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FASHION

The Beauty Biz

Like a lot of models, Iman is married to a rock star. But with her own cosmetics line and charitable causes, she's no trophy wife.

May 15, 1997|ROBIN GIVHAN | THE WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK — 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.

Her 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 passersby. She can make out the harried expressions on their faces.

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

Rich 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 glamorous 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 or a 401(k), 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 they read the Economist? When good deeds are captured by video cameras, does it make them any less admirable?

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

It's a lesson one learns early in modeling.

Iman, one of the world's most influential models, retired from the runways in 1989.

"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.

*

Iman was spotted by photographer Peter Beard in the early '70s 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 feet, 9 inches.

"The older I get, the more amusing it is. Actually, it was an amazing gimmick," says Iman, 42. "As a young woman, a black woman, I thought, 'How dare this white man say he discovered me. Where was I? I 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 realized that modeling could be a lucrative business.

"Modeling 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. [Modeling] 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 jewelry 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 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. 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."

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