Iman Talks Refugee Past, Philanthropy and Fighting for Diversity in Fashion

Troy Word
Iman

The supermodel — and onetime Somalian refugee — opens up about helping displaced girls in her new role as global advocate for humanitarian organization CARE: "This is the work that moves me."

On Tuesday, CARE — the esteemed anti-poverty and humanitarian organization founded in 1945 — revealed that supermodel, activist and entrepreneur Iman has been appointed its first-ever global advocate. The role was specifically created for Iman, 64, who will work with CARE to strengthen its ongoing mission to end poverty, with an emphasis on aiding refugee girls and women both domestically and internationally.

Ahead of the announcement, Iman — who has lent her support to a long list of charities, such as Keep a Child Alive, Save the Children and the Children's Defense Fund — spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her latest philanthropic pursuit and why her past as a refugee of Somalia makes it particularly meaningful.

"This is the work that moves me. I have been involved with quite a lot of charities, but what moves my heart is women and girls. Since I was a refugee myself and because I've known the plight of women and girls myself, through my own journey in life, I was aware of what CARE does and I was aware of their long history," Iman tells THR of the agency, which originated the "care package" in 1946 during post-World War II relief efforts. "So, we came up with the global advocate role, where it's about finding out what really impacts women and girls around the world and here at home in America." 

Some of the women and girls Iman is hoping to reach are those currently locked in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since 2018, President Donald Trump's controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy has forced countless children to be separated from their parents and detained in what critics have likened to concentration camp-style facilities.

"When I was discovered as a model in Kenya, I was a refugee. My father was an ambassador and we literally escaped Somalia and came to Kenya as refugees with just the clothes on our backs. I started my teenage years as a refugee," says Iman. "I was really inspired by the nongovernmental organizations, the NGOs like CARE, that were on the ground helping us, helping young girls and women by finding them jobs and food. The NGOs also helped girls and women avoid sexual harassment, assault and rape. For a young girl, navigating life as a refugee in another country can be a minefield."

She adds, "We have to think of refugees collectively as humans. They're not nameless, they're not faceless, they're not just people who come from far away. These are people who are at the U.S.-Mexico border right now. I am one of them. People usually don't understand who a refugee is. I am the face of a refugee."

Michelle Nunn, CARE CEO and former U.S Senate candidate, couldn't think of a better person to partner with. "Iman really represents CARE's purpose and mission, the strength of women around the world and also the capacity to create change in the world," Nunn says. "This cause has never been more important if you think about the fact that, for the first time in history since World War II, we have never had more people displaced in the world, including right here in America. We were thrilled that Iman was willing to accept this mantle."

To "truly understand" CARE's operations, Iman tells THR that she plans to visit refugees in person. "I have to go on the ground and see it for myself. I want to empower girls and women who are in camps, whether it's in Syria or at the U.S.-Mexico border," she says. "I want to see that they are taken care of and feel safe."

Inspired by CARE's success empowering women in developing nations, part of Iman's initial endeavor will involve leading similar anti-poverty programs stateside. She will make her first public appearance as CARE's global advocate Wednesday at Advertising Week New York during an onstage discussion with Nunn, highlighting the power of storytelling in the face of international crises. In 2018, CARE worked in 95 countries, touching the lives of 56 million people globally.

In addition to championing human rights organizations like CARE, Iman's passion for advocacy has permeated the fashion and beauty arenas. Not long into her modeling career, which brought her to the U.S. and officially kicked off in 1976 with a photo shoot for American Vogue, the runway fixture demanded — and eventually received — equal pay when she discovered that her white counterparts were making more money for similar jobs, causing a ripple effect for other black models at the time. Continuing her fight for women of color, Iman in 1994 launched her eponymous cosmetics line, which still stands today, focusing on difficult-to-find shades for darker complexions. 

"I studied political science in school, so I view everything through politics — whether it’s the politics of refugees or it's the politics of beauty or the politics of fashion," says Iman. "Equality is everything. After I retired from modeling, I continued to push for more diversity." 

Indeed, in 2013, Iman teamed up with fellow black supermodel Naomi Campbell and model-turned-activist Bethann Hardison in association with Hardison's Diversity Coalition to combat an unexpected surge of discrimination in fashion. "At the time, lots of designers stopped using black models. Casting agents were saying, 'We don't need black models this season' — as if we are nothing more than a trend," Iman recounts. "We wanted designers to include models of color and to think about their casting, to take responsibility for their casting and we wanted to articulate that casting agents should not be speaking for the designers. So, we spoke to everyone we could about why that was important." 

In the six years that have passed, Iman has noticed a "visible and palpable change." In 2019, stars of all skin tones, sizes and gender identities front fashion and beauty campaigns for remarkably inclusive brands, including Janet Mock for Valentino; Indya Moore for Louis Vuitton; and Lizzo for Urban Decay, among others. Notes Iman, "This is a world that needs diversity." 

And when fashion houses make mistakes, they are expected to right their wrongs. After Prada removed a monkey-like blackface keychain from stores last December, the company took steps to rectify its merchandising lapse by tapping filmmaker Ava DuVernay to co-chair its new Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, partnering with universities for internship programs and sponsoring scholarships for students of color. Then, this March, Gucci implemented diversity initiatives, scholarships and other programs for the African American community after facing backlash for a "blackface sweater" with a pull-up balaclava and red lips.

"I'm very proud of how the industry has changed and continues to change," Iman tells THR. "It's an amazing thing to see and be a part of. At the end of the day, I just want the world to be a better place."