At the age of 12, Chanel Iman launched a whirlwind modeling career after being signed to Ford Models in Los Angeles, where she grew up. “I was the youngest black girl to be on all of the catwalks … you know, that was really rare!” She would subsequently, in a few short years, be crowned as the “most successful African-American fashion model of her time.”
Now 23-years-old, Iman has more experience under her belt than most girls twice her age. At 15, she made the solo move to New York after winning the esteemed Ford Supermodel of the World contest, where she lived in an apartment on her own, and was homeschooled on and off with assistance from her mother. “I was really busy on the road working and doing Fashion Week every season,” she says. Her hard work, effervescence, and immense effort to maintain a balanced life in the midst of an increasingly demanding, high profile career has paid off with gusto. She recalls, “The first time I walked down the runway was in LA. Everybody would clap for me when I walked, so after, when people weren’t clapping I thought I was doing something wrong!” In fact, she was doing many things exactly right.
By the age of sixteen, she landed not only the cover of Teen Vogue, but also the esteemed cover of American Vogue. “The whole Vogue family was my biggest break. [It was] them giving me a chance to be a Vogue girl… I knew that I was in a good place during that time because of them, you know. And I knew my dreams were coming true because of the people I had behind me.”
She counts Tom Ford as one of her biggest inspirations, noting his progressive attitude toward the necessity of ethnic diversity in the industry. “You know, he really embraces black women. And he gave me a chance to do his first show in New York and he just inspires me on another level.” For her, the matter of diversity in the industry is more than just a personal belief, but a culture-wide imperative. “We have to have a more inclusive world and embrace each other, and in fashion I’m starting to see a lot more women of color and women of different ethnicities in the industry. I personally feel accepted, and that’s all anybody wants.”
While she is best known for her fashion work, we look forward to her film debut in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope at Sundance Film Festival.
Indira Cesarine: How did you get started in modeling?
Chanel Iman: I signed at 12-years-old in LA. My agency at the time was Ford Models. A special agent that still works at Ford — her name is Natalie Smith — and I were doing a lot of little commercials here and there after school and print stuff. I really started modeling when I moved to New York at 15 and I’ve been traveling ever since.
IC: Were you living in New York on your own or in a model apartment?
CI: I stayed in one of the model apartments for a year and when I was 16, I got my own place.
IC: How did your life change when you started modeling compared to before? Were you still in school?
CI: I did home school and I had a tutor, and my mom would fly in and help me with my schoolwork. I was really busy on the road and doing Fashion Week every season, but I was definitely involved in school.
IC: So, you went from being at home at 12 years old to becoming a supermodel. What happened? Did you grow up in LA?
CI: Yes. I’m from LA. Grew up here. Went to school here. I was very, very young when I started. I was just full of energy and excited about being in the fashion industry. I just had fun with my career and the right people noticed me and gave me a chance…
IC: …and things just took off.
CI: Exactly. The biggest people in fashion gave me a chance.
IC: Do you remember your first shoot?
CI: Yes! it was for this magazine called Teen Magazine – a local Los Angeles magazine. Then I shot something for the LA Times as an “LA Cali girl” and they just wanted to know a little bit about me. From there I was in The New York Times and Eric Wilson wrote an amazing story on me. I just started getting a lot of options and calls. People were curious of me, who I was, my name, and how I got it. I think it was because I was just super excited about being a model. People recognized that, I think, and they just wanted to give me a shot at it.
IC: You did the Ford Supermodel of the World contest, right?
CI: Yeah, I did.
IC: Do you feel like that competition made a difference?
CI: I think it was definitely an experience. That’s the reason why I moved to New York — to pursue my modeling career. I think if I hadn’t done that competition, I probably would have still ended up in New York, but it wouldn’t have been so early.
IC: Would you consider Teen Vogue to be your breakthrough moment?
CI: I did the cover of Teen Vogue first, but then I was on the cover of Vogue as well. So, I think that was my biggest break. That’s what got the attention of the designers and, at the time, I was the youngest black girl to be on all of the catwalks and having all the options of walking the shows. That was really rare.
IC: How old were you at that time?
CI: 15, maybe 16 years old.
IC: How old were you when you did the cover of Teen Vogue?
CI: Around the same time, because it was one thing after another, and it was going in such a great direction.
IC: Do you remember the first time you walked the runway?
CI: The first time I walked down the runway was in LA, and everybody would clap for me when I walked down. It was a Charles Nolan show and he gave me this dress to wear but my nipple came out of the dress! And it was my very first New York show. I didn’t know what to do. The next day when I got on the plane and I came back to LA to go to school, everybody was talking about my nipple exposed, so it was really embarrassing. But because I’ve had such a great family, they’ve been very supportive, and I got through it.
IC: What do you do when that kind of thing happens?
CI: Yeah, and people take photos of you and it gets out of control because it’s online and then bullying happens.
IC: Do you have a favorite model who inspired you to get in the business?
CI: I have plenty of models that I look up to, I love, and who inspire me. But when I was a young girl growing up, I always looked up to Tyra Banks. Once I grew up, I started looking at Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford, even Naomi [Campbell]. I still think she’s wonderful.
IC: Do you have a favorite designer who you like working with?
CI: Tom Ford. He really embraces black women. And he gave me a chance to do his first show in New York. He just inspires me on another level.
IC: What designers do you like to wear personally?
CI: Oh, well I definitely love wearing Tom Ford, but other than that, I just love to wear stuff that makes me feel good, stuff that fits and has attitude. It’s not really about the designer, it’s more about what feels good on my skin.
IC: Are you more of a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl or do you like to dress in designer clothes everyday?
CI: I like getting dressed up everyday.
IC: Who would you consider the most inspirational person in fashion?
CI: Anna Wintour. First of all, she’s a woman of power and I’m inspired by powerful women and women of confidence. She’s just very inspiring because she’s paved the way for a lot of models and inspired a lot of editors, for all of fashion. She’s such a major, big deal. One day I want to make a difference and impact people’s lives the way she has.
IC: You worked with Anna on your cover of Vogue when you were only 16. Can you tell me how it felt to see yourself on the cover of Vogue magazine?
CI: I knew it was a big deal when Andre Leon Talley and Michael Kors threw me a dinner and she showed up and congratulated me on the cover. That’s when I felt very welcomed to just be in New York and in fashion, and that I was doing the right things in the right business. I knew that I was in a good place during that time because of them, and I knew my dreams were coming true because of the people I had behind me.
IC: How did your friends and family react to seeing you on the cover of Vogue?
CI: Everybody was super excited. Everyone was shocked, even me, because I was so young, and it was something that happened really fast. But it was unexpected. And that’s why, for me, it was such a blessing that I was given the opportunity to be on the cover . That’s why today it makes me work hard so that I can live up to that title of being a Vogue girl. I want to prove to the world that I wasn’t just on that cover just because I’m a beautiful face, but because I’m actually trying to make a difference in a positive way.
IC: Do you like to get involved in things that have social impact?
CI: Right now I am trying to find some really great charities and organizations to get involved with. If there’s help needed, I’m there. I’m in, and I’m making my time available for special things. I’m still very young and I know that I have a voice and I have to use it. Right now I’m just learning and trying to figure out what the best foundation is to have my name linked to. When I first started my career, I told my mom ‘the first paycheck I am getting I’m going to buy you a house,’ even though my paycheck was nothing. My heart always wanted to buy her a house and take care of her, and then help the world.
IC: Is there a campaign that you’ve done where you look back and really love the photos and feel it resonates with who you are?
CI: I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I’ve only had one bad shoot that I can’t stand the photos of. But I’m proud of everything that I’ve achieved because everything is a lesson and an experience.
IC: Did you ever have a mentor in your career?
CI: Well, Tyra was definitely a mentor. She’s so cool, so down to earth, and I just feel very comfortable talking to her about anything and everything. She’s always very positive and always giving me very positive information about my career, my life and everything,
IC: Have you ever done any television?
CI: I was a judge twice for America’s Next Top Model. I just shot The Fashion Police two days ago, which was such a success. I’ve done little TV things here and there. Everything is just transitioning so perfectly now; I’m doing more. Sports Illustrated is helping me with the television and the commercial side of things.
IC: Is that where you want to go?
CI: Yeah. I’ve always dreamed of being an actress and I’m focusing on moving back home to California and getting a film role. That’s a dream of mine.
IC: Would you want to have your own TV show like Tyra?
CI: I think it’s important to experience everything you can. So I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t want to have a TV show, but it would just have to be the coolest television show that anyone has ever watched! Everything that I do has to be grand and perfect. I’m very cautious and careful of what I choose and where I brand my name.
IC: If you weren’t in fashion and you didn’t become a model, what do you think you would have ended up doing?
CI: I really can’t see myself doing anything other than what I’m doing now!
IC: If you were going to give advice to a young girl who wanted to be a model, what would you tell her?
CI: Well, have lots of patience, because things don’t happen overnight. If you really want this type of career, or a very successful career I should say, it’s very important to build relationships and be social.
IC: Do you have any sort of words of wisdom that you live by?
CI: Definitely. I’ve been turned down so many times that that’s what makes me appreciate the things I actually do get. I’ve heard ‘no’ a lot, so when they say ‘yes,’ I’m still emotional – which is why I think I should be an actress, because I cry over things like that!
IC: Were there any moments along the way where you felt like giving up?
CI: Definitely. I think any successful person has had that moment when everyone is saying ‘no,’ and shutting doors on them and they have to figure out a different direction. My career has its ups, and it has its downs. I never give up.
IC: How do you feel about the whole issue of ethnic beauty?
CI: I think black is beautiful and I think that more people should embrace it. I’m starting to see a lot more women of color and women of different ethnicities in the industry. Personally, I struggled through that so it was something very difficult, and for people to look at me and not just look at me and see color makes me so grateful because I feel accepted, and that’s all anybody wants, to be accepted.
IC: I know you were in Beyoncé’s music video recently. Can you tell me how that came about and what it was like working with her?
CI: I had so much fun shooting the Beyoncé video ‘Yonce’, because it brought all three of us black girls together – Joan, Jordan and me making a powerful statement. We’re three successful black women in the fashion industry and although we all have different careers, we stay strong. We had the best time. I’ve looked up to her since I was a little girl. I’ve loved Beyoncé since Destiny’s Child; I’ve always been a fan. The way she carries herself as a woman is something that I look up to. She’s very positive, and you don’t hear very bad things about her.
IC: Do you have any musical aspirations yourself? Would you want to be a musician?
CI: No, oh no! I sing in the shower and that’s it.
IC: Do you have any legendary artists that you look up to?
CI: Yes. I was also always a Michael Jackson fan. I also worked with Alexander McQueen when I was young, and what he did in fashion was visionary. One of my first shows in Paris was with McQueen, and it was so theatrical – I felt like it impacted my life as a model because he made me feel like an art piece.
Interview and Photography by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Fashion Editor: Indira Cesarine
Stylist: Brendan Cannon
Hair by Porsche Waldo @ Ebony Design
Makeup by Renee Garnes @ Wilhelmina
Photographed at The Untitled Space
Cover: Chanel wears a jumpsuit by Marc Jacobs, bracelets by Matthew Campbell Laurenza, and ear cuff by Annelise Michelson
Shot 2: Jacket and jeans by Louis Vuitton, bracelets by Pluma Italia and shoes by Manolo Blahnik.
Shot 3: Top and skirt by Milly, bracelets by Matthew Campbell Laurenza, and shoes by Sergio Rossi.
Shot 4: Dress by Christian Siriano, and necklace by Annelise Michelson
Shot 5: Dress by Naeem Khan, cuff by Pluma Italia, ring by Siman Tu and tiara by Lizzie Fortunato.
Shot 6: Dress by Jason Wu, earcuff by Annelise Michelson and a necklace by Iosselliani.
Go behind the scenes with Chanel Iman for The Untitled Magazine’s Legendary Issue 7: