Now, as the widow and mother makes final arrangements for her late husband, she's coping with his absence. Her longtime friend Bethann Hardison tells PEOPLE exclusively, "She's fine. We're fine. We're holding up. It comes in waves, you know. He's a great loss – not just a loss as an artist, but as a human."
Out in the world, they were the rock star and the supermodel. But at home, they were the Joneses (Bowie's given name). In this week's issue, on stands Friday, friends tell PEOPLE the story of how they met, sparking a connection that was instant and lasting – a love story for the ages that won't end with his sudden death on Sunday.
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Adrian Belew, a musician in Bowie's band, and the director of his 1990 tour, was there from the beginning. "It was towards the end of the tour," recalls Belew. "We were on a plane, I think it was a private plane that he had rented, and he was going through fashion magazines and looking pictures." Suddenly, Bowie landed on a page and said, "'I want to meet that girl! I want to meet that girl right there!' It was Iman. I guess if you're David Bowie, it's not so hard to do that."
Strangely, though, it was. It took the intervention of another friend, hairstylist Teddy Antolin, to make a meeting happen. "It was on my mind to play matchmaker," says Antolin, recalling that Bowie was in between relationships at the time, and lonely. One night at a Tony dinner, Antolin sat between actress Sônia Braga and a certain Somalian supermodel. "I asked Iman, 'Are you interested in meeting anyone? Are you single?' And she said, 'It all depends, darling!'"
It's a Match
Antolin wasted no time in getting word to Bowie. "I said, 'I found her! I found your wife,'" Antolin continues. "I said, 'Why don't you come up to Los Angeles. I'll invite her to [my birthday dinner] and if it doesn't work out, we'll have cake and whatever. They met that night and it was like, from that evening on, they were together. They were inseparable. It was Oct. 24, 1990."
Despite the difference in their backgrounds, Bowie and Iman made a perfect pair. "They really knew each other because they had come up and traveled in the same circles. They were great together," says Antolin. "She was a real force and he needed a woman by his side to keep him focused."
After dating for two years, the couple married in Tuscany. "The wedding was stunning," reveals Antolin. "It was all outside of Florence in an old villa that had been transformed into a luxury hotel."
As lavish as the event was, though, Bowie and Iman made their home was decidedly humble. He painted, she cooked. And in the beginning, though they each had kids from their previous marriages, all that was missing was a child of their own.
"After seven years of trying without luck ... Iman got pregnant!" pal Christie Brinkley wrote in a touching Facebook post on Tuesday, recalling how once Iman had held her then-baby Sailor all day, a Somalian practice she'd heard helps kick start ovulation. "It worked!" wrote Brinkley. "Iman always told the story in such a charming way... 'It took two blondes to get me pregnant David Bowie and Christie Brinkley!'"
The couple doted on their daughter, Alexandria ("Lexi"), giving PEOPLE a peek at their life together in an October 2005 interview. "We are very normal," Iman said then. "I take Lexi to school and to her lessons." Bowie often showed up to his daughter's recitals. "He always came to the shows, and he was always in the front row, center," Lexi's tap dance teacher, Elizabeth Burke, recalled to PEOPLE.
A Happy, Quiet Life
The family became a fixture in their downtown New York neighborhood. "We had this children's section above the staircase and sometimes I would stand under it and listen to him read to his kids," says Allison Glasgow, who works at the bookstore Bowie frequented. "It was amazing. It's one of those pinch-me things. His voice would just float up – unassuming, but you knew it was him."
When the family bought a home in Woodstock, New York, they endeared themselves there too. "David was extremely approachable and often went to celebrate his children's birthdays in Woodstock," says Danielle Parker, a journalist who got to know the famous family. "The last time I saw him alive was in 2011. He was with his family as he always was – looking sharp. Iman was breathtaking and their little girl was growing up into a beautiful young woman."
And, says Parker, it was obvious that the love between Bowie and Iman never faded. "You could see after so many years of marriage that they were just like two teenagers in love."
For more on David Bowie's life and loves, pick up the latest issue on PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
With reporting by CHARLOTTE TRIGGS, ELIZABETH McNEIL, DANIELLE ANDERSON, ROSE MINUTAGLIO and JOANNE FOWLER