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Eternally Iman

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(NEW YORK) An icon with a wicked sense of humor, Iman is known for her great beauty, her legendary stories, and her powerhouse cosmetics and clothing businesses. She sat down with The Daily to talk Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, Thierry Mugler, and the painful price of walking in all those stilettos.
BY EDDIE ROCHE

We’re sorry to hear you recently had foot surgery. Ouch!
I know! It’s because of all those years of wearing very small high heels for fashion shows. This is the damage. I’m truly a fashion victim.

What happened?
I fractured it while I was walking down the street. I stumbled and kept feeling a sensation in my foot. By the end of the night, I was at a doctor’s office. I still don’t know if surgery worked! The worst part is that I can’t wear heels for quite awhile. You can’t wear flats with everything. It doesn’t work like that.

Okay, so when did you first realize you were a famous model?
I knew I was famous on my third day in New York in 1975. I was walking down the street with Peter Beard and somebody asked me for an autograph. I asked, ‘Why?!’ They said, ‘I’ll cherish it forever.’ I realized then I was famous, but I didn’t know what fame was. That was not in my language back then.

When did you first feel like a professional model?
I learned to be a model. I was thrown into this, but one of the first people to believe in me was Diane von Furstenberg. She said, “I loooove you!’ You know how she is. People took me under their wings. They saw something, but I learned on the job.

What were those early days like?
Scary! I had never worn heels before I came to America. I remember on my first week I was taken to meet Halston and he said, ‘Darling! Can you walk?’ I said, ‘How do you think I got here?’ I had no idea how to walk in heels. I had never worn makeup. It was all new to me. I winged it. I said to myself, ‘I better learn fast’. You’re as good as your last picture. How do you keep it up and make a business out of it?

Who taught you how to walk?
I taught myself. I wish I could say it was a drag queen. 

What advice did you receive in your early years?
There wasn’t a lot of advice. People assumed a lot about me. I didn’t say much because a lot of people didn’t think I spoke English. I took advantage of that and pretended that I didn’t so they could speak in front of me freely.

Did any of the conversations you overheard hurt?
None of it was positive. Trust me. You learn by hearing the negative whether it’s true or not. You learn about their perception of you, rather than the reality of you. 

What did they say?
‘She’s not that beautiful,’ they’d say. Or people said I was Peter Beard’s girlfriend. I’ve never had any [romantic] relationship with him. They said, ‘She won’t last long.’ That was over 30 years ago and I’m still here.

Holla!
Exactly.  

How did you handle the criticism?
I was 18. I knew I had an option, which was to leave and go back home. I knew in my heart that it didn’t matter what they said about me. I knew me. When I came here I knew who Iman was, even at that age. I’m from a third world country [Somalia]. We get it together much faster. 

How so?
The opportunities and fantasies are not there. It’s not like girls in third world countries are thinking about becoming a model or a movie star. You don’t have that. I had never seen a fashion magazine until I got here. I hadn’t even heard about modeling. I was majoring in political science. We know the realities of life, rather than the fantasies of life. 

What was the most fun part of your career?
Hands down it was when when Mr. Saint Laurent called and asked me to be his muse for a Couture collection. I was clueless, but said that I would go. I was the house model, so every day I would walk in and there would be piles of fabric, no illustrations and I’d stand there in high heels and a lab coat-style white robe and silky hose and nothing else. No underwear, no bra, nothing. They tell you to take the robe off and he’d take the fabric and cut it around me. I’ve never worked that hard in my life. The endurance of standing all day, but to see the genius of seeing him cut it with just scissors. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. He was like someone who was in front of a blank canvas and drawing with color. It left such a mark in my memory. I’ve never seen anybody who could put colors that you would never think go together and then they become this magical thing. When he was finished, he called the collection ‘The African Queen.’ He then hired me to do the ads with David Bailey. That was it. That was the height of my career.

What do you think of the name change of the brand to Saint Laurent?
I adore Hedi Slimane. He’s such a fan of my husband [David Bowie]. Stephen Gan told me Hedi was a fan back when he was at Dior Homme and asked if I could arrange a meeting between the two of them. Stephen knows my husband doesn’t like arranged meetings, but I somehow managed. Hedi was silent. He couldn’t speak, but they hit it off so well and became friends. People say he wants to make the label his own, but he was taking it back to its beginning. He didn’t [just choose to] change the name. It had to be reborn as a brand, rather than being about Yves Saint Laurent the man. The change of the name was appropriate. 

If you could work with just one designer for the rest of your life, who would it be?
Tom Ford. He’s always sexy and interested in so many things. He’s a man who can do anything and you can talk to him about everything. He’s not stuffy. There’s always sexiness in him. 

Do you remember your first time meeting Tom?
It was love at first sight. I was wearing a pantsuit and I had a pressed gardenia on my lapel and so did he! He loves women and can charm and flirt at the same time. You can talk to him about books or art. You name it and he can talk to you about it.

Which was the most fun show you ever walked in?
Thierry Mugler! I was doing fashion shows, but people thought of me as elegant and his show was about fetishes and sex and wildness. We hit it off and overnight I went from a Valentino and Armani girl to a Thierry Mugler girl; people asked if I was the same person. It was a spectacle. Talk about Las Vegas.

Do you still keep in touch with him?
I got an e-mail from him a couple days ago. He has a Lido show in Paris that he designed. He’s not Thierry Mugler anymore. His name is Manfred. I got an e-mail from him and thought, ‘Who is Manfred?’ I forget! I’ve known him for so many years as Thierry Mugler.

Do you get nostalgic and look at your old photos?
No! Never, ever, ever. My daughter didn’t even know I was a model for years. I don’t have a single picture of myself at home. 

How do you feel about the talent out there today?
When people say, ‘They don’t make them like they used to!’ I say, ‘Are you crazy? Have you looked at Karlie Kloss or Joan Smalls?’ Karlie is the new Linda Evangelista. She can change herself in a second. The girls today like Coco Rocha have a foot in the past and also in the present. These are girls who have thought about how they can make themselves relevant today with everybody being so celebrity obsessed. If I meet young kids who want to be big someday, they don’t have pictures of Jennifer Lopez on their walls. They’ll have pictures of models. What we create is different. It’s so sad that fashion magazines have fallen into the celebrity trap. It’s like a Pandora’s box because it sells and they don’t know how to come back from it. But it’s so boring. 

It’s exciting to see models coming back to covers.
Trust me! It is, but January and July are historically the quiet months for magazines. To have momentum, you can’t have one cover, you have to have plenty. That’s like saying that jeans are going to be in, but you only do them one season and then never again. You have to stay on course to make an impact. The models also understand that they have to be visible on social media so they have as many followers as the celebrities.

Is that fair that we’re asking models to have to be social media experts?
Life is not fair. They have to do whatever they have to do. Let me tell you, runways are the last sacred ground for models. If celebrities could go on the runway, they would, but they can’t. They can’t walk and they don’t have the bodies for it.  

You’ve been very vocal about more diversity on the runway. Do you think we’re seeing changes?
Absolutely. The changes were very visible last season, but February will be the proof in the pudding. Spring/Summer always uses more black models, but the Fall collections will show us if things have changed. Someone asked me, ‘Why is it so important that black girls should be on the runway?’ It’s not because of black girls. It applies to all models. The runway is where young girls are discovered. 

Who was your favorite photographer to work with?
Bruce Weber. It always felt like reportage. He took a picture while he was talking to you having a coffee. The total opposite of that was Ellen von Unwerth. If you never thought of yourself as sexy as a woman, she’d make you look sexy.

What about Irving Penn?
I loved Mr. Penn from the minute I met him. He was the easiest person to work with. He’d talk to you and then he’d know exactly who you were. He’d only shoot you for five minutes and you’d think, ‘We don’t have it.’ Then you look at the picture and say, ‘That is so me!’

Helmut Newton?
He was a manipulator. He wanted to see how he could get a piece of you in an image that he already had in his mind. You were a round person trying to fit into his square which was scary. 

Was it enjoyable?
No. Not at all. He had this idea of what he wanted and you didn’t know what that was. You were hostage to his ideas.

Do you have any regrets shooting with him?
Not at all.

Do you have any regrets at all?
I do, but I’m not going to tell you. I’m 59- years-old. You think I’m going to tell you?

What’s been the greatest joy of being a model?
You meet a group of people that are so diverse in their backgrounds. It’s like its own circus. We travel together, eat together, we care for each other, and blend so beautifully together.

Do you consider yourself an icon?
No, I live with one. The only time I had a good comeback for that question was when I got the fashion icon award from the CFDA. I said, ‘Now I can go home and say to David that he’s not the only icon in the house!’

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