The story of Liya Kebede
Born and raised in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Liya Kebede is an international supermodel, actress and fashion designer. Her potential to become the supermodel that she has become was recognised while she was attending high school at the French Lycee Gebremariam in Addis Ababa.
A French film director is credited with discovering her at the school and introducing her to a French modelling agency. After completing her studies, she moved to France to pursue modelling work through a local Parisian agency. Subsequently, Liya relocated to the city of New York where she currently resides.
Liya has appeared on the cover pages of many international fashion and lifestyle magazines including the influential Vogue magazine in many countries.
In February 2003, Liya became the first African woman to represent the cosmetics company Esteé Lauder internationally.
Two years later in 2005, she was appointed World Health Organization’s goodwill ambassador for maternal, newborn and child health.
Liya is a mother of two girls and her responsibilities of being WHO’s goodwill ambassador include raising global awareness of maternal and child health issues, as well as helping the organisation in its campaign to improve the health of mothers and children.
Liya is also the founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation which operates to reduce maternal newborn and child mortality and to improve the health and wellbeing of mothers and children around the world. Through her foundation, she is dedicated to helping mothers and children in Ethiopia and one such example is her collaboration with the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in Addis Ababa which has resulted in the expansion of the hospital’s compound.
In 2009, Liya made her debut in film as the lead actress in the German biographical film Desert Flower. The film depicts the journey of Waris Dirie from a nomadic pastoralist background in Somalia to a new life and career in the West as a fashion model and activist against female circumcision.
In 2010 Liya was among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for that year. The magazine’s tribute to Liya, which was published in the 10 May 2010 issue, says: “Liya's work comes from a place of sincerity, and her beauty is much more than skin-deep.” Written by Tom Ford – a renowned fashion designer and film director – the 202 word tribute to Liya also added: “In today's world, celebrity advocates are not rare. What is rare is to encounter one whose devotion and drive come from a genuine desire to better our world.”
Needless to say, Liya feels very passionately about a lot of things and she acts on her passion to see tangible results. An Ethiopian women and children fashion line that she launched in 2007 is a project that was born as a result of her passion about fashion design, her Ethiopian heritage and using her talent and influence to give back to her native Ethiopia. The fashion line named Lemlem has become a thriving entrepreneurial project since it started in 2007 “as a way to inspire economic independence in Ethiopia and to preserve the art of weaving”.
Liya’s Lemlem fashion line includs women and children outfits and accessories that are hand made in Ethiopia from natural cotton. The collection’s products are sold in stores in 13 countries around the world including Australia, England, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, France, Italy and the United States.
Liya’s entrepreneurial success is also inspired by the history of Ethiopian traditional outfits and her desire to make them available beyond Ethiopia. “Since ancient times in the land of the Queen of Sheba, the Ethiopian people have adorned themselves in beautiful hand woven and hand embroidered clothing,” she says on Lemlem’s website.
“The hand spinning of cotton and intricate embroidery was the work of women while the hand weaving was done mainly by men. It is our wish to bring to you an incredible handwork and help preserve this ancient art form by creating opportunities for the Artisans.”
In a brief video interview recorded in August 2012, Liya spoke to the New York Times’ online editor Jane Herman about her modelling work, the Lemlem collection, growing up in Ethiopia, her parents and her four brothers. Here is the video.
Recent video: Supermodel Liya Kebede Connects Traditional Ethiopian Weavers To New York's Hottest Boutiques