“Inaction and ambivalence are dangerous,” says Liya Kebede, whose story leaves little room to doubt her conviction. An enthusiastic mother and engaged philanthropist who is pursing acting with equal zest, Kebede started it all with modeling and her exceptional career still has us hooked.
As the first black face to promote prestige cosmetics brand Estée Lauder in 2003 (she’s currently under contract with L’Oreal), the native of Ethiopia was thrust into a racial storm that in the United States, at least, is particularly choppy. While executives said her face broadcast something global—call it beauty without borders—for the American press, she was foremost a black woman at the upper echelon of fashion, by default a symbolic position. Suddenly, at 25, she ranked among icons like Dorothea Church, Patricia Cleveland and Veronica Webb, enlisted, perhaps, unwittingly in a drawn-out case against an exclusionary industry. Kebede acknowledges that racial prejudices are diminishing, but adds, “The fact that we are still discussing this today shows how far we still have to go.”
In so many ways, Kebede’s effect on the industry has been therapeutic. Writing in Time magazine, Kebede’s long-time advocate, designer Tom Ford, recalled being struck at their first encounter by “an aura of goodness and calm that outshines even her extraordinary physical beauty.” Ford cast Kebede in a career-changing show in 1999 for Gucci and then as the face of his second YSL Rive Gauche collection in 2001. His attention fueled a professional flowering encouraged by lynchpins Anna Wintour, editor Carine Roitfeld and photographer Steven Meisel, minted by the imprimatur of French and Italian Vogue, and studded by campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga to name a few. Modeling is not a terminal career in the same way as dance or sport, but rather then being stymied by considerable success, Kebede went on to diversify her activities:“I think it’s a matter of using privilege in a positive way. I’m very lucky to have a career that gives me the opportunity to give back on a larger scale.”
In 2010 The World Economic Forum named Kebede a Young Global Leader, the same year Time elected her to their list of the 100 most influential people. A spokesperson for the World Health Organization since 2005 on maternal and child health in developing countries, she also works to curtail life-threatening pregnancies through an eponymous foundation. “As a mother of two children and being from Ethiopia, I knew immediately this was something I wanted to support. I was fortunate to have had my children in New York with great medical service, but a lot of women don’t have this opportunity,” Kebede explains. Her foundation aids in providing surgical kits for safe C-sections, bicycle ambulances to get mothers to clinics in time and even solar flashlights to reach remote villages at night. Photos and videos of Kebede in the field capture a life of dust, heat, poignant concern and sullen fatigue, a picture of intractable environments and even tougher skins that you might think doesn’t compare to her appearances in glossy magazines. But, some seamless beauty connects her to the women and children she encounters, just as she ties together a life of modeling and of philanthropy.
It’s always the same radiating Liya. The more she changes, the more she’s herself. Sweet, all-American and friendly at one moment, Kebede can switch to sultry, sombre and exotic at another, with what seems like a mere cock of the head and a sweep of the eyes. Not surprisingly her foray into acting, which started with a cameo in De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd” in 2006, continues to develop after what she calls the “humbling and inspiring challenge” of portraying Somalian model and activist Waris Dirie in “Desert Flower” (2009). This year she concluded several shoots, including among others Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Best Offer,” alongside Geoffrey Rush and Jim Sturgess and a Doha Film Institute project “Black Gold” which has been released in Italy, Qatar and Tunisia. She is working with director Hilary Brougher on a film co-starring Sophie Curtis and Kelly Reilly and with Greek-born director Costa-Gravras who is known for political thrillers. Kebede sounds entirely fulfilled: “I am loving the chance to work in the world of moving images. It’s a completely different medium of expression and it’s keeping me on my toes. I’m excited to discover this part of myself.”
Despite her proliferating committments, Kebede remains true to her roots and hasn’t dropped her sights off fashion. In 2007 she launched a women’s and children’s label called Lemlem which spun-off a home line this year. Lemlem set out to preserve a traditional form of Ethiopian cotton manufacturing, create local jobs, and introduce the product to an urbanized and international clientele, “to add a sense of diversity to the fashion market, while fuelling prosperity in another,” Kebede elaborates. No less a fan of menswear after a childhood spent as the family tomboy—“Give me a man’s jean, a fabulously simple T-shirt and some Church’s oxfords any day.”—her sense of style gravitates to the practical and personal. She admits to loving Azzedine Alaia, The Row, Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Balenciaga and Givenchy at the moment; her favorite wardrobe pieces, however, are Lemlem. In a business like fashion, a mirror able to gloss life with the chiaroscuro of fairytales, Liya Kebede continues to keep it real. The rest of us may be busy sorting out a wardrobe of hang-ups, fashion included, but Liya is not waiting around. She’s moving on, history in tow.