She had a career breakthrough when photographer Peter Beard encountered her at the University of Nairobi. He took photographs of her with the assurance that he would provide her with a fee that would pay her tuition at the university.
Beard persuaded Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid to join him in New York in 1976 where she signed up with Wilhelmina Models, as reported by Biography. She was born Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid in 1955 in Mogadishu, Somalia. But her name was changed at the behest of her grandfather, who suggested she should be renamed Iman. Her grandfather was of the view she would prosper with a masculine name. Iman in Arabic means “faith”.
Her grandfather was right. Iman turned out to become one of the world’s most famous Black supermodels and a millionaire with a chain of businesses. She spent her formative years in Egypt at a boarding school when her father, a diplomat, became an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Her mother was a gynecologist.
When Iman relocated to New York, she caught the eye of top designers like French couturier Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan and Versace. She began starring on haute-couture runways and making it to the cover pages of fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. French couturier Laurent devoted a collection to her dubbed “The African Queen”.
Iman is noted for having demanded to be paid the same as her white colleague models and was actively engaged in styling her shoots. This inspiration was from her mother who told her to always know her worth.
“A couple of months after I arrived in the United States, in 1975, I found out they were paying Black models less than our counterparts, and I said, ‘I’m not doing this.’ If I’m doing the same job as the white model, I have to be compensated,” she told W Magazine. Iman said she event “went on strike” for three months. “And then, of course, they raised my rate,” she said.
She drew curtains temporarily on her modeling career in the early 1980s after she was involved in a car accident. She was out of the modeling space for five months where she is said to have reassessed her priorities.
In 1989, she retired from her modeling career and branched into another interest. Iman in 1994 launched her cosmetics line selling all-inclusive cosmetics and hard-to-find shades for brown and black skin tones. In 1999, she started a lipstick brand with rapper Missy Elliot where she channeled a significant part of the proceeds to organizations raising awareness on ending domestic violence.
She also ventured into screen appearances, featuring in several films and making TV appearances on shows like the Cosby Show and Miami Vice. She filmed a documentary with the BBC to shine a light on the ravages of war in her home country of Somalia and campaigned for international aid to alleviate the plight of women and children.
She later married English rock star David Bowie when she relocated to Los Angeles in the 1990s. They married in 1992 in Switzerland. Iman decided to devote more of her time to raising her baby girl and building her marriage. She spent more of her time on family, her philanthropic work, and growing her business.
The Council of Fashion Designers in 2010 recognized her with the Fashion Icon Award, symbolizing the immense impact she had made on the fashion world.