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Iman: The model entrepreneur

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The business of looking good
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former supermodel Iman now has own multi-million dollar cosmetics business
  • Discovered by photographer Peter Beard in Kenya; married to David Bowie
  • Organizes fund-raising events for charities including, Keep A Child Alive
  • "Iman: The moment I got into the modeling industry, I knew I had to be an entrepreneur"

(CNN) -- "The moment I got into the modeling industry, I knew I had to be an entrepreneur," says former supermodel Iman.

One of the most recognized models of the 1970s and '80s, Iman has used her entrepreneurial skills to great effect in the fashion industry, with her own cosmetics business and in her charitable fund-raising work.

Married to rock star David Bowie and now residing in New York, Iman was born in Somalia in 1955. Her father was an ambassador, but her comfortable upbringing was disrupted in 1969 with the assassination of Somalia's president, forcing her and her family to flee to Kenya.

"We left Somalia with nothing but the clothes on our back. Not even photographs, nothing. So it's a total loss of everything and a total loss of your own self, your own country, your own place in terms of your people. If you're lucky you're in a country that will give you a second chance," she told CNN.

She was lucky and her adopted home of Kenya provided her with a scholarship at Nairobi University, and it was also in the Kenyan capital that she was discovered as a model.

Video: From Africa to the catwalk

Stopped on a Nairobi street by fashion photographer Peter Beard, she was soon signed by a top model agency and moved to New York in 1975. With her exotic looks she caused a stir in the fashion world, helped in part by a fanciful story about her background spread by Beard.

"They wanted to believe because it's kind of like 'My Fair Lady'. Everything about that article was fabricated... I was discovered herding goats and discovered in the jungle; I've never seen the jungle in my life. I was a city girl," she said.

Iman admits she was complicit in the fabrication, suggesting an early realization that the fashion industry was built around control and manipulation.

Video: Giving back to Africa

"I had to be very clever about not over exposing myself, not under exposing myself. I had to make sure that I knew my worth that I would not settle if they gave me less. I knew how to walk away. It's very key."

After facing numerous challenges being a black model, she launched Iman Cosmetics in 1994, designed for models no matter the color of their skin.

A hugely successful catwalk career as a model ended in 1989, but she faced up to the transitory nature of her career and gained a greater sense of self long before that when she was injured in a car accident in 1983.

"Where everything was about what you do and about how you look, it changed to more security about me. It was not about 'how will I look ten years from now?' It all became about what kind of person would I be ten years from now.

"Because of it I became very comfortable in my own skin. In a weird way I didn't think about outward looks anymore," she said.

 
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