From The Straits Times    |

Iman Fandi is – for the most part of our conversation – open, honest and genuine. The 23-year-old lights up when we talk about her three cats: Two of them are short-haired black and white felines, and she has recently welcomed a cream Maine Coon kitten into the fold. She shares that she’s fuelled by numerous goals – one of which is to make her family proud – and has a penchant for embracing new challenges, despite the anxiety that comes with trying new things in the public eye.

However, the local singer-songwriter is more guarded when it comes to the topic of her family – understandable, for someone who has grown up under heavy media scrutiny. After all, her father, former professional football player Fandi Ahmad, is a much beloved figure in the local sports scene, and regarded as one of Singapore’s most successful footballers and sportspeople. Her mother is former model Wendy Jacobs. Her four brothers are all following in her father’s footsteps – Irfan, 26, and Ikhsan, 24, both play for Thai League 1 club BG Pathum United in Thailand, while Ilhan, 21, plays in the Challenger Pro League for Belgian club Deinze. Iryan, 17, is currently playing for Singapore Premier League club Hougang United.

“For sure, I’ve always thought about what life would be like if I was never born in Singapore, if [I was born] in a different country; how life would be if we were never in the public eye,” she says carefully, when asked if she has ever wished for a little more privacy. “It’s like envisioning an alternate universe. Of course, it would be different, but it’s hard to imagine that too, because I don’t know what that reality is like.”

These days, Iman is busy preparing for the release of her sixth single, which she hopes to launch in February. While she’s keeping a tight lid on the details, she does tease the possibility of a feature from a singer that’s “either international or someone within Asia regionally”. She also divulges that the song is cute and upbeat, a bright and bubbly contrast to her latest single Baseball Bat, which was released in October last year, and was more edgy and rebellious.

And she has set her sights on expanding her musical presence regionally. When we spoke for this interview, she had just returned from a three-day media tour in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “Recently, I’ve been aiming to broaden my reach regionally, perhaps with Malaysia or Indonesia. The next step is to perform in shows outside of Singapore, exploring new markets, and reaching new audiences. Navigating my music and artistry into their countries will take trial and error, but it’s a challenge that I look forward to.”

Navigating the challenges of fame

Ribbed cropped top and matching midi pencil skirt, Longchamp. Assorted B.Zero1 bangles and B.zero1 white ceramic spiral ring with in rose gold, Bvlgari.

Until she was 10 years old, Iman did not know that her parents were public figures. She grew up in Singapore until she was six, when her family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, for her father’s career in 2006.

“It was much slower and relaxed compared to Singapore; life there was so normal,” she recalls. She spent her mornings in school and afternoons climbing trees. “There was this dirt bike road behind our house, and my brothers and I would ride our bicycles on it. Sometimes, we would fall into the bushes,” she shares with a laugh. “We were very adventurous, and we didn’t mind getting dirty – it was just so much fun!”

In 2010, the family had to move back to Singapore after her father’s stint as the manager for the Indonesian professional football club Madura United ended. Attending primary school at CHIJ Our Lady of the Nativity (OLN) was when she first realised the fame that came attached to her parents’ name.

“Some of the girls at school found out who my parents were, and they were overly friendly and really curious [about me]. I was also curious as to where all the attention was coming from, and why everyone suddenly wanted to be my friend,” she says.

She remembers looking up her parents’ names on the Internet, she shares with a laugh. “That was when I found out [about my parents’ fame]. It was also the point when I had to navigate whether people genuinely wanted to be friends with me for who I am, or if it was merely because of my parents.” At 14, while studying at the Singapore Sports School, Iman decided to follow in her mother’s modelling footsteps.

It’s been widely reported that the former track and field athlete kept her mum in the dark about signing up for The New Paper New Face modelling competition in 2014, a move that would eventually kick-start her modelling career. “I remember juggling school and photo shoots, sometimes after classes or on weekends. However, this also led to judgement from fellow students who questioned why I was doing this and that, instead of just being a ‘normal’ student,” she recalls.

“It was a lot,” Iman says, as she reflects on this period. “That was also when the hate started pouring in [from anonymous forums at school, as well as social media]. At such a young age, you absorb everything, taking it personally – comments about your looks, your skin colour, and even just being judged for who your parents are. I felt like I wasn’t doing well enough [to live up to their name], and I was only 14 or 15 around that time.”

That period of her teenage life, Iman describes, was difficult. “My family started to realise that I was withdrawing into myself.”

Throughout our conversation, Iman is warm, polite, and only ever a few sentences away from a giggle. But start her on the topic of dealing with negativity, and her tone becomes more measured. While she’s careful not to make a big fuss, it’s clear that this issue holds significant importance for her. “Whether I did something or not, people had something to say. So, I had to learn to navigate that and realise that no matter what I did – be it work or personal life – negative comments would always be there.”

She found solace in open conversations with her parents and family, seeking their guidance and support. “My parents have always [stressed the reality that] people tend to offer various comments and opinions, especially when it comes to negative remarks.” Their advice to her was to not be swayed by baseless negativity, while also emphasising the importance of remaining mindful and courteous in the face of criticism.

Finding her resilience

Ribbed turtleneck top, Fendi. Denim wide-legged jeans with contrasting hem, Loewe. Assorted B.zero1 bangles, Bvlgari

Just because Iman is used to the hate comments – a sad reality in itself – it doesn’t imply that they don’t affect her. After all, she’s only human, just like the rest of us. “There were times, especially when I was younger, when the negative comments could be really hurtful,” she admits. “Growing up in the public eye, and exposed to social media at a young age, I used to be really affected.”

Back then, her youth and naivety led her to take people at face value. “There were instances when I overheard people talking about me behind my back, without them realising I was there, and it just goes to show the need to be careful about who your friends are.”

Something that she’s learnt early on is the importance of being selective of those she can trust, and drawing boundaries around details about her personal life. “I prefer to keep certain aspects of my life private and off social media,” she says. “I used to share more of my personal life on platforms like Instagram. However, I realised a lot of people had opinions and thoughts about my choices, whether it’s what I’m wearing, what I’m doing, or various other aspects of my life.”

On Iman’s social media platforms (@imanfandi17 on Instagram, where she has more than 85K followers, and @imanfandi on Tiktok, where she has over 53K followers), unwarranted comments about her dressing are commonplace, in part due to her being Muslim.

“There’s a part of me that always has the concern of, ‘Am I revealing too much skin?’ But I wear what I feel comfortable in. Sometimes, I might opt for a more modest look, while other times, I’m perfectly fine in a spaghetti strap. My dad emphasises that as long as I’m comfortable and content, my parents are supportive [of my choices],” she says.

And when it comes to her work as a fashion model, where outfits can sometimes be more revealing, she’s not afraid to speak up. “There are instances where the clothes are more revealing, and in those moments, I do voice my opinions. I think people [within the industry] also know that as a Muslim, there are certain boundaries I adhere to. I’m grateful that the people I’ve collaborated with have always been accommodating. They provide alternative fashion choices, ways to cover up a bit more, or suggest poses that maintain a level of modesty.”

And if someone doesn’t like what she’s wearing? That’s okay. “I don’t want to feel obligated to please everyone. That’s why I began selectively sharing certain aspects of my life, keeping family matters within the family, and maintaining a level of privacy. I refrain from sharing vulnerable moments, because that’s something I’m not personally open to discussing,” she says.

It’s been a learning journey when it comes to dealing with hate and negative comments. “Now, I focus on my goals and dreams, and on doing things because I want to – and not because I want to prove anything [to anyone],” she reflects. “There’s pressure, but my siblings and I are just trying our best. I try not to look at comments too much; having close friends and family to vent to helps. I encourage people to have a support system, someone to listen to them.”

I don’t want to feel obligated to please everyone.

Living with dyslexia

Sequinned halter-neck dress, Emporio Armani. B.zero1 white gold bangle and B.zero1 white gold ring, Bvlgari

As she grappled with hate comments as a teen, she faced another personal challenge: She had been diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning difficulty impacting accurate reading and spelling.

“Not a lot of people know that I’m dyslexic,” she says with surprise when I bring the topic up. Growing up with dyslexia made school more challenging. “It basically meant that my brain took longer to process information.”

“In school, it was quite obvious, because you can see it on paper, but when I started working, I think it wasn’t that obvious. However, with things like reading scripts, I would sometimes stumble on certain words. But I’ve learnt to work through that,” she shares, crediting teachers in her younger years who taught her how to allow her brain to “process information succinctly”.

“I had to come to terms with the fact that some processes would take a longer time for me [to understand], and that was okay. I learnt how to calm myself down, because I realised that anxiety and frustration only hindered my progress.”

Some people might let their disability bring them down, but Iman has always been one to see the world as a cup half full. “On the other hand, [having dyslexia] has made me somewhat more creative. I love things like painting, drawing, building blocks and origami. I believe that everyone has a gift, and this is my gift, and that’s why it’s also so easy for me to create stories when it comes to my music.”

Dyslexia was also partly what led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “I wanted to do something very different. Although I could have chosen to major in business, I wanted to delve into something I was interested in and felt connected to,” she says. “Friends would always ask me for advice, so I considered becoming a counsellor, as I thought I could further empathise in a way that helps them. I love working with kids, and I envisioned combining that with psychology or a related field.

“After graduating [from TMC Academy in 2021], I joined a charity called Impart, focusing on youth in Singapore dealing with mental struggles or engaging in social work. It’s something I’m passionate about, but my current focus is on creating music. If there’s an opportunity to work with kids, youths or the charity, I’ll do it whenever I can.”

Forming her support system

Silk halter-neck maxi dress, Fendi. B.zero1 rose gold pendant necklace with pave diamonds, B.zero1 white ceramic and rose gold spiral ring, and B.zero1 white gold ring with Bvlgari logo, Bvlgari

Iman’s personal support system extends beyond her family to include a tight circle of close friends, including her makeup artist, Kat Zhang. Having a friend within the industry really helps, says Iman, as she’s able to understand challenges unique to those within the field.

She also deems her family her safe haven. When persuaded to reveal who she’s closest to among the siblings, she shares with a laugh: “I used to be closer to Ikhsan. However, with two brothers in Bangkok and one in Belgium, I’d say that I’m now closest to my youngest brother, Iryan, who’s here with me in Singapore and who still finds me ‘cool’.” She describes moments when Iryan would casually stroll into her room, lie on her bed, and then walk out without saying anything as “typical younger brother moves”.

“It’s nice to have a sibling who’s still at home because I don’t enjoy the quiet, having grown up surrounded by the ‘noise’ of having a large family,” she reveals. Growing up as the only girl required Iman to be independent and figure things out on her own. Being the only sister and daughter resulted in a more protective environment. While Iman shares a close relationship with her mum, she touches on her desire for an older sister, expressing that she had always wanted someone to look up to for advice and guidance.

“Looking back, I appreciate being the only daughter in the family. Having an older sister would have been nice, but now I’m looking forward to having four sisters- in-law [should my brothers choose to marry] – for as long as they are happy, I’m happy,” she says.

Taking it all in her stride

Silk halter-neck maxi dress, Fendi. B.zero1 rose gold pendant necklace with pave diamonds, B.zero1 white ceramic and rose gold spiral ring, and B.zero1 white gold ring with Bvlgari logo, Bvlgari

As we speak, her passion is evident. However, she is determined not to experience burnout, and her mental wellness is a top priority. Sundays, for example, are strictly at-home days, where she tries to spend as much time as possible staying in and relaxing. In her spare time, she indulges in her hobbies.

Despite her dyslexia, she has recently developed a love of reading. She says: “I used to hate reading books because after one paragraph, I’d be like, okay, what did I just read? It’s so tiring to have your brain not just read, but also process everything twice. “But I started reading this year, and realised that I actually like reading,” she enthuses. “I set a goal of reading one book this year, and I ended up reading three. I’m proud of myself for that,” she says with a smile.

This example encapsulates Iman perfectly: She’s determined not to let life’s challenges bring her down. “Reading is very peaceful, because I am able to disconnect from my phone and social media. I also love the idea of travelling into a different kind of space, and reading books puts me there.”

She reflects thoughtfully: “I’ve found a lot of peace and quiet, as well as appreciation for everything I’ve accomplished, and the gifts the world has bestowed upon us. I realise that there’s a lot of peace to find and cherish within life’s little moments.”

STYLIST’S ASSISTANTS Jeanne Ardella & Isabella Luna
Amos Lee & Ivan Martynyuk
HAIR Marc Teng
MAKEUP Lasalle Lee, using Nars Cosmetics