekha, 23, Iman's elder daughter with her ex-husband, professional basketball player Spencer Haywood.

Iman helped integrate fashion, but the former model is aware that women of color are not fully represented in ads, magazines and fashion shows. "Racial and ethnic identities can be devalued like the flip of a switch," she writes. That reality weighs heavily in her mind. "The images that we portray, whether it is very sexy, or very black or very white or less or none of it, has serious effects on kids," said the new mother, as she hurried to another appointment. "The unserious business of fashion has serious effects on identity."

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