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Iman says her first experience of racism was pay gap when she moved to US

By Priya Elan
Friday April 30, 2021

Supermodel says on Naomi Campbell’s Unfiltered show: ‘My rate was different to white girls – it was an unspoken rule’

Iman in New York City on 5 February 2020.
Iman in New York City on 5 February 2020. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Supermodel Iman has said that her first experience of racism was witnessing the racial pay gap in fashion at the beginning of her career when she moved to America.

The model, who grew up in Somalia and came to New York in 1975, said that it was the industry norm to pay white models a higher rate than their black counterparts.

“My first experience [of racism] was seeing the discrepancies in pay between white models and black models,” she said on Naomi Campbell’s Unfiltered show. “My rate was different to white girls – it was an unspoken rule.”

Iman said that the realization about the discrepancy led her to go on strike for three months. She added: “If I’m doing the same job as a Caucasian model, why am I being paid less? I thought that if I took [the lower wage] I’d be saying ‘I deserve less’.”

Iman said that the unnamed modeling agency eventually changed her rate to equalize the pay disparity.

The model also talked about turning up to her first photoshoot, in 1975, to find that there was no makeup for her skin tone. “I was at a Vogue shoot with a Caucasian model. When the makeup artist finished her makeup and it was my turn, he asked me: ‘Did you bring your own foundation?’” she said.

Iman hadn’t, so the makeup artist proceeded to “mix and match” what he had, and applied it to her face. “When I looked into the mirror I didn’t look brown any more, I looked grey,” she said.

Iman said the experience encouraged her to create her own makeup. “I went to Woolworths and bought everything I could find that had the same shade as [me].” She wore this homemade concoction on shoots. “Women would ask me, ‘What foundation are you using?’”

That experience was the inspiration to eventually create her own million-dollar Iman Cosmetics business which launched in 1994. It currently carries 11 shades of foundation.

She also spoke about observing black models being treated in a tokenistic way. “What I witnessed in America when I arrived here in 1975 was how [the fashion industry] purposefully pitched black models against each other,” she recalled. “[The attitude was] you have to dethrone one to take the place of another, but we could see lots of top white models working at the same time.”

She said she refused to be pitted against fellow model Beverly Johnson. “I’m not going to play that game … because there’s space for both of us,” she said.


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