It sounded like the most dramatic encounter in Africa since “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” There was intrepid photographer-adventurer Peter Beard out on Kenya’s northern frontier, stalking crocodiles and snapping them for posterity. Suddenly, like Venus on the half shell, a 5’10” Somali lady of imperial carriage and ravishing beauty appeared. She was wandering by with a group of Darod tribesmen. “The greatest African, as far as beauty goes, that I’ve seen in 20 years,” said Beard later. “And I’ve looked.”
As newspapers and newsmagazines told it, Beard was so smitten by his discovery, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, that he took 600 pictures of her and brought her to the attention of Wilhelmina, the model agency. Wilhelmina signed her on with much fanfare, then predicted $80,000 as Iman’s take the first year. Iman (pronounced EE-mon), 20 and as lean as veal, was the pristine daughter of a nomadic cattle-owning family, reporters were told at a press conference, who had spent her life drifting over the desert. She did not even have a “basic house,” added Iman. “We moved from place to place by camels every three months.”
It was a sweet, rustic tale. But, alas, by last week it seemed as if Beard’s story about his barefoot bird in the bush might be so much bushwah. Some of Beard’s friends in Nairobi were openly surprised at his Manhattan account of how and where he had “discovered” Iman. Elsewhere, in the Kenyan capital, Hassan Gedi, a Somali who is front-office manager of the Nairobi Hilton, said Iman had lived in Nairobi for two-and-a-half years, for the last year as his wife. “I have all the papers here,” he said emotionally. “I didn’t want her to go to America. I still love her. I have a vacation next year and maybe I can come to New York.” Had Iman really lived out there among all those mooing, moving cows? “No, she never did,” said spoilsport Gedi.
In Manhattan, Iman sat beside Beard and a Wilhelmina representative in a borrowed Fifth Avenue apartment, looking as primitive, roughly, as Lauren Hutton. Her English was almost flawless, learned, she said, at a missionary school. She also speaks Italian—those missionaries apparently were bilingual. She acknowledged she did know Hassan Gedi. “He works in a hotel—he is quite young,” she said sweetly. “But he never told me he was my husband. I’ve met a lot of Somali men and men from tribes and had several proposals.”
Almost everything in Iman’s background was suddenly in dispute. One report said her father was a Somali diplomat. No, she replied, he tends 500 cattle in the bush. It is a rugged life, she insisted. “It’s very hot and thorny. We wear sandals. We don’t go barefoot.”
Beard wanted to explain about Somalis, whose women indeed are among Africa’s most beautiful. “People assume Somalis are cannibals eating sticks,” he said. “But they don’t fit into the average African cliche. They’re very elegant. Sophisticated.”
Whatever her past, Iman’s present was lively. She was shuttling around New York on “go-sees”—making the rounds of offices and photographers where modeling jobs might be had. Instant celebrity was hers, for good and bad. Someone called from New England and said he was a relative. Black power groups were angry at her, lamented Beard, “because black American models need work.” And, sad to say, her official bird dog, the mercurial Peter Beard, seemed to be losing interest in the is-she-or-isn’t-she controversy. “All I did was get my pictures and help get her started,” he said. “I’m not her guardian. The last thing I have time for is to keep track of her. This is absolutely par for the course in a weird world.”