Model Iman and activist Bethann Hardison first met at the New York City showroom fashion designer Stephen Burrows. Hardison ran the studio, and the Somalian supermodel was hired for one of her very first modeling gigs in New York.
At the showroom, the other models spoke disparagingly of Iman as photographer Peter Beard created a media storm when he said she descended from African royalty and didn’t speak English. (In fact, she was an ambassador’s daughter who did as well as four other languages.) “You understand what they’re saying, don’t you?” Hardison asked Iman, who replied in English, “yes.”
“And that’s how we became friends,” Iman says. “She’s been my collaborator, my closest friend, we’ve gone through starting businesses, losing businesses, kids, divorces, marriages, and she was my maid of honor when I married my husband, David Bowie. And she’s still such a part of my life. This is the person when it’s totally dark, outside and inside, this is the person I would call.”
In the forty years since that moment, Iman’s career took off, while Hardison has led the conversation about diversity in fashion. But throughout it all, they have been there to support and encourage each other. Now, the two women are working together to ensure that all women have the chance to empower each other with a campaign called “Actually She Can,” which focuses on female mentorship. TIME sat down with Hardison and Iman to discuss their friendship, diversity, and why activism is so important.
TIME: You both are known for being pioneers in the fashion industry, especially when it comes to diversity. At what point did you realize, “I need to do something about this”?
Bethann Hardison: I’d only started noticing that something had gone wrong when I got a call from Naomi [Campbell], she called me and said, “You gotta do something about it, it’s really bad, they’re not using any models of color.” A friend of mine, Kim Hastreiter, who owns Paper Magazine, she told me, “When you left, it really changed things and you need to do something.” So with the encouragement of others, I stayed around and watched, and I saw that all the girls before, such an enormous group of girls of color, all shades, it began to disappear.
The story of how you two met is incredible; how did you become a mentor and role model to Iman, Bethann?
BH: I was the first person that had been so kind to her. As time went on, and she became successful, signed with an agency, when she had to make big decisions, she wouldn’t always talk to an agent, she’d ask me. I’d give her good advice and she’d be on her way. When I had ideas to do things like the Black Girls Coalition, I would always talk to her, she always loved my ideas. She trusts me.
Iman, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Bethann?
Iman: That to be an activist, you have to stay active. For me, it’s profound; it’s not something you choose to do every five years because it’s chic to say it. But if you are an activist, you have to stay active on a daily basis. The relationship I have with Bethann, it’s so unique. It’s based on trust. But most importantly, Bethann is the one who will call on me if I’m doing something wrong. That’s a very specific relationship.
Why is being an activist so important to you?
Iman: I came from a background where I was very poor growing up but I have never known poverty. My parents worked hard and they went to bed hungry, but they fed us. Then my father became an ambassador, so I ended up being driven by chauffeurs. And then we became refugees. After that, I looked at it through this “glass” of to have and have not, and at the end of the day, who actually helps, who actually steps up, who is there for you. Men can get jobs from one country to another, they can get in. But the people who always fell through the cracks were women and children, especially when you are displaced. I’ve always said, ‘I am the face of a refugee.’
BH: We don’t have a watchdog in fashion, we don’t have HR to go to, so it is important to get that word out to someone whether it’s an agent or someone like me and we should all come together and figure out what we can do. When I sent out those letters, it blew people’s minds. But it got to a point where we didn’t know what else to do, you keep talking to people and nothing changes. That was a signal to the industry. People weren’t meaning to be racist, but they didn’t know. Action signals change, not intent. So when someone feels like they’re not getting a fair shake, you gotta speak on it.
One place people speak out about fashion is on social media. Iman, when you started modeling, social media wasn’t a factor; but now you post inspirational quotes daily. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Iman: I think it came out of the fact that I’m a very personal person who lives a very public life. It’s the only thing that I thought people would want to hear, and it’s never about just being inspirational. Sometimes it is b-tchy, it’s however I felt at that minute, and somehow, it connects to other people. There’s a lot that I haven’t put up there since my husband passed away because then it would be grief everyday. I have to fight within myself at times and ask, ‘how do I go through the grief and find a light, even a glimmer of it?’
This year was an immense year of change for you, Iman. Do you have any self-care rituals that have helped you?
Iman: My worst year. The only thing that I know for a fact now is that if it’s really a bad day, then I draw the curtains, and I lay in bed. There is no way of dealing with grief. And I have no idea. This year I had double of them, my mother and my husband. I just take it one day at a time. But the one thing I know for a fact — some days are bad, some days are okay, and I’ll go with it. If it’s bad, I stay in and ride the wave and somehow, God gets me through and I’m fine. Dealing with grief doesn’t work from one person to the other, it’s so personal.
And getting back to your mission, as two women at the forefront of the conversation about diversity in fashion, what is your response to people who don’t think that there is a need for diversity in fashion or that there isn’t a problem because they’ve booked a few girls?
BH: That’s a very privileged attitude and I think the ignorance is so strong there. When people say, “Oh please, I don’t want to hear that conversation,” it’s because it makes them uncomfortable.” But that’s because they think it’s all okay. If it was racist, I would move onto someone whose mind I could change, but it’s mostly ignorance. So when someone says, “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” I not only make designers responsible but casting directors and modeling agencies for not pushing those other girls on to the designers.
Iman: I don’t have much to say to them because we live in different worlds. They live in one world and I live in another. But the question is, what is diverse? For me, diversity whether you think of it as race or gender, it’s not a trend, it’s a human movement, it’s a human feeling, it’s a human desire. People might want to think, “We don’t need it,” but you know, we can’t stop it. It’s a movement, which means that it’s moving, whether you like it or not, it’s going to move.
Do you see a connection between the fashion activism that you’re both doing and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter?
BH: Yes, of course! That’s why Black Lives Matter thinks I’m so great. The fact of the matter is that everything is consciousness. This conversation is important.