At 28, Iman refuses to settle for less than she deserves

Iman was discovered in Nairobi, Kenya in 1975 and changed the face of fashion forever. Iman quickly took on the role of activist, advocating for equal pay in the modeling industry. The Somali model later launched Iman Cosmetics in 1994 to address the lack of cosmetic options for black women - and her achievements didn't end there.

The three fashion legends joined forces with models Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell in 2013 to co-found the Diversity Coalition, an initiative of Black Girls Hardison An offshoot of Hardison's Black Girls Coalition, which was originally founded in 1989 to support black models and draw attention to underrepresentation in the fashion industry.

"People are concerned about an industry where watch design companies consistently use one color or not, season after season," the trio wrote in an open letter at the time. "Regardless of the intent, the result is racist."

Now, 67, Iman is the executive producer of the six-part documentary series Supreme Models, based on Marcelas Reynolds' book Supreme Models: The Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion . The YouTube series tells the stories of top black models and their impact on the fashion industry, the civil rights and Black Is Beautiful movements, and American culture as a whole.

Here, Iman discusses the project, her experience in the industry as the first African supermodel, and how the industry has changed since she was 28.

Let me go back to 1983, when you were 28 years old. What is the modeling industry like? What is your life like?

I'm in an industry where I get a lot of accolades, and then you see certain jobs that aren't available. There's always this push and pull, a season where we celebrate and then a season where we don't. I was at the peak of my career. Around that time, I was also working for designers and became Thierry Mugler's muse. But in 1989, retirement was not far away.

What does a typical Friday night look like at 28 years old?

Oh, dear God. I would buy this energy if I had it. It wasn't full steam ahead like it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By then, we knew a lot more about how to take care of ourselves - because before that, it was more "you sleep 24/7. You go to work, get your work done, take a nap at the disco, and then you're up all night outside and then go back to work the next day. "By 1983, we knew a lot more about how to take care of ourselves.

Are you already thinking about retirement when you turn 28?

No, that was never your main concern. I’ve always believed in “holding in” – knowing your entrance and especially your exit. You want to leave at the top of your career, not at the bottom, because then at least you still have some self-respect and confidence. You weren't kicked out, you left on your own terms.

In "Supreme Models ," Marcellas Reynolds says you changed Western perceptions of African beauty. At 28, did you expect to make such an impact?

I came to the United States at the end of 1975. I am fully aware of my contribution, my value in this industry. I know exactly what's going on because it started from the first day I got here.

In '76, my agency, Wilhelmina, told me what was being booked and what the price was, and I said, "Is this the same price they pay a top model?" They said, "They're paying you the same price they're paying a black model. . ” I said, “Wait—wait—are they paying black models differently than white models? ” They said no. I said, "First of all, this is a racist act." But secondly, I said, "I want to be paid for services rendered, which means I want to be paid for the work that I do." They said, " Well, that's not the case, they don't pay the same amount to black models. "I said, 'Call me when they're ready to pay.' I haven't had a job in three months." I won't stop there. So at the age of 28, I knew my worth.

What do you think is your best memory since turning 28?

My fondest memory is what black models brought to the catwalk—how it was celebrated across the board, whether it was in Japan, London, Paris, Milan or New York. It's a different way of looking at us. We're always there, we're always celebrated, but this is going to be a global phenomenon.

Culturally, a lot of things are changing—especially music. There are things that can dramatically change culture, and it's not just fashion and beauty. It starts with music. We see this through rock and roll and hip-hop. Nothing brings the whole world to the same place like music. Everyone has the same language and the same movements. So it's a huge cultural shift. Seeing that it comes from the black community and black culture, it just changes the way people see beauty and see each other, especially young people.

You, Bethann, and Campbell co-founded the Diversity Alliance in 2013. Do you think things have improved in the past 10 years?

In 2013, the New York Times published a big article about the runway being painted white. So Naomi, Bethan and I worked together to correct the problem. That was the second phase of the Black Girls Alliance. It’s unbelievable that some designers have never used a black model in the first place, or that Prada hasn’t used a black model in six years. If that's 2013, imagine 1983. There were more black models working then than in 2013. So you take one step forward and three steps back.

The change is obvious. Within six months, we saw change because we were very clear about our perspective. We are not calling for the elimination of designers. We called them because the designers were using casting agents, and the casting agents called the modeling agencies and said, "We don't need black models this season." So it highlighted what was going wrong and What needs to change. But the difference in 2013 is that in the '60s, "the revolution would be televised." This time, "the revolution will happen on social media."

Do you think this will still happen in 10 years?

It goes back and forth. Fashion is very cyclical. More doors have opened for black models. There are more black designers being highlighted and placed in spaces where they've never been seen before - whether it's, Harper's Bazaar , Marie Claire or Vanity Fair . Black photographers, Black stylists, Black hair and makeup—all of a sudden, those who had been there from day one were given a platform. So the change since 2013 has been very noticeable, and it's not just because of us. We may have started, but a lot has happened since then, and social media has highlighted and illuminated those dark corners of our industry.

What advice would you give to your 28-year-old self?

Don't worry about anything - everything will be fine. Realize. stay awake. Don't be tunnel visioned. I am 67 years old this year. The younger generation is really making progress. Allyship, getting a person to understand what their problem is—to have empathy for them, is a big movement.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. If you purchase a product through links in this article, we may receive a share of the sale.

Supreme Models: The Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion