When you think of Iman—the model, the icon, the legend—you most likely envision her standing alone, striking a pose at the end of a long runway, or perhaps resplendent and looking like a goddess in a Harris Reed creation of feathers and gold leaf at the Met Gala. The mononymic model, however, is keen to talk about the moments in which she was a part of a partnership or a coalition. “I’ve always loved the idea of a tribe,” says Iman, and that idea is evident throughout Supreme Models, a six-part YouTube docuseries on the lives and legacies of Black models. From Donyale Luna to Precious Lee, Supreme Models highlights the trials and triumphs of Black beauty and innovation on the runway, and perhaps most importantly, the sisterhood that bonded and bolstered them through the tough times.
Iman, who was approached with the idea earlier in the pandemic, was drawn to the project after realizing that there was a shortage of documentaries on Black models. “It’s about owning our beauty, from those groundbreaking models who opened doors for all of us to those that are benefiting from it now,” she says of the resulting series. “It’s also about the trials and tribulations of Black models, and how at times, the industry wasn’t using Black models. There was a time that Black models were absolutely invisible…and that was only in 2013,” Iman adds, referencing the year she, Naomi Campbell, and Bethann Hardison launched the Diversity Coalition campaign to advocate for more Black models and models of color on the runway.
“At the same time,” she says of Supreme Models, “it’s about joy and celebration.”
Here, Iman, who served as an executive producer on the project, talks about the show, her resilience, and her modeling career, as well as the several other jobs she’s juggled over the years.
At one point in Supreme Models, some of the commentators remark on the fact that the crew behind the camera crew are all women. Was something that was planned?
No, no. When working on something about women, you prefer that a lot of people behind the camera crew be women—because who can tell that story better than somebody who is one?—but it was never intentional. The intention was really to highlight how when a Black model opens doors, we usually leave the door behind us open so others can come through.
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When you were discovered by Peter Beard, you asked for a certain amount of money up front because that was how much it would cost for your next semester at school. How did you decide to eventually walk away from school?
I had never seen fashion magazines, worn makeup, or worn heels, for that matter. I was not aware of this industry. For me, it was just a way of trying to take care of myself. Let’s not forget: I was a refugee, so I had to fend for myself. My parents couldn’t take care of me anymore. I was on my own. After the pictures were taken and Peter paid for my tuition, I never ever thought that I would hear from him again.
When I was asked to come to the United States, the first thing I asked for was a return ticket—because I didn’t want to be stuck in New York if things didn’t pan out. But I didn’t even know what panning out was. I had no idea what I was walking into. I lied about my age just to get a passport. I mean, the audacity at 19 years old. I really just had it in my head that I would check it out, and then play it by ear, so to speak. I wish I could say I planned it.
Was there a particular moment during those early days that made you feel like this would be your new career?
Oh, no. I was terrified. I was clueless to the point that I didn’t know how to walk in heels. I learned on the job. I kept my mouth shut at the beginning so I could just watch and listen—and because a lot of people thought that I didn’t speak English. Talk about imposter syndrome. I thought, I will be caught. I will be sent back. And I wasn’t even making money,
Once I understood that there is a way to make money, I was trying to figure out how it works. Then the first thing that I was confronted with was that I found out that there was a discrepancy between Black models and white models in pay.
How did you find that out?
I found out from one of the models who told me, “Oh, so they’re saying that you are the next big thing. Make sure that they pay you as much as they are paying the white models.”
I was with Wilhelmina Models and Wilhelmina was alive then, so I sat with her and she said, “Yeah, that’s how it’s always been.” And I said, “Well, let me put it to you this way; maybe you can make the clients understand. I want to be paid for services rendered. Don’t even say, ‘Oh, Iman wants to be paid as much as a white model.’ She just wants to be paid for the work she’s doing.” And nobody took it.
So for three months I didn’t work and I didn’t care because I wasn’t working before that, so it didn’t mean anything to me. I was raised that way, that I should always know my worth and always know what to walk away from if it’s not serving me. I was like, well, that was a short run, it didn’t pan out. And the next thing I know, I got this call that I got the pay I want. They were the ones who broke the barrier.
It’s remarkable that despite dealing with imposter syndrome, you still knew your worth and were willing to refuse work until you were paid appropriately. Are those two things—self-doubt and self-worth—still at play for you?
They are, yeah. Especially for Black models, they are at play all the time, right? For me, the reason I had imposter syndrome was because, how do you get into a business that you’ve never even heard of? Most models that you know have been exposed to the industry or wanted to be one. I had never seen anything, so to me it was like I was pretending to be a model.
But the worth part of it is something that came inherently. That’s what was instilled in me by my parents from day one. I come from a Muslim country. I’m a girl, and my father and my mother always told me, “You can be as good or even better than your brothers.” They’ve given me the permission to have that self-worth—in careers, but also in relationships and with men, you know? You don’t settle for less. That was actually my saving grace, that was my superpower. Because I walked into a room like I belonged in that space.
Have you always considered yourself to be business-minded?
I think it’s a very third-world country mentality to think always in terms of business, because in all honesty, most of the time we come from nothing. And if you are a girl, they make you feel like you are less anyway. It’s either you come from a rich family or you’re very well-educated. So that’s why we strive to be educated, so we can have some kind of control over our future.
The first seed of the cosmetics idea came when I saw that there was something wrong on one of my first jobs literally a week after I arrived. The makeup artist, after he finished a white model’s makeup, came to me and said, “Did you bring your own foundation?” Now, that was a weird question to me, because I knew he didn’t ask her that question. I said no and he proceeded to put on something that he mixed up. And when I looked at the mirror, I looked gray.
I went to every store, bought everything I could find that has a pigment closer to my skin tone, and mixed and matched foundations. I would put it on my face and take a Polaroid, like a selfie, to see how it translates to photographs. Even at that early stage in my life, I knew that in the fashion industry, my image is my currency. If I don’t have control over it, somebody else will—like a bad makeup artist—and my career will be cut short. I wanted to have that control.
Was there a turning point at which you felt like you had progressed far enough in your career so that you were able to raise your voice for others?
I knew I had some kind of power when I could get advertisements. Let’s be very clear. Advertisement is the holy grail in our industry. Between that and getting a cosmetics campaign contract, those are the ones that make you the money. Every bit of money I made, I was sending it home so my brothers and sisters could finish school. I needed them to finish school so that I can guarantee some kind of future for them.
But once I got those jobs, I made sure that I had a Black hairdresser and a Black makeup artist. I wanted to find those people who will be good enough for me to actually bring them in so that the client can see people who can actually do a great job.
How have you managed being an incredibly in-demand model with running a cosmetics line, doing advocacy work, acting…?
By just believing that you can, and also investing in yourself in terms of, I’m gonna find out everything about this job that I need to do. The hard thing for us is that we have to be better than everybody else. It’s a constant hassle and it is a constant chipping at your self-esteem. There is no room to make a mistake and survive it and move on and get better. We have to be great right out of the gate. So I make double sure that I know everything about whatever, like for cosmetics, I researched it to death.
That’s what it takes. It’s just work and hustle, you know? But I have to tell you, it’s in all Black women. It’s so difficult to start anything that you just say, “Well, you know what? Even if I have a little bit of success, at least the generation that comes after us, they can triple it and quadruple it.”
You’re talking about this idea that in business as a Black woman, you have to be better than everybody in the room, and I think that applies to Black women no matter what job they do. I feel that in my own work.
Yeah, you get it. We have to be so professional. You make one mistake, and it’s like, oh, the whole race is down. And it’s like, “Wait, wait. I made the mistake, not another Black person!”
Do you hope for a day where Black women are allowed to be mediocre in peace? What is your vision of progress?
[Laughs] No, I don’t want mediocre. But I need breathing room and need people to be able to make a mistake and survive it. I don’t want somebody to feel like their whole race is on top of one’s shoulders. We are all human beings. We will make mistakes and I don’t want my whole race to be responsible for it. I don’t want every Black model that comes after me to be judged for a mistake I made. That’s what it is. Give us the grace that you allow everybody else.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.