Faith Appears Back in 41 Years

Peter Beard and Arthur Elgort: Beginnings

In 1976, after I’d arrived in New York, aged 20, my very first modeling job was forVogue. It was not, however, my first sitting; that happened a year or so earlier in Kenya. There, by chance, I made the acquaintance of the rakish photographer-cum-adventurer Peter Beard. When Peter proposed a photo session, though I could never have envisioned the trajectory it would set in motion, I could at least see negotiating a fee for the equivalent of my college tuition—and a deal was struck.

Growing up in eastern Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, I could not have aspired to become a fashion model even if I’d wanted to: If they existed, news of their habits never reached me at boarding school. My own idols came from the Arab world’s then-splendid music and movie stars, such as Umm Kulthum, Faten Ha­mama, and Mariam Fakhr Eddine. When the day of Peter’s shoot arrived, though I brought along my own face and body, these were the women whose images I summoned to bring me to life in front of the camera. I pretended I was all of them. More prosaically, for protection, I also brought my five girlfriends, who stood sentinel just outside the camera’s frame. While I was hardly confident, I was not scared. I felt I had nothing to lose, only to gain. In Arabic my name, Iman, means “faith.” I had faith.

Peter Beard took his pictures back to New York, and not long after I was brought over, too. My first booking was for the delightful Arthur Elgort, fashion’s long-reigning master of photographs that are elevated yet effervescent, joyous and beautifully real. I was a naïf, a quivering bundle of nerves. Arthur’s photos betray a very tentative look in my eye.

In time my hesitant steps became a strut, and I took my place in fashion’s great kaleidoscope.

Helmut Newton: Naked Deeds

Fifteen wild, wordless years later, I was in my mid-30s, and the inevitable crossroads was at hand. A freshman class of models—Linda, Christy, Naomi,Cindy—was coming up. This, in combination with my own restlessness, made it plain that it was time for me to start a new chapter. Also, it seemed prudent to make an exit before being shown one.

I announced far and wide that I was officially hanging up my modeling skates. My exit was proclaimed with one final “farewell” shoot. Since my signature look and posture had evolved into a theatrical style (it was the anything-goes seventies and eighties, after all), it was poetic justice that Helmut Newton was cast as the master of ceremonies. Being shot one last time by this provocateur par excellence ensured that my modeling career would end as dramatically as it had begun.

We all assembled in Monte Carlo, Helmut Newton’s home and source of inspiration. Vogue’s André Leon Talley, a giant in every sense—height, knowledge, and fabulousness—was the stylist. The results were classic Newton: the mythic woman, omnipotent in the (almost) altogether and rendered in images that were fashion but also a tad louche—and ultimately Newton-spectacular. Portraying me with a defiant stance and attitude, the pictures were also an emblem of victory.

Irving Penn: Master Class

I had set my sights on Los Angeles with the stated aim of pursuing—what else?—acting. While I did actually manage to make a couple of movies, I ultimately associate the City of Angels with being precisely that. It was here that I met and fell in love with my everlasting soul mate, Mr. David Bowie. Life for me changed fundamentally.

Nevertheless, I love to work. In L.A. in 1993 I began to develop Iman Cosmetics. This new venture—and also this new couple—eventually led to me and David being photographed by the supreme Irving Penn.

At the shoot, there were a minimum of hands on deck: just Mr. Penn, his long-standing, trusted editor, Phyllis Posnick, and a couple of others. There was none of the usual flurry and exaggeration that so often characterizes a sitting. Zero foolishness. The atmosphere was neither austere nor surgical, just marvelously uncomplicated and calm. Mr. Penn’s humor, prescience, and genuine kindness were utterly disarming; you became a docile hunk of clay to be shaped. Finally, Mr. Penn was astonishingly quick with his work. We had barely been seated, with a few slight directions lightly communicated, when click, click, click, voilà, we were done. Both David and I were a little stunned, and I remember murmuring, “That’s it?” Mr. Penn laughed and said, “Yep. I got it.”

Having admired his portraits for years and then being the focus of one, I harbor the fancy that Irving Penn’s camera was also part X-ray machine and part crystal ball. Its subjects are beautifully rendered but also totally revealed. Here I think of his series of shrouded Moroccan women, uniformly covered, no human element to discern, and yet—somehow—the images radiate the essence of the women’s souls. David and I were astounded by our portrait’s composition: two distinct people who ultimately identified as one. Mr. Penn had tapped into our shared heart and, with his alchemy, brought the inside out.

Annie Leibovitz: Eye And Empathy

In 1998, Vogue assigned a story on my fellow Somali and sister model Waris Dirie, who was then, as both victim and advocate, bravely bringing to the world’s attention the horrifying practice of female genital mutilation. Since the procedure is prevalent in Somalia, as well as in many other parts of Africa, I was tapped to conduct the interview. Given the traumatic nature of Waris’s tale, I was really just grateful to be there to offer her solidarity and maternal protectiveness.

Our portrait was assigned to Annie Leibovitz, who brought her uncommon sensitivity and empathy to the story. In my opinion, it’s not Waris’s pain that gives the image its mesmerizing strength but rather the compassion it stirs in the viewer. Annie didn’t attempt to search out and reveal some repressed secret in Waris, or in our friendship; she astutely understood that the reason Waris stood before her was revelation enough.

Herb Ritts: Great Expectations

When Vogue arranged my sitting with Herb Ritts, the world had just turned 2000. I was 44 and expecting a child, my second daughter. With the exception of an ankle bracelet (my own), I found myself naked before the camera again. But this time, it was a Herb Ritts nude, a dreamy, innocent counterbalance to Mr. Newton’s.

The sitting took place in a studio in Los Angeles, an important detail considering that Herb loved to capture and imbue his pictures with the light and lushness of southern California. Herb himself was filled with sunlight and warmth, so, like Midas, he quite naturally turned everyone he touched to gold, too—even a woman of a certain age in the throes of expecting: not an easy feat.

He imagined, and positioned, me as an homage to classical sculpture. Only Herb Ritts could master the paradox of creating a nude portrait, bathe it with sensuality—yet never reveal “too much.” These sensitivities were key qualities of this gentle, gracious, and wonderful man.

Bruce Weber: My Happiest Time

Two gifts, Bruce Weber and Grace Coddington, working on a 1995 South African portfolio with David and me, made for a charmed experience. Bruce brought buoyancy and joy; Grace brought trunks filled with classic mid–twentieth century clothing. For once it wasn’t just me gamboling for the camera; my husband jumped in, too. It didn’t feel like a shoot but like a capricious second honeymoon that just happened to include an extraordinary photographer and stylist: We were a merry band of four turned loose in South Africa. The photographs owe their radiance to Bruce’s brilliance at sensing the moment when fun, mischief, and intimacy converge.

It was during this sitting that Bruce created David’s favorite portrait of himself and me: two sweethearts sneaking a smooch, yet with David—ever the gentleman—playfully blocking the moment with his hat for the sake of politesse. David loved this photo for its play on privacy: a kiss that’s caught, yet shielded from view.

Some months ago, the stars demanded David’s presence. We surrendered a husband, a father, a father-in-law, a friend, a mentor, and all the nameless daily ecstasies that occur between people who love one another. The outpouring of grief over David’s passing has helped me tremendously, though sometimes I’ve been at odds with it, too: Universal grieving for your life partner can also keenly deepen your own sense of all that you’ve lost. David gave me the most exciting, touching, and deliriously loving 24 years. Still, it was not enough— shockingly brief. And although I’ll never get used to losing him, David is nonetheless hiding in plain sight. We have our beautiful daughter, Lexi, now seventeen; a year ago, David’s son, Duncan, and his wife, Rodene, gave birth to a son, Stenton; my daughter Zulekha and her husband, Jason, will bless us with a baby this summer. With this burgeoning family, I’ve added a new title to my list: Nana. So I’m Mom and Nana now, while striving to live up to my name in spirit and example; to have iman; to always have faith. As for David, I have perfect iman that we’ll be together again. Love doesn’t cease; love reshapes.