An Ugly Duckling Becomes a Beauty Icon

Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede's rise is a story of slow, hard work.

When Iman—the model who smashed traditional notions of beauty—started out, all sloe eyes and elongated neck, the notion of an African model was so exotic that photographer Peter Beard concocted a story designed to feed right into Western stereotypes of the Dark Continent: He told the press in 1976 that he’d discovered the Somali beauty herding goats. Never mind that she was actually a university student, a middle-class Muslim girl fluent in five languages.

For Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede, also long of neck and limb, there was no need to hide behind a made-for-Hollywood tale. Instead, hers is a story of slow, hard work. She has the exquisite face that launched a reported $3 million cosmetics ad campaign last year, making her the first woman of African descent to be awarded a highly coveted and lucrative contract with Estée Lauder, one of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies. She was picked for her international beauty and, in fashion parlance, “edge”—in other words, to appeal to a larger and younger base of customers who increasingly come in skin tones other than vanilla. Iman agrees: “I think for Liya, things are just beginning. I really do. She is the next Black model to pick up the baton.”

Kebede was raised comfortably middle-class in Addis Ababa, the only girl in a family of boys, a tomboy with little interest in the vagaries of fashion—except for that Naomi Campbell poster in her room. She didn’t have the attributes that turned heads in Ethiopia: big eyes, curvy figure. But she was tall and thin, and so she figured, why not try modeling? She endured years of no and maybe as she worked in Paris, Chicago and New York. Along the way, she married her husband, Ethiopian hedge-fund manager Kassy Kebede, a man with whom she was instantly smitten. “We had one and a half dates,” Liya says, “and then he had to go away. We were on the phone talking for two months. After that, we were never apart.” Finally, in 2000, the fashion world took note of her cool elegance: Designer Tom Ford hired her to walk the runway for his fall 2000 Gucci collection. The door was finally open. And the offers started flying in.

Never mind that she was pregnant with her son, Suhul, now 4. Many thought that the pregnancy would interrupt her success. Kebede wasn’t worried. Having a son, she says in her soft-spoken way, keeps her focused on what matters. Fashion is a career. Her family is her life.

Liya Kebede sat down with Iman, now founder and president of IMAN Cosmetics and I-IMAN Makeup, to talk about fashion, family and concepts of beauty. Washington Post reporter Teresa Wiltz faciliated their conversation.

Photo Credit: Cliff Watts