Iman hits back at a world where the fashion is always for white

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The Independent Online

She was the first black supermodel. And, 25 years later, she remains a rarity in a world of blonde, blue-eyed perfection.

Now Iman is putting that world to shame with an autobiographical book that heaps criticism on the industry that made her famous. Billed as a "visual essay on the cultural-political power of good looks", it takes fashion to task for its attitudes to race and beauty.

And just to prove that she and Naomi Campbell are not the only black options for the fashion editors and casting agents, Iman illustrates the theme with a striking portrait by the photographer Annie Leibovitz of herself with 15 of her fellow black models.

The book, I Am Iman, tells her story from the moment the Somali-born beauty was spotted by the photographer Peter Beard while at university in Nairobi to her marriage to David Bowie, who contributes a foreword, and her founding of a cosmetics label offering products for non-white women.

The lavish photographs – by, among others, Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber – smack of the coffee table volume it undoubtedly is.

But with contributions from the African-American feminist cultural critic Bell Hooks and the outspoken comedian Sandra Bernhard, the text is destined to raise more eyebrows than the average glossy tome. Isabella Rossellini, the actress ditched as the face of cosmetics company Lancôme when she reached 40, also joins the chorus of criticism.

Iman's spokeswoman commented yesterday that the book sets out to explore attitudes towards black appearances and "provoke questions about the skin-deep choices on which this most ephemeral industry runs". Another source close to the book added: "It's not overtly political but there's a lot of criticism of what goes on."

And its publication in Britain in October is likely to reawaken the debate about the appearance – or, more to the point, non-appearance – of black faces in magazines and on catwalks.

It is less than 30 years since Yves St Laurent hired the first black models for his haute couture collection, and there are still only a handful of names the public would recognise. Even Alex Wek, one of the most in-demand models on the books of Models 1, the agency that represents Iman, is not a household name.

Industry insiders say there is a tendency to use black models as a shorthand for the exotic or in clichéd stereotypes of colourful showgirls. John Demsey, the president of the Mac cosmetics firm, says his impression of the catwalk is that there are fewer black faces today than in the 1970s and 80s. Jean-Paul Gaultier did use 12 black women for a catwalk show in 1997 – but that was a political protest against French immigration laws.

In the fiercely sensitive world of fashion, few people air their concerns in public. Iman's public comments before now have been muted. "I consider myself a woman," she told this month's Vanity Fair, in which the Leibovitz photograph is published. "But society has never let me forget that I am a black woman."

However, Naomi Campbell did lash out after she was relegated to the inside pages of American Vogue in favour of a blonde a few years ago. "There is prejudice and it's a problem," she said at the time. "This business is about selling – and blonde and blue-eyed girls are what sells."

Model agencies are adamant they are colour-blind. A spokeswoman for the leading agency Storm said: "We don't actively scout for a particular race. We don't define a look by the colour of someone's skin. We look for great faces, regardless."

Fashion insiders point the finger at the glossies. "There's a real problem with magazines like Vogue and Tatler and Harpers & Queen. They hardly ever put black girls on the cover," one said.

Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue's British edition, which has Naomi Campbell on next month's cover, said she was conscious of the criticisms but defended her choice of models.

"I think where magazines are at fault is in their general representation of different kinds of ethnicities," she said. "But as far as models are concerned, we really only use something like the top 15 models in the world. The only one who is absolutely up there is Naomi and possibly Alex Wek.

"You might say that if we used more black models, they would become the top models, but we have quite often used a black model in a shoot and it hasn't made a huge difference to whether they have gone on to become stars. There aren't that many stars."

Marianne Jones, editor of More! magazine, insisted she used models who were "confident, healthy, sassy, young women" regardless of their colour. But she added: "A lot of our shoots are done abroad because there is a bigger variety of models of different colours and ethnic backgrounds. We do find that in this country there are fewer black models available on the agencies' books."

In the media industry, there has been a widespread belief that the public is more likely to buy a magazine with a blue-eyed blonde on the cover. And only in the last decade has a cosmetics company used a black model as its face. Revlon was the first with Veronica Webb. And Mac is an exception to the rule in having the black singers Mary J Blige and Lil' Kim as front-women for a lipstick, the proceeds from which go to an Aids charity.

John Demsey, Mac's president, said the company had raised almost $7 million for charity since it began its association with the two women. "Mary J and Lil' Kim have sparked a chord with women of all colours all over the world," he said.

Did this suggest that other companies were wrong commercially as well as morally to resist connections with black faces? "Absolutely," he said.

The fashion world remains to be convinced. "We'll know things have changed when people don't make an issue about booking a black model," one agency representative said.