Walking the runway, striking a pose on the red carpet, or trying to change the world—that’s all in a day’s work for this model, designer and passionate activist
For Liya Kebede, life’s defining moment was not when she was discovered by a French filmmaker, who noticed her modelling potential while she was still a high-school student in her hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was not when she packed her bags for Paris to follow her modelling dreams in 1998, at age 18. It was not when Tom Ford hand-selected her to walk exclusively for Gucci’s fall show in 2000. It was not when Carine Roitfeld dedicated the entire May issue of Paris Vogue to her in 2002.
Instead, the biggest turning point came when Kebede became a mom and discovered her calling: with the birth of her son, Suhul, in 2001, as well as the arrival of her daughter, Raee, four years later, the NYC-based model/actress/humanitarian realized how lucky she was to have proper maternal healthcare—a benefit not afforded to her own mom. Even today, women in many African communities lack access to health information and services during pregnancy. Their risk of dying during childbirth is all too real, and Kebede has been on a mission to make a difference ever since.
Now in her mid-30s, she splits her time between the jetset spotlight as a L’Oréal Paris spokesperson—she appears in glossy campaigns for cosmetics, skincare and haircare—and her charitable work on the ground in Ethiopia. She runs not only the Liya Kebede Foundation, which strives to save the lives of newborns and their moms in Africa, but also Lemlem, a Vogue-endorsed line of chic cotton garb handmade in Ethiopia by traditional weavers. It’s her way of helping artisans whose livelihood is at risk due to declining local demand for their goods. We asked the warmhearted beauty about her deepest inspirations and aspirations.
The issue of maternal healthcare is close to your heart. How has being a mom changed you? Growing up in Ethiopia, I saw firsthand the dangers that pregnant women face. Helping to make safe motherhood possible for more women became my passion when my children were born. It is also important to me that my children experience different ways of life, and develop a global perspective and commitment to putting their own passions toward creating positive changes.
How often do you travel to Ethiopia? Can you share any recent experiences? I go as often as I can. In May, I had a memorable visit to a health clinic serving the rural villages outside the historical city of Gondar, in northern Ethiopia. A woman was in labour when we arrived. While the conditions were very simple—no running water or electricity—the support she had was powerful. Her village has pledged to help every pregnant woman in the community travel to the clinic, to be able to give birth with the support of skilled care. It was incredible to see their commitment to saving lives, and to celebrate the safe delivery of a healthy baby girl with them.
What’s next for you? 2015 is the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals [set in 2000 by the United Nations as an international plan for tackling issues like extreme poverty and universal education]. And unfortunately, out of all these global targets, the least progress has been made toward reducing maternal deaths. At my foundation, our goal is to connect more women to healthcare in Ethiopia—and to help inspire more champions to join the safe motherhood advocacy movement.
Liya Kebede’s Beauty Picks:
This article was originally published in the January/February 2015 issue of Cosmetics magazine. For more, download our iPad edition.