March 01, 2010
Triple Threat: Supermodel, Entrepreneur and Activist, New York Observer
Liya Kebede, supermodel, entrepreneur and activist! This New York mom talks about doing it all. One thing at a time.
Whether you recognize her from magazine covers or for all the charitable work she's done, Liya Kebede is the uber-supermodel mom you simply can't ignore. She is an internationally recognized supermodel, an actor, designer, maternal health advocate and mother. She is the founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation, a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization's maternal and child health program, a Champion for an HIV-Free Generation and an Advisory Board member for the Mothers Day Every Day campaign.
Liya gained widespread attention in 2005 when she became the first model of color to represent Estee Lauder.
As a leading model, Liya has been featured multiple times on the cover of American Vogue, as one of the leading faces of "the Return of the Super Model" issue and with the heanding "Cover Model With a Cause." She has appeared in runway shows and major print campaigns for designers such as Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Emmanuel Ungaro, GAP, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Dolce & Gabbana, Escada, Louis Vuitton and others.
In 2007, Liya launched a line of women's and children's clothing called Lemlem ("to bloom" in Amharic), which supports Ethiopia's local weaving traditions. The line debuted its first collection in spring 2008 featuring clothing handmade in Ethiopia, and was subsequently picked up by J.Crew in April 2009. Lemlem combines Liya's interest in fashion with her humanitarian work, creating economic opportunities for Ethiopian artisans.
Liya has also appeared in several films, including The Good Shepherd and Lord of War. Liya is starring in the upcoming Desert Flower, an adaptation of the Somali model Waris Dirie's autobiography that chronicles her experience of female circumcision. The film is directed by Sherry Hormann and comes to theaters this spring.
As a New York City mother of two young children myself, watching Liya juggle her ever-so-busy-career and play the role of mom is truly inspiring.
I am so honored to have sat down to interview the beautiful and elegant Liya for our Momversation over warm apple cier at Le Pain Quotidien a favorite spot for both of us on Madison Avenue. - Lyss Stern
L.S.: You're a mom, model, a maternal health advocate, a clothing designer and an actress. You've appeared on the cover of Vogue twice. How do you do it all? What's your secret to success?
Liya Kebede: Oh God, I don't know. It always sounds so much more oppressive when you read it. It's not like that, it's a little chaotic and I sort of deal with things as they come, you know, work it out and go on to the next thing.
Acting is new to me, its something I really enjoy doing. I did Desert Flower-the movie about Waris Dirie. That story is my life, that story is moving and inspiring and touching. And it is a movie with a cause-something I'm really passionate about.
Fashion is something I've always done and it will always stay with me, and in a way I enjoy it better because I'm at a level where the job that I do is more collaborative. The thing that is cool is that nothing is really full time, so I tend to have time for my kids. I'm home when they come home from school a lot. I know it's a lot, and it's a lot of juggling and there's no way of doing it all, but somehow it's working.
In 2008, you launched a line of children's clothing called Lemlem. What inspired you to do that?
The whole Lemlem thing came about because in Ethiopia we have these incredible weavers-they've woven our traditional garb forever and now, with Westernization, they don't have a market or a place to showcase anymore. So I thought, me being in fashion, I can do something to help preserve the art of weaving and preserve the assets we have in this fast-paced world. And, at the same time, it helps bring jobs to people. They have families and mouths to feed, and by doing this, I can helop them create a more sustainable situation. It also slowly teaches them about the demands of the Western world. Social entrepreneurship is really wonderful!
This spring Lemlem will be in J.Crew and we're launching a women's line. We'll be at Barney and in Japan and London. The pieces are uniquely made; they last forever, you can pass [them] on to your kids.
You were first discovered by a Parisian modeling agent when you were in high school. And then, many years later, Tom Ford discovered you in Paris and an entire issue of Paris Vogue was dedicated to you. Whas that such a huge culture shock? Going from student in Ethiopia to the cover of Paris Vogue?
There was a lot of time in between, so I was slowly getting accustomed to changes. I remember doing that Vogue issue. It was incredible! It was amazing. It was one of my favorite things to do. It was really inspiring - working with Tom Ford - and impressive: you learn a lot. I was in his studio and his office. I learned so much; he's so detailed and so specific and so clear on what he wants so professional. You see through him and learn a lot just standing there and bing pinned and fitted. Ultimate perfection!
What do you miss most about Ethiopian culture? Have you brought your children to Ethiopia?
I miss...There's a lot of things I miss. I miss the continent itself, pretty much; it's such an incredibile continent. Every time you travel there and you arrive there - the landscape, the sky, the air, the people - it's a different experience. I miss all of that. I grew up there. My kids grow up in New York! We do want to take them and make it their home as well, the way it was for us. The genuine-ness of the people is contagious and addictive. Being around them - it will change your perspective on everything. The best time of year to go is Christmas break. Winter here is summer there. Summer break here is the rainy season there.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Everything has challenges. You deal with it when it comes. Nothing is simple, stuff happens.
What are the greatest rewards?
When your kids sort of look up to you. My daughter especially. You were a girl, too, so you know what the world is to a girl.
You do a lot of work for women and children's health. What got you interested in that?
When you grow up stricken with poverty, it stays with you. You really want to do something about it. You feel a little responsible. I always talk about my wanting to do something, but didn't know what cause because there are so many. When I came here, I learned that women don't die during childbirth; they don't have to. There are doctors, tests, vitamins. The differrence is, you happen to be born in a different continent. You don't have to worry about dying. We experience it differently. It is really awful, and the worst part is that you could die from the simplest complication, and they don't know there is another way. Every minute, one woman dies of pregnancy. Seventy to eighty percent don't have to. That is why I love to help.
How did you and your husband, Kassy, meet?
On holiday in Ethiopia. I was living in Chicago and he was in London.
How do you keep the romance alive with Kassy?
Once a year we go away... Well, we used to. And sometimes we take nights off, book a hotel in the city. Try to get away just for sleeping in.
What is your favorite thing to do with your kids in New York City?
My favorite thing to do with them is read together. Their favorite is Harry Potter. And my daughter loves coloring, drawing, and she loves to hang out. And of course they like the playground. Oh, and after seeing Fela, I've been bombarding my son with Fela music constantly!
Liya joins with TOMS and Glamour
Liya featured on giggle.com!
Liya taking a stand for the horn of Afri
Liya speaks at UNICEF breakfast on Women
Liya's call to action for the Horn of Af
Liya Kebede co-hosts launch of the Women
ABC's Be the Change Save a Life Intervie
Liya Makes Mother's Day Video
Liya Visits Awassa Maternal Health Clini
Liya participates in YouTube's World Vie
Support the Liya Kebede Foundation by Bi
Liya's Travel Diary for One Campaign's L
Liya Kebede Foundation Adds Facebook Fan
Liya Kebede Foundation Partners with Cha
TIME Person of the Year Nominations
Model and Activist Liya Kebede On Inspir
Why Protests Aren't What We Should Remem
"Star of Africa", Guardian UK
4,738 Letters for Mothers' Lives and Cou
Open Letter to G8 Leaders
Melinda Gates on Maternal Health Innovat
Liya Kebede in Time 100 Roundtables
Model Citizen: Liya Kebede Gives Back
Liya Kebede on TIME 100 List
Liya calls on Congress to invest in crit
Liya Kebede Named Young Global Leader by
Triple Threat: Supermodel, Entrepreneur
Obama's Budget Invests in Moms
"Redefining Impossible," Huffington Post
Gates Foundation Living Proof
Leaders Demand Action on MDG 5
Women Demand Action to Save Mothers
High Level UN Event for Maternal Health
It Girl, Vogue
"We Need a Global Fund for Moms," Huffin
Giant Magazine's Most Influential People
Liya Addresses UN Forum
Liya meets with Congressional Leaders on
Liya on Plum TV's Giving
Liya on the Today Show
"When Mothers Die," Giving Beast
Liya Joins Huffington Post
Liya Profiled in SOHO House
Liya Receives Orphan Ranger Award
Liya Featured on Al Jazeera's Riz Khan
Liya Speaks at the National Press Club
Deliver Now! Saving 77 Million by 2015
"Liya Rising," Vanity Fair
Liya Featured on CNN's Revealed
LKF Mother's Day Campaign
Liya Receives the Smart Cookie Award
Meeting of Women Parliamentarians
Liya in Marie Claire
Liya on Good Morning America