Iman on Michelle: Just Being Honest or Just Should Have Shut Up?

Fashion icon Iman has raised a few eyebrows in print and on the web (including my Hot Topics page) with her comments that First Lady Michelle Obama is “no great beauty.” But in her full quote about Michelle Obama to Parade Magazine, Iman says:

“Mrs Obama is not a great beauty, but she is so interesting looking and so bright. That will always take you farther. When you’re a great beauty, it’s always downhill for you. If you’re someone like Mrs Obama, you just get better with age,” she said. (AFP)

Is that a diss or a compliment? (Or worse, a backhanded compliment?) Because Iman is rather blunt with her words they can easily be interpreted many ways. Is she saying the First Lady is unattractive, or is she just saying that beauty is skin deep and Michelle Obama has way more going for her than looks? (Which is true.) But why does the comment feel wrong? Why is it eliciting responses like this?

More after the jump.

I THINK I understand what Iman was TRYING to say, but as compliments go, this is an EPIC FAIL … I’m predicting a retraction, clarification, “I was taken out of context,” “you see what I meant was…” any minute now. (Gina, Michelle Obama Watch)

Iman done started some some mess with what sounds like a back-handed compliment, a statement increasingly getting reported around the globe. I see a backtrack in Iman’s very near future! (Booker Rising)

We all know that the fashion world’s standard of beauty is not a realistic one. And Iman should be ashamed of herself for applying that same standard of (artificial beauty) to the First Lady, who in my opinion is quite lovely. (Sandra Rose)

And those were the nice ones.

Who the f is Iman to even talk? Cougar-pirates really shouldn’t be talking. Granted, I am sure Iman is dating the sexiest pirate in all on (sic) Somalia. (Shabooty)

So, in Dr. Suess terms – “If you start off fine, you’re sure to decline.” All you ugg-a-muggs out there should be happy that you were born ugly. You can only go up from beneath the bridge you live under….says Iman. (Bossip)

(S)he can go sit her azz down .. carefully don’t want her to tip ova from that huge head of her(s). (comment on Sandra Rose)

Obviously some people have already interpreted this as a bitter diss, but could someone as astute, educated and accomplished as Iman be engaged in petty back-biting? Is she judging Michelle’s looks by supermodel standards? Because if that was the journalist’s question to her, if Michelle Obama stacked up among the “great beauties” of the world, was this question a trap to being with?

As we all know, the First Lady is a lovely woman, but her attractiveness is relative and constantly up for interpretation because she’s a lawyer, she’s a professional woman, she’s a mom, she’s one of us, not a beauty pageant contestant or a fashion model. And Iman is saying she basically shouldn’t want to be because that is fleeting.

I was initially taken aback until I read the full quote, then I wondered how long it would take before only the first part of the quote would spread around and people would wonder if Iman was being catty? I don’t think Iman is being catty, but I think she picked a clumsy way to make her point about beauty versus brains. We don’t know what the reporter asked her specifically, but Iman’s choice of words left her intent up for interpretation and she sounded like she was delivering the ultimate backhanded compliment. Iman could have easily just said, the First Lady is a lovely woman, but she has much more going on for her than looks, as it should be, and left it at that. Why the need to quantify whether or not she is a “great beauty?”

As a reporter, I know the trick of asking the same question fifteen ways to wear a person down in hopes of getting an interesting answer. In my Nightline interview with reporter Yunji de Nies, I think I was asked at least five times when-oh-when would Michelle be more of the lawyer and less of the mom-in-chief and I pretty much gave the same answer over and over again: different versions of “When she feels like it” and “eventually.” I knew I was giving a dull answer there and of course most of it didn’t make the final cut when the story aired, but I had no desire to get into what I thought a grown woman should or shouldn’t be doing with one of the most impossible to please jobs in the world.

So maybe Iman fell into that trap, but I don’t know. She’s been giving interviews for nearly all her adult life. Surely she knows all the tricks of the trade as well as I do, so she had to have meant what she was saying, yet it’s hard to ascertain what exactly she meant by it.

What do you think Iman meant? How did you read it?

PS. What’s crazy, in the same interview Iman makes this sage observation about being the token black on the runway:

“You suddenly represent a whole race, and that race goes, ‘Well, that person does not represent our ideals of beauty.’ For lack of a better term, it becomes what it was like during slavery,” she said.

“One had the field n…(expletive) and the house n…(expletive). There was this notion that I was chosen by white fashion editors to be better than the rest, which I am not. I did not like being thought of as the house n…(expletive).”

Like I said, Iman’s a smart woman. So what IS she saying about Michelle? Is everyone reading too much into it?

80 thoughts on “Iman on Michelle: Just Being Honest or Just Should Have Shut Up?

  1. Has anybody ever thought that Iman is not from the US? Sometimes literal translations into English sound harsh because they are literal and lack the subtext of a native speaker. I do not believe she meant to insult Michelle. She probably could have just said it better.

  2. @ anonymousYes, you are correct. I did make a generalization which I conceded to BluTopaz about in a later post. But this dialogue has given me quite a bit to think about…still thinking this through.

  3. @ Stop Worhippint Michelle Obama"The truth of the matter is, Michelle Obama is not an attractive woman. And stop using that "color struck" card. Its also colorism when you call a brown-skin or dark-skin black woman gorgeous when she’s ugly as hell, all because she is brown or dark skin."Wooooooow!!! You must be one of those people who believe if it ain’t light it ain’t right. Michelle Obama is very attractive and should would be whether she was light, brown, dark, black, or blue. Maybe you need to stop being so "color struck". It’s obvious you are you hater.

  4. (to Tiki)Yeah, same here. I only wish it didn’t come up at the expense of Michelle’s potential hurt feelings. But what can we do? It is what it is. (to anonymous)Iman speaks fluent English, in fact, she’s married to an Englishman. Don’t let her accent fool you. After her rude remark, Iman later went into great detail involving the concept of house and field negros. How did Iman get her words socially applicable using that complex and explicit historical narrative, but misspoke using very specific terminology as in she’s no great beauty? Hmm, that seems a little hard to swallow.

  5. Stop the madness….Iman is entitled to her opinion. I personally agree that Mrs. Obama isn’t a "great beauty". She’s certainly attractive and makes the most of her assets but she’s not a beauty.So what.I think Iman’s point was her attributes (her personality and her brains) would take her further than her beauty would. It has already. Women who have accomplished great things in history, I mean really left their mark on humanity, haven’t been great beauties. Cleopatra wasn’t a great beauty. Madame CJ Walker wouldn’t be considered a great beauty. Frieda Kahlo wasn’t beautiful. Those are just random examples off the top of my head.Now think about what happens to the great beauties of history. They are generally chewed up and spit out after their beauty fades.

  6. Ally, don’t be shocked. Their screen name says it all. Individuals defend Michelle Obama and now those individuals suddenly "worship" her. You know, like they have a golden idol tucked away in their closets. Apparently highly visible Blacks can’t have supporters without others insinuating the masses "worship" them. He/she sounds more racist than stupid.

  7. Yeah, Iman is hating. How do you go out in an interview and say some shit like, "oh she’s not beautiful, but she’s sooo interesting looking!" …What the hell?? Iman knew what she was doing. Whether or not she meant it as a compliment, it was a rude thing to say. If I were in Michelle’s position, and people were saying stuff like that about me, I’d be hurt. Sure, you’d put on a strong front and all, but deep down the comment might elicit some sort of reaction, and there’s no way she hasn’t heard of the comment already. … Oh well. I’m sure Barack will reassure/comfort/ laugh about it with her. It’s unfortunate that, as accomplished as Michelle is, she’s still measured by her outward appearance.

  8. I guess I’ll be the odd one out and say:I don’t think Iman did anything worse than make a faux pas. I don’t see any agenda or hate in what she said, because I agree that Michele is not a great beauty. While Michele can be beautiful (she really does shine sometimes), she is not beautiful in terms of pretty features. I would also say Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston are no great beauties either, imo, and yet they are elevated in the public eye for their appearance. Obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many people do look at Michele now and say "Wow, she is so beautiful", but it’s because in her case her inner sexiness and intelligence and style have been given enough air for people to see those inner qualities when they look at her now. At first glance, she wouldn’t stop you in her tracks unless you knew something about her, I don’t think. She’s an attractive woman, but doesn’t have a face that you would just stare at because it was so very beautiful.Remember Iman is a professional, so to speak, in terms of objectified beauty. She’s a model, and a damn good one. In that profession, you have to understand those notions of beauty that the fashion world elevates, and understand them well if you want to succeed in delivering good photos. Honestly, it’s a very good thing that our First Lady is not an objectifiable beauty, but instead a sexy intelligent woman with real inner beauty that shines through. When people look at Michele, they see a whole person. That’s a good thing.Perhaps she should have been more politic in how she said it, but Iman is not given to the cattiness of some other models I can think of, I think she was trying to compliment Michele. I really do. I think there’s a larger topic here. Cut her a break.

  9. I do not see this as a dis. We have to think about what great beauty is as it pertains to Iman’s background. When I think about GREAT beauty, I think about near perfect harmony in features and symmetry, most of us simply do not have it like that. Having the experience of being rejected by the fashion industry, I can relate to Iman’s thinking. The good news is that beauty is more than what the fashion industry believes and thus the balance of Iman’s statement.

  10. Most people have brought up some great points. Here is the thing though, we as Black people (celebrities, et al) have to be more responsible. Period. There is just no excuse for a faux pas of this nature. None. This moment in history is too important to have it tarnished by anyone, especially not someone who is an historical figure in her own right. I have seen, with my own eyes, Black girls and grown women, literally break down in tears with the weight of self hatred. Any Black woman who has witnessed that, or who has felt it herself, has got to feel the power in the moment. This could be the moment that we have all been praying for. A day when a woman who has brown skin is the talk and toast of the town. Not a whore to be used in secret or a fat Black mammy raising someone else’s kids. This moment in history could mean that instead of the gargantuan feat of will that it takes for a Black woman to feel beautiful, perhaps little Black girls will know a better day, because of this moment.So no, I don’t think that Iman was being a hater, trying to diss or whatever. It is worse. She seems to lack the sensitivity required to truly cherish this moment, not only for herself, but for generations of little Black girls who deserved better from Iman. And that goes double for you, Stop Worshiping Michelle Obama.

  11. I do not think Iman was drinking haterade at all. I’m as big a Michelle Obama stan as they come, but I think it’s perfectly fair to say she’s "not a great beauty". The term "a great beauty" usually refers to someone thought of iconically beautiful for their generation, like how Elizabeth Taylor was thought of back in the day. I know she’s white, but please forgive me. It’s not that I’m a eurocentric self-hater, it’s just the name that I associated with the use of that term right off the top of my head. If you look at Mrs. O’s wedding pictures or any other pics of her prior to the discovery of the Flatiron of God, she’s certainly attractive, beautiful even, but a timeless beauty that defines her era, hardly. What makes Michelle Obama extraordinary, which I think Iman was trying to say, however clumsily, is that she radiates beauty, confidence and intelligence from within along with having an attractive face. That stuff doesn’t fade and it’s way more attractive than a classically beautiful face alone. I don’t know that anyone, even the biggest stan, could look at Michelle Obama’s wedding picture, which is her pre-stylist, pre knowing "hey, I’m the baddest chic on the planet, married to the most popular and powerful dude in the world"….I don’t think any one would look at that picture and see "a great beauty".

  12. One more thing. I think, ironically, the thing a lot of us love about Michelle O. is that she looks amazing, gorgeous, stylish and fabulous, while her de facto looks aren’t all that amazing and out of this world. She looks like us. We can see ourselves in her. There is something approachable about her appearance. She’s not prima facie, like omg, the most beautiful woman in the world. If she were an obvious stunner with an impossibly beautiful face, I’m not sure she’d be "our girl" in the same way. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s the fact that she’s not obviously " a great beauty" that makes the fact that she comes across as this amazing, stylish, gorgeous glamazon that much more alluring and aspirational, because we can get that at some level, we could be that too. She’s not amazing just due to some genetic lottery, she’s taken a pair of jacks and turned them into a royal flush and I for one find it intoxicating. That’s my interpretation of what Iman was getting at anyway.

  13. i want to believe what iman said is not an insult because it helps me sleep better at night…that being said, if i’m not mistaken, iman has a daughter from her first marriage that she barely acknowledges because she’s not a "great beauty"…i’m gonna leave it at that….

  14. It is the truth and sometimes the truth doesn’t seem like compliment even though it is not necessarily hateful. The real problem Snob, is that you seem critical of any commentary about the first lady that doesn’t just fawn all over her.

  15. The problem is not whether or not the comment is true. The problem is that a person with class would never say it out loud. Iman I used to admire you as a beauty with class but no longer. What you said was very truthful but absolutely tasteless. It very much shows that there is some underlying jealously beneath the admiration. It’s sad because this may be what Iman becomes popular for in the history books. Not her career and business savy, but her failure to speak with a little class. Can you imagine the first lady speaking that way about anyone? No. Why? Because the first lady has too much class.

  16. @ ScottI don’t know how closely you actual read what I wrote, but I basically said I didn’t think Iman was being catty but her words could be easily misconstrued that way, especially if you only quoted the very first part.For a refresher, here was the crux of what I wrote.

    As we all know, the First Lady is a lovely woman, but her attractiveness is relative and constantly up for interpretation because she’s a lawyer, she’s a professional woman, she’s a mom, she’s one of us, not a beauty pageant contestant or a fashion model. And Iman is saying she basically shouldn’t want to be because that is fleeting.I was initially taken aback until I read the full quote, then I wondered how long it would take before only the first part of the quote would spread around and people would wonder if Iman was being catty? I don’t think Iman is being catty, but I think she picked a clumsy way to make her point about beauty versus brains. We don’t know what the reporter asked her specifically, but Iman’s choice of words left her intent up for interpretation and she sounded like she was delivering the ultimate backhanded compliment. Iman could have easily just said, the First Lady is a lovely woman, but she has much more going on for her than looks, as it should be, and left it at that. Why the need to quantify whether or not she is a "great beauty?"

    So I thought I was pretty fair. My point was, was Iman just being honest or was she being back-biting, and fell on the side of honesty but felt she could have phrased her beauty versus brains argument better. I mean, I call Iman an intelligent and capable woman. Where in my post did I come down on Iman? I didn’t defame her, belittle her, call the woman out of her name or mock her (and I love to mock things). So, did you actually read what I wrote, or did you just gloss over the headline and assume that I slammed Iman?I also ended the post with this:

    Iman’s a smart woman. So what IS she saying about Michelle? Is everyone reading too much into it?

    I mean, does that sound like harsh criticism to you? It’s a question. That said, do you have any other examples where I’ve attacked someone for criticizing Michelle? Because I tend to focus more on what I like about the Obamas than waste time on the criticism. (I believe people are entitled to their opinions so I tend to just leave it alone.) I’m pretty positive this is one of the first stories I’ve written about someone perceived as giving some sort of criticism of the First Lady’s appearance. So if you could point to some other instances, I’d love to hear them. The only other time I can think of where I actually was harsh towards someone was towards a DailyKos poster who put up a picture of the First Lady being hanged by the Klan and some criticism of the New Yorker cover. But I considered those pretty flagrant cases. I honestly don’t care if someone doesn’t like what the First Lady wears or if they don’t think she’s pretty.

  17. Also, why is Michelle not considered by Iman (and many others) to be a great beauty? Is it her dark skin, the shape of her nose, her ethnic features? Is she not considered a great beauty because Iman and America has a different standard for beauty? That’s a deep question. I guess folks like Iman and others are shocked that Barack did not do what many successful black men do: marry a typical light-skinned, long haired or chick with European features like our sports figures and super stars. No. Obama married what he (and many black folks should) considered to be a great beauty. It’s sad because Iman can’t understand that. Barack married a real sister. Not some plastic, fake weave wearing, lip puffed up, silicone breast wearing chick. A real, BLACK, beautiful, intelligent and well educated sister. I think Iman and others need to really dig deep and ask ourselves why our standard of beauty has to be the European standard in order to be considered gorgeous.

  18. This is really annoying. I’m a black woman (dark-skinned, Nigerian) and I get annoyed when Michelle Obama is used to represent all black women. Michelle Obama is AVERAGE-looking. There are many dark-skinned women with broad noses and full lips who are gorgeous and much more beautiful than her. Also, she’s our First Lady and first ladies aren’t supposed prized for their beauty (the last beautiful first lady was Jacke O). @ tt : Iman is also very dark skinned.

  19. I also want to add that Michelle has thin lips and her nose is not broad at all, so I don’t know how her features (besides having dark skin) are Afro-centric.

  20. @tt….That’s a straw man argument. We love Michelle. Love that she’s a deep cocoa brown and that Barack married a chocolate-skinned black woman, when he could have married a Mariah Carey. That said, you and I both know we could find a bunch of dark-skinned, fully lipped, "African-looking" women, who are more physically stunning than she is. I wish you could make your argument without casting people who don’t agree with you as self-hating or jealous.

  21. Katie, the point is if you compare Michelle Obama to to the wive’s of most super stars, sports figures and successful black men, they don’t look like Michelle. They look like what white America considers to be beautiful and what many rappers (who put certain types of women) put in their video. The chicks look like Halle, Rianna, etc. To me she looks like a REAL, African American, Black sister with class, beauty and intelligence. If you look at Iman, Halle, Rianna , Tyra and many others considered to be the epitome of beauty in the black community, they’ve had lots of work done on them. Iman wears wigs, she has had work done on her breasts and some work done on her lips. This is her and the modeling worlds’ standard of beauty. Now, Michelle comes along. She’s not plastic or weave wearing. All she does is wear make up, dress stylish and stay fit. She smart enough to marry the president of the United States. She made Europe fall in love with her and here we are talking about why she isn’t a natural beauty? Whose standard of beauty are we going by? Obama views her as being beautiful and that’s really all that matters. Not what plastic Iman thinks.

  22. True comments. Honest comments. I’m still glad that the first lady looks the way she does and is not a carbon copy of Beyonce, Rihanna, etc. They’re beautiful too. I’m just relieved that my children can see a different standard of beauty period. I guess I’m one of the few or many women who feel like I relate to Michelle more than Iman and the "others". That’s what makes M more beautiful to me. Still, we all have different standards of beauty.

  23. People who think its a diss may be assuming Iman thinks of herself as the bomb or something. The catch is. . . anyone who is a true fan of Iman knows that she has never even considered herself to be a great beauty, she has spoken so highly about the beauty of the women in her country and how she doesn’t dare compare herself to them (google it she has said this in many interviews) so I believe in this light, she’s just putting Lady Obama in a category that she believes herself to be a part of. I pretty sure that with the businesses, and foundations she represents and the children she’s raised she definitely does not think of her outer appearance as being her own greatest achievement. Beauty is so subjective.Saycon

  24. After reading some of the later posts, I just wanted to make two points: 1. Iman’s comment was an opinion, not an absolute or universal truth. It is not the truth when someone says Michelle Obama is not a great beauty. In this case, it was Iman’s truth, but not mine or another person’s. 2. In conjunction with my first point I also want to say it isn’t fact that Michelle Obama is not a great beauty. We as a culture infuse our opinions into the reality of a situation. No one can say for certain whether Mrs. Obama is not a great beauty. Is she attractive? I would say yes b/c of her symmetrical features, youthful appearance and proportionate, feminine body. At least there is some science behind that analysis. All other observational preferences are cultural. Michelle Obama’s look can appeal to a wide demographic. Her mocha skin may appeal to Blacks while her keen features may appeal to whites, or vice versa. That said, I don’t know what a great beauty is or who’s considered one for that matter. It’s a ludicrous thought. I could care less what Imam thinks of Michelle Obama’s percieved beauty, but I don’t condone Iman saying what she did in the magazine. What Michelle Obama or anyone looks like should not matter. Iman reduced an accomplished woman who seems to be a great mother and wife to the most shallow of standards. I think that was wrong. Iman has given the green light for many to publicly surmise whether Michelle Obama is beautiful or not. This should not be apart of our international discourse. Mrs. Obama is the nation’s First Lady, not a beauty contestant. Could we have more respect for her and her husband?

  25. I am not racist at all. I just happen to think Michelle Obama is ugly. Me pointing out that Michelle Obama is ugly suddenly makes me a racist? She looks like a man.

  26. Enough of the ‘Michelle Obama’ is beautiful crap!! I like her a lot because she is educated, intelligent and has so much more going for her than her physical beauty. I personally think she is doing all these covers because it makes Black women look great and we are now being seen in a slightly better light. But the arguments on her beauty or lack there of are largely insignificant. She is an Ivy League educated woman with a great career and I don’t believe that she was ever hired because she is a ‘great beauty’. She has brains and balls!! She was attractive enough for Obama’s gorgeous self to pursue and it ends there. Her beauty is a non issue. She’s attractive enough…leave it at that. Let’s start talking about her mind and all she can contribute to the ‘entire’ image of a black woman because thus far she is a mom and would-be sex symbol…next we’ll see her with her hair tied up and she’ll be known as aunt Michelle…there’s a lot more to Mrs. Obama so let’s start a new dialogue. Pretty please?

  27. I have met her and she is mean spirited – another version of the "angry black woman" … we have all had bad experiences but we can’t let them taint the way we see the world and treat people foul. Just because your job is to "judge models" does not entitle you to be cutting and mean spirited off the job. Plus she has had a very good life and wonderful opportunities — which means she should be more gracious and kind as an act of praise to God.Why don’t we have more black female role models who are sweet natured?? Why do we "elevate" and fear the mean girls … when in our hearts we want to see them fall and secretly snicker when they do??. Sadly – most industries are (white) male dominated and I think many women have emulated them and have taken an overly harsh role when placed in positions of power. We become motivated by the desire to oppress rather than to be elevate and nuture one another. Look you can be judge and still be kind. We don’t have to destroy or cut people down because we have an audience. You can use your power and influence to show the power of kindness … example Tyra … she is very gentle with criticizing the wanna be models. I am not a big Tyra fan – not a Tyra hater either.Real princesses used their beauty to save lives and looked out for the welfare of others for example princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn. Fake princess (self proclaimed princess) "DIVAS" look out for themselves and only see as far as their mirror will allow.Pretty is as pretty does …Just a thought –

  28. Oh please, No ONE is NO EXPERT on Beauty not even Iman. All of this stuff is a matter of opinion and what one feel is beauty. At the end of the day, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as we as humans but GOD made Michelle which makes her a “great beauty”. Iman could have made her point without saying “no great beauty”. That is just like saying, “you do not look all that hot but you wear nice clothes”.

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