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Iman, Chanel 1989–

Chanel Iman 1989–


Chanel Iman became one of just a handful of black women to have reached the top echelons as a fashion model, and did so when she was still technically a high school senior. In May of 2007 Vogue put her on its cover along with nine other new rising stars the magazine predicted would be tomorrow's supermodels. Iman's fast track to success was helped slightly by her name, which pays tribute to Iman, the one-named Somali-born former model, cosmetics mogul, and wife of David Bowie who was one of the first women of color to achieve superstar status as a model back in the 1970s. The older Iman interviewed the teenaged one for Vibe in 2007, and the two discussed the sometimes-difficult nature of the beauty business. Iman, who has admitted in other interviews that she still shops at mall-based fashion retailers such as Forever 21, offered her definition of real beauty as “a person who shows a lot of personality. It's how you carry yourself. You don't have to be the most beautiful girl to be the most beautiful girl.”

Iman was born Chanel Iman Robinson on November 30, 1989, to China Robinson, a flight attendant of mixed Korean and African-American heritage; Iman's father was African American. Her mother named her in homage to Coco Chanel, the legendary French designer who founded the House of Chanel, and gave her the middle name “Iman” in honor of a cousin who already bore the name of the famous model. Iman was born in Atlanta, but China Robinson soon moved with her infant daughter to Los Angeles. They lived in Culver City and in the predominantly African-American/Latino Los Angeles neighborhood of Baldwin Hills that is sometimes called the “black Beverly Hills.” Iman attended Fairfax High School, a school with a long list of later-famous alumni, such as musician Lenny Kravitz and actress Demi Moore.

“All of my life, I wanted to be a model,” Iman told New York Times journalist Eric Wilson when she was just fifteen. As a kid, she would dress up as a model every year for Halloween, and later she began to ask her mother to take her to a modeling agency for a tryout. China Robinson thought her daughter was too young to start a modeling career, but finally another relative convinced China to take her thirteen-year-old daughter around to a few agencies. Later that same day, “I was on layover at the airport, and my phone started ringing that night,” China told journalist Leslie Gornstein in an interview that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. After signing with Ford Models' Los Angeles office, Iman made her professional debut in a beauty feature in Teen magazine. The agency began sending her to catalog jobs, but she proved such a quick learner and so comfortable in front of the camera that they decided to give her a tryout in Paris.

In January of 2006 Iman was the third-place runner-up in the Ford Supermodel of the World contest, which came with a $50,000 cash prize. A month later she debuted during New York Fashion Week, modeling new frocks from Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler, Anna Sui, Phillip Lim, and Derek Lam. She quickly stood out from the flock of other young models, as much for her exotic looks—at a time when models of color had become a rarity—but also for her confidence. As Gornstein explained in the Los Angeles Times profile, spirit and individuality had once been tolerated in the modeling industry, but this was a different era. “This was 2006,” Gornstein wrote. “Models were to glide—not stomp!—down a catwalk, stop briefly, stand there, glide back and blend in. Otherwise they risked replacement by some other young stork with an Eastern European accent and no will of her own…. While other models stopped obediently at the end of a runway, Chanel posed. When other models wore the traditional lobotomy stare during their catwalk runs, Chanel always chose a random person in the audience to wink at on her return trip.”

By this point Iman had left Fairfax High to be home-schooled by her mother, who accompanied her on her jobs. “Many of them didn't want to see parents back there,” China Robinson said in the interview with Gornstein of the designers and industry professionals who work behind the scenes. “But I didn't care. I went.” Within a year, Iman was working for even bigger names in fashion, appearing in the spring and summer fashion collections presented in the fall of 2006. She trod the runways for Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, and Marchesa during New York Fashion Week, and for Valentino, Stella McCartney, and Alexander McQueen in Paris during its weeklong event. She also landed a few print advertising campaigns, including Benetton and Bottega Veneta.

Iman received a terrific career boost in the spring of 2007, when the U.S. edition of Vogue named her as one of the next model stars in its annual new faces issue that May. She was the sole African American among the ten young models singled out, and her cover appearance marked a rare Vogue cover featuring a black model who was not an entertainment-industry figure. Interviewed for the accompanying story by Jonathan Van Meter, she was asked at the photo shoot about achieving such status when she was not yet eighteen years old. “‘It has been a great experience for me, one that I will never forget,’” Van Meter quoted her as saying, but noted that Iman “cuts herself off with a laugh and levels with me. ‘You know what? It's really overwhelming.’”

Iman lives in New York City and remains close to her mother. She has said that one day she might like to launch a fashion line, much like pop singer Beyoncé Knowles did with her mother, Tina. “My mom has such a good eye,” she told Teen Vogue's Jane Keltner. “I'd love to be able to do that for her.” In another interview—this one for the July 2007 issue of Vibe—Iman was asked who her role model was, and she replied, “My mom, because she is such a smart woman and she has taught me everything that there is to know about life.” Vibe also queried where she would like to be in five years' time, and she replied that she hoped to become “a very successful and educated woman.”

At a Glance …

Born Chanel Iman Robinson on November 30, 1989, in Atlanta, GA; daughter of China Robinson.

Career: Signed with Ford Models' Los Angeles office, c. 2004; third-place runner-up in the Ford Supermodel of the World competition, January 2006; made runway debut during New York Fashion Week, February 2006.

Addresses: Agent—Ford Models, 111 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10003.



Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2007.

New York Times, October 12, 2006; October 14, 2007.

Vibe, March 2007, p. 201.

Vogue, May 2007, p. 215.

WWD, September 17, 2007, p. 1.


“Almost Famous,” Teen Vogue, (accessed December 6, 2007).

“Chanel Iman,” New York, (accessed December 6, 2007).

“Chanel Iman,” Vibe, (accessed December 6, 2007).

—Carol Brennan

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