The world-famous model on her new year’s resolutions, fashion’s shift towards diversity, politics, soul food and partying in Dubai.
“Everyone wants to have a good time, I love going out in Dubai!” a somewhat jaded Chanel Iman announced through a yawn as she sets off to our shoot location in Dibba on the UAE’s east coast. “I have great friends here and we always have the best time. For New Year’s Eve a few years ago I even did a skydive and I’ve been dying to do it again.”
The just-turned-26-year-old, who insists “age is nothing but a number”, is in the UAE to celebrate her birthday weekend with her gal pals and has managed to squeeze in very little shut eye between an immense night out and a highly unsociable 4.30am wake up call.
But, a consummate professional, the half African American, half Korean model who lives between LA and New York is camera-ready and excited to take a walk on the UAE’s wild side – the foothills of the jagged Hajar Mountains to be precise – even managing to regale the Emirates Woman team with bite-sized snippets into her model world in between takes. Chanel won’t talk about love but assures me she has “lots of it”, adding, “I’m definitely going to have a great Valentine’s Day.”
Iman on personal style
In New York there is like an uptown look and a downtown look. I’m more downtown chilled – the laidback look of ripped jeans, T-shirts, white sneakers, cut off tops and black leather jackets.
I’m into rose gold and dainty jewellery pieces that you can layer. It makes you feel so delicate but great. If I don’t have any earrings I feel really naked for the whole day.
Stylist Monica Rose is my style icon. I work with her a lot and I love the way she dresses her friends and herself. She pushes my style and makes me feel comfortable and special. Everything that she puts me in is tailored – she has that eye for style. I remember this one time she put me in this skirt and top look and we cut it, added flowers and it was all over social media.
I loved working with photographer Mark Seliger. I did a story with German Vogue which was shot by Mark and styled by Arianne Phillips which was a really cute, really cool Minnie Mouse editorial.
Coming out to Dubai to shoot is exciting. It’s what I love about my job the most – shooting somewhere you wouldn’t normally go to. I’m always excited to do shoots with fun moodboards and fun locations.
Iman on R&R
I’ve been looking to buy a place in Los Angeles, but every time I’m going to move back home to the west coast, great things happen for me in the east, so I’m in New York at the moment.
I love cooking – and eating – during the holidays. My family is into soul food so we make a lot of baked and fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and corn bread. Real southern food. I love Jamaican food – I’m big on sweets, chocolate cake, apple pie, peach cobblers and ice cream. I eat it all! I hate grocery shopping though.
I like to be alone sometimes. It’s okay to watch movies and cook. I like to cook for my friends and just have nights in. It’s nice to have my girlfriends around to watch our favourite movies. The movie I can watch over and over again is The Notebook.
I wouldn’t call Nadine Leopold, Daniela Lopez Osorio and Shanina Shaik my ‘girl gang.’ They’re my model girlfriends. My gang is outside of the industry. I’ve had my best friend for 10 years. We are both supporters of each other and she really is the one to uplift me when I’m down. She’s rooting for me.
I’m energetic because I am happy: happy with myself and who I am and also in appreciating life and the little things.
Iman on keeping fit
I’m very active and I enjoy biking and walking. I do yoga, I like a bit of boxing and I love hiking. I’m naturally really tiny so I just need to tone up my body. My advice is to set goals for yourself and believe in yourself.
With any shoot or show where you’re in lingerie or swimwear you work out a month ahead of time so you feel comfortable in your skin and in front of people.
I didn’t hang up my Victoria’s Secret Angel wings. I don’t want to talk about that, but they’re still floating around.
Iman on culture and diversity
Women in the Middle East have such beautiful jewellery and bags. When I first came here I’d never seen so many expensive bags before! I pack so differently to when I travel anywhere else because I want to respect the culture here so I make sure I am more covered. I want to feel comfortable and to feel accepted into the culture that is so different to where I come from. No one ever wants to feel like they don’t fit in so you always have to adjust yourself a little bit so you do fit in.
The modelling industry is a lot more diverse than when I first started. It always used to be one black girl per show, but now I see a lot more of colour on the runway. Being told ‘we have one of your kind’ doesn’t feel good. To not be accepted into an industry where you work just as hard as everybody else is not fair. It’s not right. It would be amazing if we didn’t see colour, but we live in a generation where racism still exists.
Iman on female forces
Beyoncé is just amazing. She is gracious in every way – the type of woman you look up to. That’s the way my mum raised me to be and every time I’m going through something or I’m having a hard time I say: ‘what would Beyoncé do to handle it like a lady?’
My mother and my sister are amazing – I have beautiful women in my life that inspire me and teach me something every day.
Iman on affairs of state
Designing a backpack for the Obama 2012 campaign was the most amazing experience. I was supportive of them from day one and was invited to the White House as well as to a private dinner they were at hosted by Sarah Jessica Parker. To be part of the campaign as a young speaker was such a blessing for me. I learnt a lot and I was so inspired. Michelle Obama is such an amazing woman. To be right by their sides is empowering, it makes you want to work hard and do great things to make the world a better place.
I don’t want to speak about Trump too much as it’s really sad, but I’m not excited by the change. I’ve never felt so emotional about politics – it was the first time it hit me and I was like: ‘Wow!’ What is going to happen? I’m so scared, I don’t know.
Iman on her future plans
I just want to focus on myself and to look at everything in a positive light. I let things go easier than I used to – I used to be so sensitive and now I’m at ease in my life.
With my career, jobs get booked overnight so you don’t have things lined up unless I’m working on a movie. All models will tell you, I’m hoping that it will be a great year because you never know what you will be doing that year.
I have a new movie coming out in January called Mad Families. It’s going to be a fun film. I’m also looking forward to working on new films and projects. Every year gets better so I’m definitely looking forward to 2017.
I’m open to any opportunities that come my way. I started in fashion and I love working with different designers, directors and stylists. I love working with the team that can recreate something that’s inspiring and using me as the model. I love every bit of what I do, I love my job. I feel like I’m living in my dream, or in a movie. It’s a gift.
Chanel Iman’s Dubai Black Book
Stay: Palazzo Versace
Eat: Miss Lily’s
Fly: Emirates Airline
Listen: Destiny’s Child Bills Bills Bills, Usher The Many Ways, Beyoncé Love You Like I Love You.
Photography: Louis Christopher
Styling: Carmel Gill and Jade Chilton