Contrary to what some industry insiders led us to believe at the time about the discovery of one of the world’s top models, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid was not found poor and underprivileged in a dusty field in her native Somalia and then thrust into the glossy, high fashion world.

Iman was the daughter of a diplomat father and a gynecologist mother. Fluent in five languages, the model and successful entrepreneur was a student studying political science at Nairobi University when she was discovered by American photographer Peter Beard (pictured with the model above).

By the age of 18, she was married to a young Somali man but the marriage ended a few years later after she went to pursue her modeling career.

After moving to the United States around 1975, a year later Iman landed her first modeling assignment for Vogue. Her long neck, thin frame, gorgeous skin, and accent (although she has always said in comparison to typical Somali girls her looks were quite plain) made her a hit in the fashion world.

She quickly became a fixture on the runway and a muse for fashion designers including Yves St. Laurent, Versace, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.

In 1977 she married basketball player Spencer Haywood; the two had a daughter Zulekha Haywood in 1978. They divorced in 1987.

In 1992 Iman married British rock icon David Bowie. The two, who have appeared together in fashiod ads, are still married today. Their daughter Alexandria Zahra Jones was born in 2000.

Today at 55 Iman is still very much an integral part of the fashion and beauty world. Her Iman Cosmetics line, a top-selling brand on the website, is a $25 million-dollar-a-year business. In 2007 she was approached by the CEO of the Home Shopping Network to start a clothing line. It took some convincing but Iman eventually agreed. The line, Global Chic which consists of affordable accessories, fashionable separates, and even luggage, is now one of the highest selling fashion brands at HSN. She also now stars as host of Bravo’s “The Fashion Show” alongside friend and designer Isaac Mizrahi.

She also was a part of the huge Africa-themed July 2007 issue of Vanity Fair which had 20 different covers all shot by famed photographer Annie Leibowitz. A strong supporter of her native continent, Iman was quoted in the issue as saying “My Africa is rich in human resources and dignity… I get insulted when I see only images of our dying, our wars, our Darfur, our AIDS victims… not our doctors, our nurses, our teachers,” Iman told the magazine. “Africa must find its own saviors: the salvation of Africa is in the hands of African women.

She is also host of Canada’s “Project Runway” and is also very much an activist and humanitarian. She’s currently a spokesperson for Keep a Child Alive and also does work with the Children’s Defense Fund.

Iman even ended her contract with diamond giant De Beers over ethics conflicts. Concerns that the corporation is exploiting the rights of the Bushmen of Botswana prompted her to step down. In an interview Iman criticised the forced relocations of the Bushmen and is quoted as saying “It was clear that the Bushmen were being destroyed – you take people from their element and you end up with AIDS, drugs and alcohol in the guise of advancement.

She won a Glamour Woman of the Year awards in 2006 and in 2010 was awarded the Fashion Icon lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), a special prize reserved for “an individual whose signature style has had a profound influence on fashion”. Recently she was an honoree at the 2011 BET Honors.

Images via The Daily Beast/Vogue UK/Getty

*If you are in New York during New York Fashion Week, be sure to save the date for Harlem Fashion Week’s 6th annual show on Saturday, February 16th! The event goes down from 6:30-10:30pm at the Museum of the City of New York located at 1220 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10029. Get your tickets here.