Effortless in Fashion Shows
Liya’s natural beauty and talent for modeling has allowed her to become a very successful fashion model to the point that she is currently listed as one of the World’s Top Earning Models by Forbes magazine, making Liya the second Ethiopian to have been included in the Forbes magazine’s Richest List, the first one being Mohammed Al Amoudi.
Many fashion critics have praised Liya for being such a natural in the modeling industry. Whenever Liya steps up to the ramp and walks during a fashion show, she regales the crowd with her effortless catwalk. Liya has such a talent for modeling that even James Scully, a talent hunter who is responsible for picking the models who would walk on the top runways, keeps getting amazed by Liya. He said of her during an interview:
“An all-time eternal favorite for me—she's an exotic Grace Kelly. Models work for years to develop the poise, grace, and style that she came to the business already equipped with! It still shocks me that I sometimes have to sell her to a client, but every time she walks in the room, she always proves me right.”
Liya’s spectacular rise to fame and stardom in the fashion world is an inspiring story in itself because during that time, only the Caucasians dominated the runways. There were many times in her earlier career that Liya was turned down simply because she was of a different color, but she never let the critical voices weigh her down.
When she developed her goal and desire of becoming a fashion model, Liya never let the obstacles stop her from reaching the goal—it kept her going on and on, being persistent in spite of all the negative situations and voices that tried to discourage her. In an interview with her, Liya stated:
“If you don't have a dream in life, I don't know what you have. You have to want something beyond your reach; it's exciting when it works out.”
Lemlem Clothing Line: Liya’s Fashion Gallery
Liya is also a well-known businesswoman, having founded her own company which she named Lemlem. Lemlem, which in her mother tongue means “to bloom,” is Liya’s way of not only preserving and promoting Ethiopian culture, but is also her means of giving jobs to her fellow countrymen by having the clothes made by hand in Ethiopia. Lemlem designs are being sold in many boutique shops around the world today, such as Barney’s, J.Crew, and Net-a-Porter.com.
But apart from all the successes that Liya has achieved in her career is her taking the time to engage herself in philanthropic work. Liya is an active advocate of maternal welfare, and is a World Health Organization Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
Founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation
Liya has also founded her own charitable organization, the Liya Kebede Foundation, in an effort to reduce the mortality rates of pregnant mothers and newly-born children around the world. In an interview, Liya revealed how she has the desire of helping mothers and children internationally:
“I am driven by the desire to help save the lives of mothers and children worldwide. I was lucky to give birth in New York City, so I didn’t have to worry about whether my child and I would survive. I am grateful to be a maternal health advocate. It’s something that gives me so much back.”
Liya’s supermodel career was not what she originally wanted in life. She was born in 1980 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the only daughter of middle class parents who were very fortunate to provide a comfortable lifestyle to their children. Growing up with four brothers, Liya was quite the ‘tomboy.’ She developed only a few girly traits, and had little to no interest in fashion except for a Naomi Campbell poster which she kept in her room.
Unlike many girls in her neighborhood, Liya lived quite comfortably due to her parents’ income which enabled them to provide a good life for their children. Even at a young age, Liya’s parents already taught her and her brothers the value of every human life.
Liya’s parents inspired their children by being an example. Liya remembers how her father and mother showered her with all the love and care that they could in order to ensure that Liya and her brothers did not simply know them through the things they gave. They also raised their children with great passion, constantly empowering Liya and her brothers to reach for their goals in life. Throughout her childhood, Liya was always encouraged by her parents to pursue whatever she desired.
It seemed that from birth, Liya was always destined to be a fashion model. Liya was not born with the physical features that were traditionally preferred by the males in Ethiopia. What it meant was that when Liya reached her teenage years, she did not have the curvaceous figure and big eyes that most Ethiopian men were looking for in women. Instead, she was tall and thin, something that made her a perfectly good model.
As she matured in her teenage years, Liya soon realized this reality and thus made a decision to try her luck in the world of modeling. When she was studying in Lycee Guebre Mariam, a French school, Liya was spotted by an art director while she joined a fashion show in the school.
Liya’s Career in Fashion Begins
Seeing the potential in the young Liya, the art director approached Liya and asked her if she wanted to become a professional model. Seeing this big opportunity in front of her, Liya did not waste any time and said yes immediately. And so, the art director brought Liya to a French modeling agency which agreed to manage Liya’s career.
After completing her studies, Liya left Ethiopia for Paris, France, where she took a shot at fashion industry. Her early modeling efforts were a struggle, primarily due to the ‘discrimination’ that was prevalent in the fashion industry in Paris.
Liya had to toil for a long time at the bottom rungs of the fashion world as the judges preferred the Asian or Caucasian type of women in the catwalks, which in a way brought discouragement to Liya due to the thought of someone like her (a black model) not having the chance of achieving the success that she was hoping for. Eventually, Liya realized that her modeling career in France was not working out for her, and decided to return to Ethiopia.
Despite the seemingly discouraging experience that Liya went through, it did not stop her from pursuing her dream of being a fashion model. Upon her arrival in Ethiopia, Liya began to educate herself on the ins and outs of the modeling industry and took her time in improving her modeling skills by participating in the various fashion shows in her locality.
Kassy Kebede becomes Liya’s Husband
Fortunately, Liya got another chance to go overseas and in 2000 went to the United States, where she first arrived in Chicago but settled in New York City eventually. It was there that she met Kassy Kebede, a fellow Ethiopian who was working as a hedge-fund manager. The couple immediately took a liking to each other, and after a series of dates, fell in love and got married. Liya bore Kassy two children: the eldest is named Suhul (born in 2001), and the youngest is named Raee (born in 2005).
Liya’s Success in Modeling
Like in Paris, Liya’s early modeling attempts in New York City was filled with a lot of discouraging factors and discrimination. Aside from an occasional lukewarm catalogue job that she found with a local company, Liya still encountered the same kind of rejection that she experienced in Paris due to the prevalent racist air in the city’s modeling industry.
This time, however, instead of allowing herself to be overcome by disappointment and going back to her home country, Liya persistently worked her way up the fashion industry by not listening to the discouraging voices and kept moving forward in her career. Liya was adamant. She would not stop until she got her chance and kept on improving herself in the hopes of getting a good modeling agent to notice her.
And with a stroke of fortune, someone did notice Liya. And this someone was not just a local modeling agent. It was Tom Ford, the creative director of the world-renowned fashion company Gucci. Tom first encountered Liya when she participated in a fashion show in Milan. Upon seeing Liya, Tom immediately saw the potential that the woman had, and after the show invited Liya to be a part of Tom’s Gucci Fall/Winter 2000 fashion show. Liya accepted the offer and signed a contract with Tom.
While Liya was not really expecting a lot, she had a feeling that this was going to be something that would open a big door of opportunity for her. Little did she know that her gut feel was actually right! After being featured in Tom’s fashion show, all of the big names in the fashion industry that once turned Liya down were now lining up to get her as their model.
From that time on, Liya’s life would never be the same. Here and there, offers were made to her by numerous fashion companies. From 2000, Liya started to do runway work and advertisement campaigns for fashion giants, such as Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret, Chanel, Donna Karan, and Emanuel Ungaro.
Aside from these companies, Liya was also featured in various editorial shoots for the different editions of the famous Vogue fashion magazine (in its American, Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese covers). In fact, the French edition of Vogue dedicated an entire issue to honor Liya for her amazing work with them.
In an interview made with Liya made later on regarding the experience that she had from her first modeling try-out to her sudden rise to fame, she stated:
“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 being pinned and fitted. Ultimate perfection!”
In 2003, Liya’s modeling career further went up the ladder after receiving a multi-million dollar (three million dollars estimate) contract from Estee Lauder in their effort to shake the company’s image of being a stale, middle-aged designer, making Liya the very first black woman who became the face of Estee Lauder in the company’s 57 years of operation.
By this time, Liya’s career was at an all-time high, to the point that she was ranked the top model of the popular models.com website. She worked with highly respectable and famous fashion designers, such as La Perla, Marc Jacobs, Nina Ricci, Sean John, Calvin Klein, Roberto Cavalli, and more.
Becoming Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health
Despite her very successful and busy lifestyle, Liya has never forgotten to care for others. In 2005, after witnessing Liya’s passion in working for the welfare of mothers and their children, the World Health Organization appointed Liya to be a Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
With this newfound career, Liya began to travel around the world to promote the rights and the welfare of the pregnant mothers and their children across the world. When Liya was interviewed as to what gave her the encouragement to do what she was doing, she answered:
“When you grow up stricken with poverty, it stays with you. There are doctors, tests, vitamins. The difference 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.”
Included by Forbes in the World’s 15 Top Earning Supermodels
In 2007, Liya was included in the list of the World’s 15 Top Earning Supermodels by Forbes Magazine. The list revealed that at this point, Liya was earning an estimated total of two million five hundred thousand dollars for the past twelve months, showing just how successful she was as a model.
In 2008, Liya established her own clothing line, which she named Lemlem (which in Amharic meant “to bloom”). Liya’s inspiration for founding the company was her love for her fellow Ethiopians; in an interview made with her regarding the creation of Lemlem, Liya stated:
“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 help them create a more sustainable situation. It also slowly teaches them about the demands of the Western world. Social entrepreneurship is really wonderful!”
Liya Supports Africa and Plays Waris Dirie
Liya has stated that she will always be in support of Africa. In many interviews, Liya has often stated how the Western world has had a bad image of her land due to the negative way that Africa has been portrayed. She often defends Africa by stating that there is so much beauty and good to be found there, and that a visit to the continent would definitely change a person’s perspective. She stated in an interview:
“It's not just Ethiopia, but Africa in general—most of the media concentrates on what's not going well. But there is so much beauty there. When you go, it changes everything. It changes you, your life, and the way you see things. The challenge is changing the image of Africa that's been anchored in people for years now.”
In 2009, Liya was cast in the title role of the film entitled “Desert Flower,” which was an autobiography of the former renowned supermodel, Waris Dirie. The movie recounted Waris’ life in Somalia, her rise to fame, and her active participation in the campaign against female circumcision. Desert Flower was Liya’s entry into the film industry, an interest that she revealed had been developed since she was a child. In fact, during an interview, Liya stated:
“It's something that I'd always thought about. Since I was a child, watching films has been one of the things that I enjoy the most. That, and reading books. I always found a way to live something else. Five years ago I started taking acting lessons. I enjoyed it so much that it opened up a whole new world for me.”
In the same year, Liya also became busy with her philanthropic activities by participating in the Living Proof Project that was established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Aside from this, Liya also became a high-level advisor for the Center of Global Development in that year’s report titled, “Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health.”
In 2011, Liya established the Liya Kebede Foundation, a charitable organization that aimed to promote maternal, newborn and child welfare as well as provide assistance to mothers and children worldwide. Having drawn from her experience as a World Health Organization ambassador, Liya successfully run her organization which has now grown to become one of the largest maternal, newborn and child health care charities in the world. In that same year, Liya was featured in Lacoste’s ‘new look’ campaign, which promoted the company’s different advertising concept.
Husband and Children Stay on Top of Her Priority List
With all the successes that Liya has achieved in her careers as a model, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, she never forgets that the most important thing in her life is family. It is very astonishing that for someone who has a very busy life, Liya still finds a lot of time to spend with her family. She often states during interviews that she can give everything that she has accomplished up if it would hinder her from spending time with her husband and children.
Currently, Liya actively engages in her activities as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and especially as a model. She also exposes herself more in the show business, but she says that she would still put modeling above a show business career. She states:
“Modeling still excites me. It is a great form of expression for me. I have been lucky enough to work with incredibly talented people. I’ll never forget seeing my first French Vogue cover and spread. Seeing all those images of myself in a magazine like that—it gave me such a thrill! Another exciting moment was my first American Vogue shoot. It was a big group shot, of all top models, by Steven Meisel. I was in awe. And smitten with the profession.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- The Liya Kebede Foundation
- World Health Organization
- Champions for an HIV-Free Generation
- Hamlin Fistula Hospital
- The Ethiopian Ministry of Health
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Center for Global Development
- Living Proof Project
Awards and Achievements
- 2003: Ranked First in the list of the World’s Models by model.com
- 2006: Included in the Top 15 Richest Models in the World by Forbes Magazine
- 2012: Received the Bella Sugar Beauty Award for Model Behavior
- 2013: Ranked 13th in the Icons List of models.com