out of africa

Waris Dirie's exotic beauty is fast making her one of the hottest properties in fashion. The story of her origins is more exotic still
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The Independent Culture
IN 1975, an exotic black beauty called Iman Mohammed Abdulmajid lost her surnames and arrived in New York, accompanied by the well-known photographer, Peter Beard. Iman was in fact the daughter of a diplomat and a gynaecologist, and Beard had met her in Nairobi, where she was reading political science at the university. But the pair romanced up the tale and described her to the New York fashion world as an African goatherd. She was an instant sensation. Newsweek swallowed the tale whole, transforming an upper class intellectual into "a Somali tribeswoman... part of a nomad family in the East African bush". Fashion editors and photographers fell over one another to use her, and supermodel status followed swiftly (a cosmetics fortune and marriage to David Bowie took slightly longer).

Two decades later, the world of international modelling is hailing the discovery of another Somali tribeswoman. Waris Dirie's chiselled, mahogany beauty is every bit as striking as Iman's, her story every bit as exotic. But there is one crucial difference: Waris's story is true.

Now about 30, Waris really was part of a nomad family in the East African bush, growing up among tents and camels. For her, as for Iman, fashion was an escape route: she was desperate to get out of Africa. Indeed, desperation to escape explains the one flaw in her physique: by the standards of the international catwalk, her feet are unusually wide - a result of the time when, aged 13, she ran away from an arranged marriage and kept on running, right the way across Somalia from the Ethiopian border to the capital, Mogadishu.

Emerging from the desert with nothing but the piece of cloth she wore wrapped around her, she supported herself for a while in perhaps the most unlikely employment ever undertaken by a future international model: as a hod carrier on a Mogadishu building site. "I had to take work where I found it," she explains. "I just spoke the language of my clan, and of course I had no friends."

Waris's story, told to me over tea at Browns hotel in London, is the kind that makes your jaw drop. It even had the waiters listening in - and, when tea was over, wrapping up a selection of cakes and fruit loaves in silver foil and insisting she took them home. Certainly it is not often that you meet anyone - let alone a top model - who has stared out a desert lion (as she did while crossing the desert), escaped from marauding rapists (who molested her as she approached Mogadishu), nearly killed another would-be rapist (who pretended to befriend her when she finally arrived in the city) with a stone door stop; and, later, survived working in Tottenham Court Road McDonalds. And it is not often you meet someone who will admit that her first time alone on an aeroplane, flying from Mogadishu to London in the early Eighties, she had no idea how long the journey was and hoped that she would be able to pee in the bush when she got off. (When it became clear that this was not going to be possible for some time, Waris wept, because she could not work out how people were going outside to do what they had to do. When she saw them going in and out of a door at the back of the plane, she followed and, for the first time in her life, saw a flushing lavatory. It took her a little time, she says, to guess what to do with it.)

But that is what Waris's life has been like: hardship, adventure, serendipity and jet-setting luxury. Following her stint on the building site, Waris found a job as a maid, working in a house in Mogadishu. Her main task was to wash clothes. "One day, long after I had arrived, the Somali ambassador to London [a relation of the family] came round. I knew nothing of London, but I knew I wanted to go. I said, 'Uncle, take off your clothes and I will wash them for you', and he was very surprised I was speaking to him, because I was the maid." But the Persil-whiteness of her hand-washing did the trick, and the ambassador invited her to come back to London with his family as a maid. This was around 1981, although one has to work this out rather than get it from Waris: she doesn't know how long she was in Mogadishu, "because I was all the time on African time." She doesn't even know her birth-date. But she will never forget the plane she caught out of there.

"At the last minute, the 'uncle' and his family had to leave later, so I was taken to the plane to fly alone. As for the story of the toilet, now I think back and it is a little funny and embarrassing, but then, it was terrible. And when we landed I was so cold."

Waris's first few years in London were spent at the Somali residence. She knew no English and left the house only to escort an ambassadorial daughter to and from school. When she did so, a man would approach her, day after day, but she had no idea what he was asking. At last, he called on the house, where the daughter explained that he wanted to take her photograph. Waris had no idea why. "Then I learnt that there was a Somali girl called Iman and I collected pictures of her, except that I couldn't understand what it was about her that was beautiful. To me, she looked like every Somali girl." Finally, the photographer got his picture, and delivered a print to Waris. She was stunned - and the seeds of an ambition were sown.

When, after about four years, the ambassador's term of office came to an end, Waris was afraid that she too would have to return to Somalia. Instead, she bought "my first pair of really tight jeans" and got a job in McDonalds, where she could get by pressing buttons on a till instead of speaking the language (although her English was slowly improving). She met another Somali girl there, and they roomed together in the YMCA. One day, in 1986, she was approached in the YMCA reception by a young American photographer who took some pictures of her. His interest rekindled her interest, and she joined a model agency who sent her out on her first "Go See", to a photographic studio where a fat white man told her to take her top off. In the best English she could muster she told him that he was a pervert and left. That night, an exasperated model agent tracked her down and asked her if she was out of her mind. Had she not heard of Terence Donovan? Didn't she want to be in the Pirelli calendar? Meanwhile, Donovan was waxing lyrical about the girl with "infinity in her eyes... the desert in her face".

Waris had heard of neither Donovan nor Pirelli, but when the figure of pounds 2,500 was mentioned she understood. "So I went back the next day and took my top off and said, 'Please can I have the money?' I didn't realise there was any more to it." There wasn't really: just a few days on location in Bath, and a fat cheque to follow.

But other things followed too, Waris spent a tiny bit of her fee on hair dye. She cropped her African locks, emerged a white-blonde and soon earned a reputation in the modelling world, and the nickname "Guinness". Then, in what has almost become an accepted rite of passage for exotic beauties, "Guinness" landed a part (destined to end up on the cutting-room floor) in the 1987 Bond movie, The Living Daylights, and was off to Morocco. Then she broke her arm, twice, and for a few years her brilliant career stalled.

Yet her life did not stand still. She fell in love, got married (to Julian Jones, a water ecologist with whom she now lives in Stroud), and, as the Nineties began, her career kick-started again. There was print and television work in the States, an advertisement for Benetton, a charity cinema commercial for the Red Cross (to whom Waris gave her services for free) and a host- slot on the black music television programme, Soul Train. Soon she was working with Herb Ritts and Fabrizio Ferri and Albert Watson. She became the first black face of Oil of Ulay, before being contracted, in the US, to promote a Revlon fragrance called Ajee. She was invited to go on the Oprah Winfrey show; there was more, lucrative work in the pipeline; and her future, for once, seemed rosy. Then news came through from home: Waris's mother, whom she had not seen for 15 years, had been shot in the face while she slept when raiders burst into the clan's camp to steal its camels. For a moment, Waris thought of returning to Somalia, to which she had never been back. Then she heard that her mother had been evacuated to a hospital in Dubai. Waris flew straight there but was denied entry and, after an hour spent vainly trying to persuade officials that she was no longer a runaway Somali girl but a businesswoman with no intention of disappearing into their country, returned to London.

Then, earlier this year, Waris found herself on an aeroplane again. This time she was being flown to Africa by a BBC documentary team, who were making a programme about her (The Day That Changed My Life: A Nomad in New York, to be shown on BBC2 on Wednesday night). Somalia itself was considered too dangerous for Waris, whose wealth would make her a target for kidnappers, and so a location was chosen on the Ethiopian border. Waris's mother, meanwhile, had returned to Somalia, but the BBC's fixers were on her trail. In June, after several false sightings (mostly of impostors hoping for a share of Waris's wealth), she was located and persuaded to meet her daughter on Ethiopian soil. On the last day of filming, at 6pm (the time when African Muslims are supposed to pray), Waris's mother emerged from a truck and immediately fell to her knees. Then she looked up and saw her daughter. The tearful reunion was captured on camera. "It wasn't easy," says Waris, who had, after all, defied her family and run away from them. "But after a day we were talking and touching. I told her about modelling and my life. She asked if I could buy her a house." The nomad- turned-hod-carrier-turned-model has promised that, once Somalia is safe, she will build that house herself.

Meanwhile, Waris continues to build a life for herself in Europe and America. In recent months she has been seen as a cover girl in black vinyl, as a wicked lady with a gold tooth, and as the kind of free and easy, simply-dressed modern woman that some designers like to use as a vehicle to sell fuss-free clothes. All this, from the far-from-cosmopolitan marital home in Gloucestershire.

Stroud, Waris's husband tells me, is very much the place to live if your line of work happens to be water. It is, however, a tad inconvenient if you are an international model whose every other assignment is on the far side of the Atlantic. But that is nothing compared with the difficulties Waris has already overcome. !