Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede lives in a palatial apartment on New York's Upper East Side, but the first black model to represent the Estee Lauder global cosmetics brand still yearns for her life back in the Horn of Africa. "I miss the simplicity of life, the fun," she admitted in a 2004 interview that appeared in Essence. "The air I miss. My parents. Everything. The first thing I do when I go back to visit, as soon as I get off the plane, is take a whiff of the air. It's not polluted; it's clean."
Kebede was born on January 3, 1978, in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Her father was an airline executive there, and she was the only daughter in a family that also included her four brothers. Her modeling career started in Addis Ababa, where she stood out from the crowd because the standard of beauty there was not tall and thin, as in the Western world. Interviewed for Essence magazine by the world's first famous model from Africa, the Somali-born Iman, Kebede joked that as a teenager, "I was the skinny girl and people were saying, 'My God, feed her. Do something.'"
Kebede followed the standard career path for a model and moved to Paris while still in her teens. She lasted just three months, telling London Sunday Times journalist Sarah Baxter that "it was too tough for me. I was a little girl, and it was depressing. I didn't know anybody there, and I used to call my mother every day." Kebede refused to abandon the idea of modeling as a career, however, and instead moved to Chicago in 1999, where three of her four brothers were living at the time. She was relegated to mostly catalog work, and though she occasionally considered trying her luck in New York City, the industry professionals she knew would tell her, "'Oh, they're going to eat you alive,'" she recalled to Iman in Essence. "It was very discouraging."
A lucky confluence of romance and opportunity came together in 2000, when she married Kassy Kebede, an investment banker she had met on a trip home to Ethiopia. Her future husband, who lived in both Hong Kong and London, was also a native of Ethiopia, and a whirlwind romance ensued that kicked off with a first official date on a safari trip to Kenya. "I felt so comfortable," she said of meeting her future husband in an interview with Cathy Horyn for Town & Country. "For any girl to go on a date in Kenya with a guy she's just met is crazy. But it didn't seem crazy." The newlyweds settled in Manhattan when Kassy Kebede's work brought him to Wall Street, and there Liya Kebede's career took off in earnest.
Kebede's break came thanks to designer Tom Ford, who had seen her picture and decided to put her on the runway for his Spring 2000 collection for Gucci. Ford's support also led to a deal to appear in the advertising campaign for Rive Gauche, the venerable fragrance from Yves Saint Laurent. Kebede's career almost stalled just as it began, however, when the model learned she was pregnant with her first child, but her slim frame managed to conceal her condition for several months, which allowed her to keep working. Once she returned from her maternity break after the birth of son Suhul, scores of new jobs followed. She took to the runway once more in collections for Donna Karan, Chanel, and Dolce & Gabbana, and was also hired to appear in ads for Tommy Hilfiger and Revlon.
In May of 2002, Kebede appeared on the cover of French Vogue and virtually dominated the issue inside. The cover headline affirmed her status as one of the world's most sought-after models, promising to tell readers "All About Liya," and she was featured in three-quarters of its editorial spreads. Not only was she just the third African woman ever to appear on the cover of French Vogue, no other model of any ethnic background had been featured so heavily in a single issue of the magazine before then. The issue hit newsstands just in time for a run-off election between two French presidential candidates, one of them an ardent, anti-immigration right-wing politician. Kebede dismissed any idea that the edition had been planned as the magazine's rebuke to the large vote tallies at the polls a few weeks earlier that gave the divisive conservative candidate a surprise lead. Instead she asserted that the cover was "pure coincidence, but it's for the good," she told Baxter in the Sunday Times. "Maybe my image is making a statement. It means: here I am, a model, and I can be on the cover if that's what people want. Why not? It shouldn't be anything extraordinary."
Kebede caused a more international sensation in April of 2003, when the Estee Lauder cosmetics company announced it had signed her as its newest face for its lavish, ubiquitous advertising campaigns. She was the first black woman ever to represent the company, joining a long roster of other top models that included news reporter Willow Bay, Czech-born model Paulina Porizkova, and actresses Elizabeth Hurley and Gwyneth Paltrow. Kebede joined Hurley and model Carolyn Murphy as part of a trio of global faces for the brand, and her contract was rumored to have given her a $3 million payday. "The choice of Liya herself was first linked to her style and personality," company president Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne told Michele Orecklin in Time. "But she also makes the image of the brand hipper and more fashion forward. You can't have a single white face express the diversity of the world today."
Kebede and her husband had a second child, a daughter they named Raee, in 2005, and live in a staid part of the Upper East Side known as Carnegie Hill. That same year, Kebede was named a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization (WHO), with a focus on its maternal, newborn and child health programs. Soon afterward, she helped kick off the WHO campaign to reduce obstetric fistula, a painful, dangerous, and socially ostracizing condition that is the result of inadequate medical care during childbirth. Kebede's mission was to raise awareness for this condition and reduce its rate of occurrence; she also hoped to remind others that statistics were grim for many women and children across much of Africa. Scarce medical facilities and lack of transportation mean that few women receive sufficient prenatal care; furthermore, women often give birth at home, and fatality rates for expectant mothers and children in the first weeks of life remain dangerously high. "This campaign is not just about health," Kebede told an audience of assembled dignitaries when she was honored on United Nations Day for her work. "It is also a powerful call for radical progress in women's rights and the rights of their children. Too often, the health of mothers and children does not count." With her family, career, and work for the WHO, Kebede had created a full life for herself, one in which she was poised to make a difference in the world.
At a Glance …
Born January 3, 1978, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; daughter of an airline executive; married Kassy Kebede (an investment banker), 2000; children: Suhul, Raee.
Career: Model, 1990s–; Estee Lauder, modeling contract, 2003; World Health Organization (WHO), goodwill ambassador, 2005–.
Addresses: Home—New York, NY. Agent—IMG Models, 304 Park Ave. S., Penthouse North, 12th Fl., New York, NY 10010.
Essence, September 2004, p. 182.
New York Times, April 8, 2003.
Sunday Times (London, England), May 12, 2002, p. 4.
Time, August 28, 2003, p. 24.
Town & Country, October 2003, p. 188(8).
WWD, March 14, 2003.
"Acceptance of the 2005 UN Day Award," World Health Organization, www.who.int/goodwill_ambassadors/liya_kebede/un/en/ (January 15, 2007).
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